Mar 262013
 
The Careers Day poster they rejected

The Careers Day poster they rejected (Photo credit: Alun Salt)

DISCLAIMER: I will use specific examples throughout this post without naming any names.  I want to make it clear that this is not picking on any one particular institution or form of IT training.  I have been a trainer for one of Kansas City’s largest IT training firms.  I have taught college classes.  I have made training DVDs.  I have subcontracted to teach with other training companies who span the globe.  These issues are in lots of places, so please don’t take any specific example and assume I’m trying to come down on a particular institution or practice or favor one over the other.

In doing the research for this post, I started going through the websites of various “career changer” programs.  You know, the programs where someone wants to make a big change and get into an IT career, but they have no real background or experience, so they sign up for a multi-week program to teach them foundational skills that, ideally, is enough to get them an entry-level job to start them down a new career path (incidentally, I totally believe in this model if done well).  I was looking for success stories.

What I discovered was that most success stories were several years old.  In fact, one institution led with a great success story in their marketing materials for their program.  That story was five years old.

Think about that for a second.  All the students that pass into and out of this program, month after month, year after year, and the best results they’ve gotten so far were five years ago.

Despite the current fad of people with no real knowledge of the field inventing statistics to try and prove there’s a developer shortage in Kansas City, the reality is far more complicated.  If there’s any shortage, it’s a shortage of highly qualified developers in Kansas City.  If you post a job opening in IT right now, you’ll have no shortage of applicants.  You’ll still have a hard time finding someone.  In fact, just a couple of months ago, a friend of mine who is responsible for hiring for a very large organization here in Kansas City told me point blank, “We’re getting lots of applicants, but most of them are graduates from Institution X and don’t know s***.”

There’s a disconnect.  Four-year institutions, two-year institutions, and training companies continue to churn people out into the market, but the market doesn’t seem to be buying.

On the other side of the fence are the pundits who just flat out say that colleges and/or career-change programs just don’t work.  This doesn’t seem right either, because there are successes and, quite frankly, it’s hard to think of another model that can accommodate the quantities and speed of the market right now along with the depth of knowledge required to write good software.  If you don’t have organizations dedicated to making this happen, the odds are good it won’t happen at all.

My premise, which of course may be wrong, is this:

Organizations who train IT careers, specifically development, need to ditch their current models and adopt ones that are market-responsive and student-first.

Curriculum

Most IT training organizations are not matching their curriculum to demand.  This is a known issue with two and four year institutions, but it is a staggeringly huge issue with IT training companies and career-change programs in specific, and it has been this way for a very long time.  I’m not talking about the specific manuals they use or whatever; I’m talking about the actual topics covered.

Every so often, I’ll see an update somewhere that looks something like this, “Getting ready to learn design-time data binding to datagrids.  Whole new world!” or “Finally creating DataSets.  This stuff is awesome!” and I die a little inside, because these are the functional equivalents of someone training for the medical field and tweeting about leeches and hacksaws.

Nobody wants that stuff because nobody is doing that stuff.  No company is trying to hire someone for web technologies and methodologies that are now 12 years old (NOTE: Ok, obviously, occasionally people do hire for very old technologies because they need to support old products or simply refuse to change, but I’d say that’s not where most of the technical demand is).

In researching this post, I pored over job openings in Kansas City for .NET web development, and they were asking for MVC, HTML 5 and JavaScript, NoSQL, ORMs, TDD, MVVM, and design patterns.  I found two that asked for ADO.NET (along with the other things on this list).  If the whole purpose of your company is to release people into the field who can perform a trade, why isn’t the taught curriculum aligned with what people are asking for?

Teaching Methodology

PowerPoint slide.  Explanation.  Demo.  Lab.  Not.  Ideal.  For.  Career.  Building.

That way is ok-ish for getting across a specific technical topic to a specific kind of audience and background: namely, the kind of audience who already knows how to build applications and practically apply their knowledge in the field.

