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2/11/2005
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New School Of Thought

Universities are reaching a new generation with innovative programs that marry IT and other disciplines, including art, business, and biology

Declining enrollment in traditional computer-science and computer-engineering courses is a legitimate concern, but not a cause for hand-wringing despair. The next generation of IT professionals may be better prepared than any preceding one to balance the demands of being both a businessperson and a technologist, thanks to a growing number of innovative programs at prestigious schools that combine IT studies with business courses and high-demand skills, such as game design.

Josh Froelich, now a junior partner at Megaputer Intelligence, got a mix of business and IT skills at Indiana's School of Informatics. Photo by Bob Stefko
Josh Froelich, now a junior partner at Megaputer Intelligence, got a mix of business and IT skills at Indiana's School of Informatics. Photo by Bob Stefko


Josh Froelich, now a junior partner at Megaputer Intelligence, got a mix of business and IT skills at Indiana's School of Informatics.


Photos by Bob Stefko
Such a program was exactly what Josh Froelich wanted. Froelich--now a junior partner at Megaputer Intelligence Inc., a developer of data- and text-mining tools and E-commerce personalization--found the right mix at Indiana University's School of Informatics, which blends computer science and liberal arts. School of Informatics students "are more specialized than business majors in technology, but not overly specialized in only computer programming," says Froelich, who graduated in May 2002.

The effects of the dot-com bust and the increasing popularity of offshore outsourcing have taken a toll on the IT industry, which in turn has hurt computer-science and computer-engineering programs nationwide, according to the Computing Research Association's Taulbee Survey. The annual study, which documents trends in student enrollment and employment of graduates, found that undergraduate enrollment in programs for computer science and computer engineering nationwide dropped significantly between 2002 and 2003, from 23,033 to 17,706.

Last year, the tech sector--which includes telecommunications, computers, electronics, and E-commerce--announced 176,113 job cuts, according to a report released last month by global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. The computer industry alone disclosed 56,955 job cuts, and more are expected. "Many people are leaving the technology sector entirely, and the nation's universities are having difficulty filling tech-related classrooms," CEO John Challenger wrote in the report.

Businesses today are looking for employees with skills beyond traditional programming and IT expertise. "People that can bridge the communication gap between IT people and business partners--they're valuable but rare to find," says Tracey Nakakura, senior manager of IT at Gap Inc., who recruited IU's School of Informatics student Neil Bahri two years ago to work with the retailer's business-capabilities team, which provides functional and technical consulting to the retailer's business group. Bahri was one of Gap's stronger interviewees because he not only showed a solid technological background but also a good understanding of the business, says Nakakura.

Gap hired Bahri and put him to work on a $15 million project that involved making lease payments for more than 4,000 stores and relaying information between business partners and Gap's IT team. "Most of my daily tasks involved taking requirements, problems, and ideas from the business and translating them into a technical spec," Bahri says. Good communication skills are a must, and Bahri has them, Nakakura says.

The demand for this new breed of IT professional is growing, says Dion DeLoof, president of Anteo Group LLC, an IT staffing firm. The gaming industry has plenty of artists, computer engineers, and designers, but mastering all three skills typically is something that takes years to do. The Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon, which marries IT and interactive digital media, is designed to instill all three skills in students to prepare them for leadership positions, says Jon-Paul Dumont, a graduate of the university's Entertainment Technology Center. Dumont is a game designer at Electronic Arts Inc. working on the next version of a James Bond video game.

"He thinks outside of the box and takes the development of games and the interactive entertainment process to the next level," says Colleen McCreary, university relations manager at Electronic Arts. As part of the Carnegie Mellon program, Dumont designed real projects at companies, so he graduated with a better understanding of customers' needs and expectations and can give them the product that they want and will be excited about. "That skill is invaluable in terms of taking it into a corporate workplace," McCreary says.

Problem solving, innovation, communication, and teamwork all embody these new computer-education programs. But what makes them unique is the unconventional hands-on environment they've created for students. For example, Indiana University's program requires that each student complete a senior-year project before graduation. The project can involve anything from building an online survey system designed to improve dorm life for incoming freshmen to working with a local business to build its Web site. Students not only get hands-on experience in coding Web sites, they also better understand the business objectives of a company and can translate those objectives into Web pages.

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