Friday, October 27, 2006

Silos and Sexiness 

Yesterday I attended a program presented by IBM to a number of Fortune 500 companies located in the Twin Cities. Also in attendance were representatives from four universities, public and private. The purpose of the meeting was to address the shortage of large system (main frame) computer programmers for all functions of these systems. The average years of experience on this platform is 20+ years; for some companies, the average is closer to 30 years.

IBM has developed a program whereby they are working with interested universities to provide access to programs and systems for interested students. This session was to begin a dialogue between the universities and corporations.

What was disturbing to me were comments made by various university representatives. A sample of these comments follows.
  1. The professor from the research institution kept telling people that students were not interested in mainframes, the jobs were boring. Yet he knew nothing of the current job opportunities, future potential, and the incredible capabilities and flexibility of today's MF computers.
  2. A professor from a university that offers a number of computer related degrees stated that he reviews the papers to find jobs available to computer majors. There were no MF jobs listed so they didn't teach the topics. When another professor asked the companies where they searched for job candidates, they replied: through search companies and on-line sources. This showed a major disconnect between the university and the source of jobs in this market.
  3. Another representative from a major university, said practically nothing.
  4. One let the audience know that universities are to impart knowledge, not skills. They are to teach critical thinking, not job skills.

As a result, I have a few thoughts. There is an industry crying for talented people. Yet, the academic environment is oblivious to the need. Who loses? Students - I simply do not believe that there are no students who want to learn how to harness the capabilities of these powerful machines. Taxpayers - they believe universities are providing options for the future but in this high demand area, very, very little is being taught. This omission could have major impact at a national level. The universities - they have an opportunity to provide programs, experience, and futures to students in an area that will always be in demand, yet the are not teaching it.

When I asked about these jobs going overseas (a complaint of the left), the reason given was simply that companies cannot find enough people stateside who know of and/or can be trained to take up these careers.

What can be done? As with most things, those hurting (in this case, companies) will have to take the lead. They will need to go to universities, get on advisory boards, and continue to make their case. They may want to consider scholarships to encourage students to enter this field.

The academics are focused on their own silos and refuse to look at other possibilities because they are not sexy.

As someone who was in the field for close to 20 years, I can say it is NOT boring and the opportunity to make a difference within and without an organization exists. Not only can a student have a very rewarding career, he will make an excellent living. If someone reads this and would like more information, please feel free to contact me.

King adds: Funny enough, I've just finished reading Silos, Politics and Turf Wars. The application of these principles to academia are manifold and daunting (at least to one department chair.)