Teaching the Untaught

A new approach to preparing future software engineers for the global market—before it’s too late.

GUEST COLUMN | by John Columbus

CREDIT Dunwoody Institute.jpgIn the “early days” of software engineering things were simpler. It was all about learning the few available programming languages, understanding available hardware and learning a few basic theories. Graduates learned everything else – the practical and soft skills needed to work effectively – on the job.

Today that’s just not possible. Software engineering students are faced with a myriad of languages that evolve almost in real time, hardware that ages as it ships and a need for skill mastery closely aligned with actual engineering practices.

“Technology moves at an accelerating speed of change so the modern tech worker simply must have a broad range of plug-and-play skills so managers can drop him or her into any related team or role at a moment’s notice.”

Most critically, the pace of the technology sector today and the demands of employers means far more workplace skills must be taught in colleges and other educational institutions.

So what can be done to more comprehensively prepare technical and STEM students for the workplace ahead?

Understand tech savvy doesn’t equal workplace ready

A generation of college-aged kids has grown up on the internet and mobile devices. They’ve experienced software daily —from Instagram and Snapchat filters to Tumblr themes—most of their lives. And they’ve become almost more comfortable with online and social friendships and interactions than those in the real world.

Despite this, many corporations still find that software engineering graduates are not ready to work in today’s corporate culture. Even the most tech friendly and post-millennial-savvy workplaces require excellent interpersonal skills.

In PayScale’s 2016 Workforce Skills Preparedness Report, college graduates are falling short of employer expectations. In a study of more than 60,000 employers, 44 percent of managers report graduates lack leadership skills, 35 percent point to lower than needed interpersonal and teamwork skills and 46 percent said communications skills are lacking in the workplace.

Teach Interactions as well as Interfaces

We must improve interpersonal skills quickly. Corporations are finding it takes, on average, one to two internships for a student or graduate to really understand the nuances of their workplace culture.

As software engineering and other tech-led industries now move so quickly, requiring 3 to 6 months for a graduate to be able to communicate effectively on the job is simply too much time for even entry-level employees.

As technical educators working closely with industry, the demand is clear: better prepare graduates for the dynamics of actual workplace interactions so they can begin contributing in their jobs more effectively on day one.

At Dunwoody College of Technology and other leading technical colleges, there’s a movement underway to broaden the scope of teaching to integrate workplace social skills into our curriculum. That means setting aside time in our classes to teach students effective methods for communicating with team members, managers and even customers.

Collaborative learning is critical to developing interpersonal skills, but equally we must encourage independent task management and reporting techniques to share results and findings with the group or class.

As educators, we need to prepare students to effectively use the skills they learn in the workplace.

Teach Flexible Role Readiness

Modern corporations shuffle their employees regularly, cycling staff and departmental heads through new functions and disciplines. It’s good for the organization to have well-rounded, multi-skilled team members who understand a variety of departments and functions. At the college level we have to move faster to prepare students for this workplace reality.

We can no longer teach a student to become “just” a coder. Graduates must enter the job market prepared to develop software requirements, code, manage projects, test systems and take security in account throughout the development and deployment process.

Technology moves at an accelerating speed of change so the modern tech worker simply must have a broad range of plug-and-play skills so managers can drop him or her into any related team or role at a moment’s notice.

Learn Local, Work Global

There are excellent learning institutions and technical colleges across North America, but graduates entering the workforce today must think way beyond local geographies. The software engineering talent pool is now truly global and U.S. graduates are facing competition from India, China, the Philippines and Ireland.

Corporations are beginning to outsource many of their entry-level tech and software jobs to oversees workers, especially coding. Which means there is increased competition for open roles and an increasing pace of international employee movement.

In our classrooms, it’s more critical than ever to teach students to be culturally sensitive in their work and to understand the nuances of working with colleagues and superiors who may bring with them international- religious- or ethnically-nuanced work styles and beliefs.

Any company will benefit from an employee base that is not limited by preference or geographical boundaries, but not if their workforce isn’t ready to work as effectively as possible with the modern talent pool.

Ever Changing Careers

As educators, we need to set the foundation of the critical skills our graduates will need on the day they graduate and as they progress in their careers. Too much time is spent on knowledge that the employers don’t want and not enough on the skills that will make the software engineer productive on their first day on the job.

When I first graduated, the concept was that a programmer wasn’t useful until their 3rd year in the industry. Our modern society just doesn’t support that model anymore and the engineers with the right skills are the ones that employers want.

A very large international company recently informed me that they no longer recruit new graduates and will only hire experienced staff. Is that not a strong indicator of the disconnection between education and business?

John Columbus is a 33-year veteran of industry and Assistant Professor, Software Engineering, Dunwoody College of Technology. Contact him at jcolumbus@dunwoody.edu

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