What's the Problem?

I'm at risk of turning into a one-trick pony here, but the rhetoric keeps hotting up regarding the IT profession and professionalism in IT. Seems like everyone has a solution (or formed a committee to find a solution - and we all know how effective committees are, right?). My issue with all of this is that a tremendous amount of effort is being directed at finding solutions for the wrong problem.

Because my space here is limited and my thoughts many, this month I'll start at the very bottom rung of the ladder: getting more young people interested in IT careers.

I recently did a bit of research, which involved interviewing my 14-year old niece. Of course one person doesn't comprise much of a research sample, but, hey, vendors have been getting away with something approaching it for years. (Typically, I get an offer of results from a global vendor-conducted survey involving more than 100 organizations, and when I ask how many are from Australia the answer is usually: Oh, umm, let me see here, yes, umm, I think it's three.) And, like the vendor community, I intend to make a sweeping generalization based on my research.

Here's my sample's demographic: female, year nine student, uses eMac at home, Windows-based PCs and notebooks at school. She is tech-savvy, owning (or in truth her parents do) an iPod, Playstation, digital camera and mobile phone. She is a frequent user of Word (for homework), IM, e-mail and the Internet. Her school uses School Island as an education tool, where she logs in to take tests and complete homework assignments. Thus far she has taken one mandated "computer-intensive" class called Computer Inventor, which she loved so much that she's taking another as an elective.

While still in junior high school (think middle school), she was taking high-school level physics, and honours maths. When I interviewed her, it was the northern summer and during the school hols. She was in the middle of completing a special medical program at the University of Rochester for young people. She is cute (okay, that may not be totally objective, but she is), extremely bright, talented, and has amazing social skills. She does not think an interest in technology means you are a geek or nerd.

And she has no intention of looking to IT as a career choice.

I asked her why (this was, after all, a research project). And what became clear as a result of this conversation is that my niece views technology as a tool, not as a profession. Currently she's interested in a career in medicine, perhaps as a doctor or scientist in neuroscience. She explained to me that if she pursues this career, then computers and computer programs "will just be part of it".

A tool. Yes, as simple as that. This up-and-coming generation of university students - whether they intend to be doctors, lawyers or Indian chiefs - expect technology to "just be there", a part of their lives and professions. They no more think of IT as a specialist career, than they would have considered a career in chalk-and-blackboard or pen-and-paper (in case you didn't noticed that was my sweeping generalization). And therein lies the real problem: young people don't have problems with IT's geeky image, they just think IT "will be there" enabling careers that are so much more interesting. And I can't help but think more of the solution-seekers should start from that premise.