But if you want to teach someone how to build applications, then you build applications and instill the requisite knowledge as you go.  And when I say “build applications,” I don’t mean labs that have been specifically designed around a particular concept.  Those are notoriously unrealistic and often actively teach bad practices and bad ways of solving problems, because the focus is on that specific concept and not the other parts of development around that concept.

“But if I’m trying to teach someone data access, I don’t have time to teach things like proper separation of concerns in the class layers or HTML 5.”

Exactly.  That’s exactly the problem right there.  You’re trying to teach someone data access instead of teaching someone how to build an application and talking about data access in the context of building that application.  People leave your training (even if it’s a four year program) knowing a ton of isolated, bad examples of various technologies, but they do not understand how to solve problems with these tools, how these tools interconnect, or when these tools are bad decisions.  And because you are so focused on teaching them a technology, they probably have never even seen a realistic example of it.

This dovetails with another issue, that most IT instructors/professors in Kansas City are not developers or haven’t been for a long, long time.  They are just as incapable of teaching a class driven by actual development as their students, and their knowledge and experience is just as limited by the curriculum as the students.  It’s not impossible, but it’s very hard to learn a trade from someone other than a tradesman.

Economics and Risk

Most IT training programs require the student to pay regardless of the result.  Some companies are thankfully breaking away from this model, but it’s still the most common model.  Students pay tuition to the training institution no matter what.

Two problems here.

On the student side, it puts them at enormous risk.  They have to pony up (or taxpayers have to pony up, in some cases) several thousands of dollars that may ultimately result in nothing.  Although I’m way more concerned about the students than the institutions who train them, this is actually not the biggest problem.

The biggest problem is that, on the institution’s side, their primary motivational force now becomes getting people into their program.  Not preparing them for jobs.  Not getting them jobs.  Getting them in the door.

When the training company I worked for started doing career change programs around late 2000, they made all prospective students take a short test.  It was things like pattern recognition, etc.  Nothing heavy duty, but it did look at their ability to spot patterns, think symbolically, etc.  At the time, a student had to score a 90% or above to be admitted to the program.

Over time, it got lowered to 80%.

Then 9/11 happened and the training market tanked big time.  60%.

Eventually, the test was completely done away with.  We got people in our program who were great people, smart people, and very gifted in many ways, but coding at an in-depth, professional level was just not something well-suited to their way of thinking and gifts.  But we took their money, gave them their diplomas, and sent them out the door.  And I quit.

The thing is, the success of our students only indirectly affected our prosperity (by way of marketing).

How would it transform things if institutions only got paid if and when their students got their first IT job?

Holy crap, right?  Now, I have an interest in helping students find their proper niche here or elsewhere.  I’m only interested in putting the student in a web development program if I think the student has the chops to be a professional web developer instead of the chops to secure a $12000 loan.

I’m motivated to make sure my curriculum reflects what business owners want and need.  I’m motivated to make sure all my students are solid.  I’m motivated to make sure anyone who learns how to develop from me can go into a team of experienced developers and play at or above their level, because if they can’t, I don’t make my money.

Before I close, I just want to say that deep within the chocolatey-good depths of my cynical heart, I am warmed to see some amount of rising to the occasion.  The Disruption Institute, for example, shows a real initiative in looking not only at what the market needs today, but will need in the very near future, and organizes their curriculum around that – curriculum that has been put together by actual developers in the field.

I believe in training companies.  I believe in two year and four year computer science programs.  They all have their place for different people and different goals, and it’s a poorly thought through plan that would advocate getting rid of any of them.  But you have got to step it up.  If you align yourselves with market needs and commit yourselves to the students’ welfare first, the money will follow.

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  14 Responses to “IT Training Needs to Step it Up in Kansas City”

  1. GREAT article Phillip! Thoughtful insight from someone that obviously has been around the block a time or two with regards to how individuals are trained for success (or not) in the IT field. I wholeheartedly agree that the shortage of talent is much greater on the “highly qualified” side than it is on the trained and able side. And that is where the disconnect is in the marketplace. Trained and able people are not getting a shot, and that’s a shame.

