Build IT talent from the ground up

Interest and passion around technology, particularly consumer technology, is at an all-time-high among teenagers in Hong Kong. Young enthusiasts line up overnight for the opening of Hong Kong’s first Apple store, MTR carriages are filled with people tweeting, surfing, and even talking on their mobile phones and/or tablets. But ironically, such passion doesn’t inspire them to pursue a career in technology.

“I’m interested in computer hardware system and multimedia,” said Gary Fong, president of the Hong Kong Joint School Electronics and Computing Society (HKJSECS) in 2009-2010.

HKJSECS is a student organization to promote interest in electronics and computer studies among their peers. But Fong himself wasn’t inspired to study IT. He’s currently a student at Chinese University Hong Kong (CUHK) majoring in Government and Public Administration.

“I picked a major other than IT for many different reasons,” he said, following by explaining about his interest in politics. “Last but not least, low-ranking IT techs and engineers are not reputable in the eyes of Hong Kong managers and executives,” he added.

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Unappealing career
That last (but not least) reason appears to be the major factor that’s holding back many students from pursuing a career in IT.

But Fong isn’t the only one. The latest admission data from Joint University Programmes Admission further demonstrates that computer-related majors have lost their edge, when comparing admission data between computer science, finance and accounting.

The data shows that mainly grade-C or lower students are admitted to the computer science programs, while finance and accounting programs attracts grade-A students. Although HKUST is known for its tech programs, the admission Computer Science (Information Engineering) number was so low that the median score was not available.

Even among students who took the computing program, not all graduates are keen to join the industry. Michael Fung, a Hong Kong Polytechnic University (Poly U) Computing graduate, chose a different career path soon after graduation. Currently a sales director at Panasia Cinema Advertising, Fung decided IT was not for him after his practicum year, but also found opportunities within IT are limited.

“In Hong Kong, with a degree in IT you usually go the path of programming or support–neither role is core to non-tech businesses and are easily replaced because of the prevalence of outsourcing service providers,” he said. “The future [for IT pros] looks even gloomier as there are tons of high quality programmers [available] at low cost in China today.”

The scenario is found not only in Hong Kong, said Keith Chan, acting dean of students at Poly U. Chan, previously head of Department of Computing, said the trend of declining admission rates for computer science and IT-related academic programs is global.

“It’s not surprising to see students lose interest in IT, which is still a back-office [function],” he said. “Whenever there are major layoffs, IT is often the first team to be let go.”

The domino effect
Chan said the problem is getting worse and creating a domino effect that is hurting the local IT industry in two ways. As computer science programs become less popular among students, the decreasing admission rate will mean fewer local IT graduates entering the IT job market in future.

“When we don’t have enough talented IT workers, many enterprises hesitate to launch and trial projects with the latest technologies, or they simply outsource the deployment overseas,” said Chan. “The local labor force then loses an opportunity to gain experience in these technologies, reducing the overall quality among local IT professionals and further hindering industry growth.”

Time to transform
Gabriel Leung, director of community service at the Hong Kong Computer Society and general manager at EMC Hong Kong and Macau, also noted negative perception within the industry and attributed it to the changing role of IT within the economy.

“What the local IT industry is going through now is similar to what happened to the manufacturing industry back in the 80s,” he said. “Programming and hardware maintenance roles are being replaced by technology advancement, automation and migration to cheaper locations.”

Back in the 80s and 90s, with a stable political system and booming economy, Leung said Hong Kong was a major hub for datacenters, though the scale was much smaller and technologies were relatively primitive. But that’s no longer the case due to the advancement in technology, growing competition in the region and sky rocketing local rental cost.

“People that were skillful and good at operating or managing those datacenters would definitely find it difficult to get jobs now,” he said. The negative attitude among IT professionals toward their roles and tech industry are spreading across the community, affecting also the younger generation’s perception towards the local IT industry. Leung said that to bring talent back to the industry, IT professionals should first recognized the transforming role of IT within Hong Kong’s economy and identify new directions.

Rejuvenate the local industry
Identifying new directions for the local IT industry is critical for building sustainable growth, then younger talent will be inspired to join the industry, said Leung.

