Computing degrees are becoming increasingly popular choices for university applicants and the computing sector remains a progressive profession with a high level of demand. Despite this, many willing, qualified computer science candidates are struggling to find jobs, in a large part down to the fact that educational institutes are not preparing students for the actual practicalities involved once they enter the workplace.
Here, Mohammed Rehman, Head of School of Computing at Arden University, looks at how professionals can future-proof their qualifications and how universities play a vital role here.
Soft skills first
There are ways in which computing degrees can be taught that can keep up with the pace of advancements that will meet the demands the jobs of today and the future will present.
To be successful in this highly dynamic area, programmers tend to place more emphasis on technical know-how, ignoring the importance of developing interpersonal skills. Programming languages change all the time, so only teaching coding really isn’t enough to future-proof people’s careers in computing.
Time and time again we are finding that employers are looking for computing candidates with interpersonal skills – something which is often hard to find. And, unsurprisingly, this isn’t anything new. Research over two decades old has indicated the importance of teaching more than just the technicalities behind computing, outlining the importance of encouraging team-based project work or discussions based on related case studies, so that students can develop the temperament to respond to group work environments.
Working in a group requires future coding experts and programmers to develop patience, and to be able to adjust themselves with other individuals. These aspects cannot be learnt in an individual project.
One of the top reasons why graduates struggle to find work is because many I.T. and computing recruiters have requirements that go beyond what is taught in lectures.
As mentioned, interpersonal skills are vital. With the sector progressing at a rapid rate, computing professionals will no doubt need to refresh their ‘know-how’ knowledge along the way. Fortunately, this can be taught. Employers are often more than willing to pay for courses and assist employees with gaining the right credentials, as long as they are confident that they have the right person for the job.
And what defines the ‘right’ person, if it is not their I.T knowledge? Their soft skills. The top skill computing professionals should look to work on and master is communication.
Under the ‘communication’ skill category falls three vital attributes: the ability to remain flexible and showcase expertise when responding to change; the ability to communicate effectively both, verbally and in writing (whether digitally or in-person); and being able to work within a team, demonstrating effective listening, negotiating, persuading and presentation skills.
Let’s do computing and not just talk about it
To allow students to develop these skills, exposure to real-life roles and what they require is needed. But, the demand for technologists is greater at experienced-level than entry-level, so how can graduates get the skills needed for higher end roles?
Research has shown that active learning allows students to actually retain more information. This can be done by using practical assessments rather than essays and judging based on theoretics. A good phrase of mine that stands true here, is: “let’s actually do computing; let’s not just talk about it.” Additionally, solving real-world problems is a key aspect of assessment that can help you to gain useful skills.
As an example, at Arden we don’t expect students to create an enterprise-wide database in their first year learning on the database module, but instead present students with a ‘problem’ database which they have to optimise; this is more in line with the sort of role you would take on when you graduate.
Integrating soft skills with bitesize modules
Alongside our module content, we are aligning with vendors such as AWS and Oracle in order to give our students access to industry standard software and additional resources. This means that on modules such as Introduction to Databases, for example, we make use of Oracle Cloud Services so that students can learn skills using online platforms.
By aligning content with the curricula offered by vendors, universities can provide students with the opportunity to extend their learning and aim for certification as an additional ‘foot in the door’ with employers.
We also run extra-curricular ‘Industry Relevant Tools and Training’ workshops that give students an opportunity to develop in-demand skills, for example in Python programming. This offers bitesize modules that students can unlock along the way, further improving their knowledge and exposure to in-demand skills needed post-graduation.
When adopting this model, universities must go through a continuous cycle of review and refresh in order to maintain the currency of provision to ensure that graduates are suitably equipped with relevant skills. This is achieved through: conversations with employers, through mechanisms such as Employer Advisory Boards; feedback from current and graduating students and monitoring current and future trends in technology and employment.
Bitesize modules are not the only option for helping students develop the skills they need. Practical experience is vital, too. In our Data Analysis module we’ll ask students to interrogate the typical data and make sense of the numbers that they would find in a real-life business. From there we would expect students to make recommendations that the business can take forward as concrete actions. This approach allows them to integrate critical thinking into the more analytical side of computing, thus making them more appealing for employers post-graduation.
Giving students the opportunity to extend their learning and gain additional certifications that are tailored towards their end goal after graduating is also a good way to ensure students have the skills they need. For example, we have partnered with vendors such as Oracle, AWS and Microsoft in order to align course content with certifications offered by these organisations so that, with a little extra work, students can gain badges and accreditations from these partners.
This also gives students access to the platforms and resources offered by these vendors so that they can get ‘hands on’ practical knowledge with a range of industry-standard tools and platforms. And by exposing them to the typical scenarios and situations their future job may present, they can pick up the relevant skills they need, leaving them better prepared for life post-graduation.
By ensuring all students have this foundational set of skills and by exposing them to the possibilities the sector can offer, we will find that the next generation of technology talent that is born to master the computing sector will be equipped with the right skills to thrive.