Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Finishing School for IT?

I've just read another interesting article in TheStar about technology and education. According to our Minister of Higher Education, there is a shortage of skilled workers in ICT, making it difficult to expand this sector. As a solution, the government is allocating RM 15 million to train up to 4,000 students in this area.

It's not clear how the money will be used, from the article. The sum works out to about RM 3,750 per student. I'm not really sure how this amount of money is to be used. The Minister made this announcement in a certificate presentation ceremony for top students who had gained professional certifications from companies such as Microsoft, Cisco and Macromedia, which were run by Prestariang Systems Sdn Bhd.

Personally, and any IT manager will tell you the same thing, I feel that a truly skilled knowledge worker is not made, but born. Everything about computers is an art and you cannot teach art, no matter how hard you try. You can certainly teach the mechanics of it, computer system fundamentals, principles of software engineering and network management. Whether or not a person becomes truly good at it, is still dependent on that person, intrinsically. What people like the government can do is to provide a conducive environment to let the students develop and grow their skills, instead of preaching them the skills.

Professional certifications merely help a person get a job interview. The fact that these certifications are narrow in scope, means that a person has to get several certifications to be safe. I've personally been told of stories about computer science PhDs with dozens of certifications, not being able to write simple programmes during a job interview. For people like these, no amount of paper certification will help them get a job and that's the main trouble with much of our IT work force.

During my university days, it came of little surprise to me that most of the students weren't even able to code a simple Hello World programme even though they will end up as IT graduates. To many students, programming is a task that involves cut-n-paste from available source code. They're merely cheating themselves. To any skilled person, we'll know at a glance that a piece of code was copied instead of written. It is fairly easy to tell because like any other art, fakes are easy to spot with a trained eye.

I am hoping that the government will pump the money into actual skills training instead of blind certification. It is more important to give these students opportunities to do real work, than to get them to pass more exams. The money could possibly be used to fund projects like the Google Summer of Code programme, where students are paid to fix real problems in real life projects. This kind of experience is worth more than professional certifications when getting a job.

There are so many administrative problems in our government that can be easily fixed with the right tools and I've already blogged about some. This would be win-win situation for everyone involved. The student gets to showcase some concrete examples of his/her work and the government gets some administrative task automated at a low cost, without having to tender it out to some 3rd party that will get it done by interns anyway. Of course, not everything should be done like this, but there are really many basic administrative problems that will go away with the appropriate technology solution.

Alternatively, students should be encouraged to start off their own Open Source projects with their friends. It doesn't matter if the project is merely writing a simple application. What is important is to showcase the fact that the students are capable of actually producing working code, and able to work in a team, with it's inherent dynamics problems and administrative headaches. These are both better indicators of future job success than a gazillion amount of certifications.

So, I'm just hoping fervently that the government will do the right thing. Hopefully, the Higher Education Minister will be able to help fix some of the problems. We need to have skilled workers in this industry. Let's not depend on expats for everything.

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