Post University CIS Advisory Board Meeting 2020

Today I participated in an annual advisory board for the CIS department at Post University in Waterbury, CT, as I have been privileged to do since 2016. I’ve written up my suggestions here and here when they’ve been extensive and unique enough, and I felt that my observations were sufficiently extensive to merit another write-up this year.

I’ve been impressed with the efforts the Post U CIS department has taken to solicit and, more importantly, act on the feedback they receive. They have absolutely added courses and redirected things per inputs from the board meetings. One of the most interesting aspects of Post’s educational offerings is that the majority of students take the majority of their education online. This is particularly interesting given the ongoing economics of higher education, which sees the value proposition rapidly declining for many schools as prices rise and the value received often falls. It is also interesting as the industry landscape seems to change more quickly every year (to the point where it was suggested that to board meet twice a year instead of just once), there are more online educational offerings than ever, and online information exchange and interaction is absolutely vital given the current troubles raised by COVID-19 and other current events.

One of the first subjects that came up involved certification. Most of the conversation centered on helping students achieve certifications in specific technologies (e.g., AWS, especially since Amazon seems to be looking for partnerships with technical schools). My certifications, of course, are all in more abstract, management and process-related areas (business analysis, which the board has emphasized in the last couple of years, project management, which was discussed a lot this year, Agile/Scrum, and process improvement / Lean Six Sigma). It’s an interesting dichotomy, because specific technologies come and go (though some obviously last longer than others), while the basic concepts of analysis, integration, collaboration, and management tend to be more evergreen (though new ideas come and go, they are often repackagings of old truths). The difference over time is the greater scope, scale and complexity of the projects taken on and the systems deployed over time.

I noted that it’s easier for students to complete certifications in specific technologies than it probably is to earn meaningful ones in the abstract subjects, many of which require significant working experience to appreciate on the soft side and which can have specific requirements for hours in a role on the hard side. You have to document 5000 hours in a project management role before you can even sit for the PMP, for example. The IIBA’s certifications for business analysis, by contrast, offer tiers requiring 0, 2000, and 5000 hours. At the least I’d like to to make students aware of the classes of abstract certifications that exist, and also repeat my recommendation that students complete team projects that demonstrate and give experience in analysis, collaboration, planning, and management concepts.

The university participants shared a diagram that attempted to place a lot of different ideas in context, like basic computing skills, data, and so on. Security seemed important and intertwined with all areas. Different aspects of communication and organization were shown in an outer, bounding frame, and the end result of the process was the creation of business value, which was shown at the top of the bounding frame.

One can always think of different ways to draw diagrams, but it seemed to me that all of the standalone concepts shown in the middle of the diagram could as easily have been represented as a classic Venn diagram with a high degree of overlap of all the circles. Each area incorporates its own unique skills (the non-overlapping parts), but they have to be integrated to provide value, and that integration (the overlaps) has to happen in an iterative, empathetic, and inclusive way.

Another thought I had was that education is becoming more granular and modular and less monolithic. Many companies in the tech space are relaxing their requirements for degrees in favor of candidates who can demonstrate specific skills and the ability to apply them. I started with a BS in Mechanical Engineering (which included probably as many or more computing courses as anyone who graduated with an engineering degree at that time) but have completed numerous online courses in the past few years. This is in addition to classes and study required to earn my certifications. The difference between practitioners, and between educational institutions, is in the amount of underlying theory and integration they understand and apply. No one expects Post University to operate at the depth of an MIT or Stanford (and I’m guessing Post is more affordable and provides a much better value proposition for most students), but some emphasis should be placed on where everything comes from and how it all fits together. Emphasizing a certain amount of theory and integration will give Post’s programs and students a distinct competitive advantage.

As I mentioned above regarding management, the problems addressed in computing are also evolving through long cycles. One example is that computing used to be very centralized with monolithic machines running one process at a time. That model evolved into highly distributed time-sharing systems. Then came desktop computing and a return to standalone operation, and then came networking and the internet. This is also happening in standalone devices that do physical things like take pictures or operate vehicle systems, but vehicles increasingly integrate disparate sensors and actuators and the oncoming Internet of Things will only take that farther. Students and new graduates entering the workforce should have some appreciation that they’re walking into a conversation that’s been going on a long time.

I may have suggested this before, but it might be a good idea to include instruction on different kinds of computing architectures. I know you do some of this, especially regarding cloud computing as an example, but I’d like to suggest specific instruction on microservices, devops, release chains, and so on, if you aren’t already. A large number of organizations seem to be working on similar models. Giving instruction on specific testing and deployment tools like Postman and Jenkins (among many, many possibilities) may also be a good idea.

A lot of hiring managers want to hire the hot new things who know the latest tricks but, as the group discussed, the best ones understand the larger picture and can continually grow and adapt. A problem is that specific, objective skills are easy to assess and understand, and the soft, integrative, contextual skills are much more difficult to assess, understand, and sell. (I’ve had a huge problem with this. I also note that, despite claims that there are zillions of unfilled jobs, the hiring process is often massively broken. Check almost any online conversation on LinkedIn and the like, but that’s a separate conversation.)

In order to keep students engaged and to offer them ongoing support and interaction that allows them to share what they’ve learned, you might want to create some sort of discussion and news forum for students and alumni. You might also solicit articles and links to subjects that might be of interest. This might be reinventing the wheel, it might not be practical for such a large number of participants, and it always bears the risk of people getting into (seemingly inevitable) fights about politics. In any case, the best students and workers will always continue to study and adapt.

Another subject addressed during the discussions was that of attracting non-traditional students to the program and to the profession (and keeping them). There are many reasons why the field doesn’t appeal to everyone, but emphasizing the integrated and collaborative nature of solving complex problems, rather than just the hard-tech, gee-wiz-ardry of it all, might help some. There’s a need and a niche for the lone genius in a remote garret someplace, but most people aren’t set up to work like that and they generally aren’t as effective as they could be. I can tell you from experience that the group dynamic is what will make or break any project or organization. (That said, groups can also unfairly — and incorrectly — ignore and steamroll individuals, so there has to be a balance.) There is also a long, not sufficiently well understood history of different kinds of people working in computing, which a few inspiring — and maddening — recent movies have highlighted. You might be able to leverage those stories. I’m guessing you already do some of this, but that’s what I have to add.

Thanks very much to Post University and the other board members for inviting me to participate once again.

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