How Non-Techies Can Get a Master’s Degree in Computer Science

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    There’s been a lot of hand-wringing in recent years about the supply of IT professionals in the United States failing to keep pace with demand, and the need to fill the gap by bringing in people from overseas. But Boston’s Northeastern University is doing something about it.

    Three years ago, Northeastern launched its ALIGN program, an initiative aimed at creating a pipeline of graduates with a master’s degree in computer science by drawing upon undergraduates with degrees in other disciplines, from English and political science to business and biotech. Driven by Carla Brodley, dean of the College of Computer and Information Science at Northeastern, the ALIGN program graduated its first class of students at Northeastern’s Seattle campus in May.

    Last October, Northeastern opened a Silicon Valley campus on the premises of chipmaker IDT in San Jose. Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to speak with P.K. Agarwal, regional dean and CEO of the Silicon Valley campus, about the ALIGN program, and how students without a background in the discipline are able to navigate this three-year master’s degree program in computer science.

    “There are twin challenges that CIOs and other C-level officers face,” Agarwal said. “One is that there’s a huge shortage of computer science people. And on top of that, there’s a diversity problem. Those problems aren’t going to get any easier, at least for the foreseeable future, especially with the growing demand in the area of data analytics.”

    Agarwal explained that ALIGN has its roots in Northeastern’s longstanding culture of “experiential learning.”

    “When Northeastern was started in Boston in the late 1800s, they were always very focused on the experiential component,” he said. “In the early 1900s, the view was that people needed to be much closer to the workplace.”

    As a result, the university developed a co-op program that encourages students to take a five-year course of study rather than the traditional four. Three-and-a-half years of that is spent in academic learning, with the remaining 18 months split into three six-month work experiences. Aside from enabling students to earn some money to help pay for their education, the approach gives students valuable real-world work experience, and connects students with potential employers.

    “Sixty percent of graduates already have a job offer from one of their co-op employers at or before graduation,” Agarwal said. “Ninety percent are either in grad school or have a job with one of the co-op employers within six months. It’s literally taken Northeastern 100 years to build a network of 3,000 companies” with which it has had co-op relationships. Agarwal cited GE and IBM as strong supporters, along with such big-name Silicon Valley employers as VMware, Apple, and Google. Agarwal noted that once Northeastern alums “move up the food chain” in these companies, they’re able to encourage and strengthen the relationships.

    In the first year of the three-year ALIGN program, students take “all the bridge courses that will get them the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in computer science,” Agarwal said. The second and third years are no different from those of any other student who pursues a master’s degree in computer science, with one six-month co-op offered to provide at least some of the value that undergrads in the co-op program receive.

    To me, it initially seemed only reasonable to conclude that the students without a computer science background would be handicapped to some degree, compared to graduate students who do have an academic background in computer science.

    “Conceptually, I would agree that it’s hard to see a one-year boot camp as equivalent to a four-year undergraduate degree,” Agarwal said. “But when you think about it, two years of any undergraduate degree is general education, so they’re just compacting two years of computer science into one year.”

    A key element of the ALIGN program involves attracting people in under-represented groups, notably women, Hispanics, and African Americans. Agarwal noted that women constitute roughly half of the enrollment in ALIGN, an outcome he attributes to a concerted outreach effort that includes working with such organizations as Women in Technology International (WITI).

    Agarwal said there’s a huge demand for enrollment into the program from students in other countries, particularly China and India. But the Silicon Valley campus’s focus at this point is to build a domestic pipeline of IT professionals.

    “For Silicon Valley, we are very keen on building a local, domestic institution, so we are actually not accepting any international students,” Agarwal said. “We will probably accept some next year, but we will keep that in balance, because the overseas demand is so high. We could literally fill up our entire capacity just from China and India alone. I’m very particular about building a very ‘Silicon Valley’ institution first, and then adding 15 or 20 percent overseas students” down the road.

    As for whether any other universities have a similar program in place, Agarwal said he’s heard rumblings that other universities are looking at this sort of thing. “But so far, to the best of my knowledge, we’re the only game in town,” he said. “I hope over time, more of these creative programs will be adopted.”

    “Northwestern is unique, because we are very nimble and very innovative. At most universities, it takes two to three years to create a new program,” he said. “One of the things that enabled this to happen is our culture — our culture is about ‘let’s take care of the problems now. Let’s not wait.’”

    Agarwal mentioned that Northeastern also offers an eight-week boot camp program in data analytics, called LEVEL, in which students receive what he called a “non-credentialed certificate.”

    “You have to have an undergrad degree, and we convert you into a business data analyst,” he said. “Believe it or not, these people come out after eight weeks, and they’re ready to go.”

    A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.

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