Skip to content

Ergo Sum

Personal tools
You are here: Home » Members » cmcurtin's Home » Educating for Life in Information Technology

Educating for Life in Information Technology

Document Actions
We're in the thousand years between no technology and all technology. You can read what your contemporaries think, but you should remember they are ignorant savages. --Marvin Minsky


Education is important to me personally. I don't mean simply that if asked on a survey whether it's important, I answer in the affirmative. I don't mean simply acquiring formal schooling for oneself. Nor do I refer particularly to training for some job or even career. I mean education, the combination of training, experience, and varied pedagogy that prepares its holders for life. No doubt I'll go on at length about education another time.

For the present, readers need know only that it is for the love of education that I offer my services pro bono to the Ohio Department of Education on its Information Technology Business Advisory Network. The group is made up of people from the business community who hire and manage technology people in our businesses; we help to create “tech prep” standards for secondary and postsecondary education. Present and future jobs require understanding technology; businesses here need a skilled local labor pool and keeping skilled labor here depends on businesses keeping them gainfully employed.

So understanding the world of technology for the present and future will be important if education is to be of value.

Evolution of Technology

Information technology has been progressing at a tremendous pace for the last five decades or so. Product after product has gone into the marketplace, ranging from hardware to operating system software and from application software to the communication systems to enable sharing of data among systems.

Of course, all of this release of technology products into the marketplace creates a side-effect in “generally available” technology: a new baseline in function. In most cases, this general availability refers not to a single specific product but to a function, a task that can be performed or a work product that can be created. As new technology enters the marketplace and the novelty wears off as other systems learn the new trick. In time, the technology simply becomes assimilated into our computer systems; the new functionality becomes an expectation of society.

The U.S. Patent and Trade Office was established for just this purpose: “to Promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts” as allowed by the U.S. Constitution. Patents allow an inventor to have a government-sanctioned monopoly on an invention for a period of time (presently twenty years) in exchange for publication of the invention's specifications, such that at the end of the monopoly period, anyone may recreate the product.

In an age of hyperspecialization, we have many different products to do essentially the same job. Sometimes one is implemented differently to avoid infringing on another's patent. Sometimes one is implemented differently to optimize for different criteria. Sometimes the systems are inherently complicated and not patentable in their entirety, so the available products wind up quite different from one another. Such is the case with computers today.


Electronic hardware progressed rapidly throughout the twentieth century, allowing hobbyists to dabble in such pastimes as radio: first with simple homemade crystal radio systems, then on to more sophisticated two-way systems including shortwave (ham), and citizens' band (CB). The rise in electronics and the availability of parts needed to build such things as radios helped to ensure that in the 1970s, groups of amateurs such as those that met as the Homebrew Computer Club would be well-populated. Some, such as Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, would go on to create companies like Apple Computer to sell their machines.

As the hobbyists' machines became available, another group of hobbyists and then ultimately professionals would come into being: the software developers. I don't mean to suggest that programmers did not exist before personal computers (in fact, programmers typically trace their lineage all the way back to Lady Ada, whose notion of hardware was radically different from our own). What I do mean is that the availability of hardware allowed more people to become programmers.

Programmers will cite a common experience: introduction to The Machine arouses a strong desire to understand how it works—an experience that can be contrasted with others, whose desire is to use the combination of hardware and software to some other purpose. Early examples include financial analysis with spreadsheets, composition with word processors, and organization of data with databases.

Becoming a programmer is hard work and it takes a long time. Just as authors must take the time to learn how to write well and think of something to write worth reading, programmers must take the time to learn how to program and then write something worth using. The process in both cases is largely the same: doing, a lot of doing.

