Degrees of change

Last year, Sumantra Sengupta, the CIO at The Scotts Co., sat down with his network security group to find out what it was doing to protect his network from viruses. His staff boasted that it had installed great antivirus packages, five firewalls and a DMZ.

Expecting kudos from their boss, the group instead found itself being slowly raked over the coals of Sengupta’s displeasure. Sengupta told the group that in his experience most viruses originate overseas, then work their way into North America. We have offices in 20 countries and 13 server farms around the globe, he said. So, assuming that an attack originates in Europe, help me understand how we’re protected.

After more digging, Sengupta discovered that the company was indeed protected from viruses — but mainly in North America.

“They’d completely forgotten that we support 24/7, in all time zones,” Sengupta says. It had escaped them that if a virus hit in Europe, the network administrators in the United States might be home in bed, not on the job responding to the attack. Sengupta says it took about a month’s worth of work to ensure that the server farms were protected around the globe, around the clock.

Sengupta tells this story to illustrate why he doesn’t hire kids fresh out of school nor people who can’t think through business problems. His network security group failed to do that. “They got caught up in the technical elegance of what they were deploying,” he says.

The moral of this story: Not having a pool of talent emerging from colleges and universities with the skills CIOs need today is more than an annoyance; it’s a threat to CIOs’ ability to run IT effectively and efficiently.

The decline of the whizkid

In the 1980s and 1990s, technical elegance wasn’t such a bad thing. CIOs welcomed legions of computer science grads into their shops, kids who were thrilled just to sit in their cubes and pump out line after line of dazzling code. Newspapers filled their pages with tales of pimply faced whizzes who spent their adolescence playing Doom, and then moved on to launch dotcoms or lend their genius to Fortune 500 companies.

Today, say CIOs, the value of that kind of kid has dropped. In the new world order, hard-core programming talent — the kind readily available abroad — is no longer a meal ticket to a long, profitable future. “You’ll be commoditized,” Sengupta says bluntly.

Parents and children are getting the message. According to the Computing Research Association’s (CRA) most recent Taulbee survey (which provides enrollment and other data on undergraduate computer science and computer engineering programs), enrollment in those programs dropped 23 per cent from 2002 to 2003. Why major in computer science when technology jobs are being sucked into an offshore vacuum of low-cost IT providers?

Colleges are getting the message too. And they’re listening to CIOs such as Sengupta complain that the computer science grads they’re turning out lack the skills necessary to work with the business side.

Consequently, some schools are beginning to rethink curriculums that traditionally have focused on training kids to be programmers. New IT schools have sprouted that offer business and other courses (art history with your Java, anyone?). And colleges are even trying to exorcise the stereotype of the narrowly focused computer geek.

“Computer science is just as good a first major as any other. The analogy we’d like to make is that we’re much like English, economics or history; you can get an undergraduate degree in computer science and go on and do anything,” says Jeannette Wing, president’s professor of computer science and head of Carnegie Mellon’s School of Computer Science.

But institutions of higher learning aren’t built for speed. Even with the best intentions, changing the character and content of the computer science curriculum will take time.

The cost of the skills gap

James Dallas echoes many IT execs these days when he says he runs IT like a business. “It all revolves around having an impact on the bottom line and the competitive position of our company,” says the Georgia-Pacific vice-president and CIO.

To do that, Dallas says he needs people with an understanding of key business drivers, business processes, project management skills, communication, presentation and innovation abilities. Tech skills are on the bottom of his list. “I find it easier to take someone with a business major and an appreciation of technology, then teach them IT, than take someone with tech skills and try to teach them business,” he says.

Dallas would like schools to teach those business-oriented skills so IT workers can hit the ground running when (and if) he hires them. “Some of the basic programming skills are becoming a commodity,” he says. “We don’t want someone to come out of school to a market that doesn’t place a lot of value on what they’ve received training in.”

Of course, it’s not all about doing right by the kids. At Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc., Stephen Norman, COO of global technology and CTO of the infrastructure and data services group, would love to see schools teach business skills and offer courses on how to run big projects, because right now Merrill has to spend a lot of time and money teaching some of those skills itself.

Last year, Merrill launched a program called ML Markets, which taught its tech staff the basics of financial markets. “About 1,800 people went through it,” Norman says. The company also offers a number of project management courses — the most intensive of which is a five-day, offsite course in which students stay together in a hotel and learn how to collaborate on a project plan. (The participants bring in real projects they’re working on.)

All this, in Norman’s view, is necessary; it’s also expensive.

At Pfizer Inc., the Business Technology Group doesn’t even hire undergrads with technology degrees. “We hire MBAs almost exclusively,” says Justin Sowers, director of global business technology. In fact, 95 per cent of the 300 employees in the Business Technology Group have MBAs.

Sowers says Pfizer did experiment with hiring kids from Master in Information Science (MIS) programs, but most of those students didn’t have the business chops to make the cut. “In information or computer science, you find very technically capable people. If you needed someone as a technical interface for data mining, you would find a great person.

“But you’d need another person interfacing between that person and the business to get results,” he says.

The need for students with a solid grounding in technology isn’t entirely going away. Plenty of people are still needed to develop and maintain complex systems. Michael Keselman, chief technology strategist at McKesson, says that while soft skills are a plus, he’s still looking for tech skills.

So grads with computer science degrees should fit the bill, yes?

