Universities aim for more rounded IT grads

IT grads today have to be more well-rounded than those from five years ago. Offshore outsourcing has changed the rules, and business and tech schools are adjusting to help students "outsource-proof" themselves.

Remember back in the day when being an IT geek was enough? Those days are over, washed away by a tidal wave of offshore outsourcing that has taken thousands of jobs overseas where the labor is cheap, qualified and abundant.

Analysts, think tanks, corporate executives and even Chairman of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan have said that offshore outsourcing is a good thing for the U.S. economy and ultimately will create better jobs for Americans. But they also believe Americans need to be ready to fill those new jobs and that schools must arm students with the skills to compete in an economy where the only certainty is change that comes fast, hard and often.

Tech schools and business schools alike are trying to crank out graduates who have skills that blur the line between IT and business.

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"Our approach is to make IT people more business savvy in terms of both finance and strategy," said Al Segars, professor of information and technology management at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Kenan-Flagler Business School. "We attune the engineer to TCO and offshoring, make them more disciplined and try to give students financial fundamentals to negotiate deals."

Segars believes that offshoring will create many different types of jobs in the U.S. The people who fill those jobs will have to know the nuances of dealing with foreign governments, their culture and their revenue models.

"The approach in the classroom has to be around global economics -- we teach [our students] to be world economists," he said. "We strive to create innovative students. When you can change labor economics, it creates opportunities for new products and services."

Segars said that students who don't think globally or creatively aren't ready for the new workforce.

UNC makes sure students see first hand what global economics looks like. The business school dunks students in a global immersion program, sending them to places like India, China and Poland to see just how complex the offshore outsourcing business is. "We bring in case studies of offshoring and show successes and failures," Segars said. "It makes students better leaders and [helps them] look at [offshoring] from a business perspective."

Sam Averitt, Vice Provost and CIO at North Carolina State University, agrees that IT skills alone won't cut it in today's job market. He said that it's crucial to know how to add value or prove outcomes using technology.

"We want to produce a knowledge workforce that understands how to apply technology in an innovative way," he said. You can't just be a programmer anymore – you have to apply [your skills] in innovative ways to differentiate your product, your service, your company... whatever."

N.C. State, which has a heavier focus on technology and engineering than UNC, has a joint masters program between the colleges of engineering and management. "Our students have to be much broader in their vision and scope of proficiencies," Averitt said.

"Academically, that's a stretch and a challenge. It's one thing to make students aware of what the new paradigm is, but they also have to be committed to doing a lot of additional work."

Averitt also said that the pace of change will increase to the point where a freshman may learn something totally different four years later as a senior. "What we really have to teach them is critical thinking skills," he said.

UNC's Segars agrees that today's students must be flexible and able to roll with the changes. "The innovation 10 years from now may be to bring jobs back [onshore]," he said. "I don't want any student to act like nothing is going to change."

"Workers should be ready when companies say 'Can we re-deploy people within the company to create new products and services?'"

IT people already working in the real world also are learning how to steel their resumes for the winds of change. Dave Ellard, CIO of storage giant EMC Corp., Hopkinton, Mass., said that he works with Babson College in nearby Wellesley to help train his staff in the application of technology to the business. Ellard thinks making business cases and understanding that technology is about improving solutions and processes are art forms – art forms that need to be taught more. Just knowing the technology isn't enough.

"The nineties were about the coolness and slickness and enablement of technology," he said. [But now] the leadership of IT needs to focus on getting results from technology and articulating the business cases."

The ability to get down to business could be key to survival in 21st century IT. N.C. State's Averitt said that having multi-faceted skill sets is crucial, because the changes the industry is experiencing are permanent.

"We're never going back to the way it was," he said.

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