With the IT talent shortage growing more acute day by day, one question is on all of our minds – how do we grow the talent pool? And can we grow the talent pool? Are Information Technology gurus born or made? Is it nature or nurture, attitude or aptitude, destiny or determination?
Some will argue that this is a fundamental talent shortage – there are simply not enough people with the necessary aptitude. Perhaps IT infrastructure is like C programming – as Joel Spolsky says in his Guerilla Guide to Interviewing: “For some reason most people seem to be born without the part of the brain that understands pointers.” While most IT roles do not require one to be proficient in mental pointer arithmetic, they do frequently require systems thinking, quantitative reasoning, and work with layers of abstraction. A strong just-in-time learning ability is also essential, as technology skills have a shorter shelf life than some dairy products. While these are common skills, the combination of these aptitudes may be rare.
Others believe that IT gurus are made. While there are some aptitude requirements, what one does with said aptitude is often far more important. Becoming a civil engineer, nurse practitioner, or an accountant is traditionally seen as far more of a test of attitude than a test of aptitude. The military has a history of taking people with a small amount of in-born talent and helping them realize this talent in ways they never thought possible. There are many fields where it’s widely recognized that success comes from a little talent plus a lot of hard work, discipline, and mentorship. A good mentor helps you find a path, open a door, and understand what your options are. Hard work is essential; a mentor helps nudge that hard work in the right direction, and helps one understand the necessity and rewards of that hard work.
According to Bob Panoff, Executive Director of Shodor (a national resource for computational science education): “IT gurus” have to have a set of hard and soft skills that “being born with” is the rare exception. Maybe some of those skills were acquired beforehand, but for the most part, the skills are acquired through careful repetition and good on-the-job examples with mentoring and reflection. The natural skills needed include a willingness to work hard and to approach a problem by analyzing it first, not by implementing a stock solution. Shodor has taken young students and built a set of complementary skills that lead to expertise, but starting with generating excitement and building experience. Good mentoring can help budding IT guru-wanabe’s to appreciate that hard work will beat ‘being smart’ every time.
As a counterpoint, David Porush, CEO of MentorNet (e-Mentoring for diversity in engineering and science) says: So first let’s look at the IT Guru who sets the standard in my book: William Gibson. He’s the author of the 1984 SF novel Neuromancer. In it, he invents cyberspace. In the decades that follow, first the prefix “cyber-‘ basically stamps what remains of the 20th century. And second, there is an explosion in major sectors of IT – AI, gaming, media, the multi-sensory Web, simulations, software and hardware with ever-more-human interfaces – that are aimed at incarnating Gibson’s vision of a 3D realtime experience of data and communications as a space through which we experience an alternate reality. Insofar as a guru is an inspiring teacher who leads the way, Gibson is clearly one in the IT realm. Was he “made” or “born”? Neither. He wasn’t even trying to be an IT Guru. He was trying to express his vision of a transcendental technological future through that archaic technology of the novel.
In the end, aptitude is necessary but not sufficient; unrealized ability does not translate into results. Attitude is necessary but not sufficient; one can work hard attempting to push over a brick wall. There are plenty of people who have the necessary aptitudes, haven’t had the opportunity or the guidance to turn these abilities into meaningful skills. There are no easy solutions or fast fixes; as this is a long-term problem that requires a long-term fix. That long-term fix is something we can all do; we as an industry need to find and mentor the next generation of leaders, thinkers, do-ers and inventors.