Building the next 'geek generation'

Are we doing what we can to cultivate the future geeks, some of whom will turn a coding or hardware "hobby" into the next HP, Apple, or Google?

While I've largely departed from my technical roots of programming and hardware work and moved toward the "advisory" side of IT services, I occasionally like to reestablish a connection to my inner geek. The programmers in the room will likely laugh, but a couple times a year I'll crank out an Excel or Outlook macro and bask in my programming "savvy" when the thing mostly works after an extensive effort on my part, one that would likely take a "real" programmer all of four minutes.

This week I replaced a dying "major brand" desktop with one I built, something I haven't done in years. Thankfully for me and my atrophied skills, building a modern computer is a fairly easy task, and gone are the days of setting IRQs, adjusting tiny jumpers (especially troubling to anyone with normal adult-sized hands), and configuring a raft of expansion cards to get basic functionality that today is built in to the motherboard. Unfortunately, the economic benefit to a home build is long gone, and off-the-shelf computers are actually cheaper, but there's a nice sense of accomplishment to turning on a machine that you built and watching it fire up successfully. There's also an opportunity to customize the system to your exact requirements, in my case I wanted a powerful, but nearly silent, machine, an objective that still seems a bit distant considering the howl of fans not too far from where I currently sit.

As I made the final cable connections on my new desktop, I began to consider the state of technology and wonder whether we're cultivating the future geeks, some of whom will turn a coding or hardware "hobby" into the next HP, Apple, or Google. Ask industry leaders and most would tell you that we are not building this next generation, and they would place the blame squarely on schools and a lack of "STEM" (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education. While it may be comfortable to put all the blame on the heads of teachers and universities, I don't think a solution to the problem is that easy.

Fundamentally, technology has taken an interesting and paradoxical path. As technology has permeated our lives and offered a massive array of functionality, it has grown superficially more user-friendly, yet dramatically more complex behind the scenes. Whereas you were once a blue-blooded geek for owning a computer, most households now have several, and UNIX-based operating systems, once the province of true nerds, now power popular smartphones present in pockets everywhere. While my 20-month-old son has figured out the fundamentals of operating mom's iPad, most of the population has no idea how these devices work on even a conceptual technical level.

On one hand, this seems like good news to the technical professions. Technology is now mainstream, and with a proliferation of complex devices, presumably a cadre of skilled technicians will be required to develop, support, and maintain them. Where I think the profession is missing the mark is by placing all its faith in STEM-based education. Put yourself in the place of a young person considering a future career. In one corner there might be a role in health care, with an arduous but interesting educational path followed by the chance to save lives and cure disease. Many of the business-related professions promise financial reward and dealings with interesting clients and customers while solving the complex problems one reads about on the front page of the Journal. The arts carry dreams of impacting humanity and personal fulfillment. I believe presenting technical careers as years of complex mathematics courses short sells the profession and turns off an entire generation of potential IT workers, while also not necessarily equipping them well for a technical career where problem solving and creativity are far more relevant skills than Differential Equations 101.

Few people actually use the higher mathematical courses in their day-to-day IT jobs, and most of us would be better served by an emphasis on problem solving and rapidly learning new technologies and processes, since what we learn in school is likely outdated by the time we graduate (says the "expert" Pascal programmer). Academics tell us that the courses teach us "how to think," and while there's certainly some validity to that assertion, a class where students attempt to make a smartphone talk to a coffee maker or some similar stunt would encourage thinking and likely be more attractive to someone who might otherwise choose a nontechnical career. Industry also needs to better communicate that there's more to IT than sitting in a cubicle, filing TPS forms.

At the end of the day, what keeps me excited about my career is that it has been far more than bits and bytes, and we are doing ourselves a disservice by short selling this profession and the wealth of experiences it offers.