The president of a US ad tech company has spoken out about the dire state of programming and computer science skills held by most graduates.
In a piece in the Wall Street Journal, Kirk McDonald, who is currently the president of PubMatic and the previous president of digital for Time, said such skills are needed by all members of the workforce, even those in roles considered to be non-techy, like sales or marketing.
"The problem is that the right skills are very hard to find. And I'm sorry to say it, dear graduates, but you probably don't have them," said McDonald. "In part, it's not your fault. If you grew up and went to school in the US, you were educated in a system that has eight times as many high school football teams as high schools that teach advanced placement computer science classes."
The comments come as the UK government attempts to transform the computing curriculum in schools to become more focused on programming and computer science. However the blueprint for such a curriculum has been met by a fair amount of opposition, particularly during the national curriculum consultation that ended in April.
Critics have argued that the heavy focus on computer science skills in the proposed government curriculum meant not enough time would be spent teaching students IT basics or digital literacy. At the moment, it is unclear whether the government plans to move ahead with its blueprint, or rejig its proposal to take account of current criticisms, which would mean a watering down of computer science elements.
McDonald has argued that the US government also needs to address the skills crisis and proposed for states to employ more teachers to focus on science, technology, engineering and math subjects. He also argued for students to be more proactive in their approach to computer science and to learn how to code.
"What we non-experts do possess is the ability to know enough about how these information systems work that we can be useful discussing them with others. Consider this example: Suppose you're sitting in a meeting with clients, and someone asks you how long a certain digital project is slated to take," said McDonald.
"Unless you understand the fundamentals of what engineers and programmers do, unless you're familiar enough with the principles and machinations of coding to know how the back end of the business works, any answer you give is a guess and therefore probably wrong. Even if your dream job is in marketing or sales or another department seemingly unrelated to programming, I'm not going to hire you unless you can at least understand the basic way my company works. And I'm not alone."
V3 is currently running a Make IT better campaign to improve computing learning in schools.
The importance of exciting and inspiring the next generation of IT professionals and innovators has been high on the agenda at V3 for many months now with our Make IT Better campaign. This meant we were eager to hear from the Science Museum on Monday evening, about its plans for a brand new £15.6m Information Age exhibition to celebrate the roll of technology in the modern world.
Major backers BT, Google, Arm and Accenture were in attendance, explaining that part of their involvement is to try and ensure interest in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) remains strong in the future for the country.
All made it clear that it was important that those who could become the tech stars of the future had the chance to visit exhibitions like the Information Age space, set to open in 2014, so they could learn about the people and products that had changed the world, and go away excited to learn more about it all.
V3 was also privy to the construction of the new exhibition space, albeit in its very early phases (above), but with plans for a giant radio tuning coil (top of the page), a full-size real-life communications satellite (pictured below) and telegraph transmission technology dating back to the 1800s set to go on display, it will no doubt be a fascinating gallery.
Roll on 2014.
V3 launched its Make IT Better campaign in October 2012 to increase awareness around the government's reform of the ICT curriculum in schools.
The campaign, launched in partnership with the Corporate IT Forum, is focussed on improving ICT education in schools in order to fix the growing skills crisis facing the IT industry.
Make IT Better has already run a weekly series of interviews from IT professionals and ICT teachers on the contents they would like to see included in the new ICT curriculum, giving them a chance to have their voices heard.
V3 believes it is important for a wide variety of views to be considered at length before the government launches a new programme of study to schools. This will ensure the new ICT curriculum is relevant and compelling to students and teachers.
Make IT Better has heard from Microsoft education director Steve Beswick on how a Microsoft Office education can be made more stimulating, and Raspberry Pi creator Eben Upton on his belief that every child in the UK should be given the opportunity to learn how to code.
Others who have spoken to V3 include SAS UK head of academic programmes Geoffrey Taylor, CA Technologies chief technology officer Colin Bannister and Comptia director Rick Bauer. A summary of each Make IT Better interview is given at the end of this blog post.
"The Corporate IT Forum Education & Skills Commission fully supports V3's 'Make IT Better' campaign. It is doing a great job of promoting excellence in IT education and keeping the important issue of ICT curriculum reforms at the forefront of V3 readers' minds," said Joanna Poplawska, performance director at The Corporate IT Forum.
"We are all agreed that a range of people need to have input into the new curriculum, including IT-dependent employers, to ensure that the next-generation workforce is equipped with the right technology skills to boost British business."
It was January last year when the government announced it would be reforming the ICT curriculum in schools, with a new programme of study set to be launched to schools in September 2014.
