Readers Sound Off: The Value of IT Education
Readers respond to our observations about degree programs in information technology.
In my first column of 2005, I countered the negative outlook emanating from some analysts and industry observers that I feared might lead to a malaise among IT professionals. One observation had to do with education.
Enrollments in IT degree programs are in decline as 2005 begins, according to reports from colleges and universities around the world. The analysts’ take is that the blush is off the IT rose: students see little future in technology degrees given the economic state of the tech sector, the trend toward IT outsourcing, and other factors. The level of interest in degree programs tends to follow the money as well as other cultural factors.
When the dotcom bubble burst and companies started questioning the business value of IT publicly, it cast a pall over these disciplines and discouraged folks from pursuing degrees in the field. (By the same logic, we must assume that enrollment is also down in medical and legal degree programs, given the financial realities and job prospects confronting grads in those areas.)
I offered that there was little need for despair. In my experience, IT degrees were less important than good minds, whether trained in the liberal arts, engineering, business administration, or the pure sciences. I further argued that many tech degree programs were hampered by inadequate classroom technology infrastructure and that the degree itself often “dated” the bearers as they sought work later in their careers.
The result was a raft of e-mails both agreeing and challenging my position.
From Shawn Remacle, CIO of a healthcare delivery system provider, came this note.
“I read a lot of articles and rarely comment. However just wanted to say that this was well written and very accurate. … You did a great job nailing down the facts. As a CIO, I can tell you that [your comment] regarding 'tech' degrees is so very true. I have always tried to hire smart, creative persons (degree, certification or not) with excellent attitude and a decent 'moral compass.' I have found that tech degrees to be fairly useless indicator of job performance (for the reasons you noted) and certifications to be even worse (let's not kid ourselves—its real purpose is to be an additional source of revenue for the vendors and fairly effective 'brain-wash' marketing of future 'decision makers').
“Of course, when I give talks at the local community colleges and universities, and I speak about my thoughts as a hiring IT executive, the professors tend not to want to invite me back.”
Remacle’s perspective was shared by other “in the trenches” IT managers, many of whom echoed the sentiment once expressed by business executives that new hires with freshly-minted Masters of Business Administration credentials were often more costly than they were worth. I remember a Fortune magazine article in which one CEO commented that he could use monkeys to do the work of newly graduated MBAs, since the first couple of years came down to helping them “un-learn” their textbook stuff and to become familiar with the paper-pushing processes of their new employers.
So it is with tech. Regardless of the expertise the grad possesses in FORTRAN or BASIC, most apps today are not being developed in those languages. Applications are also not developed (for good or bad) using structured approaches taught in textbooks. App development, platform design and acquisition, and the myriad other tasks associated with the practice of IT are often mired down in political and economic processes that have little or nothing to do with best practices or standards. The first years of most IT newbie careers are often more about learning the political game than plying the skills they learned in the classroom. Moreover, the pace of technology change tends to limit whatever “hard” skills they acquired in the classroom to begin with.
In our experience, the IT professional is developed on the job, regardless of his or her educational background. The many folks who have entered the profession from other disciplines and produced original and creative results testify to our position.
Brian Butte, a technology architect for IBM, took exception to this view. He wrote:
“I appreciate your point of view on [information technology degrees]. However, as a former consultant who has moved to sales, I would argue that my field of vision is as wide as any and I have to completely disagree with you that 'a degree is a degree.' I have my undergraduate degree in computer engineering and have yet to meet someone with a non-technical degree who can hold a candle to the engineers I have worked with at General Motors, Allen-Bradley, Eaton Culter-Hammer, and IBM in addition to many clients. I find on the whole the worst IT people have non-technical degrees.
“Admittedly there are sparks here and there; one of my best friends and best programmers I've worked with has his only degree in Latin languages! However, my very capable, very successful team mates (in sales, no less) have degrees in math/computer science, mechanical engineering, computer engineer, computer science and engineering, and electrical engineering, including many master's degrees and a few Ph.D.'s.
“The problem with most technical programs is teachers who teach you technology instead of teaching you how to learn and keep up to date. I had the benefit of learning the basics, which means I can assimilate new technologies significantly faster than those poor saps who try to compete with me without technical backgrounds. I do agree that technology requires context which is provided by one or more secondary disciplines, and the combination leads to success.
“With that as my argument, I would have asked for more emphasis on application than theory through internships. Of course, theory still has its place and that is what non-techies miss. I know plenty of almost-adequate business majors programming Java for consulting companies who don't know the first thing about how Java works, which is important when trying to implement complex algorithms.
“Now, if you were to dumb down the definition of IT staff to exclude developers, designers, and architects to those who maintain and operate, only then would I agree, because anyone with a technical degree at that end of the scale either made a conscious choice to be left behind or is the bottom of the barrel.
“Come work for IBM and we'll show you what a technical degree can do!”
I am not sure whether Mr. Butte is making my point for me. We agree that technology degrees, like any modality of higher education, should be designed to provide students with the skills for a lifetime of learning. However, we are unclear about the point he is making about theory versus practice.
In the 20th century, the engineering mantra held great sway in higher education: It is less important to understand the nature of a thing than to control its behavior. In the 21st century, we seem to be going a step further: it is less important to understand the nature of a thing, or the mechanisms for controlling its behavior, than to identify the characteristics of the demographic to which we will sell our wares—how we will get Eskimos to buy more iceboxes, which they don’t really need at all.
That is the storage industry in a nutshell.
I thank readers for writing with their views. To comment on this column, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org
I would like to thank Storage Strategies subscriber John Haeger, a graduate of the Emory University Business School, for catching our mistake in last week's issue regarding the "Kondrackian Curve" I should have referred to it as the "Kondratiev Curve." The text has been corrected in our online edition.
Also, we wish to correct an error in our column of 12/9, which stated that the Fibre Channel Industry Association (FCIA) was now a part of the Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA). While the two organizations have merged in Europe, Werner Glinka advises that this is not the case in the USA.
Jon William Toigo is chairman of The Data Management Institute, the CEO of data management consulting and research firm Toigo Partners International, as well as a contributing editor to Enterprise Systems and its Storage Strategies columnist. Mr. Toigo is the author of 14 books, including Disaster Recovery Planning, 3rd Edition, and The Holy Grail of Network Storage Management, both from Prentice Hall.