He said the latest OGCIO’s datacenter strategy is a good start. Though the datacenter business is no longer the same as the 80s, Leung said Hong Kong still enjoys advantages against competition within the region. Developments in the datacenter industry are expected to increase job opportunities within IT, and also the profile of local IT industries. Google’s US$100 million investment in a Hong Kong datacenter is one example, he said.

In today’s globalized business environment, Hong Kong has much to contribute to China’s development, particularly in the IT industry. Leung quoted the example of China’s cloud computing strategy, which includes plans to build five major cloud cities within the country.

“Instead of being the sixth cloud city, Hong Kong should aim to be the ‘Five Plus One’ cloud city for China,” he said. “Hong Kong can bring its globalization experience, service quality and efficient processes to China’s five cloud cities.”

Leung added that local management and process re-engineering skills can bring value to different projects within China, and, at the same time, business opportunities for the Hong Kong IT industry.

License for perfection
Leung said that IT professionals also require recognition of their expertise. Many professional industries, like law and accounting, run a chartered program and issue licenses to practitioners based on their expertise and capabilities. But a similar universal accreditation system is not available within IT.

He added the certification is not a pat on the shoulder for IT professionals, but to ensure quality operation of IT systems, which are becoming critical in our daily lives. “Almost all industries these days rely on IT,” said Leung, “and different IT systems play a critical role in businesses and sometimes even lives. Look at the train accident that happened in China a few months ago–that accident was caused not by human error, but system failure.”

Leung said with more enterprises are relying on complex and specialized IT systems, the accreditation of IT professionals to build and maintain them becomes even more critical.

Local entrepreneurship
As the industry and the government are identifying and developing new directions to rejuvenate the local IT industry, academics have also launched different programs to “re-brand” the local industry among students.

“Influenced by the media, and sometimes by parents, most students do not realize IT does provide opportunities for a successful career,” said Chan from Poly U. In Hong Kong, where entrepreneurship remains strong and active, he said IT is a good breeding ground for local entrepreneurs.

“IT is the most entrepreneur-friendly industry,” he said. “The cost to start an IT business is minimal, especially when servers can be hosted in the cloud. Almost anyone with an idea and computer can start a business in IT.”

Compared with industries like finance, where the entrepreneur may need a large capital stake or must deal with various regulatory requirements to launch a financial product, IT is a relatively low-cost business start-up. But the return can be enormous. “When we look at the richest people in China, some of them, like William Ding from Netease and Ma Huateng from Tencent, are IT entrepreneurs,” said Chan.

To better inform students on the entrepreneurship-aspects to the IT industry, he said the university regularly invites successful IT entrepreneurs like Ding to their campus for speaking engagements. These opportunities allow students to understand the industry, as well as to inspire them with successful role models.

Business-savvy tech graduates
However, Chan said that Hong Kong still lacks successful local entrepreneurs as role models. Therefore, local universities are also enhancing their academic programs to bring more career options for tech graduates.

City University redesigned its BBA-Information Systems program into BBA-Information Management in 2009, said Ma Jian, professor at Department of Information Systems at City U. Instead of training tech professionals, Ma said the program aims at training financial information professionals.

CUHK also launched an Engineering + Business Administration double-degree program in 2007. The program aims to bring more career options for engineering students, but at the same time provide more business-savvy tech graduates to meet industry needs, said Wong Kam Fai, associate dean of Faculty of Engineering at CUHK.

As part of education reform, the new academic structure, which extends university education from a 3-year into a 4-year curriculum program starting in 2012, is going to encourage similar changes in different programs.

An opportunity to make a difference
Wong said the new academic structure provides more flexibility for students to pursue a double major, thus opening up more career opportunities and options.

“IT currently does not provide the [appropriate] opportunities and options to students,” added Chan from Poly U. He noted while career options and monetary return are high priorities, more smart students are looking for an opportunity to make a difference to Hong Kong.

Judy Chen, a Form Six student at Diocesan Girl’s School and last year’s HKJSEC president, is planning to pursue a degree in Chinese medicine. When asked what influenced her choice of major, it is the opportunity to contribution matters.

“I consider the extent to which I can help society…if I graduate from my future choice of major, I would like to be able to support other needy individuals in the community,” she said.

Additional reporting by Teresa Leung
Identify the gifted

Apart from inspiring university tech students, academics are also extending their IT evangelization towards secondary school students.

