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IT skills crisis? How coding and cool can crack it

Some deny its existence. Others can't agree on its nature. But regardless of your viewpoint on the IT skills crisis, a shake-up of certain attitudes could really make a difference.

The IT skills crisis is less to do with the quantity of candidates and more to do with the quality of their skills.

That was the conclusion of a recent TechRepublic CIO Jury analysis, which highlighted how IT leaders are concerned about the lack of young candidates with an aptitude for technology. So, how do you solve a problem like the IT skills crisis? Three experts offer their solutions.

1. Make computing cool

Paul Coby, IT director at retail giant John Lewis, admits he is concerned by the IT skills gap. He is chair of the CIO board of advisory body e-skills UK and wonders whether the upcoming cadre of IT graduates will satisfy economic demand.

The UK has a proud technological heritage, from the pioneering intelligence work carried out at Bletchley Park, to the first business computer in Lyons Electronic Office and on to Sir Tim Berners Lee's ground-breaking work on the World Wide Web. "IT is a UK success story but we really need to generate excitement about the future of technology," says Coby.

That failing, recognises Coby, is a significant part of the problem. While the younger generation is eager to get their hands on smartphones and social-networking apps, they are not necessarily as interested in the software that underlies such technologies.

Technology might have come out of the back office but in many countries, particularly the UK, IT is still too often perceived as the preserve of the uncool geek. A significant change in perception is required, suggests Coby.

"Why, given the position of UK IT and the great things we continue to do, isn't IT cool in Britain?" he says. "Why isn't IT revered, as it is in Berkeley, Beijing and Bangalore? IT isn't viewed as being cool among UK kids, but it should be."

Coby thinks we need role models. "We need to show how working in the cool areas of technology, such as the gaming industry, can provide a great and interesting career. Young people need to know that the cool stuff they use has come from somewhere. They need to know how IT is made."

And the simple fact, says Coby, is that being involved in the technology industry provides a great opportunity for any young person. "Working in IT means you can solve problems, invent new models and make business work much better," he says.

2. Listen to the demands of industry

London Business School professor Lynda Gratton has researched the future of work around the globe.

"The UK government has decided that dealing with the IT skills crisis is its challenge, but creating the right type of technology professional requires co-ordinated action," she says.

For context, she points to Asia and says her research work has helped to elucidate how a co-ordinated approach to education can produce business benefits. She says Indian firms, such as TCS and Wipro, engage direct with the education community and help ensure the right types of skills are embedded in the curriculum.

Gratton says the success of this co-ordinated approach means Indian IT companies are now advising the US government.

"The Indian story is inspirational," she says. "Intervention by industry has helped create the right type of training and developed a level of understanding that encourages people to learn."

Gratton's research has also taken her to other areas of Asia. In Singapore, for example, strong links between government officials, business executives and university academics ensure IT graduates have the right skills.

What emerges, says Gratton, is a continually evolving triangle of influence, where companies identify in-demand skills, government bodies provide relevant funding and end-user firms help hone specialist abilities.

"Maybe the triangle of influence is not working in the UK," questions Gratton, referring to concerns about the IT skills shortage. "Any country, or group of specialists, hoping to deal with a skills crisis really has to concentrate on building a case for intervention."

3. Get down and dirty with the code

Julian Self, group operations and IT director at real-estate information specialist IPD, says young people are interested in the benefits of technology but they are not necessarily interested in how or why an application works.

Creating a shift to an interest in the mechanics of IT will be tough. But Self, who operates at board-level for the global organisation, says a move towards the underlying mechanics of computing is essential for the long-term development of technology education.

Hope, he says, comes in the form of devices such as the recently released Raspberry Pi. The UK-developed single-board computer offers a platform for cheap programming, which many hope will inspire a new interest in computer science in schools.

"The Raspberry Pi brings back the memories of my early days of coding and I'd like to see my children do that, too. It was all new back then," says Self, who - like so many of his peers - looks back fondly to the Basic programming associated with early home computers, such as the BBC Micro, Sinclair ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64.

"Attempting to inspire an interest in computer science in education is a great idea. But it's crucial to think about how the curriculum could be changed because of the Raspberry Pi. If the computer is not used in schools, it will have little influence over higher education and the business workplace."

Self hopes a change towards back-end coding will help young people think more carefully about why technology works. The high-quality platforms associated with many modern programs means people can often create web sites and apps by simply dragging and dropping widgets.

While the results can be impressive, Self is concerned that too little thought is given to the clever coding supporting such automation. "If people knew how the underlying stuff worked, they could extrapolate and make changes for the benefit of business in other areas of IT," he says.

"The way forwards has got to be to get more people focused on the teaching of IT in the early years of development. Get young people interested in computer science as early as possible, because it's too late to start thinking about coding once people get to university. We all need to be a bit more primitive."

About

Mark Samuels is a business journalist and editor at IT leadership organisation CIO Connect. He has written for various organisations, including the Economist Intelligence Unit, Guardian Government Computing and Times Higher Education.

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