Has IT Lost Its Cachet?

Ann All

What to make of the apparent dichotomy between two items spotlighted by IT Business Edge blogger Michael Lindenberger?


Legislation that would "expand scholarships, stipends and training for science, technology and engineering teachers' workshops and master's degree programs" was recently approved by the U.S. House of Representatives, one of two bills that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says should help America maintain its status as a global innovator.


Yet a recent survey by e-Skills UK finds that British employers are increasingly unimpressed with technical degrees. While there are almost certainly some differences in the U.S. and UK markets, it does still strike me as a bit odd that the U.S. is seeking to pour money into tech education even as technical degrees appear to be losing their cachet with employers.


Companies seem to find business skills at least as important as -- if not more so than -- straight tech skills as qualifications for their IT employees. I think that a number of factors are at play here.


First, IT isn't as mysterious to most professional folks as it once was. My boss, who characterizes herself as a "non-techie," recently installed a wireless router in her home, ran her Tivo through it and got the necessary security systems for it up and running. Even doofuses like me can install software programs with a couple clicks of a mouse.


Also, I can't discount the impact of outsourcing. In the global economy, it's becoming easier all the time to find someone who can crank out code. But finding someone who can create code and lead a project team is another matter. The software-as-a-service delivery model has also made it easy for folks to buy hosted versions of business applications that can be successfully installed and maintained by relative "non-techies."


CIOs who want IT to be seen as a business enabler realize that they need staffers with business skills to help them fulfill that mandate.


Perhaps tech education simply hasn't kept up with the rapidly changing times. I'd like to see more programs like the Bachelor of Innovation offered at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs that emphasizes a cross-disciplinary relationship between business and engineering. "The goal is to get [students] to learn enough about areas outside of their own majors to better interact with team members," says a UCCS professor in an IT Business Edge interview.