At the moment the DfE is working on a draft version of the new ICT curriculum, having had strong input from the British Computer Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering. However the DfE has not widely consulted with teachers, education advisors or IT professionals in its reforms.
A national consultation on the curriculum will occur at some point this year, but many fear this consultation will be too late since the draft revised curriculum is now already in place.
The Make IT Better campaign has issued repeated calls to the Department for Education to make the ICT curriculum process more transparent and to include the views of the IT industry immediately. However the DfE has declined to comment on the campaign or acknowledge that its reform of the ICT curriculum is leaving out certain IT associations, teachers and education advisors.
A spokesman for the DfE told V3, "We have been working with the British Computer Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering who organised an expert group to develop proposals for the draft ICT curriculum.
"The department is using this advice to develop revised programmes of study for the subject which we will be publishing soon for public consultation."
Make IT Better articles so far include:
V3 launches skills campaign to boost IT teaching across UK, 24 October 2012
The Make IT Better campaign is designed to achieve excellence in IT education across the UK, and equip the next-generation workforce with the right technology skills to boost British business.
Teacher Ilia Avroutine wants pupils skilled in HTML design and Photoshop, 31 October 2012
Avroutine fully supports the government's decision to reform the ICT curriculum and hopes teachers will soon be asked their views on what content should be included in the new version. Avroutine discusses ways he believes students can be inspired in their ICT studies and mentions particular skills, like coding and programming, he believes ICT students should be taught.
Teacher Jane Waite on the need to create future IT heroes like Tim Berners-Lee, 7 November 2012
Waite comments on what kind of ICT reform is needed for Key Stage 1 pupils, aged between five and seven years old. She believes "computational thinking" forms the backbone of computer science teaching, and this should be taught to children in reception class onwards. Waite discusses particular methods her school is trialling to make ICT more valuable to younger students.
Teacher David Astall on why pupils must be taught to think outside the box, 14 November 2012
Astall questions whether the government's current ICT curriculum reform will produce positive change when only a few education bodies have so far been sought for input, and is concerned that those inputting in the reform process hold a Computer Science bias. Astall believes both the disciplines of IT and Computer Science need to hold equal weight in the national curriculum. The IT component just needs to be improved so areas deemed boring and repetitive, such as word processing and desktop publishing are improved, not tossed to the dustbin.
IT teaching problems run deeper than Word and Excel, claims Microsoft, 22 November 2012
Microsoft education director Steve Beswick talks about the tools and techniques that can be used to interest school children in a computer science education, and how a Microsoft Office education can be made more stimulating.
Education advisor Roger Broadie worried Teachers' voice getting lost in ICT reform debate, 28 November 2012
Education advisor and former teacher Roger Broadie believes the views of industry have been given priority in the current ICT curriculum reforms. He also shares concerns that there is a bias among reformers toward the discipline of Computer Science at the expense of more technical IT learning, like that of infrastructure support and development.
Every pupil should have the chance to code, says Raspberry Pi creator, 7 December 2012
Raspberry Pi creator Eben Upton believes every child in the UK should be given the opportunity to learn how to code, as part of their school ICT education.
Pupils need schooling in analytics and mobile, says Capital One IT director, 12 December 2012
Ian Ravenhall argues the reform of the ICT curriculum is the industry's chance to fix the lack of IT skills available to firms. This can be done by ensuring the new ICT curriculum is broad and flexible in its focus, allowing teachers to concentrate on hot new industry trends, like mobile and analytics. While there have been many discussions on the content of the new ICT curriculum, Ravenhall says these have often been too focussed on use of particular applications.
CompTIA director warns "isolated" ICT teachers can cause poor IT learning, 27 December 2012
CompTIA director Rick Bauer says too many children are getting inadequate technology education because their school studies fail to teach them how the subject can be applied. Bauer is convinced the poor state of UK ICT school education is down to a lack of integration with the rest of school education, and this is a problem that is occurring in the US as well.
BCS and E-skills advise government on IT education for GCSE students, 4 January 2013
Colin Bannister, an E-skills member and the chief technology officer for CA Technologies, tells of a recent meeting he attended where the Key Stage 4 part of the curriculum was discussed. Department ministers, the BCS and E-skills members attended the meeting. Bannister says he hopes tech firms, including CA Technologies, will be able to influence Key Stage 4 of the curriculum as much as possible in order to address the growing skills crisis facing the industry.
