Students 2Learn on the job

Jim Baird is the kind of guy whose personality leaps out at you with all the excitement of a blip on the SETI radar. With a rare blend of hilarious wit, critical thinking and professionalism, he wins over clients in the business world and captivates students in the classroom. It takes a special kind of person to have such an impact on young minds, but Jim goes about his work with humility.

“I think the ones who end up being the best teachers are the ones who really care about the students,” he tells me during an interview in his office, and I know he means it as plainly and honestly as anyone ever could. As someone who spends his summers doing analysis work for Fortune 500 companies, it’s not like he’s stuck in the position of educator.

Baird’s ties to the Information Architecture Group (IAG) have resulted in him being a primary contributor to the formalization and documentation of their analysis standards. In fact, he wrote the majority of the Business Requirements Analysis, which is published by the IAG and is the required text for Baird’s college-level course.

With 30+ years of IT experience, Jim is an endless source of stories and amusing anecdotes, but the tale I sat down to discuss with him and his business partner was the formation of their new company,

Julian Wassersztrum came from a marketing/business administration background and was taking Jim’s class when Jim first mentioned the idea of starting a development company that would hire students and put them to work on real IT contracts. Julian’s excitement and encouragement, combined with his complementary skill set, made partnership an attractive option for both, and they began approaching Jim’s teaching colleagues about getting involved.

“What we really have here is a coaching or internship scenario, if you will. The experienced faculty member will coach and guide the students throughout the project.”

Jim continues, explaining the purpose of the venture as being the creation of a win-win-win situation:

“I fully realize that while employers would like college grads to be able to hit the ground running when they get their first job in IT, the reality is that they need additional experience and training in the way the organization does things, their standards, and so on. With, we can give the students the real life IT skills that employers would like while teaching them at the same time…The faculty members (also) get more of an opportunity to keep current in the business world.”

2Learn’s target market is comprised of companies whose IT departments are too busy to attend to smaller projects, as well as smaller businesses working with budget constraints. Marketing the company, however, is not without its challenges. In order to keep their own costs to a minimum, 2Learn operates with a limited advertising budget. Jim also recognizes issues surrounding the establishment of credibility, but is confident that his students will prove themselves.

“Before we undertake a project, we will make sure that it is one that we will be able to complete on time, on budget, and that will satisfy the users’ needs. We have chosen our faculty mentors because of their broad depth of experience in a particular field. Today’s students are bright and energetic, as evidenced by the number of twenty-five years olds that are dot-com millionaires.”

Students who are eligible to be assigned contract work will be exposed to industry truths that support what their professors have been trying to tell them all along. Jim laughs when he thinks about the usual naive obsession with chasing the bleeding edge, and how drastically the student perspective changes when they hit the workforce.

“Everyone wants to work in Java, XML, Palm programming and such. What they don’t realize is that there are billions of lines of COBOL out there that need to be maintained. Another common misconception is that the mainframe is dead. Students tend to see the PC as their world and not realize that the PC is simply a port out into the world. There is more in the IT business world than the Internet but students tend to focus on the Internet because it’s sexy.”

Jim also strives to keep requirements analysis fun, and to break down the common resistance to doing proper documentation. He’s known to make use of the “monkey on your back” technique, which involves having a user hold on to a stuffed monkey until his/her issue has been debated and resolved.

Jim Baird’s ability to enthral his students begins with his knack for keeping it interesting, but grows exponentially when they realize how much he believes in them. He finds the teaching experience equally rewarding.

“Seldom does a class go by where I don’t learn something. What the students lack in experience they more than make up for in exuberance and enthusiasm; not to mention creativity. They keep me young and thinking.”

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Cooney works as a programmer/analyst for a major Canadian book publisher. He can be reached at