A technology skills panel which convened at the recent Red Hat Summit in Boston consisted of the following key personnel:
Ken Goetz, VP, Training Services, Red Hat
Jan Mark Holzer, manager, Software Engineering & consulting engineer, Red Hat
Tom Callaway, manager, Software Engineering & team lead, Education Outreach, Red Hat
These executives answered questions from the audience regarding the current technology skills gap in the tech industry, what needs to be done, and what Red Hat is doing to help fix this through educational endeavors.
Ken Goetz stated: "The pace of IT has accelerated and created a gap between skills demanded by employers and those currently taught in modern educational institutions. The pace has accelerated and continues to do so in the areas of mobility, big data, DevOps, containers, microservices, etc. Digital transformation — which is actually skills transformation too - has become imperative for companies to be able to compete. The gap is so much more germane and relative now than in the past, and so companies have to make the digital transformation to stay relevant."
Partnering with universities
Red Hat works in conjunction with Boston University to help bring in new technologies to train students and accelerate research capabilities. It's the evolution of a process they've undergone for years, partnering with schools such as the Rochester Institute of Technology, the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Duke University, and the University of Colorado at Boulder to give students the opportunity to become exposed to open source concepts and technologies.
Red Hat's efforts with BU have benefited students who are very eager to learn about new technologies that they don't have access to in their university curriculum, a program that focuses on classic technologies and architecture since colleges frequently have challenges keeping up with the pace of modern technology due to financial limitations or lack of trained staff. This leaves graduates unprepared for real life.
"We see a lot of self-learning, hands-on technology, and the building of relationships with engineers," said Jan Mark Holzer. "On the other side, the faculty is interested in bringing in better ways to adapt to new technology." This involves new applications, languages and toolkits to help students work across the technology stack. These provide students with real-world experience needed to attract interest from employers. In one noteworthy example they helped Children's Hospital to reduce the time it took to render X-ray images from hours to seconds via an improved application. In another example involving OpenCloud and OpenStack, students developed a parallel implementation of a caching technology which outperformed Red Hat's own implementation by 50%. The students then committed the code to an upstream repository afterwards so others could benefit from it. As Holzer put it, "code speaks more than any written letter you have for an employer."
New technology and processes are important, but the skills to adapt quickly to change are also vital for student success in the workforce. Students should ask themselves, "How can I learn more in a much shorter time?" That's where Red Hat is bringing value, not just on the student side but also the research side. Open source can provide much faster solutions than classic university research. Lots of opportunity to work with open source vendors and focus on concepts such as lifestyle, agility and innovation can bring interesting research and resilient plans with other users in the open source community."
Tom Callaway stated: "There's lots of discussion around DevOps In the industry. Schools often treat computer science and IT operations as separate disciplines, whereby computer science is like a peer science; it's never applied. That's like training to be a chef and never cooking a meal - you can't learn concepts without applying them to see the results. Companies want problem solvers who can use available technology or who can change the technology to meet the needs of the customer." Modern DevOps or cloud environments, for example require knowledge of real-world implementations and use cases. It's very important to have hands-on technology for learning and access to systems to deploy and set. This can be costly and time-consuming with software licenses but Red Hat doesn't face that issue with open source.
Goetz observed that projects worked on even three or four years ago would now be considered outdated and the point of supplemental education is to become exposed to new and different things which come out every year.
Holzer replied: "A certificate isn't the most important thing; it's the knowledge behind it. In the example involving OpenStack caching, the students involved graduated our training and 80% of them had a job offer on their first interview."
Goetz added: "Our Red Hat certificates are 100% performance-based. We don't certify you unless you've done the tasks. It's like getting a certification to fly a plane — you have to actually fly a plane. Other certification tests involve things like multiple choice questions which are not as effective. Students demonstrate to us what they've learned to confirm they have a higher generation of skills. We do this not just as a service to students looking to differentiate themselves, but also for employers so they can locate the right talent."
Introducing students to computer science before college
The next question was: "What do you think organizations can be doing to reach a younger audience below the university level to teach them some skills at a younger age and face the problem earlier on?"
Callaway observed that there is a culture problem in the United States whereby computer skills aren't being introduced until high school. Colleges then must face incoming freshman who arrive without the skills to even finish a basic computer science class. This has become more and more of a problem; fifteen years ago they didn't need to teach these basic classes since that involved common knowledge students already possessed.
