CIOs Uncensored: What Does It Mean To Be Tech Savvy?

Can you program a cell phone? Or can you write Cobol code? And which is the more valuable talent these days?

John Soat, Contributor

October 19, 2007

3 Min Read

I call it the Prodigy Syndrome. It usually occurs in the context of a conversation among IT executives about the younger generation and how quickly and completely they've embraced the use of technology. It goes something like this:

First CIO: "Kids today are so much more tech savvy than we were. I came home from work the other day and my 7-year-old son had built a cold fusion machine out of our DVD player."

Second CIO: "Yeah, I know what you mean. My 9-year-old daughter programmed her cell phone to stop time. Played hell with her after-school schedule."

So maybe that's a bit of hyperbole. But everybody's got a story about how facile young people are with increasingly sophisticated consumer electronic devices. It's impressive to a generation for whom technology was a hard-fought battle--literally and figuratively.

But isn't there something of a dichotomy developing here? While one set of people is lavishing praise on the younger generation for their deep knowledge of the intricacies of consumer tech, another is wringing its hands over our diminishing expertise in technology represented by the drop-off in enrollment of college students in engineering and computer science courses.

In an era of rapid technological advancement, what does it mean to be tech savvy?

Last week, the first baby boomer filed for Social Security benefits. That's supposed to be the start of the great generational brain drain that will siphon off much of our hard-won technology expertise, particularly in the United States.

It's a legitimate concern. According to John Carrow, former CIO of Unisys and now VP of strategic client development, speaking at the recent national meeting of SIM, the Society for Information Management, 5 billion lines of Cobol code were written last year. As more baby boomers retire, who's going to pick up that app dev load?

That's where the paranoia about college enrollment comes from. But is a degree in computer science the answer? Another keynote speaker at the SIM conference, Jim Carroll, author of Ready, Set, Done: How To Innovate When Faster Is The New Fast (Oblio Press; 2007), claimed that "half of what people learn [in computer science] is obsolete before they graduate."

After Carroll's speech, I stood around a cocktail table with a group of CIOs discussing his point. None of them seemed particularly worried about a looming IT talent shortage, at least as far as people graduating with degrees in computer science. And all seemed encouraged by the embrace of consumer technology by the younger generation (and all had Prodigy Syndrome stories, BTW). The consensus: Give me someone with a sharp mind and I will teach that person what he or she needs to know to succeed in my IT group.

In an interview in Rolling Stone magazine in 1971, John Lennon said: "I'm an artist, and if you give me a tuba, I'll bring you something out of it."

Substitute cell phone, laptop, or business intelligence application for tuba, and maybe that's what it means to be tech savvy these days.

Share your thoughts at our new blog, CIOs Uncensored, or contact me at [email protected] or 516-562-5326.

To find out more about John Soat, please visit his page.

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