Preparing Generation Z

CIOs say college graduates aren't ready for corporate IT jobs. Now some progressive universities are doing something about it.

Ask CIOs to give the nation's colleges and universities a report card on how they're preparing the next generation of IT professionals, and they'd respond with a pretty dismal grade.

"If I had to grade graduate programs on what they're delivering, I'd give them a B-minus and a C-plus for undergraduate programs," says George Voutes, enterprise technology programs manager at Deutsche Asset Management Technology, a New York-based division of Deutsche Bank AG.

"We have to get away from strict programming and systems development," says Voutes. "Those are skills to get into the field, but we have to train our technology people to think more like business people and arm them with strong communications skills."

A Computerworld survey of 244 IT professionals found that three quarters of them say academia isn't preparing graduates for the IT jobs of today or the next few years (see charts, below). The survey, plus interviews with CIOs, indicated that the shortcomings are in the areas of business skills, troubleshooting skills, interpersonal communication, project management and systems integration.

And given the thousands of unemployed IT professionals flooding the market who have at least a couple of years of work experience, CIOs and hiring managers are being more selective than ever.

"If you asked me this in 2000, my answer would have been completely different. We don't hire people into our company anymore straight out of college," says Ken Harney, a vice president at Ness USA, a global IT consultancy in Hackensack, N.J. "There aren't as many of those types of development projects around today, and those jobs can be filled easier" with people who already have business experience, he added. "I don't need a person out of college to do that. It's a whole new ballgame."

Indeed, during the height of the dot-com boom, companies were actively recruiting computer science and graduate students in the fall semesters of their final year — or earlier. Now "the recruiting process is taking longer," and enrollment among MBA candidates with IS concentrations has dropped 50% since 2000, says Andrew Whinston, professor of information systems, economics and computer science at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas in Austin. "When the Nasdaq bubble burst, so did our enrollment. It's a nationwide phenomenon."

That's partly why McCombs and other top business schools such as MIT, UCLA's Anderson School of Management, Stevens Institute of Technology, Babson College, The Fox School of Business and Management at Temple University and Ohio State University's (OSU) Fisher College of Business are forging closer ties with industry to ensure that they're developing the kinds of skills being sought by the private sector.

In addition to bringing in CIOs as guest speakers and making use of advisory councils where CIOs provide feedback on curriculum and market demands, universities are pushing harder to engage students in internship and co-op programs. They're also devising programs for vertical markets such as IT in financial services and pharmaceuticals.

But while academia is beginning to make some inroads in broadening the business acumen of its students, some observers say it still has a long way to go to deliver on market demands. Part of the problem is that academia "views business the same way they view everyone outside of the academic community: as a funding source, not as a place of insight," says Thornton A. May, a management consultant in Biddeford, Maine, and a Computerworld columnist.

Over the past 18 months, May has been working with a handful of academic institutions, such as OSU's Fisher College of Business, to help them sharpen their focus on developing business skills for computer science students.

At the university's most recent annual advisory group meeting, CIOs and other C-level officers "were consistent in the opinion that we shouldn't be teaching to a particular technology," says Stu Zweben, professor and chairman of the computer and information science department at OSU in Columbus. Zweben says the advisory group "was very supportive" of OSU's approach to teaching undergraduate computer science majors about utilizing a software engineering methodology rather than teaching them about a particular programming language like Java or C++.

More important, Zweben estimates that a majority of OSU's 1,000-plus graduate and undergraduate computer-science-related students have participated in an internship or co-op program with area businesses over the past three years.

"Employers tell me they would rather have a student with a lower GPA and more work experience than someone with a perfect GPA and no work experience who has had their nose in a book for four years," Zweben says. Plus, students are "more inquisitive" after they return to class from an internship or co-op program, he says.

MIT has had similar experiences when industry executives are brought into classes to provide live presentations on business/technology problems they've solved. Typically, the executives will submit case-study materials for MIT students to read and analyze two weeks before each presentation. Once the executive presents to the class, students tend to ask "broader questions," says Erik Brynjolfsson, a professor at MIT's Sloan School of Management and director of the Center for eBusiness@MIT.

Before each semester, MIT invites the center's 30 corporate sponsors to submit projects for teams of students to work on. The sponsors, which include General Motors Corp., Intel Corp. and MasterCard International Inc., provide teams of students — mostly MBA candidates but also some undergraduates — with business and technology problems to solve during a semester. Topics range from the challenges of implementing Wi-Fi to evaluating the benefits of a CRM project. The program "gives the students a lot of hands-on work with problems, project management skills and involvement" with IT executives, says Brynjolfsson. Plus, the familiarity that's created in the bond between students and sponsors can lead to jobs after graduation, he notes.

University advisory groups have also helped to shape new course content, such as a class on marketing information systems at the McCombs School of Business. And last December, Wellesley, Mass.-based Babson invited 15 area CIOs to review a proposed curriculum redesign for elective IT courses, says Kavin Moody, executive director of Babson's Center for Information Management Studies. CIO feedback from these sessions have influenced course offerings, including an idea to tie Web design and e-business courses together "so students would have an appreciation of what went into Web design behind e-business systems," says Moody. The ideas were incorporated into the curriculum within two weeks, he adds.

With the increasing shift among U.S. companies to outsource IT work overseas or create international IT centers, Hoboken, N.J.-based Stevens Institute has "sprinkled" the topic of managing global IT operations into its courses, says Jerry Luftman, director of the School of Technology Management.

"It's a matter of making students understand, How do you work in an outsourced environment? How do you govern the relationship between your company and the outsourcing vendor? That's an area that we cover in our classes," says Luftman. In addition, students hear what it's like to work for a vendor and how to be an IT consultant.

Stevens Institute also now offers graduate IT management programs with concentrations in the pharmaceutical and financial services industries. Ness USA — which is based in New Jersey, home to many pharmaceutical firms — is sending two of its workers to the pharmaceutical IT program.

Deutsche Bank's Voutes is also impressed with Stevens Institute's direction. Says Voutes, "They're in the top one or two [percent] for preparing [IT management] leaders for corporate America."



Are colleges and universities adequately preparing students for the IT jobs of today?

The state of IT education

Base: 227 respondents

Are colleges and universities adequately preparing students for the IT jobs of the next few years?

The state of IT education

Base: 226 respondents

Source (for all three charts): Online survey of 244 IT professionals at, July 23 to Aug. 4, 2003. Respondents came from IT management (36%), technical staff (47%) and contractors/consultants (17%).


What are the top skills colleges and universities need to be teaching their IT students that they aren't now?

1 Communication/people skills
2 Business skills
3 Real-world/hands-on experience
4 Troubleshooting
5 Project management
6 Analytical skills
7 Integration

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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