October 2011 Archives

First steps towards a career in IT by The Open University

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Guest blog post: Kevin Streater is executive director for IT employer engagement at The Open University. The Open University are contributing a series of articles for ITWorks over the coming weeks, breaking down the skills requirements for making your way in the IT profession

The skills demand on those entering the IT profession has changed significantly in the past decade as IT professionals have become a strategic component of their organisation, engaged in all business decisions. However, it can often be this business onus that employers find lacking in their new intake.

Last month the minister for universities and science David Willetts proposed a dramatic overhaul of GCSE IT to make the subject more focused on business needs. It was a grassroots response to a problem which affects much of IT education, right up to graduate level.

The Open University's 'Developing professionalism in new IT graduate - who needs it?' report found that 43% of employers were concerned by how little knowledge graduate applicants had about business operations.

In a bid to overcome this skills crisis, The Open University has led a new effort from educators to not only increase the business relevance of their courses but also provide more routes into the industry for those from vocational or industry backgrounds, as well as those following the more traditional academic route.

Part of this means working with employers to understand the key skills students need to pursue a career in IT and linking them to a set of entry level roles defined by the internationally recognised Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA).

Your first job

Whilst the job titles may vary slightly, there are five main roles available to new recruits into the IT sector - recognised by government and across the industry as the first step on the career ladder.

•    Service desk agents - act as the first point of contact for all IT issues. Responsibilities  include fault reporting and first line problem resolution, customer service and communication

•    Support technicians - perform simple operational tasks running scripts and batch jobs

•    Systems operator - responsible for the day to day running of an IT infrastructure and may also contribute to the identification and resolution of faults in those applications

•    Application support - responsible for supporting users in particular applications that enable businesses to be successful

•    Network operations - responsible for the installation, basic configuration, management, support, and operation of networks

Whilst these job titles carry their own responsibilities and require their own unique skills sets, the paths into these roles are varied and open to people from a range of backgrounds who want to learn in different ways.

The Open University has developed resources to help both students and employers identify appropriate higher education modules, qualifications and continuous professional development (CPD) courses based on standardised professional skills set out in SFIA.

Below lays out examples of the different routes into these entry-level jobs, which provide an alternative to the traditional academic university path and the types of people the form of learning may best suit.

A vocational route

A modern day university education is a significant commitment and certainly not for everyone.

Potential employees to the IT industry are increasingly searching for alternatives which still allow them to demonstrate the right skills and expertise and secure that first job without having to commit to a university education up-front.

The Open University recently launched a higher apprenticeship programme with Capgemini that provides a vocational, skills-based pathway combining hands-on technical learning and professional development. It is specifically aimed at those looking to take their first steps on the IT career ladder but who haven't got the academic background required for university, or are simply put off by that particular way of learning.

For employers, it represents a new approach which sees them work with The Open University to grow their own graduate talent rather than relying on the output of traditional higher education. The higher apprenticeship programme instils in new recruits the most relevant technical skills within the context of their organisation and reduces the time employees spend out of the office.

The Open University's higher apprenticeship programme can be completed around an existing job so you earn while you learn. The first part of the programme  takes only seven weeks with a three-hour session organised at a location and time to suit each student and their employer. From then on the rest of the programme is delivered in the workplace using real-world experiences to provide the learning context.

A business relevant degree for career switchers

For career changers, already in employment but looking to make the switch over to IT, the cost of traditional higher education coupled with high unemployment represents a scary environment in which to re-skill and change career direction.

In this situation it is essential that universities give their students the best possible chance of finding a job and maximising the investment in their degree programme. This means not only providing a comprehensive grounding in technical skills but also giving students the experience and knowledge to apply these in a business environment to meet commercial objectives.  

The Open University recently launched a new joint honours degree which allows students to combine their IT studies with a complementary subject in business, design, mathematics, psychology or statistics. By adding new work-based learning modules, offering specialised pathways to particular IT roles and including the latest industry recognised Microsoft Server and Cisco Networking certifications, The Open University is working to ensure its graduates have the mix of technical skills and office experience employers want.

Dip your toe with a recognised qualification

For some potential career switchers the commitment associated with enrolling on a traditional full time degree, can be too much. The benefits of The Open University approach is it breaks down degrees into individual courses which not only offer credits towards a full degree which you can work through at your own pace, but also come with a recognised certification in their own right.

My Digital Life is a newly launched module from The Open University that provides a grounding in the subject - looking at the origins of information technology right through to the familiar computers of today. It acts as an introductory course to higher education IT but also stands alone as a recognised qualification which can help you get that first IT role.

As well as a way to demonstrate to potential employers your competence and interest in the subject, it gives you hands on experience in skills such as programming and the web which you can use in the workplace. Once you have secured that first IT job, your employer may well look to develop your skills further in other courses as you work towards a full Diploma or BSc in Computing and IT.