SAS calls for IT teachers to brush up on History and Geography skills, 9 January 2013
According to SAS UK head of academic programmes, Geoffrey Taylor, IT lessons in schools can be greatly improved if ICT teachers extend the studies to other subjects.
Exam body warns disadvantaged pupils face exclusion from IT, 16 January 2013
OCR executives speak to V3 about the importance of designing qualifications that appeal to pupils from a range of social economic backgrounds.
When it comes to boosting skills in the UK IT sector, a key message – and one often referenced in V3’s current Make IT Better campaign - is that we should try to make science and technology more ‘inspiring’ subjects to study.
The idea is, don’t scare off the next-generation of computer whizz kids by revealing that a lot of the job entails repetitive tasks and pain-staking testing; instead make sure that those leading the way – techies in government, businesses and schools – are role models for the youth of today, with enough street cred to stand shoulder to shoulder with footballers and reality TV stars.
And here’s where we fall down in the UK. Take this quote, selected from a random online article about the lack of science, technology, engineering and maths skills (and by the way, Stem hardly sounds an industry many would aspire to be in).
Lords Science and Technology Committee report chairman Lord Willis, noted, “When you have a university like Cambridge saying that even with an A* in mathematics we are having to give remedial maths in order to study engineering there is something not quite right if we are going to produce the very best to compete with the world.
"In reality the quality of the Stem graduates coming out of universities does not meet the requirements of industry and in fact is ultimately not even likely to meet the requirements of academia."
He’s making an important point, but the messaging is dull. I doubt anyone reading that quote would be enthused to rise up and improve the maths GCSE curriculum.
Lord Willis, and all your colleagues in UK government concerned about the IT skills shortage here, please take a lesson from Paul Shawcross, chief of the Science and Space Branch at the White House Office of Management and Budget, on how to engage the nation on this issue.
Shawcross spotted an opportunity to highlight the work of his department, and encourage more people to pursue a sci/tech career, based on a Star Wars-themed petition submitted to the White House.
The petition to ‘Secure resources and funding, and begin construction of a Death Star by 2016’ aimed to spur job creation in the fields of construction, engineering and space exploration by focusing defence resources on a space-superiority platform and weapon system.
The US government could have just issued a standard ‘no’ response to the petition, but instead Shawcross – clearly a Star Wars aficionado – crafted a detailed response, littered with references to the galaxy far far away and acting as a rallying cry for the sci/tech sector.
You know you’re in for a good read, when the headline of a government petition reply is: ‘This Isn't the Petition Response You're Looking For’.
Shawcross initially listed some of the reasons why the government couldn’t go ahead with the request:
"The construction of the Death Star has been estimated to cost more than $850,000,000,000,000,000. We're working hard to reduce the deficit, not expand it.
The Administration does not support blowing up planets.
"Why would we spend countless taxpayer dollars on a Death Star with a fundamental flaw that can be exploited by a one-man starship?"
In the same comical tone, Shawcross went on to detail all the current achievements by the US government space team: the International Space Station, which routinely welcomes visiting spacecraft and repairs on-board garbage mashers; two robot science labs - one wielding a laser - roving around Mars; and not forgetting Nasa's Commercial Crew and Cargo Program Office (C3PO).
“Even though the United States doesn't have anything that can do the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs, we've got two spacecraft leaving the Solar System and we're building a probe that will fly to the exterior layers of the Sun,” he noted.
“We don't have a Death Star, but we do have floating robot assistants on the Space Station, a president who knows his way around a light saber and advanced (marshmallow) cannon, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is supporting research on building Luke's arm, floating droids, and quadruped walkers.”
And then came the masterstroke, where Shawcross proved the value of his sci-fi film fanaticism a thousand times over: “We are living in the future! Enjoy it. Or better yet, help build it by pursuing a career in a science, technology, engineering or math-related field.
“If you do pursue a career in a science, technology, engineering or math-related field, the Force will be with us! Remember, the Death Star's power to destroy a planet, or even a whole star system, is insignificant next to the power of the Force.”
That post was everywhere over social networks over the weekend, and no doubt managed to reach more of the target audience than any traditional IT skills marketing campaign could ever dream to.
So, to all members of sci/tech committees in any far away galaxies out there, or just the UK, please find your inner Force and aim to inspire rather than bore the next generation of techies, whether that’s by following Barack Obama, with his Astronomy Night on the South Lawn, or just creating IT skills campaigns that pass on a serious message in a less than serious tone.
We need to act soon before more would-be IT stars are seduced by the dark side - or media studies, as it's otherwise known.