    • You’re a lot more “in the trenches” on the hiring side than I am on this issue, so thanks for the feedback!

  2. Well written and researched.

  3. Phil

    I second my husband. KC is fortunate to have you on the front lines doing tis heavy lifting. Kudos my friend!

  4. I also agree with the information in this article. As an IT professional with more than 15 years of experience and am also an adjunct instructor, I see this from several view points. First, as an IT Professional that comes in contact with a number of contractors with varying levels of skills. Sometimes I see companies who barely want to pay market rate for highly skilled professionals and thus you end up getting what you paid for… which in the end costs the company money because these individuals lack the experience and/or abilities to quickly get up to speed to be productive. This also factors into attracting high quality professionals. Second, as an IT adjunct instructor, I see the HARD push in the for profit institutions to do whatever it takes to coddle these students along so they continue to enroll for the next semester of classes. The pressure to forgive late points on assignments, or be overly forgiving for poorly done assignments erodes at the very curriculum they are expected to learn such that it is. Third, as a seasoned professional and this might be a little selfish it does help provide me an edge over the “abundance” of available resources out there competing in the marketplace.

    At the end of the day, as stated in the article our educational systems are not in it for the student. They are in it for the money they can make off the student, regardless of whether they are setting that person up for failure and a lifetime of student debt. That then means all of us suffer to some degree simply because they are unable to contribute to the economy due to being unable to earn the income they were misled into thinking they were going to make but still have a debt that is for all intensive purposes unforgivable. These individuals would have been better off going to a trade school or a community college even if it meant they would rise to the type of earnings they thought they were going to make in the first place. I am saying people should be discouraged from pursuing these professions but as its been pointed out, it’s not for everyone.

    • Great information, Kerri. I also struggled with how to deal with that issue because I also didn’t (and don’t) want to discourage anyone from getting into an IT related profession, and I also believe that hard work can compensate for a lot of lack of raw talent. But at the same time, it’s kind of morally irresponsible to let someone invest a ton of money when it’s pretty obvious they’re not going to be hirable at a professional level after 12 weeks, or 104 weeks, or 208 weeks. I remember talking with one student who was a great guy, but he was just a disaster. And I don’t mean that in an elitist way – I mean he literally could not retain even the most basic concepts from day to day. He just wasn’t wired for professional level programming. I sat down with him at our first evaluation period and, as gently as I could, told him that this really seemed to be something he wasn’t suited for, and he said, “Well, I can’t quit, because I’ve already got too much money sunk into this. It has to work.” Now, maybe if he really spent every waking hour inside and outside of class hitting it hard, he could have compensated for some of that, but it was really a bad scenario for all parties concerned.

      • Yes, that is a common problem as well. I have a much younger brother who graduated law school last year. He said the same thing halfway through law school, but he felt stuck. And, to make it worse he really doesn’t even like the profession and now has $180K in debt right out the gait!

  5. Typo in my last sentence: I am saying people should be discouraged from pursuing these professions but as its been pointed out, it’s not for everyone.

  6. For some reason it wouldn’t post my correction! I said people shouldn’t be discouraged!

  7. First of all, Phil, I love you – in that good ol’ brotherly, respectful, I think-you-are awesome kind of way.

    Secondly, as for me, a trainer in one of the aforementioned career-changer institutions for 13 years now, I can tell you that I am definitely in this for my students. I can say the same for my team of .Net trainers, who give up countess hours outside of class mentoring and coaching students to ensure that they have every opportunity for success. I can also say the same for our team of student support staff, who set up our quarterly job fairs, handle student life issues, and do everything in their power to help the students to their goal of finding their way into the IT job market. From the ground up you will find people that genuinely care about our students. Not because of money, but because of the life changing stories we get to be a part of.

    Our program works, and it works well.

    (Details redacted by request of original commenter)

    This is not a money-grab – its a potential life change. I’ve seen it the other way, and I will never be a part of that again.