Also read:

IT sector must speak in skills to bridge gaps in capability and boost IT workforce

The world needs start-ups to help drive innovation

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Kevin Farrar, IBM Academic Initiative & IBM Global Entrepreneur Lead, UK & Ireland highlights what to expect from next months IBM Global Entrepreneur of the Year 2011.

Kevin Farrar ibm small.jpgWe know that working together can drive change, and with the world becoming more instrumented, interconnected and intelligent, now is the time to use technology to address many of today's societal challenges. We want to team with entrepreneurs to build a smarter planet.

In today's challenging economic environment, technology start-ups can struggle to bring new ideas to market.

The IBM Global Entrepreneur initiative, launched in 2010, provides start-ups with no-charge access to industry-specific technologies in a cloud computing environment. Under the initiative, IBM also provides access to its sales, marketing and technical expertise.

November 2011 will see the second IBM SmartCamp take place in London. SmartCamp is an exclusive event aimed at identifying early stage entrepreneurs who are developing business ventures that align with our IBM Smarter Planet vision. Five finalists will be selected for a two-day event to network with 25 world-class entrepreneurs, investors and industry experts. The winner of the London event will then join winning startups from cities around the world to compete for the title of IBM Global Entrepreneur of the Year 2011.

Christine Hodgson, chairman at Capgemini UK, on the need to embrace apprenticeships

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A guest blog post from Christine Hodgson, chairman at Capgemini UK, about the need for the IT sector to embrace apprenticeships

With the latest youth unemployment figures at around one million, it's very disappointing that just 2% of the technology sector currently employs apprentices. This is compared to 20% of companies who took on an apprentice in the year to April 2011, according to the British Chambers of Commerce.

The good news is the picture is changing. Apparently 21% of the technology sector plan to hire apprentices in the future which will put us somewhere near the national average.

Capgemini hosted a roundtable discussion recently, supported by Business in the Community, to review IT apprenticeships and to gauge the appetite of the technology sector to work together and create a national standard. Since this meeting, which was attended by 50 different organisations, we have agreed a Charter with our industry colleagues.

The Charter contains commitments to create more apprenticeships in our sector and to develop nationally recognised career paths for entry at apprentice level. This will build on the work already done by E-skills and the National Apprenticeship Service (NAS). It will be used to market to schools and careers advisers so young people can understand the different entry points to our sector.

One of the challenges is convincing the sector that school leavers are ready to add value to their company. Across all sectors, employers still have concerns about the quality of candidates and their qualifications.

At Capgemini, we believe that as long as young people have a certain level of intelligence and enthusiasm, we can train them in the skills that they need. Invest and nurture young talent and you will reap the benefits.

I would challenge all employers to look at their workforce and consider what an injection of enthusiasm and energy junior support might provide. I champion junior talent for a number of reasons:

-    To secure talent for roles in the rapidly changing world of technology
-    To grow our own talent in skills that are scarce in the market
-    To bring energy, enthusiasm and fresh ideas
-    To bring a new source of committed individuals as the retention of apprentices tends to be higher than average
-    To develop our leaders of the future

Capgemini has its own Higher Apprentice degree programme, with the first 34 higher apprentices joining Capgemini in 2011. It's a five-year programme of work experience and study which enables attainment of a BSc in Computing and IT Practice from the Open University and a Level 4 Diploma in IT Professional Competence from QA Training.

This enables young people to train and gain qualifications without the debts of going to University.

I firmly believe that junior talent can play a key role in all organisations not just the technology sector and I would urge all employers to embrace apprenticeship schemes - it is not onerous and there are real benefits for the individual and for business.

Training for the future

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A guest blog by Matthew Poyiadgi, european vice president at CompTIA

Training vs Experience? Surely both.

Over five blogs, I will discuss some of the challenges that the IT industry faces in training for the present and future based on CompTIA's conversations with the IT industry. But to start with, I want to answer the question 'do we need training at all?'

It's probably unsurprising to hear that I think we do. But I come across plenty of people who say things like 'experience is all that counts' or 'why do we need so many certifications?'

Yes, experience does count, but only for so much. IT is a huge subject and advancing or transitioning means learning new skills. Companies have expertise in house, but if they want to use IT to expand or sell in new areas, they need to bring in new skills. This means either training, or hiring people who have been trained and certified.

There are so many certifications because IT is varied and different people need different skills. As technology develops, new courses will be launched, old ones updated, and some will fall by the wayside. Industry certifications are designed to assess the skills that industry says it needs. If there is no need they will not be developed. The question is not 'are there too many', it's 'which is right for me?'

You'd expect your doctor to regularly update his skills, so why not IT? After all, IT is changing at least as fast as medicine, probably quicker. Your customers, like a doctor's patients, will want to work with the best.

