Greg Day, CITPG

Stands for Chartered IT practitioner guy…

Was having a think about the NZ computer society’s new thing, professional certification program. Initially, I was sceptical, thinking “kids don’t go to accounting because they can be a CA, and they sure don’t study law because they have to sit a bar exam”.

Having thought about it some more… I am still sceptical. The NZCS (which I am trying to join, but don’t actually know anyone to recommend me, drop me a line if you do!) I believe correctly identify the lack of recognition of IT as a discipline amongst students and parents, and suggest that a professional qualification will help.

But I don’t think it will. Its too late in the food chain…

The problem for me is that kids (and parents) have no idea what a career in IT means. Why? They don’t understand the role of IT in society. Law? Easy, saw that John Grisham film with Tom Cruise. Medicine? I watch Shortland St, I get it. Accounting? Boring, but all about $$$. Engineering? Bridges and buildings right? IT… um. Computers. um. Hmm.

So theres the issue. Its not because of the lack of a professional standard, although Im certainly not suggesting thats a bad thing. Its simply because parents (and kids) do not understand what it means to be involved in IT. They are happy to be IT consumers, but the jump to IT producer is enormous, and there is no schooling structure to support it

How do we change this? Obviously, we moan to the government about how the current curriculum is inadequate (this is sarcasm). It is inadequate. Actually, it doesnt exist at all AFAIK. IT was never treated as separate from ‘technology’, which encompasses basically anything using some form of tool.

So theres a problem. Kids don’t get into CS because there is no CS to get into. It doesnt exist. Sure, there are things where you can learn Excel and Word, but I’m talking coding. Algorithms. Databases. AI. World changing,  speed. Power. *arf* (snorting like Tim Taylor in Home Improvement).

Thats right. The hard stuff.

So we need to change the curriculum. Number 1, and we need it soon. How will teachers cope though? Maybe IT practitioners should teach some of those classes, an hour or 2 a week, with some prep time? Why not? we can only productively work about 5-6 hours a day anyhow, it probably wouldn’t kill us. Industry needs to step up here.

We also need a change in perception of computing from geekdom to unlimited possibility, lots of money, travel, excitement employment and company starting. Another place where industry needs to help out.

And we need to get more girls involved. Every girl who takes calc or stats should be taking CS and thinking seriously about it as a profession. Why isnt this happening?

Love your thoughts.

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Greg Day, CITPG

8 thoughts on “Greg Day, CITPG

  1. I basically agree. I think there are two essential problems:

    1) IT is something that “other people” do. It’s for geeks and “computer geniuses” etc. Being an accountant or lawyer or doctor is something smart but otherwise normal people can do. They know this because the people on TV who are these things are smart but otherwise reasonably normal and wear nice clothes. IT guys however, even the nice ones, are always portrayed as outsiders. I think this is the core problem.

    2) High school calculus is quite hard. You spend years learning how to solve all kinds of problems using derivatives, and limits and algebra and all that. It requires some serious thought and study. Then you go to university and in first year programming you learn how to make a for loop count up to 10. Kids should have been learning that in 3rd form, not first year university. If programming was treated as a serious subject like calculus in high school there is no reason why students shouldn’t be doing what is now second year programming in the last year of high school.

  2. exactly. so is the problem simply the lack of the curriculum, and the lack of adequately skilled teachers?

    Is it really that simple?

    I suspect it might be actually. Calculus for example, was fairly well attended when I was at school, with generally fairly clever kids. Why? It wasn’t as if they were going to be mathematicians.

    And I remember first year uni comp sci. What a waste of a year. I even asked them to let me skip it, but… no. It was too difficult for them to understand.

    So, my proposed solution:
    Introduce a Comp Science subject as an option at year 9. Make it about the hard stuff. Teachers will generally not know this stuff, so their skillset needs to be supplemented by industry assistance. We talk all the time about Industry/University collaboration, why not Industry/Secondary School collaboration?

    An education campaign about computing. This is tricky. How to make computing appear, like “something smart, but otherwise normal people do”. But given that people have been convinced to buy triple whopper beef bacon stacks with extra cheese, it can’t be that hard.

    I just don’t believe certification “to make IT a real profession” cuts the mustard.

  3. Kerry says:

    OK here’s a repeat post:
    Regarding the comment about getting women into IT, I think you are looking in the wrong places. I’ve just shifted teams from a team of 14 (6 women) to a team of 11 (5 women + women manager).

    Regarding the curriculum, I trained as a technology teacher supposedly specialising in IT at the Wellington College of Education (now VUW) not so long ago (most of the technology trainees were IT focused). To be brutally honest, the technology curriculum has been captured by learning theorists who are focused on the idea of teaching problem solving as a generic skill divorced from the specific skills. This doesn’t just afflict IT, it also afflicts hard materials (aka metalwork and woodwork; aka workshop technology) – hence, the predominance of Unit Standards designed for polytechnic courses in that field.

