Canadian computing pioneers have issues with IT education

TORONTO – Canada’s education system needs a major overhaul if the industry expects to produce top-notch IT talent, according to a panel of computing veterans who were hailed as pioneers by IBM Canada Ltd. on Wendesday.

As a highlight of Big Blue’s Centre for Advanced Studies Conference (CASCON), the company honoured 90 individuals based on their contribution to computing’s early days. IBM said honourees must have received their Ph.Ds prior to 1973, spent a substantial part of their career at a Canadian University and advanced computing research here. A gala ceremony where the pioneers will be formally recognized is scheduled to take place Wednesday evening.

When they left their front-row seats at the CASCON keynote to discuss their achievements, however, several honourees said they were concerned about the lack of enrolment in software engineering courses, the challenges in attracting women to the field and the failure of many professionals to continue their education throughout their career.

Though he regularly travels to high schools and even elementary schools, Eric Manning, director of the Waterloo Computer Communications Networks Group, and of the Waterloo Institute for Computer Research, said young people rarely have a sense of what technology professionals do.

“About the most penetrating insights (they have) come from reading Dilbert,” he said, referring to the popular Scott Adams comic strip. “There is a perception out there that computing isn’t necessarily something that improves the human condition. That turns off some people, including women.”

Morven Gentleman, a professor of Computer Science at Dalhousie University and CTO of GINI University Services Inc., said the mainstream media has blown the IT skill shortage out of proportion and ignored the statistics that have been compiled by agencies such as the Software Human Resource Council.

“There never was a significant decrease in technology employment, and if there ever was it was never for very long,” he said. “People talk about offshore, and it’s real, but it also accounts for about two per cent of the work. If there’s a 10 per cent growth rate, (offshore outsourcing) is not fundamentally important.”

Manning urged post-secondary schools to create more joint degree programs that help students gain a foothold in specific industry verticals, such as biology. Calvin C. Gotlieb, who founded the original computation centre at the University of Toronto and the first university credit course in Canada in 1950, said he has seen considerable success in teaching a course on technology and society.

“We’re dealing with the privacy, the social impacts, things people care about,” he said, adding that there is value in research without an obvious commercial benefit. Though the granting system in Canada has improved, Gotlieb said, there is a danger in forcing professors to find an industrial partner before they can get funding for projects. “The paperwork they have to go through is huge.”

Gentlemen pointed out that there is a big difference in the industry since he started in the 1960s, when a federal commission ordered all national public sector systems be consolidated on a single computer. “The advice I give to students is the same advice I would have given when I first started getting involved – go where the action is,” he said. “In 1962, that might have meant going to the United States or Europe and learning what was going on out there. Now the action could be just about anywhere.”

CASCON wraps up on Thursday.

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