The beauty of the home computer is that it made it possible for many of us to learn how to program while we were relatively young. In fact, I daresay that there are nearly as few good programmers who learned to program in college as there are good musicians who learned to play (or to compose) in college. The benefit of postsecondary experience tends to be exposure to more tools of the trade and the ability to spend more time with people who can serve as mentors, to guide one's own development. Each of us have had teachers, but the successful programmers are the ones who took the time between the visits of their teachers to develop ourselves. Perfection is likely unattainable in programming, but practice makes competent.

We practiced in the basements of our parents' homes, in our bedrooms, in libraries, in computer labs, and even in notebooks with pen and paper for entry into the computer when we could get to it—anyplace that we could program, we did. The world around us could not really see our focus, our drive, or our motivations. What the world around us could see is that we seemed always to be at the computer and any time that we spent away from the machine was spent reading or writing something that would be used with the machine later.

In the course of learning to program and continuing to tinker, we did many things to make our computers do things of interest. Some of us wrote programs to organize our programs. Others wrote programs to help our machines communicate better with other machines. Still others wrote games. Some wrote program loaders, and so on. Our parents and our schoolmates remember the hours and hours that we took to move blips around the screen and to transfer unseen data; at the time, they didn't understand why we bothered. We found ourselves the targets of insensitive remarks by people who thought we were wasting our time. In time, our programs got more sophisticated: the passion of amateurs was forged into the highly marketable skill of a gifted professional in the crucible of experience.

As the software that we produced became more widely available and to have a computer came to mean having a lot of software, yet another iteration of the process began. People learning the technology again began simply to use what was available to them: at one time, what was available was nothing more than electrical and electronic parts that could be turned into computers, then the computers were programmed to support more sophisticated operations, then those operational computers were designed to offer more sophisticated applications. Where the tinkerers of yesterday had to learn how to enhance the machine itself, the tinkerers of today now have no need to enhance the machine further: their purposes are far removed from computing.

Computing No More

Building things to run on electrical power has become sufficiently commonplace that it is now a discipline, electrical engineering. Building software to run on those machines has likewise become a discipline, software engineering, or sometimes computer science and engineering. The people who develop into each of these types of professionals are still among us: in absolute terms, I believe it safe to argue that they are growing, while in relative terms, they are rapidly being dwarfed by other users of computers. Now that hardware and software to do so many things are so widely available, many, many more people are using computers, and many of them have never had to learn how they work. The computer has always been a relatively complete package, albeit a customizable one, a tool that helps them to realize ambitions that have nothing to do with computing.

Today's tinkerers are no less (or more) legitimate than those of yesterday, but we have a very serious problem in our hands: the expectations of the career and life prospects for someone who spends hours at the computer have been set in an era very different from our own. It is no longer true that someone who spends many hours at the computer can expect to find a life's work in computing. Proud parents now often report how their children are “amazing with the computer,” but the fact is that they're often most impressed by things like the pictures, movies, and music that they can create.

Here lies the problem: because the tool used is a computer, too many people then expect to go into a career in computing. Many will even go on to additional technical courses or even to get degrees, having developed some basic competence in the routine operations and configurations of the systems. But computing is not their talent: the computer is their medium. The disciplines that these students should be pursuing are art, film, and music. No one wins by trying to make engineers of artists. Naturally, that now-minority that actually writes programs or actually creates new hardware should be recognized and allowed to develop into the engineers and scientists that we will always need.

Looking at careers that are available, we can see that knowing how to use the technology available has always been a critical factor in success. One cannot succeed as a carpenter by knowing how to use only a hammer. Looking at careers today, we find a common theme: much of the technology is becoming similar. Heating, Ventilation, and Air-Conditioning (HVAC) systems are no longer managed by mechanical or electrical control units: the systems are electronic and they have software that loads into them in order to support new functions. Automobiles are no longer strictly mechanical and electrical: the timing light and highly-attuned ear have been replaced with a computer diagnostic system. Nurses need to know not just how to take a pulse and fill out paperwork: recording, tracking, and assessing a patient's progress is now supported by computer systems. Computing technology is in the process of being assimilated into everything; as was predicted by our visionaries some thirty years ago, we will use tools always as we have but they will become smart, able to communicate with each other, calculate, and analyze—all according to the instructions encoded in their software supported by the nanocomputing hardware built into them.

