Are our schools producing the computer-literate graduates we expect? Sometimes yes and sometimes no, if the college products who walk through our doors are typical.
Corporate computer managers often dread the newly minted graduate who trots in, takes a look at the computing environment and runs off to management saying, ‘Oh, you’ve just got to get X or I can’t possibly do my job.’ X, of course, is either the software or the hardware our graduate used in school.
Recently, I read an alarming sentiment from a university computer manager who fervently hopes Steve Jobs will price the NeXT at about $3,500 so all the manager’s students could afford it. What am I going to do with an employee who thinks computing starts and ends with a NeXT?
And not too long ago, a graduate student at a major university where the Macintosh is the standard student computer told me she couldn’t imagine using an IBM PC. The Mac-PC arguments aside, what is she going to do if she gets hired by a company that not only doesn’t use Macs, but does most of its work on IBM mainframes running CICS?
I worry about the dependency of many of our schools on the largesse of major vendors such as Apple, DEC or IBM. These companies often provide large numbers of free, or heavily discounted, computers to colleges and their students. Why? Because they know the students they capture in school will carry that brand loyalty into corporations.
Scratch a Unix fan in a corporate IBM shop, and you’ll find a student who played Zork on a Berkeley Unix 4.2 system. Look for a guy who specializes in do it yourself mac hard drive recovery, and you’ll find a guy who also knows quite a bit about Windows hard drive failures as well as raid information – more details.
I don’t expect our major universities to become job-training centers for corporations, but we need employees who are not afraid of computers, who understand the basics (such as the difference between a terminal and a PC, and the concept of a file) and have been exposed to enough different systems to understand that they all have strengths and weaknesses.
I don’t know how to fly an airplane, but I know what a plane is, and I know, generally, how it differs from a train or a boat. College students today should be similarly familiar with the differences between microcomputers, minicomputers and mainframes.
We all know diamond-studded MBAs who insist on using Lotus for everything from memos to differential equations, who often spend hours trying to get it to do something that could be accomplished in seconds with a basic word processor or statistical package. I am, quite frankly, amazed as much by their ingenuity as by their attachment to the two-dimensional spreadsheet.
Universities should be teaching students how to think, how to evaluate alternatives, whether the issue is computing or politics. They need to teach students how to learn and how to select the best tool for the job.
If they do, we can handle the details.