    • (Some comment content changed to reflect requested redaction.)

      So, this is the second loving response I’ve gotten from Centriq since this article went up (I love you too, by the way), and I’ll say basically what I said to that person. This article is not a critique of Centriq. I haven’t taught at what is now Centriq in years, and my experiences from the early 2000s are not grounds for a critique in 2013, even if my intent were to call out Centriq in specific, which I would absolutely have done, by name, if that had been my intent. It wasn’t, though.

      It is a critique of trends I have observed in various extents in all kinds of institutions, public and private, four year, two year, etc. who are preparing people for an IT career. I don’t know that any of them that I looked at suffered from -all- the things I mentioned and certainly not to the same degree. If you feel Centriq doesn’t suffer from most of these issues, then great!

      What I would suggest, though, to you or anyone who is part of an institution to train IT folks, is not to worry so much about explaining how you don’t suffer from some of these things, and look for the one or two things that perhaps are issues to some extent that could use improvement. I will consider the article a massive failure if all it accomplished was making training institutions feel like they had to justify themselves.

  8. I went to Centriq a couple of years ago and it was okay. But for $16K less, I could have received the same instruction from one of the community colleges. The cost of the program is around $19K–way too expensive. One of the selling points is the career fairs. Career fairs occur all the time, not just at Centriq. Many of the employers at Centriq career fairs were recruiters, not from local companies, so that was disappointing. And, not all students who go through the program get a job (2 didn’t in my class).

    The dev program consists of C#, HTML/CSS/jQuery, ASP.NET, mobile, and a couple of projects, all done in 4 months. I think most of the instructors do a good job and try to help struggling students. But, I didn’t like the explanation-demo-lab methodology. I agree with the author that this is not a good way to teach the material cause each concept seemed disconnected from the process of building applications.

    I consider going to Centriq my $19K mistake. After completing Centriq, I was offered a job making $40K, which was $11K less than I made at the job I had at the time.

  9. Hello Phil,
    I gather from other comments that is your name? I would have e-mailed you if I could have found an e-mail address on your website here, but maybe your answer to this question can benefit more people than just me. I’ll try to keep it brief.
    You wrote this article two years ago. It was a good read. Thanks. I came across this article because I’m moving back to Kansas City next month and I’m wondering if there are any good training companies that you would recommend. (I have a Bachelor’s degree in English, and no computer programming background.) Has anything significant changed in Kansas City since you wrote this?

    Obama just signed into action that TechHire bill. Seen any motion from that in Kansas City? Any advice for me? I would really appreciate it.

    Thanks,
    Hubbard

    p.s. – It’s hubbardsavage@gmail.com if for some reason you’d like to e-mail me directly.

    • Hi Hubbard,

      At the moment, developer demand is super high in Kansas City. If you can type on a computer without injuring yourself, you can probably get a developer job without too much trouble, especially if you’re willing to work with a recruitment firm.

      These days, Centriq’s C# TechSmart program is not bad. You get exposed to a lot of things that even long-time developers in KC haven’t gotten exposed to. I will say, however, that you’ll need to go above and beyond what you do in the classroom to really make it effective. The time frames are just really short, so you’ll need to dig deeper into the areas covered on your own. Also, by nature of the program structure, you’ll have to do things in a way you wouldn’t do in an actual development environment, such as design the database first. Just be willing to let go of a few “classroom world” habits and you’ll be fine.

      Also is the fine Disruption Institute if you’re interested in mobile development.

      Another option to consider is learning on your own and putting a few projects out there. I’ve found the NodeJS stack to be very friendly to free development and learning. Scotch.io just wrote a book about getting started building apps with NodeJS, Express, Angular, and MongoDB that is crazy good for beginners. Couple that with a bazillion online tutorials, and you can have a pretty decent understanding of how to code in that stack in no time. Write up a couple of small projects, host them in one of many free NodeJS hosts, and then you can walk on into interviews with a portfolio.

      Given the array of online learning mechanisms for programming, it’s really easy to put your own path together.

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