IT in Education.

25mar99: Ben Daglish: Golden rule for IT managers: "Never hire the graduate."

I'm lucky enough to be part of the 'lost boys' - the children who got the first generation microcomputers in their Christmas stockings. Once Uncle Clive had shown us the way with the ZX80, and before the market polarised into Playstations for the kids and PC's for the moms and dads, we were the proud owners of these marvellous machines - VIC 20s, Spectrums, Dragons, MSX's, et al. - that were just designed to be big programmable calculators that plugged into the television. You could play games, run spreadsheets, the whole caboodle - but the point was that you HAD to know exactly what the machine was doing in order to operate the damm thing at all. And if you wanted it to do anything other than run the five examples that came with the box, you had to program it yourself.

Suddenly magazines full of BASIC listings came flooding onto the market, and a new breed of programmer was born - the hacker. The country was full of 12 year olds in their bedrooms writing assembly code, dissasembling ROMs and doing things with the machine that the manufacturers thought were impossible. Up until this point (approx 1980), computer programmers were maths graduates who got to actually touch a terminal only after ten years of training. Computers were million-dollar boxes that were to be treated with respect.

While in the fourth year, I formed a company with a few friends and a teacher, and we started writing educational software. Afer sixth form, I went off to University to study computing. I lasted a year. Not only was the standard of programming primitive compared to the standard of the software we had been writing, but I realised that I had probably written more programs in 4 years at school than any of the lecturers had in their lives - and I owned my own computer, rather than a timeshare teminal.

So I left and joined the games industry, which was chock full of people like me. The sad thing is that 15 years later, those lecturers are still there, up and down the country. Of course they have progressed, but unfortunately the IT revolution has progressed faster. One of my golden rules, and certainly one that still holds true for many IT managers, is "Never hire the graduate". Three years away from the real world gives one a handicap that is very difficult to overcome. Not only that, but the additional handicap of 'computing' being adopted as part of the mainstream school curriculum means that todays 'creme-de-la-creme' are leaving campus not knowing how many bits are in a byte. Just think. Who imparted the 'necessary information' to the school teachers about what should be in the National Curriculum Computer Studies?

There actually was an 'A' level computer studies course at our local college when I was in the sixth form. I took the exam without going to any of the lessons, and got an 'A'. It was a joke - questions about hardware that was already extinct and programming problems that could have been solved by a chimpanzee. (In fact, I subsequently wrote a letter of complaint to the examining board. One of the requirements of the exam was to use a GOTO statement - a practice frowned upon by the cogniscenti.) The point is I, and everybody who owned one of the mighty micros, had learnt the subject by ourselves. We knew who George Boole was, because we had to know how to perform Boolean algebra just to try to fit "Death Invaders" into 16K.

Nowadays though, George is up there with William the Conqueror and Samuel Pepys - just another boring Dead White Male that the teachers drone on about. Boolean algebra is something you get lectures on in stuffy schoolrooms while you'd rather be outside playing football. And whereas my mighty micro used to boot up in 2 seconds and be READY>, Bill's machines take 3 minutes to boot and a degree in Computer Science to operate. Now that's progress.

faxfn Note 1: Ben Daglish was one of the early staff at Gremlin Graphics - a company which specialised in computer games started in Sheffield some ten years ago. It was recently reported as being sold for just over 22m.

faxfn Note 2: Computer Weekly has run several pieces on IT graduates. The issue of 18th March 1999 has three articles on its front page about the "serious mismatch between the skills taught to IT graduates in universities and the skills business needs". The Alliance for Information System Skills is reported as saying "IT graduates are not getting into IT jobs and non-IT graduates are".

25mar99: Ben Daglish: From the pages of 'Computer Weekly', with annotations......

18/3/1999: 'Industry acts on computer skills'

The Alliance for Information Systems Skills, an umbrella group for IT employers and universities has 'agreed a series of urgent action points' to adress the current disparity between the skills provided by IT courses and the skills needed by the industry.

The Government's IT skills strategy group has identified this problem as 'one of the key barriers to growth of IT in the UK'.

'One of''???

18/3/1999: 'IT is "too uncool" for students'

The average university entrant has 19 A level points....the average IT entrant has 16....

......but cool enough for 14 year olds.....maybe that's why the best programmers go into the games industry.... instead of doing A level Computer Studies....

18/3/1999: 'IT degree courses not relevant to business, research finds'

Skills 99, a report produced by the Government, shows that only a third of graduate programmers have an IT-related degree. Arts and sciences graduates are twice as likely as IT graduates to be working in the industry.

...or those of us who dropped out....

18/3/1999: 'IT graduates lacking specialist skills and all round savvy, say employers'

"There is a significant shortfall between what universities and what employers would like"
David Burrows, skills & services development manager, Microsoft UK

"Industry is looking for PC skills - there would be some logic in seeing whether universities could achieve Microsoft accreditation"
Roger Ellis, group IT controller, Blue Circle Industies

"Universities need to get more of a balance between programming languages and PC skills...I know some IT directors who say they would not touch IT graduates with a barge-pole. What they learn at university they have to un-learn. It is much better to take on a biology student who may have better interpersonal skills."
David Taylor,head of IT directors group Certus

"We reject half our applicants because their application forms are so badly filled in. It is clear they do not have the right English skills to sit in front of a client".
Alistair Hardie, managing director, Softwrite.

University salaries start around 14,000 p/a - rarely rising above 30,000 - about half the average wage of a computer contracter. BTW - don't you love those snappy headlines?

1/4/99: 'Is bad management to blame for the skills crisis?'

In a well constructed article, Steve Browne, an unemployed computer contracter argues that inadequate management of the industry is as much to blame as the academic institutions. Not only are managers unwilling to fund training in 'relevant' skills, but they are also too driven by what they regard as 'the latest thing'. "I have seen adverts requiring two years experience of a product which had only been available for 14 months" says Steve. "It can be frustrating to be rejected for Oracle 7.3 jobs because you only have experience of 7.2"

It's not just the managers - it's the agencies through which most of us find the jobs. Having just secured another contract myself, I've spent the last three weeks explaning the difference between Java and Javascript to agents.

8/4/99: 'Skills crisis set to continue as more women spurn IT'

Women used to make up 29% of the industry 4 years ago - now it's 25%.

'Nuff said.