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It's back to school for IT

perspective Georgetown's M. Brian Blake says IT's changing role in business calls for a big shift in the classroom.

perspective The latest findings from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimate that by 2014, the IT industry will create close to 1 million jobs.

With all of the opportunity that lies ahead for the information technology professional, there still remains a significant skills gap. Especially when you consider that the number of students majoring in computer science continues to decline, with the latest reports showing a 70 percent drop from the years 2000 to 2005.

The decline in computer science enrollment may be attributed to the misconceptions about offshoring and outsourcing, not to mention the well-publicized dot-com days. Some may even point to the stereotypical computer science nerd with taped glasses and a pocket protector as a reason to avoid a technology career.

However, for the IT professional who fully understands how to align technology with the needs of the business, the career opportunities are abundant and seemingly limitless. And far from boring.

Today's computer science curricula must expand beyond lines of code to include lines of business.

What the facts and figures don't necessarily bring to light is the dramatically changing role of IT in the workplace. No longer relegated to writing programs to support a tactical business function, today's IT professional is intertwined with every aspect of the business.

For example, consider the requirements of a company that is competing in a global economy and aims to expand operations overseas. A company of this ilk demands a technology system that is designed to support the import and export of goods around the world. This system must take into account border regulations, currency conversions and language variances among myriad other business requirements.

Clearly, the IT team that is supporting a company's global business strategy plays a critical role in the organization. Moreover, in this scenario, the opportunities exist for the company's traditional IT professionals to evolve into strategic advisers, international team leaders or project managers, for example.

To reflect the changing view of the role of IT in the business world, there needs to be a fundamental shift in the classroom. Mastering the traditional computer-engineering courses will always be required, yet today's computer science curricula must expand beyond lines of code to include lines of business.

Teaching students programming languages is quite different than training students to apply technology to real business problems. Students are best served when classroom exercises are based on applying technology to solve real-world business challenges, as opposed to quizzing students on language proficiency (which, in many cases, tests only a student's memorization capabilities).

What's more, the proliferation of open-standards-based IT strategies makes the traditional computer science coursework somewhat dated, unless the professor is continually honing his skills and connecting with real-world users to keep up on the ever-changing industry shifts and specification ratifications.

Additionally, the educator needs to be held accountable for having the foresight to realize which skills are required on the job today and will still be in demand five years from now.

Key to recognizing what the future skills will be is the understanding of the business drivers that led to the creation of programming languages Java, Python and PHP, for example. Otherwise, the student may graduate but be left behind in the work force.

Interestingly, a recent Forrester Research study reports that it is accepted and expected that IT professionals will work alongside various business groups and ecosystem partners to use technology to advance business goals. These paths span sourcing, architecture, management and innovation.

One area of employment growth that taps into all of those paths and is increasingly on the rise is service-oriented architecture. SOA is based on the ability to more closely align the use of IT with the needs of the business, much like the examples of the global distributor and the bank merger. This segment of the market is expected to reach $18.4 billion by 2012 and shows no signs of stopping.

However, to ensure the next generation's success, professors, students, and IT and business executives must work in concert to expand the education of today's students by teaching critical business skills that will complement traditional computer science training.