University of Waterloo steps up IT skills

Lydia Cheung and Jason Uppal wanted to upgrade their skills, but were not interested in going back to university full-time for a four year degree.

Instead, they chose to attend the University of Waterloo’s Education Program for Software Professionals (EPSP), which offers training for IT workers who developed their skills on the job or received formal IT education more than 10 years ago.

Cheung, a 20-year veteran of computers and systems project leader with Liberty Health, participated in the program with her co-workers. After work, Cheung would attend the class at company-provided facilities one day a week from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.

“It was so convenient holding it within our office,” she said. “All of our colleagues were in the same program so we were able to help each other out. If we had problems we could call or e-mail each other.”

Uppal, an industrial engineer with Uniroyal Goodrich Tire Manufacturing, had no formal education in information systems but did have 10 years of manufacturing experience. For him, Waterloo’s EPSP was the natural choice.

“I was looking for a program that would only focus on the courses that I needed because I didn’t want to go through another undergraduate degree,” Uppal said.

Though he was familiar with networking and object-oriented programming, Uppal needed a structured approach to exploring technologies. Despite the demanding workload — eight to 12 hours of homework a week outside of class — he said it was well worth the time to hone his skills.

The program, now in its third year, includes courses in modern programming methods, computer science structures, database management, operating systems, distributed systems and object-oriented programming and design.

Taken on a part-time basis, the EPSP can be completed in 12 to 14 months. Each course has a proctored final exam and upon completion of all six courses, graduates receive a University of Waterloo diploma.

According to John Green, EPSP program director at the University of Waterloo, the program was initiated to meet the growing need for skilled IT workers. It is estimated that between 150,000 and 200,000 software professionals in Canada could benefit from retraining or upgrading.

“It would be nice to take these people and send them back to university for four years, full time to get a computer science degree, but of course this really often is not possible when the person has a full-time job and maybe a family and a social life,” he said.

With this in mind, the program offers several delivery methods to accommodate individual schedules. The first option allows students to attend in-class lectures, either at the University of Waterloo or a number of Canadian education partners, including the University of Regina, Technical University of B.C., Toronto’s Humber College, Kitchener, Ont.’s Conestoga College and CDI Corporate Education Services, also in Toronto.

Individuals may opt to communicate with instructors by e-mail and take courses on CD-ROM or over the Internet. Each CD is designed to take the place of lectures, with concepts, quizzes, and a tracking mechanism that allows students to check their progress.

The third option, where individuals attend classes at their own workplace, allows organizations to have courses taught in-house during the day or evening by a professor from the university who travels to the location.

Although students are not required to have an undergraduate degree to enrol in the program, it is recommended that they have programming experience. An understanding of syntax, program statements and application construction is assumed, though a pre-EPSP course is available for people who need a refresher.

According to Green, this sentiment is echoed by most students who have emerged from the program with not only an increased understanding of skills they may have possessed, but also a greater understanding of their own jobs.

“One can understand a language, but it’s like being trained to use a hammer. If you only know how to use a hammer then everything looks like a nail, but if you’re given a tool kit then you can select the proper tool for the job.”