At Poly U, the Secondary School Relation Office (SSRO) is launching an informatics competition in May 2012, aiming to identify talented students in computer programming at an early age. Based on the Australian Informatics Competition (AIC), the competition is a quiz targeted for Form 4 or younger students.

“We hope to draw interest and identify students that are gifted in this area at an early age,” said CK Wan, director of SSRO at Poly U.

Students scoring in the top 5 percent in the AIC will be invited to special workshops organized by Poly U’s Department of Computing. These workshops will run classes during school holidays to provide further training and development for these gifted-students.

The Hong Kong Joint School Electronic and Computer Society (HKJSEC) is another organization aimed at drawing interest in IT among youth.

Run and operated by secondary school students, the HKJSEC organizes annual computer exhibitions and the Hong Kong Outstanding IT School Award (HKOITSA). Aiming to inspire an interest towards computer science within students, the HKOITSA recognizes schools that are best at presenting and demonstrating IT in different aspect of our daily lives.

Major universities and the Hong Kong Computer Society (HKCS) are also advisors for the HKJSEC. “We hope to raise awareness and knowledge among secondary schools in IT,” said Michael Leung, vice president (talent cultivation) at the HKCS. “Not necessarily to urge them to pursue a career in IT, but to mainly to raise interest and attention.”

Why aren’t there more women in IT?

IT is primarily a male-dominated industry. But the tables are turned at the Hong Kong Joint Schools Electronics and Computing Society (HKJSECS). The executive committee memberships of the HKJSECS are dominated by females. Judy Chen, the former president of HKJSECS and a Form Six student at Diocesan Girls’ School explains.

“Most of my schoolmates are not interested in studying IT as they think it would be a disadvantage…they think computer study involves many calculations, which seems to interest boys rather than girls,” she said. “Some of them are not interested in [a career in IT] as they might consider IT as an interest instead of an academic subject.”

When asked further why girls consider IT as an interest instead of career, the real reason appears to be lack of encouragement.

“They feel bored not because of the calculations, but they often feel defeated when they can’t create something on the computer as the programs change too fast,” she said. “Conservative girls feel that they cannot follow.”

Young tech pros upbeat about their future

Despite the perceived uncertainties for IT graduates, young tech pros like Ben Cheng and Kelvin Wong believe IT is a career choice that can make a difference.

Cheng graduated in 2007 from the Chinese University of Hong Kong with a degree in information engineering and is now running his own software firm Oursky, while his employee Kelvin Wong–a recent economics graduate from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology–is a software engineer.

Cheng founded Oursky with another two tech pros in 2008. His company is now an incubatee at the Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks, focusing on the development of web applications for businesses. Oursky launched its first product PandaForm in 2010: a form builder that allows users to create various types of forms and integrate them with workflows.

“I believe IT is still a good choice,” said Cheng. “There are many employers looking for tech pros and the pay isn’t bad. If starting a business is your goal, there are still opportunities for those who are innovative and hardworking.”

According to Cheng, as his business has become more stable, he can rely less on customer projects and focus more on developing new products.

Asked why he chose to run his own company instead of joining someone else’s, Cheng said he’s interested in tech and wants tech to be a core business. “If I work for a non-tech company as a tech person, what I do isn’t core business,” he noted. “Besides I want to develop a product I envision–I can’t do this if I work for a tech vendor.”

Learn beyond classrooms
Cheng added that he learnt a lot more about programming by self-study than at school. “In school I learnt about the theoretical side of development, which I find useful,” he said. “Tech pros interested in R&D must spend lots of time learning [programming languages] by themselves rather than relying solely on classroom training.”

Echoing Cheng’s view on self-learning, Wong said that IT benefits different industries, helps improve productivity, and allows better collaboration.

IT related disciplines

According to Wong, he started to use computers when he was in kindergarten and learn about programming when he was in Primary Five.

But he didn’t major in any-IT related disciplines when he was a university student. “My major was economics because I took my parents’ advice to learn more about non-tech stuff,” said Wong. “I was a part-time programmer [during my university years]. Some of the projects I worked on include intranet building and an environment-assessment system for the MTR.”

Wong is also interested in medical IT. “I don’t have any concrete plans yet, but I want to do a degree in medicine and see how technologies can help healthcare pros enhance their work.”

–By Teresa Leung

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