How to Approach University Education for IT

How to Approach University Education for IT

November 18

All discussions of university versus non-university aside, once a university (or college as Americans generally refer to it) is chosen, the next step is choosing a degree program that will fulfill the needs of our chosen profession. Of course, there are certainly situations where school is selected specifically because of the degree program. In any case, whether you’ve picked a school or not, it’s essential to consider the proper program for a path toward a successful career in IT.

University programs can be problematic, especially in IT, because they are often mislabeled; students often don’t know which area of study they are interested in before beginning their studies and those pushing students towards university are often inexperienced in IT and do not understand the relationship between specific programs and the field itself. So those directing students towards university studies with the intention of a career in IT will often pressure them into university programs ill-suited to IT careers.

Two things we need to consider when looking to choose a degree program are: what universities are good at providing and what will be useful to someone moving into an IT careers.

Where do universities shine? The university system, its very core goals and values, are often completely unknown to the general public, which makes the broad use of universities a bit odd and problematic on its own. The university system is not typically meant to train students for specific careers but instead to introduce them to many concepts and foundational knowledge (not foundational industry knowledge you must note) and to force them to think broadly and critically (depending, of course, on the particular program and university). In this aspect, good universities usually shine.

It should be noted that some universities, including a very famous and well-respected US university on the east coast, openly stated that its mandate was not to educate or service students in any way and that students attended its schools solely to finance the professors who were its actual product—beware that your university choices see education as a goal, not a necessary evil.

Treating a university as a trade school is a fundamental mistake made by many, probably most, students. Course choices are not intended to be focused on specific skills that will be used “on the job,” but on skills that will make one a more generally useful member of society. For example, the intended use of a university is not to teach someone the specific ins and outs of managing Active Directory design on Windows Server 2016; that would be the job of a trade school. Instead, university programs are intended to be more broadly based such as teaching data structures, authentication concepts or even more broadly in areas like writing and communications.

A student leaving university is not intended to be ready to hit the ground running in a real world job; that is not a goal of the system. Instead the idea is that the student be well versed in the necessary skills to help them learn the specifics of a job or career and be overall better suited for it. It is not about speeding someone into a career but preparing them for a lifetime in the field at a heavy cost to the short term. The hope being that either the student has no concerns with finances (the traditional amateur system) or will make up for the cost (in both hard finances and in career setbacks) of university over the span of their careers. Understanding this is key to understand how to approach university education to gain the appropriate value that we seek.

Second, what is useful education for IT students? At an early stage in our careers, it is generally impossible to predict which skills are going to be the ones that we will need to leverage throughout our career lifespans. Not only do we not know what industry niches we will want to pursue, but we also have little ability to predict which skills will be needed or even exist in the future. And even furthermore nearly all people working in IT, if not every field, have little ability to totally pick and choose the area of technology in which they will end up working but will instead be required to learn the skills of the jobs that become available to them, moving through their careers more organically than in a specifically predefined way.

Because of this, as well as because of the university values mentioned above, focusing on specific technical skills would be almost wholly a waste during the university time frame. Of drastically more value to us are soft skills and more broad ones such as developing a great world view, understanding business and accounting practices and concerns, learning psychology and sociology, studying good management practices, communications and, probably above all, becoming well versed in both written and oral business communications. Companies hiring IT professionals tend to complain about the lack of these skills, not a lack of technical competence, especially in smaller businesses where nearly all IT practitioners have a large need to communicate effectively with end users and often even management. Having a broad understanding of other job roles and the overall workings of businesses has great value for IT practitioners as well. IT only exists in a business context, the firmer the grasp of that context the more value someone in IT has the potential to provide.

For the most part, what we want from our university experience actually lines up with what universities are best prepared to provide. What is least useful to us, throughout our lives, would be highly specific technical skills that are overly focused too early in our careers (or even before they have begun) and skills that would rapidly become outdated often even before leaving university.

So where does this leave us? First we should look at the broadest degree options. Whether we are beginning to look at Associates (two year) degrees or Bachelor (four year) degrees we generally have a choice of an “of Arts” or an “of Science” option and, in a few rare cases, an “of Professional Studies” option. Each of these is simply a point along a sliding scale with an Arts degree being the most liberal and focusing the least on the area of study selected. A Science degree is more focused and less liberal than the Arts degree. And the rare Professional Studies option is even more focused than a Science degree with very little liberal studies, basically the polar opposite of an Arts degree.

Of these degree options, almost universally I recommend the Arts approach. A heavy focus on specific skills is generally a poor approach to university for any degree field but in IT this is more dramatic than almost any other. Classes and coursework heavily specific are not generally useful with education becoming overly focused on a single area. A Science approach is a reasonable option, but I would lean away from it. The Professional Studies approach is a clear attempt to mimic a trade school program and should be avoided both because it is a very poor use of university resources as well as being so rare that it would require regular explanation whenever a new person encountered it.

Staying highly liberal with our studies provides the best overall benefit from the university experience. Not only does it let us best leverage what the university offers but it also gives us the best foundation for our careers. There is also a hidden benefit, and that is career risk mitigation.

Career risk mitigation here refers to our university training not being overly specific so that should we decide later that IT is not the field that we want to pursue or after some time that it is not the career in which we want to remain that our education supports that flexibility in an effective way. Perhaps our IT careers will lead us into management or entrepreneurship. Or maybe our IT experience will be in a field that we end up enjoying more than IT. Or we might live in a place where our IT opportunities are few and other opportunities exist. There are myriad reasons why having a broad, flexible education isn’t just the best for our IT careers but also the best for our non-IT careers.

Thinking about how university works and understanding its core goals and how they apply to ourselves is the first step in being prepared to leverage the university experience for optimum value.