    Unfortunately, there are no Unit Standards worth doing in the field of CS. The second problem is to do with the history of IT in schools. Originally it developed in most places out of Maths or Science departments – great for developing it from a CS point of view. But then the Typing departments updated to word processing and effectively co-opted the schools computers. So now most of the computing done in high schools is in the NCEA subject of Text and Information Management – essentially how to use Word, Excel, Powerpoint, Photoshop, Dreamweaver and Publisher. IMHO most of these should be taught at primary school and USED in the appropriate subjects: maths, english, art, etc – they shouldn’t have a subject of their own. CS has practically disappeared from schools – not because of a lack of CS knowledge amongst teachers in general (most maths and physics teachers would know enough), but because it is seen by those who have control of the computing resources (who generally have no programming knowledge, though they’ll claim that HTML is programming) as being too hard for the average student and, most importantly, because their aren’t the NCEA credits available in it (the Technology Achievement Standards carry low levels of credits for the work required and are high risk compared to other subjects). Junior school (years 9-10 – aka 3/4 form) subjects are generally tied to NCEA – few parents wants their child to spend time on subjects that don’t lead to a qualification (and don’t get me started on the whole learning vs qualifications thing), so CS won’t make it into the junior school anytime soon except as a lunchtime computer club thing run on a teacher’s own time (and the problem of filtering out those who only want to play GTA kills that usually).

    Another argument is that most programmers learnt outside of school and that hasn’t harmed them – in some ways programming is better off for only having the people with the get up and go to learn for themselves. (The counter-argument is that this restricts access to the profession by those from lower socio-economic backgrounds.) The latest Listener has an article on PE in schools where John Reid, the cricketer, argues that too much structure is being imposed too early. He argues that most kids used to start off with pick up games for FUN, and often only entered organised sport at 10 or older. To my mind, similar arguments can be used with computers – let kids play around with them, if they spend enough time playing they will encounter programming naturally and if it interests them there are plenty of resources available for free to get them started. It’s a bit like Paul Graham’s mantra about creating products by solving a user’s problem – when a kid encounters a problem/need that can be solved with a little javascript and they solve it, they have taken a first step to becoming hooked.

    Regarding certification in general: when your industry thinks it needs certification that is a sure sign that the industry has become taken for granted and is on the road to low pay at most levels (witness accounting and law, where only the top tier rake it in). And when did you last hear about the fashion industry talking about the need for certification? Many of the best programmers I’ve worked with have no formal qualifications but do have a lively curiousity and a desire to learn. Rather than certification, you might want to explore the craftsmanship pattern documented at
    http://softwarecraftsmanship.oreilly.com/wiki/show/home-page-for-white-belt

  4. hey kerry, thanks for that. I think its pretty rare to find women in IT, particularly in development roles, and very few who set out at Uni to work in IT. In my experience, most drift into testing/BA type work, and graduate to PM.

    Re: the curriculum, I agree. It appears to be completely useless for CS. However, that has been the case since I was at school. No one who knew anything about computers did Computer class. But its a good point about the NCEA risk/reward structure, I hadn’t thought about that.

    I do have a problem with “let kids play around with them, if they spend enough time playing they will encounter programming naturally”. Im just not convinced it is the case. The problem is the rate of technological advance. In my day, way back in the 80’s, programming was easily accessible. Computers had BASIC built in, you just started typing. And the games weren’t that great, so it was easy to get bored.

    Now, the games are like GTA IV, hours and hours and hours of classy entertainment. And if you finish? Buy a cheap $20 game off trademe. Wheres the incentive to program? And… even if you did have some incentive, its hard to get started without some reasonably knowledgeable assistance. Could you expect a 10 year old to install Java/C#/Ruby et al and become productive? Probably not.

    So we agree there is a problem, but… whats the solution? I think the fundamental problem was what Shane pointed out. IT should not be what “other” people do. It should be what “I” could do if I wanted to.

    To do that, kids need early exposure to it beginning at least at year 9. To do that, teachers need help from people who know about this stuff. I’d be willing to give up some hours per week. To do that, the curriculum needs major overhauling and the risk/reward issues you point out need fixing.

    But to go back to the point of the post… I cannot see how certification helps any of that.

  5. Kerry says:

    Have you seen Nat Torkington’s write-up of what he has been doing with a school up North? See http://radar.oreilly.com/archives/2008/05/teaching-kids-programming.html
    I think the age-group he’s working with is the one to target – based on my experience teaching, once they’re year 9 (aged around 13) it’s too late to really work against adult expectations (and this is an issue – back in the 80s if you’d wanted to be an artist or dancer most parents would have tried to get you to do accounting or something so you could have a real job), peer pressure to be cool (game development and film CG is cool – but they need to be able to show something substantial to their mates, which is a big ask) and the whole NCEA thing. If a significant group develops at a pre-high school age doing programming and wanting to continue it then parents (thru BoT) will demand that something be developed for them in NCEA. Without the demand nothing will happen as other demands will seize the resources (eg languages or sports science).

    As an aside, the biggest problem with certification is that it creates and in-group vs out-group situation and hence will artificially create the shortage it is trying to solve (thus justifying special quotas for ‘certified’ immigrant programmers or, worse still, out-sourcing overseas). I agree completely with you that certification will not solve any of the problems that NZCS think it will (and how many active commercial programmers, as opposed to academics, project managers or CIOs, are members of NZCS? I suspect they are a tiny minority, but I could be wrong.)

  6. Kerry says:

    Check out http://redsquirrel.com/cgi-bin/dave/started.programming.html
    There seems to be a meme of sorts going around about people explaining how they got into programming. A common theme from the few I read was that they all started then stopped when they found they couldn’t do anything really interesting, then picked it up again with the advent of HTML which drew them into web programming and the possibility of doing interesting things with it.

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