Well, not quite.

“What surprised me in computer science students was that they’re not really prepared for real programming jobs in enterprises,” Keselman says. Computer science curricula, in his view, focus too much on fundamental algorithms and specific programming languages, such as C++.

That kind of learning may be OK for a software development company, but for large enterprises like McKesson, programmers are required to thoroughly possess knowledge of networks and databases. “Many computer science students don’t even know what SQL is,” he says.

Merrill’s Norman would like to see those students get a better grounding in fundamentals: What is a microprocessor? What does an OS do? And he agrees with Keselman that the schools focus too much on object orientation and application programming languages. “When I used to recruit people personally, I would ask them how many bits there are in a byte; you’d be astonished how many computer science graduates can’t answer,” says Norman.

The new, new curricula

How is academia responding to the CIO lament that the kids they’re interviewing from computer science programs lack communication skills and general business know-how? The answer varies from school to school.

At the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at Ohio State, chairman Stu Zweben says students learn communication skills by working in pairs in introductory CS; in later course work — such as system software design — students work in teams of three to five, and have both oral and written requirements to fulfill. But in terms of teaching business skills, Zweben admits his school has a distance to travel.

There are now some 40 or 50 undergraduate IT programs around the country, depending on whom you ask, and no two are exactly alike. Many are currently trying to take an interdisciplinary approach by grounding their computing courses in the context of business and society.

According to William Aspray, a professor at Indiana University’s four-year-old School of Informatics, the workplace increasingly is looking for grads from programs that “train their people in context — knowing, for example, a particular domain like the health industry.”

At Indiana, Aspray (a former executive director of the CRA) says there are a number of ways that his school’s approach differs from the traditional CS course of study. For instance, Indiana students are required to take classes on social informatics, the relationship between IT and people; organizational informatics, which looks at IT systems in organizations; and ethics and professionalization.

Students at the school must also take five to six courses to complete a minor. (There are 25 possibilities to choose from; the most popular is business, says Aspray. Second most popular is CS. Others are in the social or physical sciences.)

New graduate programs in computing have popped up as well in recent years. The School of Management at Boston University offers a now three-year-old MS-MBA program in which students receive both an MBA and a Master of Science in Information Systems. “What we’re trying to do is not think of IT as separate from marketing, finance, any function,” says N. Venkatraman, management professor and chairman of the information systems department.

According to Associate Dean of the full-time MBA program and Professor of Information Systems and Management Vijay Gurbaxani, University of California, Irvine’s Graduate School of Management is creating a joint MS in computer science and business. “I don’t think there will be a single MBA out there who will not be responsible for technology-influenced decisions,” he explains.

Why all this is not going to happen tomorrow

Of course, even with the best intentions, adapting curricula to meet the demands of a rapidly changing global economy will take plenty of time. Richard Baskerville, professor and chair of computer information systems at Georgia State University’s Robinson College of Business, cites a favourite saying: “It’s easier to change the course of history than to change a course in history.”

New courses and degree programs can take years to develop. It takes time to hire faculty, time to find funding, time to move the university bureaucracy. It takes time to do enough research to design and justify a course.

That’s why Carnegie Mellon’s Wing says her department has yet to offer a course on software design, even though it’s a course she’d like to see. “The research hasn’t caught up,” she says. In her view, there’s no acceptable textbook on the topic, which means a professor would have to create one on his own.

John King, professor and dean of the School of Information at the University of Michigan, points out that business schools are actually decreasing their emphasis on IT, partly because there is a dearth of professors comfortable teaching the topic.

“Very few business school faculty have undergraduate degrees in engineering, CS or the natural sciences. The majority have degrees in the social sciences or management. These people have never lived and worked in a culture of technology production. They don’t understand (that world),” he laments.

He adds that it’s hard to find a strong IS program even in the elite business schools. That can’t be too comforting to IT execs who are increasingly looking for graduates who can talk the technical talk and walk the business walk — all without breaking stride.

But it’s not the mission of most universities to train workers; it’s their job to educate students. Aspray says, “In the United States, there’s still the sense that we’re here not to train, but to educate, to provide foundational knowledge. I’m not too upset with the fact that maybe we’re not always up to speed on the latest skill.”

Job training is the work of community colleges and trade schools. A university has to deliberate carefully before responding to whatever’s hot at the moment (Java? .Net? Web services?) because by the time it integrates a topic into the curriculum, describes the course, and budgets the money to recruit and hire a professor to teach it, the subject may already be yesterday’s news. And then the school is stuck. What’s to say that two years from now CIOs won’t be complaining that new grads need to stop fiddling around in business courses because what they really need is people who know C++. (It’s unlikely, but who knows?)

King sums up the inherent tension between the conservatism of higher education and the ever-shifting demands of business and society: “We don’t want the academy to change as quickly as society. We buffer society from mechanisms that would allow one or a small number of individuals to destroy something of long-term value.” But, he adds, “That doesn’t mean we can’t speed things up a bit.”

IT leaders can take comfort in the knowledge that what they’re saying — ‘We want students with communication, analytical and project management skills! Problem solvers! Team players!’ — is being heard loudly and clearly up in the ivory towers. Academics are also thinking creatively about how to stem the tide of declining enrollments. After all, there’s some 15-year-old kid out there right now, reading the stock tables, listening to MP3s and trading IMs with her friends — and she just might have a great head for business.

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