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Sorry State of IT Education: Readers Propose Fixes

How should IT education be salvaged? In part 2 of this series, we share readers' ideas about what colleges, employers, and employees themselves must do.

My recent commentary on the sorry state of IT education generated many quality responses in numerous venues. In addition to the reader comments here on InformationWeek.com, an extended conversation developed at Slashdot. I was impressed with the insight and thoughtfulness of most of the comments -- enough that I thought I'd share some of them, as well as my take on them.

Education vs. training
One of the things I noted in my original article was the failure of four-year colleges and universities to shift their curricula from a development focus in the 1970s and 1980s into a more operational focus, as has been needed over the past 25 years. Readers commented on how business leaders, as well as the "get a job" mentality, are interfering with this process.

One thing readers almost universally acknowledged was that critical thinking skills don't come from core technology curricula, but from liberal arts and humanities courses that traditionally have been required in four-year college programs but aren't a part of most two-year programs and not even mentioned in trade schools. Several people wrote that even four-year technology programs now focus more on job training than education. But it's the educational aspects of a college four-year program that are key to taking skills ostensibly learned in the humanities coursework and applying them to the knowledge obtained in the technology coursework.

Unfortunately, it seems that our tech coursework has become procedure oriented, rather than knowledge oriented. A reader offered a great example of the distinction, which I've adapted to a standard IT scenario.

Scenario A: Given three server roles, A, B, and C, and a virtual host V with specified resources, implement the three server roles such that all three work. You have four hours to complete the project.

Scenario B: Given three server roles, A, B, and C, and a virtual host V with specified resources, implement these three server resources using the following procedure. You have four hours to complete the project.

The fundamental difference here is that, in Scenario A, the student is required to design and implement the solution. In Scenario B, the student is simply implementing the solution. It's also true that Scenario B has only one correct response, whereas Scenario A might have several correct solutions. Scenario B is fine for a two-year or trade school program, from which we expect graduates to be at that skill level and capable of following instructions as given. But a four-year program shouldn't be turning out operators; it should be turning out architects and problem solvers.

I submit that two changes must happen.

Businesses must hire people from the appropriate educational sources. If you need entry-level operators/administrators, get them from trade schools or even from high schools. If you need architects and designers, get them from universities, first ensuring that those universities deliver that caliber of candidate.

However, universities, must get back to their core business -- which is education, not job training -- and leave the job training to the institutions created for that purpose.

Employers: Is outsourcing to blame?
A second area that generated a lot of reader comments was employers. By far the biggest criticism is that businesses are loath to invest in people. I don't find that very difficult to believe. When I look at thousands of businesses still running Windows XP on hardware that's well past its expected lifecycle, it's not hard to imagine that such businesses have been derelict in investing in their employees, as well.

Readers tagged IT outsourcing as a contributing factor, bringing up two specific points. The first is that, when companies outsource entry-level positions, they provide no pathway to hire new people. That got me to thinking a step further: Are we then hiring undertrained workers into mid-level systems administration and network administration jobs, which used to be the domain of staffers with five to 10 years of experience, because those are now the lowest-rung positions available?

The second relevant point about outsourcing applies to project implementation. When companies use contract providers, consultants, etc., to implement projects, what happens to the "corporate knowledge" acquired and developed during that implementation process? If in-house staffers have no knowledge or involvement in the development and use of that corporate knowledge, how can they possibly be successful at taking over an implemented, operational project at any level beyond "follow these procedures we've provided"? Are we then throwing away golden opportunities to develop skills in-house?

Another point of contention among readers is their belief that employers place too much of a premium on vendor certifications when identifying qualified candidates. Hiring managers need to take a deeper look at what it really takes to prepare for and pass most cert tests. There's also a disconnect between what the vendors want those certs to mean and how they're actually being (mis)used by employers and candidates. Employers have the power to stop that roller coaster.

Society: What we expect from college
To a lesser extent, some commenters indicted society as a whole for inadequate IT education and skills. A question arises as to whether rampant youth unemployment is a contributing factor. If a person's first real IT work experience is after college graduation, rather than years before, she is coming to the workforce green.

Another issue that runs across parenting, public education, and society as a whole is the ambition that everybody should go to college. Assuming that more people now go to college than are college "material," does that equate to a dumbing down of coursework, as institutions look to attract students who have the financial resources to pay the tuition, rather than those who can withstand the rigors of a proper college education? Has society impeded the ability of universities to perform their main function because it has overloaded them with the responsibility for qualifying everybody for employment?

IT professionals: Be realistic
I don't want to end this article without putting some of the responsibility on those of us in the IT profession. In the original article, I laid most of the problem at the feet of educators, but ultimately the acquisition of knowledge is a personal responsibility. A motivated learner will find the knowledge wherever it makes itself available.

It has been suggested that many students have chosen IT as a career path in recent years, not because of any specific aptitude, but because they believe it will lead to easy riches or at least to a good living. As if to support that notion, a recent survey of a thousand software developers found that more than half believe they will become millionaires in that field.

Perhaps the best perspective I've seen on the issue of IT education came from two New York Times articles based on interviews with Google senior vice president Laszlo Bock. I'd like to leave you with a few quotes from those articles. In one article, Bock is quoted as saying:

Humans are by nature creative beings, but not by nature logical, structured-thinking beings. Those are skills you have to learn… Analytical training gives you a skill set that differentiates you from most people in the labor market.

Prospective bosses today care less about what you know or where you learned it… than what value you can create with what you know.

In another article, Bock states:

For every job… the No. 1 thing we look for is general cognitive ability… It's learning ability. It's the ability to process on the fly. It's the ability to pull together disparate bits of information.

So, for those of you who dream of becoming a millionaire in the IT field, take to heart what Bock notes are the skills that will get you there, and invest in yourself.

Can the trendy tech strategy of DevOps really bring peace between developers and IT operations -- and deliver faster, more reliable app creation and delivery? Also in the DevOps Challenge issue of InformationWeek: Execs charting digital business strategies can't afford to take Internet connectivity for granted.