by Mike Lynch

Learning the ropes by swinging from the branches

Jan 16, 20125 mins
IT Leadership

See also: CIOs remember their first PCs

The teaching of ICT in schools is a hot topic at the moment. Critics have long decried the formal ICT curriculum as teaching students a high level of competency at fancy slide transitions on PowerPoint, but leaving them with few truly valuable skills.

Now the government has waded into the debate, with Michael Gove announcing plans to axe the ICT curriculum in favour of computer science.

When I look back at my IT education, it was mainly through mucking about on my uncle’s HP-65 calculator that I got a feel for technology.

Hands up who else spent their evenings as a teenager reconfiguring their hard drive?

I know I’m not the only one. I used to take great pleasure in converting my 8-bit BBC Micro into a sampler, all the while secretly hoping I would be the next Duran Duran and that mass female adulation would follow.

And let’s face it, many of us still get to play with the excitement of technology and get paid for it.

But how did you learn to manoeuvre all those complicated systems? The chances are that you did a science course at university.

But your love of technology probably would have developed at an earlier age. By using your analytical mind, you would have learnt to create stuff and make things work using technology, largely through trial and error.

The IT world is all about tomorrow’s world, having vision and ambition for a future way of working.

CIOs globally are putting together the pieces of this new model, succeeding, failing and then succeeding again, and in turn creating systems that will be used in years to come.

And so the future generation of CIOs should to be encouraged to think about how the world will continue to evolve beyond where it is now, and learn about developing new solutions and adapting current systems to tomorrow’s challenges.

Unfortunately there is nothing ambitious about ICT in schools today. And yet it is young people who are adapting the quickest of all to new technologies. They tweet, download apps and buy online with astonishing agility and speed.

The last time my five-year-old got hold of my iPad, she managed to order two volumes of Peppa Pig in less time than it takes me to write a text message, all whilst topping my highest score on Angry Birds. It’s scary.

But what is more scary is that ten years on, she will be in secondary school, sitting down in a classroom of computers to be told how to download an app and format cells in Excel, as part of her ICT education.

Hardly inspiring stuff, especially for her classmate who has already built his own website and spent the weekend trying to hack into his dad’s bank account to buy virtual puppy food.

It’s like teaching someone how to use a calculator, instead of learning maths, or watching the film of Much Ado About Nothing, instead of studying the Shakespeare text.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big Kenneth Brannagh fan – but it feels like we’ve missed something.

And we have, because we are failing that golden talent that could revolutionise the future of our industry and change the world as a result.

Us IT types all remember the thrill of solving our first programming problem or grappling with a difficult subroutine.

I’m still nostalgic when I think about programming my first computer game at a teletype keyboard with no screen; in today’s world, technology grows ever more accessible, diverse and integral to our everyday lives, and the possibilities seem endless.

Yet how can we expect today’s young talent, whose current exposure to technology in schools just about stops after creating a pie-chart based on the function of F4*D6, to ever get excited about a future in our industry?

I’m rather concerned that we are a dying species.

The young cohort of would-be technology gurus and their fellow STEM graduates in the UK is dramatically dwindling.

This is a serious problem for UK businesses, which inevitably then look for its brains abroad.

Tech hub Cambridge sees particularly steep competition for employees with sixteen computer and technology businesses based in the Cambridge Science Park and ARM next door in the city.

Autonomy has even offered free iPads to applicants who come for interview.

So what can be done? Certainly one step in the right direction is Gove’s recent initiative aimed at freeing ICT from the shackles of a dopey school curriculum.

It’s a brave move, and one that has been criticised in some quarters as a triumph of employers over education; favouring vocational learning rather than academia.

But this misses the point – with the freedom of teachers to move away from Word and Excel-based lessons comes the chance to show pupils the real magic of technology – of the power it has to create, improve and entertain.

The UK has a wealth of untapped talent, but to grow the successful CIOs of the future, we need to set the right educational ecosystem to allow young people to question our technological landscape, not just live in it. They already do that).

It’s the difference between piloting the plane and sitting in the back sipping a diet coke – and schools and teachers need to understand this.

In fact, it might be IT professionals like you, who are desperately needed in our education system.

So as you read this on your long commute home, tired after another gruelling day at the office, with no holiday in sight – fancy a career change?