Saturday, December 01, 2007

What IT Wants

I had the opportunity to participate in a panel discussion at Regis University on Thursday night titled “Preparing the Next Generation of IT Workers: A Challenge to Business, Government and Education.” I was a little nervous about participating for several reasons. This is not something I’ve really done before and the other panelists were from Oracle, WTS, Regis, and Metro Denver WIRED, and it was sponsored by IBM. We had an opening presentation by Dean Tucker, author of The Challenge: Managing in the Information Age and the soon to be published book Using the Power of Purpose: How to overcome bureaucracy and achieve extraordinary success! - I wasn’t quite sure how well I fit in. And, since I agree about 97% with what Chris has said about our purpose (I try not to agree with anyone 100%, just to protect their reputation), I was a little worried I might get things thrown at me.

It turned out pretty well. Here are a few things I wrote down that these folks said. First, from Dean Tucker:

In talking about Gen X and Gen Y, they are in search of “continual learning opportunities”; and, you can’t make them drink the water, but all you have to do is explain to them why the water is important. [I’d say the same is true in education.]

A lot about flattened hierarchies in business; everyone equal and also everyone with equal responsibility. [Shouldn’t our students be given responsibility as well?]

That you need transparency and that everyone is an owner; that people closest to the situation make the best decisions. [Perhaps teachers and students, not just politicians?]

That the best way to maximize your company’s success in the long term is not to make profit the primary goal of the business, but to have a higher purpose. The most successful companies have profit way down the list of priorities. [Don’t make test scores - or preparing students for the workforce - the primary purpose of education.]

That you should believe the best about people, not the worst, and quotes the Nordstrom employee handbook: “Use your good judgment. There are no other rules.” [Reminds of some of my Internet filter posts.]

One slightly disconcerting note, however. After his presentation somebody asked where they could get his PowerPoint. “You can’t. I don’t do that.” It’s interesting how much that rubs me the wrong way. On the one hand I understand – he has a book coming out and probably paid speaking engagements, but still . . .

Then from the panel discussion (there was a lot more to write down, but since I was focusing on not making a fool of myself, it was hard to listen, speak, and write things down), here are the key things they want to see from students/future employees:

  • Leadership.
  • Teamwork.
  • Critical Thinking.
  • Self-Directed.
  • Make mistakes, lots of mistakes, just make sure each one is original.

Sounds a lot like the business panel discussion we had back in June.

Then quite a few folks came up afterwards to talk with me. Now, this may be somewhat of a self-selected group because they chose to talk to me after hearing my viewpoint on things, but they pretty much agreed with what I had to say. Here are the highlights of what I said from the notes that I worked from (or at least tried to say, I think I got most of this out):

What does an ideal graduate from your school look like?

  • Passionate about learning.
  • Self-directed, motivated.
  • Curious.
  • Creative.
  • Global perspective. De-centered – focus on others.
  • Tech enabled.
  • Has their own Personal Learning Network and is actively nurturing it.
  • Understands that working on problems that haven’t been solved is what real people do, not following step by step procedures. Be problem solvers. Also problem finders.
  • Able to be given a “big picture” overview of an assignment and go for it without a lot of direction.
  • Collaborative.
  • Learn how to learn.
  • Don’t stop at the first right answer.
  • Producers, not just consumers.

How do high schools and colleges ensure your curricula meet the needs of business?

We don’t, we meet the needs of kids. But if we truly do that, we will meet the needs of business. So if you’re talking about STEM as an example, we make math and science interesting and engaging, kids really doing math and science not just learning about others doing it. Kids doing meaningful, relevant, engaging, significant work that makes a contribution, then we’ll have kids that will be able to meet the demands of business.

What are your institutions doing to increase the pipeline of IT students?

Again, we’re not. Not directly. We’re doing our best to prepare students to be successful learners, citizens and human beings in the 21st century. If we do that, they’ll be plenty of folks to choose from in IT.

What does education need to help us with this?

  • Time. Time for staff development, collaboration, learning. Less focus on testing and more focus on learning/thinking/doing.
  • More on-going, sustained interaction with folks from IT, not just career day (although that’s good, too), but working week after week, month after month, year after year with teachers and students in classrooms (and bringing teachers/students to the work site to do meaningful things).
  • Show students the creative, purposeful side of IT. Don't necessarily focus on the tech, focus on what you can accomplish with the tech - what cool things can you do, interesting problems that you can help solve for people.

There was definitely an anti-testing (in its current form) sentiment among the folks that talked to me, much more of a focus on meeting the needs of kids. But, again, this was the ten or so people out of about forty-five that came up to me, so I don’t want to read too much into that.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t pass along this message – they are desperate for IT workers. They say they have thousands and thousands of unfilled job openings in Colorado, and hundreds of thousands across the U.S. And that it’s only going to get worse with a wave of boomer retirements. They said the portrayal of dot com bust and outsourcing is killing them, and they want parents and students to know that there are plenty of good IT jobs available. And that IT jobs are not just sitting and coding (although there is some of that), but that it can be very people oriented, very creative. In fact, they phrased it as, “Think of IT workers as being creators, not mechanics.”

All in all, an interesting experience. Thanks to Regis for hosting it and inviting me to participate.


  1. Fascinating, Karl--thanks for sharing.

    I think it's so important to have these real conversations with business. For too long, schools have been isolated academic entities.

    I don't mean that I think the sole purpose of schools is to educate students for the workplace at all, but I think it's good for all of us, in all venues, to be having these conversations about education, and what all of us can do to contribute.

    Sounds like you did an excellent job of conveying the 21st century students you all are supporting at your campus.

    Hmmmm, can I move to Denver?

  2. @Carolyn - Hmmmm, didn't you tweet that you wanted to experience some snow? While we don't get a ton down here on the plains, we get more than you do! I could sure use a partner . . .

  3. I passed this along to my college students that are trying to decide on a career path. Many have "written off" the computer science fields because they have the impression that there are no jobs there.