Last month I had the unique opportunity to help a large university plan its future curricula for its undergraduate and graduate degrees in computer information systems. The university recognizes that Information Technology is changing, and wants to make sure that its students are being prepared for the real world. To this end the university has asked various people to help them see things from an outsider’s point of view.
The exercise made me think about my own schooling, and how things have changed since that time. When I first entered MIT as an undergraduate over thirty-five years ago, the only computer-related degree was in the electrical engineering department, and that degree focused on designing and building computers—not using them. I started in that program and rapidly became disillusioned; I then moved to the management department because it seemed to be more focused on the business use of computers. I had to know at a high level how computers work, but I certainly didn’t need to know how to design computers in order to use them.
Now it seems we have moved another level away from the computer itself. Off-the-shelf software packages from SAP, Oracle, PeopleSoft, and other similar companies have drastically reduced the need to write software from scratch. And in the few cases where proprietary advantage might be gained by having custom-written software, outsourcing and offshoring have become the dominant methods for creating that custom software.
The net effect is to make the knowledge of how to design software almost as irrelevant to many future IT college students as knowing how to design computers was to me thirty-five years ago. Real world IT people are moving away from writing software. Instead, they spend their time buying off-the-shelf software packages and the hardware to run them; they customize and adapt the software to their business needs; they interconnect and interface the purchased software and hardware; and then they keep their infrastructure running smoothly and efficiently.
This new definition of the IT role in business reminds me very much of another business role: real estate property management. This is the organization that runs your buildings, keeps your offices at the right temperature, repairs leaky plumbing, keeps the grounds attractive, controls the security to the building, and generally gives you a nice, clean, comfortable and safe place to work. Think about the property management role and its similarity to IT. The property management organization manages infrastructure. They have to buy, maintain, and replace large expensive complicated assets like elevator systems and HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning). They maintain and upgrade a network of pipes and ducts throughout the building. They handle changes in requirements caused by your evolving business.
Furthermore, as building technology has advanced, the property management role has become more and more computerized. It’s not unusual for an extreme temperature registered by one of the building sensors to trigger an alert to someone’s pager in the middle of the night. The remote person can then connect to the building HVAC system over the Internet, see a graphical display of the building temperatures and HVAC settings, and make changes to various settings to re-balance the system. This is exactly the same kind of approach that IT network or server engineers use now to deal with computer problems that occur at odd hours.
Any new technology goes through phases. In the “frontier” phase, there’s a lawless environment where it’s “every man for himself” because there are few support systems to help, just like the Wild West in the 1800’s. Then as the use of the technology grows and becomes standardized, and as support systems become common, things become much more practical and ordinary.
Computer information systems went through the frontier phase up until around the 1990’s, but gradually during the 1980’s and 1990’s the systems became more and more standardized, and off-the-shelf software began to proliferate. Sure, there’s still room for new frontiers, especially in the communications and medical computer fields. But for most systems in most businesses, we’re out of the frontier and into the practical and ordinary. Life in IT in most companies is about improving business processes by applying technology—not about developing exotic state-of-the-art software.
So where does that leave students in future computer information systems programs? I think it provides a choice of directions. For some students who are more business focused and who are interested in making things incrementally better, the focus should be on many of the same types of skills that are taught to real estate property managers: the tools of the trade, how to work well with customers, how to select and deal with vendors, how to measure and achieve success, and how to manage money and large projects. For other students who want to work on the next software frontier, the attraction of designing and developing software will be strong, and they should be given the opportunity to learn more, just as our electrical engineers continue to learn new and better ways to design computers.
Eventually, I think the degree titles will change. Computer information systems will break apart into two degrees: one in “software engineering” and one in “management of information systems” (or maybe “information systems leadership”). Check back with me in 10 years and we’ll see if I’m right.