VSJ – March 2008 – Work in Progress

Some time ago, we introduced to you the IAP Panel, a group of experienced Fellows whom we consult to distil an IAP View on political issues affecting IT for publication on the Civil Service Web site. This is the second article submitted.

The IAP View: IT Education and Training

There has been much comment in the technical and academic press lately regarding the suitability or otherwise of the education and training offered to computing specialists in this country at around undergraduate level. This has been triggered by several factors.

First, the number of graduates in IT-related disciplines has plummeted recently, despite an apparently healthy long-term increase from a little over 7000 in 1995 to just shy of 16000 in 2005. However the bald figures have to be seen in context. Over the same period, total graduate numbers increased from about 229000 to 316000 or nearly 40%. Also, the range of courses within the broad IT category has mushroomed. The traditional computer science and software engineering programmes remain, of course, but they have been joined by Business Information Technology, e-Commerce, Computer Games, Multimedia, Forensic Computing, Network Computing, Internet Computing, Music Informatics and so on. It is interesting – and instructive – that half of these titles weren’t even thought of a decade ago.

Second, the increased use of outsourcing has prompted the question, “Is the provision merely fitting graduates for a futile attempt to compete with equally well-qualified and less expensive overseas staff?” Some have argued that prospective students have asked themselves this question and, having answered “yes”, decided against an IT career, so accounting in part for the recent decline.

Third, the pervasive nature of equipment with an IT component has coloured the mindset of the generation currently leaving school. It is difficult for those of us born even twenty years earlier to realise just how natural this must seem to today’s teenagers. Computers and computer-controlled devices are just part of the furniture to them in the way that refrigerators are to the rest of us. No one would suggest that we should find fridge engineering absolutely fascinating, although doubtless many people’s imaginations were fired when they first appeared. We accept the fridge as an unremarkable component of our kitchens but it doesn’t follow that we all understand precisely how it works or that we could fix it if it didn’t. So now with IT.

Fourth, there is the issue of ‘market churn’. Programming languages and their variants appear with increasing regularity. To make things simpler for the programmer, each release introduces new features and tools that, paradoxically, add to its complexity. In 1960, John McCarthy was able to describe an entire language (Lisp) in a paper of about 20 pages. A modern JavaScript manual is about 8cm thick.

What are the implications of these developments for the education of IT professionals?

First, it is clear that there is no point in chasing the latest fashions. It is much more important to teach largely invariant principles that can be applied in whatever circumstances present. This implies the need for a significant degree of flexibility in students’ minds, though. They must be able to link the appropriate principle to the context in which they find themselves. This is a pretty amorphous thing to teach explicitly. A number of IAP members who are themselves employers report that they are working with local universities to provide experiential learning environments that support such flexible and creative ways of thinking. The flip side of this coin is that employers should not criticise universities for providing graduates who are not fully conversant with WindowsWidgets 8.3, or whatever. It is interesting to recall that before the widespread existence of formal computing education, graduates from disciplines as diverse as mediaeval history and mathematics (and, indeed, subjects not beginning with ‘m’) populated the industry. And there were, and still are, many competent IT professionals without degree level qualifications.

Second, we should beware conflating the industry’s ‘bread and butter’ needs with its demands for the outcomes of boundary-pushing research and development. Grace Hopper, who, after all, invented the concept of the compiler, and therefore clearly had a foot planted firmly in the latter camp, nevertheless often said that no one should do a first degree in computing. Her rationale was that computing is never an end in itself, only a service to some other enterprise. So, she said, if you’re interested in mining, do a degree in geology before finding out how a computer can help you. Plus ça change!

Third, a computer solution, however elegant, is only as useful as its implementation. And it can’t be implemented at all satisfactorily unless its end-users accept it. That means the so-called ‘soft skills’ – communication, empathy, leadership and so on – are just as important as technical mastery. This has always been true but has an added significance now in the context of overseas competition. It is much more difficult to practise the soft skills at a distance. Effective communication is trickier. Empathy depends hugely on culture. If you don’t understand the context in which users work, you’re unlikely to design something they find satisfactory.

We can and must differentiate ourselves from our competitors and we must maintain a vibrant IT sector. To do so, we must continually monitor changes such as those noted above and react to them appropriately. The last two paragraphs provide specific examples. We should ensure that personnel have the skills to re-engineer the target business process having understood it fully (Hopper’s point) and that they can make a critical appraisal of their work from the users’ standpoint. Systems that meet those criteria are likely to be effective, robust and a match for any developed elsewhere.

The Panel’s composition isn’t a fixed entity. If you’d like to contribute to its work, contact  the Director General at dg@iap.org.uk.  If there’s a topic that you think it should consider, email Robin Jones at eo@iap.org.uk.

[Interesting project or development? Let us know at eo@iap.org.uk!]

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