Preparing for a career in IT

Back when I started to learn about computers, universities typically offered few computing courses. My first degree was completed back in 1961 — I had only one computing course, and it focused on numerical methods that could be used on a computer. There was work in the computing centre during the summers, but few classes you could take to expand your skills.

I learned computing on the job, helping Smith College acquire its first computer in the 1960s and acting as the first chair of computer science at York University in the early 1970s. The first degrees in computing came in the mid-1970s — most of them were programs focused on the academic study of computer science.

Back then, if you had a university degree and knew your way around computers, you could expect a number of good job offers. Employers understood that graduates had learned the theory; practical experience would come on the job. One of the great strengths of the University of Waterloo was that it gave students a chance to gain practical experience through its co-op programs. Demand outstripped supply of co-op computing graduates.

By the 1980s, it was clear that knowing the theory for computing did not always translate into an ability to apply good computing practice. In Ontario, college computing programs sprang up to address this need. Right into the 1990s, enterprising students continued to top up their prestigious university degree with a practical computing diploma from a college.

Today, there are a number of effective ways you can prepare yourself for work as an IT professional. Three different kinds of knowledge are required: understanding the theory behind computing, the relevant standards of practice, and the domain where the computing is to be applied. A degree in computer science is no longer the best preparation for most professional IT work.

In many ways, the ideal preparation for professional work in computing is a dual degree program. One stream should focus on the domain of application. This will often be business, but there are interesting opportunities in fields such as health and biology. The other stream should focus on professional preparation in computing with a heavy emphasis on best practices and standards of practice.

The ideal mix of domain knowledge and professional knowledge will vary with position. There will always be some heavy professional programs, often jointly offered by university computer science and engineering departments. Most of these will lead to a degree in software engineering. Graduates will be expected to be up on the best practices and applicable theory. This preparation will be appropriate for no more than 10 per cent of future positions.

Degree programs that address the application domain as well as technical subjects will be ideal preparation for most professional IT employment — and these will often turn out to be dual degree programs. Innovative programs of this kind are being developed by Ontario colleges and are being discussed by universities in the province. Similar programs will be offered across Canada, and they will be appropriate for 85 per cent of future positions.

There will continue to be a need to prepare students for the academic study of computing — and computer science is ideal for that purpose. Such programs are important for the future of the field, but will not prepare students for more than five per cent of future positions.

Fabian is a senior management and systems consultant in Toronto. He can be reached at [email protected].

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