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Apr 30, 2007 8:08 AM Frank Bergdoll Frank Bergdoll  says:
As the Lead Instructor for the Technology Infrastructure Course at SAIT Polytechnic in Calgary, Alberta, I found this article quite interesting.While it is nothing new to hear that industry seeks a blended skill set of business and technical knowledge - that message has not hit home with as many students.The program I instruct in combines the two dicsiplines. We teach a strong technical program and combine it with Project Management, ITIL-type structure/best practices, MSF, Interpersonal skills, and have the students respond to RFP's in a case-study framework.Time and again, we see the student enrollment far higher in the "pure" technical programs that have less emphasis on the business and inter-personal skills.It seems that the message needs to make it into the hands of those planning careers in IT. Reply
Apr 30, 2007 9:01 AM Mike Slinn Mike Slinn  says:
Problem these days is that such a wide spectrum of technical skills are required that the really relevant knowledge cannot possibly be taught at university. I mean who in there right mind would want to read SAP, Oracle Financials, Siebel CRM, Salesforce.com, SaaS, SOA, BizTalk. Anyway a specialist in any one of these might be on a career cul de sac unless they are versatile enough to learn the others fast. As Christian Barnard said 'Give me a dexterous, intelligent and charismatic 18 year old and I will teach them to do a heart transplant in 2 weeks flat' Its education we want not knowledge but the ability to acquire it fast. I have always thought applied technical degrees (not maths, physics....) a complete waste of space and a great way to manufacture dull, narrow minded and unimaginative anoraks. Reply
Apr 30, 2007 9:07 AM Karen Davis Karen Davis  says:
Maybe, just maybe, the kids understand that "business skills" can be a euphemism for "business politics". No one mentioned except in passing the need for good project management skills as opposed to what amounts to an obsession about process and procedure worthy of a bureaucracy rather than a lean, nimble, innovative organization. You may sneer at this opinion, and that is your prerogative, but larding up on process and procedure with an excessive focus on "standards" that come and go like fads is not what savvy, innovative people care about. Innovation is not process and procedure; it is method and best practices, which, in my experience, is the LAST thing being discussed in these business pubs. Emphasizing guiding project members and keeping them on track, monitoring/controlling costs, of course, and enforcing best practices is the time-honored way of doing good work in IT and it is NOT at odds with tracking and satisfying business needs. The seeming indifference of hiring managers to the need for good IT skills is shorthand for "we know all we need to know" and it is short-sighted. Technology and innovation is a full-time vocation, and hiring people who have methodology and project problem-solving skills are required to meet the needs of business whether the employers understand it or not. They will find that out, and kudos to the kids who understand the foundation is TECHNICAL SKILL; one can take management-specific courses on the company's dime later, since best practices need to match the business and its people's way of working rather than some "standard" promulgated by bureaucratic organizations without regard to the operating environment of the industry they are in.Yes, the third world offers skilled programmers for inexpensive rates, but again, there are cultural, security, and privacy issues, and just because someone can set up WEP at home (which has been cracked BTW, and isn't as secure as managers think) doesn't mean they have the requisite technical skill to solve problems and manage a team of skilled programmers, system administrators, and documentarians. What's next? Hospital and insurance administrators who think this doctoring thing is so easy they can do it themselves? Doctors worrying about "business needs" instead of medicine and patient care? I don't think you want to have happen to your business infrastructure what is now happening to the practice of medicine, unless you WANT to breed IT management that cannot compete on the technical issues of method and best practices as well as cost control and business effectiveness. Competition is global, and brutal, and one cannot make mistakes and stay in business. The best way to insure competitiveness is to stay on top of innovation, and not clot it up with so-called "standards" that enforce an orthodoxy that may be inappropriate for the industry or business and may even be counterproductive to the needs of the business. Reply
Apr 30, 2007 1:07 PM Patrick Kirk Patrick Kirk  says:
It's not just inter-personal skills or a high-level understanding of cost, profit, and loss. Technical people need to understand that business motivators and drivers may have nothing to do with excellent software development. To meet this challenge, a great tech organization must staff up a multitude of skills, regardless of location: technical translation of business needs, technical design and build, configuration and release management, security management, system maintenance, managing business partner priorities against a limited pool of funds, cost management and containment, and business-focused leadership that wakes up every day thinking how best to use all technology assests to ensure compliant processes and grow revenue. Reply
Apr 30, 2007 2:37 PM John John  says:
Amy old fool can tap out great steaming mounds of useless code with a Dummies book open in front of them... Creating a system used by thousands of users that will handle a million transactions an hour, from 1000 sites is a skill that takes a long time to pick up. Especially if you want to guarantee timely delivery and fault free performance. Companies can - and do - go under due to faulty IT sstems.I find IT hard - for 12 years now I have learnt new things every day and I am stretched continually. You can tell the IT professional on a train because they are the ones reading text books to and from work. By the way I got A's in my A-Levels, received a good degree from the department that discovered DNA and am a Chartered Engineer. I am by no means stupid and yet sometimes I find the complexity of a modern IT system daunting.That is why what is said in the business media and my experience is so contradictory... Although I have a Diploma in Marketing and am a Member Chartered Inistitute Marketing no agency or company has ever shown any interest in that - they are only interested in my technical skills and experience. I have had to sit 3 hour technical exams in the past just for a chance for an interview. What worries me is that the hard won technical experience I have built up is not being passed down the line in this country. The average age of the people I work with is now late thirties (10 years ago it was late twenties). This will lead to an enormous squeeze in a few years time when business gurus finally wake up to the fact that outsourcing IT systems means outsourcing customer details, tarade secrets and secret financial information. I am not looking forward to the panic when it comes. Reply
Apr 30, 2007 7:11 PM Derek Mansfield Derek Mansfield  says:
We have a successful web/software development plus emarketing services with sales offices are in London, Edinburgh, Glasgow. All of our prodcution and services are based in Kiev, Ukraine. Michael Lindenberger is largely correct about outsourcing for coders and the CIO's need for business skills. The technical skillset of developers in Ukraine are as good if not better than UK graduates. In fact in Kiev they seem to have a more rounded education as well as having higher level technical skills. Our challenge used to be finding people with cultural understanding and business skills. Over the past 7 years of operation in Kiev we have found that the economy has broadened and improved rapidly. So 5 years ago we wouldn't have had a chance to recruit developers with, say, banking experience. Now it's much easier. The cultural thing has changed though; whereas even 5 years ago anything Western was lauded, it is now looked at with a (understandable and healthy) degree of scepticism. Reply

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