"We need to make students aware how technology works, not just that technology is a thing to use," he said. "We got a bunch of middle school girls to build a camera using Raspberry PIs which they coded using Python. Then they took pictures around Boston to match up with Emily Dickinson poetry lines and they created a collage with those. Before this project, they had seen a computer but never what was inside it; it was just a black box. Students need to understand what is happening within the technology that makes their world work and how can they be part of our community. They should not just buy technological products but learn to make them better. Providing opportunities to understand how technology is built and how they can participate in the process is so powerful."
The panel then focused on the disparity between men and women in technology and what universities or companies do to bring more women into technological fields.
Callaway: "Women tend to drop out of computing programs fairly early on. There are studies out there to figure out why this is happening, but I believe it's because computer science is taught as a set of abstract concepts - a focus on operating systems, databases, etc. It's not as interesting for women who care more about using technology to make the world a better place, or to build something physical and real.
Red Hat offers a program called Professors Open Source Software Experience intended to train educators on how to bring in open source software of a humanitarian type. For instance, projects to track refugees in war/disaster zones, map streets in developing areas or track medical records in countries without the budget to afford expensive medical record systems. When students build software through these engagements the number of women who enter the technology field is significant.
The next question focused on employee retention post-training.
Goetz: "We are often train enterprises and it's funny how many say they don't want to invest in certifications but will pay for training. Why would you not want to invest in validating the skills they've acquired? Some of them are caught in this loop of worrying that if they invest in an employee's certification they'll lose the employee to a competitor. There is so much competition for certifications. The IT unemployment rate is effectively zero so companies are locked into this competition. Hiring is extremely costly - recruitment is expensive for instance."
Goetz added that companies face a classic choice of renting outside talent or building inside talent. Renting can be more convenient but also more costly; it's a short-term solution only. With that in mind he recommended companies "build a culture of pervasive learning. Companies that can show they can innovate better than the competition are those that have built this culture. It's a perpetual mindset and culture, not something you do when the budget allows. Part of this is a culture that accepts failure. Some of the best learning involves soft skills like learning to fail. You learn from your failures. In general, creating that culture gives you continuous learners and therefore continuous innovators."
They were then asked: "Are you seeing any trends with training or certifications? More DevOps for instance?"
Goetz agreed that, "DevOps is the fastest growing part of our portfolio. "Their Ansible training footprint doubled in the past two quarters as well. OpenShift training is now one of their top courses. They still perform consistently large amounts of of Linux training, especially among Windows system administrators transitioning to Linux. More and more workloads are moving to Linux and therefore more and more people are rescaling themselves to a Linux environment.
Goetz:"A survey looked at the top paying DevOps skills and the number one was Ansible. It involves all the tools you can use in a development environment. All the jobs associated with the DevOps family are probably of the highest growth. The traditional job role involves a breakdown between operations and developer but more and more barriers are being broken down. Each side needs to know what the other is doing and it's hard to predict which jobs will be around in five years."
Holzer stated: "I'm not sure there's a single job going away except maybe tape operator. It's the rate of learning and adapting to change which is the key. People with those skills will always be around and will have great jobs. People who just run operating systems or file systems will not have as much of a driven career; a broader portfolio in skills is needed. You need an architect-like experience and how to understand real life problems and solve them to be successful."
Callaway: "One of the things I tell students is we know you'll get a technology education. We're looking for what goes above that - soft skills; the ability to tackle challenges, solve problems and collaborate effectively. Over 10 to 15 years, you can adapt to fill a need — to say, "Yes I have background experience; I haven't done this specific task but I know I can handle it."
The final question: "Is there an area or country that does a better job of bridging the skills gap or is the United States the best?"
Goetz: "Some other countries do it better than in the US. I see how all the different markets work. No country does it better than India. India has the traditional post-secondary institutions as well as a massive network of for-profit institutions that cater to developing supplemental skills industries are looking for. There is an expectation from students that's where they need to go. There is so much competition for work in India and students aren't getting everything they need so they take advantage of this network of institutions. Their government is also very proactive; they make the investments to fuel this.
We need to place a value on this method. It doesn't have to be governmental, but can be enterprise-level. Enterprises need to assess if they have the talent to do what they need. Go to any CIO study and they always talk about security and cost as concerns while talent falls somewhere below those. It shouldn't be that far down, it should be number one. Companies which use a holistic view and a pervasive culture of learning can excel."
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Scott Matteson is a senior systems administrator and freelance technical writer who also performs consulting work for small organizations. He resides in the Greater Boston area with his wife and three children.