My Kingdom for an Engineer

To understand a program you must become both the machine and the program. —Alan J. Perlis, “Epigrams in Programming”

Despite the fact that we who understand how the machines work have become a smaller and smaller minority of the world of computer users, the fact is that the need for us will not go away: society has become that much more dependent on the technology. The need for it to be conceived, developed, deployed, maintained, and managed has grown and will continue to grow.

My own firm, to cite an example, is not a technology company, per se; we're a professional services firm. In one practice area, we perform services for our clients that help them to understand how their systems are vulnerable to attack and how well they are managing risk in their information infrastructure overall. In another practice area, we work for attorneys involved in civil and criminal proceedings to find data relevant to their cases, to help them understand what the data mean, and to give testimony to that end where required by the court. None of these services could be performed without a thorough understanding of how the technology actually works, of what's going on under the proverbial hood.

That said, the reality is that many jobs that people have come to think of as IT require not knowing how the systems work internally, but how to make them work for a particular purpose.

IT Isn't Technology: IT Is Business

Often when I am interviewing “technical people” for jobs that require the skill and experience of an engineer, I find people whose qualifications are nowhere near what they believe them to be. I cannot help but wonder about someone who is confused about what his life's work actually is. You cannot possibly convince me that you “know SMTP” (the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol) as you claim if all you know how to do is unblock inbound TCP port 25 on a firewall so that email will flow inward.

I have neither desire nor intention to denigrate the people who configure firewalls and the other equipment that support the proper management of information throughout their organizations. What I do intend, however, is to point out that an evolution has taken place even within the computer systems themselves: what used to require an engineer to build and to maintain has now become so sophisticated that systems operation can be handled automatically, by business rules, or by an operator who simply knows how to use the interface. Operating email and directory systems requires no more understanding of how computers work than setting the configuration for a thermostat, driving a car, or reading an electronic medical record.

People who find that they like to enable others, who like to help information flow more smoothly, and who like to put the pieces provided by others together do well to recognize these talents and to put them to good use. These are perfectly legitimate and marketable skills—businesses of all types depend more than ever on technology and need people who can make the technology work for them. These talents, however, are very different from those that are developed by our programs to produce scientists and engineers.

Just as someone who has grown up using his computer to create music should recognize that he is not an engineer but a musician and plan his education appropriate, someone who has used his computer to manage information should recognize that he is not an engineer but an enabler for human processes and interactions. The educational path to follow is not engineering but business.

In a business curriculum, the skills of enabling will be developed. The study of capital shows how resources can be allocated and managed along with technology to enable organizations to achieve their objectives. The study of project management will help to ensure that efforts undertaken are given the support needed to succeed. The study of marketing will aid in understanding how to identify needs and how to communicate ideas back to the organization to be sure the technology is used most effectively.

And what of the engineer who is no longer required to operate the system? The shortsighted might say that he's out of a job, but the reality is that he is now free to build the next iteration of technology. Expecting to do the same thing over and over until retirement might be part of the plan of some engineers but the reality is that they're in a business context (for which engineering school has not prepared them) and the only way to ensure irrelevance and death in a marketplace is not to adapt.

Setting Expectations

Despite the mismatches that I see now and the frustration of people caught in the evolution of technology and the marketplace, I am optimistic. Our organizations and our workers need only to recognize what it is that they need and what they have to offer to see how to ensure that both will be productive, able to satisfy one another. Organizations will articulate what they need from a workforce and the kinds of careers (not jobs) that are available within them and the workforce will understand how its passions can be developed into the skills needed to ensure a lifetime of interesting work put to good use.

Created by cmcurtin
Last modified 2006-11-27 08:35 AM

This site conforms to the following standards: