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Real-World IT vs. Computer Science: How Colleges Are Morphing


college graduates, illustration

With IT professionals in short supply, university computer science programs remain a significant source of would-be new hires for CIOs. However, many IT leaders say that computer science graduates are often not ready to hit the ground running in corporate IT.

The core classes required of computer science majors deserve scrutiny, some CIOs say. Think about this: What would you like to see changed in the curriculum that students study as they prepare for a career in IT? "Minimize calculus: It is an artificial barrier to attracting, retaining, and graduating computer scientists," says Curtis Carver, VP and CIO, University of Alabama at Birmingham.

"Having worked in the technology field for 35 years including leading technology organizations and holding a full professor position, I have never used calculus to solve a practical problem," Carver says. "Focus instead on projects (lots of them) and minimize lecture. Work on teams in a meaningful way."

Beyond the core classes, IT leaders seek alignment with today's most-wanted IT skills.

"There has been and will continue to be high demand for computer science graduates with a deep and broad understanding of building highly scalable, distributed systems," says Matthew Mead, CTO of SPR Consulting. "Despite this, there are some areas where computer science programs can improve."

Specifically, corporate technology leaders bemoan the lack of practical skills in critical areas from cloud computing and agile processes to emerging capabilities in artificial intelligence and data science.

However, there are some interesting efforts emerging—some introduced by leading universities and other more focused programs and partnerships initiated by IT leaders themselves—that suggest a way forward on these fronts. Let's take a peek at some examples:

Transparent Cloud

For the third year in a row, cloud and distributed computing was the top technical skill to get you hired in 2018, according to LinkedIn. Cloud has fast become the norm in corporate IT, but not so in the halls of computer science programs. "Having no familiarity with this space puts graduates at a disadvantage when interviewing for their first job," says Mead, who worries that many programs fail to give students the opportunity to become familiar with newer technologies that are fundamentally changing traditional IT approaches like no-SQL databases and serverless architectures.

Mead, like many IT leaders, is actively involved in coming up with solutions locally as a member of Loyola University's Computer Science Program Advisory Committee, a group of 20 senior IT leaders from the Chicago area who provide feedback on the computer science curriculum.

There are some cloud-focused degree programs popping up around the United States. Stevens Institute of Technology, for example, has an Enterprise & Cloud Computing Master's Program to provide enterprise IT professionals with an "in-depth education on reliability and security in distributed computing and service-oriented architecture," emphasizing systems administration and governance and covering the design and implementation of enterprise software systems that rely on the cloud.

The University of Maryland University College's Cloud Computing Architecture Master's Degree teaches students how to effectively design cloud environment and transform traditional IT infrastructure for the cloud. 

The AI Future

While cloud computing is IT's present, artificial intelligence (AI) in many ways is its future. The practical application of AI in the enterprise has not typically been taught at the undergraduate level. But that's beginning to change. Earlier this year, Carnegie Mellon University launched its bachelor's degree in Artificial Intelligence to address the growing demand addresses for AI specialists in the marketplace.

Offering the first undergraduate AI degree in the U.S., the program will focus on providing students with in-depth knowledge of how to transform large amounts of data into actionable decisions.

CMU's bachelor's degree program in computer science "teaches students to think broadly about methods that can accomplish a wide variety of tasks across many disciplines", research professor of robotics and computer science and director of the new AI degree program Reid Simmons said in a statement. However, the bachelor's degree in AI "will focus more on how complex inputs, such as vision, language, and huge databases, are used to make decisions or enhance human capabilities."

Hybrid Programs

Another emerging trend on university campuses: Programs that combine computer science and electrical engineering, as is the case with Marquette University's  computing engineering degree and UC Berkeley's electrical engineering and computer sciences (EECS) major in the College of Engineering.

"Computer science takes a deep dive in computer algorithms, writing efficient software code, and building complex software systems. Electrical engineering students study circuits and build computer hardware" says Mead. "These new hybrid programs are creating computer science-minded graduates with a different set of skills and the appreciation required to successfully build these new devices that require knowledge of both hardware and software development."

Of course, university education isn't just for undergraduates. At LexisNexis, insatiable need for aspiring data scientists has spurred the development of several innovative programs in partnership with the North Carolina State Computer Science Department. Some programs are focused on delivering technology curricula to existing employees.

This quarter, for example, the company is offering several courses co-developed with the university, including "Data Wrangling with Python," "Machine Learning with Python," and "Data Visualization" taught by NC State professors but developed with the input of LexisNexis subject matter experts and using the company's data.

Looking ahead to 2019, the company seeks more university partnerships around the globe, says LexisNexis chief data officer Rick McFarland. "Our goal is to find a partner university in close proximity to all our primary tech centers—London, Shanghai, and Raleigh—and begin to co-develop technical curriculums with each of them."


 

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