Getting them young

Vendors look to train young people on their tools to set up lifelong loyalty to a particular platform. But vendor involvement in IT education is much more extensive than that, and creates a "win-win-win" for vendors, students and the businesses that hire them.

We keep hearing that millennials want to work with tools that are familiar, as though that were something new. It's not. Everyone leans towards what they know when choosing everything from foods to business tools. It's easier, and it's comfortable, and there's enough change in our world without mixing things up at every turn. Sometimes a bit of autopilot is necessary for our mental health.

So while a multitude of computer vendors are throwing a ton of money at education, let's face it, their aims aren't entirely altruistic. They understand the adage "get them young and bring them up right" only too well. If people learn to use and love tools early, they'll continue to gravitate to them in later life, and that's really good for the vendor's business.

But at the same time they also realize that the skills shortage isn't doing the business world any good. If there aren't enough IT pros, companies suffer, and if companies suffer, the entire industry suffers. That means educating new IT pros is smart on many levels. They're training up potential new staff for their customers (and themselves), and they're nurturing potential new customers, as well as building a strong IT industry and thus helping business in general. So while there's frequently no direct monetary gain for the often substantial investment, make no mistake, there's a huge payoff for all concerned.

Business needs (and cynicism) aside, we also have to take into account the genuine passion some leaders have for learning, a passion that drives them to spend time and resources on helping people of all ages to explore careers in STEAM – science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics – fields (a STEM to STEAM movement was championed by the Rhode Island School of Design to add art and design to STEM). For example, you only have to mention education to IBM Canada president Dino Trevisani to see him light up as he talks about the needs, and the various ways IBM is trying to meet them. He recently entered into a five year partnership with the Smith School of Business at Queen's University, his alma mater, to provide tools, curriculum, and IBM staff assistance to its students. Yes, the students will become familiar with IBM Watson's cognitive computing, and with the IBM Bluemix cloud development platform, but according to instructor Stephen Thomas, thanks to Bluemix's ease of use, they will also be spending more time doing business course material, and less time learning the basics of computer science so they can focus on their assignments. He also said that it evens the workload in student teams, since everyone will be able to work on projects, not just those with a techie bent.

SAS's CEO Dr. Jim Goodnight is another executive with a passion for education, and the wherewithal to encourage that passion in others. SAS has provided curriculum and software to schools at all levels for many years, and also sponsors Master's in analytics programs at universities in Canada and the US. Both Queen's and York universities were beneficiaries of SAS Canada's education program, which also includes free online tools to teach people the basics of analytics. Other companies have pushed beyond this support for academic programming to incorporate cooperative work in the field for students. For example, at a local level, Information Builders has created a tripartite relationship with Conestoga College and Guelph General Hospital, which enables students to develop tools skills but also work through health informatics challenges in a real life setting.

Post-secondary education isn't the only area to profit from tech vendors' efforts. Microsoft has programs for lifelong learning, with training for everyone from public school students to educators. Developers and current IT pros benefit too, with free Hands-On Labs online that cover dozens of products, from Windows to development tools. And computer vendor Lenovo has launched coding instruction for kids and teens that's couched as a computer game.

Even groups that don't have actual products to wrap their programs around have jumped in. Google funds dozens of education programs around the world, and organizations like Actua,  Girls Who Code, Ladies Learning Code, Kids Learning Code, and Women Who Code focus on programming training for girls, women, and youth. Even LEGO offers STEM training!

All of these groups, and more, are working to not only instil a desire to work in STEM/STEAM, but to provide the skills to allow people to do so. If there's one worry, to me, it's the educational focus on coding. There's a lot more to tech than code, and like any skill, coding may not be for everyone. And just as you don't have to be a mechanic to drive a car, you don't necessarily have to know hard-core programming to use today's technology. Once you get going, scripting skills can help in some areas, admittedly, but there are plenty of tools available that don't require code.

To get people interested in all facets of the field, we need to expand the scope of what they're introduced to as students. Make security a familiar area, and some may be encouraged to seek security careers, or to embed desperately-needed security in their technology endeavours. Introduce them to networking, and some may become enthralled with the art and science of connecting things. And introduce people who like to work with their hands to hardware engineering via things like Arduino and Raspberry Pi, and watch the fun.

Those areas may not be perceived as cool, the way coding is these days, but they're equally necessary. Programs need hardware to run on, and networks to connect them to the world. And everything needs to be secure (it's predicted that there will be 1.5 million vacancies in infosec in the next few years, so salaries will be appealing too, when the students hit the working world).

Nonetheless, the underlying philosophy of vendor involvement in education is sound, and it's good for all concerned. It improves the quality of the education, since schools can't afford the latest tools on their own, it teaches students about real-world products that they can then use in their careers, and the vendors get a head start in picking up new users. Win-win-win.

 

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