Matthew will open CompTIA's EMEA Member Conference on the 9th November in London. The conference will offer insights based on three tracks - The IT Channel, Learning & Development, and Training & Certification.

The changing role of the CIO

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In this guest blog post, Doug Clark, IBM UK & Ireland cloud leader, writes about the role of the CIO. Businesses are powerd by IT, and as Doug discusses, the CIO has a unique opportunity to shape how business evolves, by smart use of IT to do things in innovative ways.

IBMDougClark3.jpgTo be successful, CIOs must understand the needs and goals of their organisations and deliver on their unique mandates. Communicating effectively with colleagues to reach explicit agreement on how IT can best support business objectives is vital. So is disseminating that understanding so that executives and other stakeholders acknowledge and support IT's primary focus.

Yet these mandates represent a snapshot in time. They can change with shifts in the economic, competitive or technological landscapes. When the objectives of the organisation change, so too may the CIO mandate. And yes, every CIO still has to deliver excellence in the fundamentals: the secure and reliable delivery of information technology for example.

However, CIOs are uniquely positioned to help their organisations cope with the volatility and complexity of the 21st century - by generating valuable insight from data and serving as catalysts for innovation. In successful organisations the CIO is no longer looked upon as 'Chief IT Mechanic' but is now recognised for extracting value from technology and insight from complex systems.

For example, cloud computing is one of the critical tools that can enable CIOs to reallocate internal resources from routine system maintenance toward tasks that are most valuable to their organisations.

66 percent of every dollar spent on IT is spent on maintaining current IT infrastructures versus adding new capabilities. Moving to a cloud environment offers the chance to free up infrastructure and resources and be redeployed into the front line (while also reducing costs). It also offers the ability to create projects 'on the fly', setting up and even turning off projects quickly - in essence you get more chances to get a business solution right and then, keep it in perfect tune with the evolving market needs.

CIO's of all types of organisations need to get out of an 'overheads' way of thinking and get into a 'business value' mode, by broadening their ecosystem they can enable the opportunities for business growth.

Further resources >>

WorldSkills 2011: Vince Cable says government will invest in skills to help employers

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Worldskills_smaller.jpgIn a speech at the international WorldSkills event in London, business secretary Vince Cable spoke about the government's investment in skills to help employers develop apprenticeship schemes, new professional standards and closer partnerships with education and training providers.

Watch the speech below:


WorldSkills 2011: UK IT WorldSkills competitor tackles Active Directory, Linux and noisy welders

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Worldskills_smaller.jpgI caught up with Worldskills UK network support competitor, 20-year-old Matt Mack on day one of the international competition.

He said he's started with the easiest task of the three-day competition, which involved setting up a Microsoft Active Directory using open source technologies, Linux and Apache Web Server. Mack also had to set up virtual name posts, create a FTP server and printing functionality.

Expecting the tasks to get more difficult, Mack said his worst nightmare was a task involving Linux, LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol) and Postfix to map user email inboxes without the need for two databases - "what Microsoft Exchange does but cheaper and more efficient," he says.

WorldSkills_matt_small.jpgPerhaps the biggest challenge is the noise. Despite IT skills competitors working alongside hairdressers, pastry chefs and beauty therapists, the noise from the welders and construction metal work from across the exhibition centre is unbelievable. Mack assures me he has ear muffs in case it gets too bad.



IT sector needs standardised apprenticeships and revamped ICT GCSE

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Ann Brown, HR vice president at Capgemini UK discusses changes to the IT curriculum and the need for standardisation of IT apprenticeships

It's a sobering thought that some of those starting university in 2012 will finish their degrees with more than £40,000 worth of debt as top-up fees are introduced across some of Britain's top institutions.

What can we in the IT industry do about this? We need to offer an alternative for young people to encourage the next generation of IT professionals into the sector. In my view, apprenticeships offer this opportunity and there is great appetite among our industry colleagues to embrace apprenticeship schemes to ensure the pipeline of talent continues to deliver the talent of tomorrow.

We recently held a roundtable to discuss the issue and the high level of attendance from senior executives from the likes of KPMG, Logica, IBM, Accenture, BBC, Atos, Steria, PWC, the British Computer Society (BCS), and many others demonstrates the importance of the issue to the industry.

During the roundtable we learned that the desire among our colleagues to collaborate, learn from each other on best practice and to find common ground on apprenticeships is strong.

The challenge now is to reach an agreement with the National Apprentices Service (NAS) and our sector colleagues on an industry standard for apprenticeships in terms of entry routes and career structure. At present, there is no national standard for hiring apprentices and we at Capgemini want to change that.

Imagine a 16-year-old who has just left school and is interested in a career in IT. Where do you turn for guidance? With very little knowledge of routes into the industry, let alone knowing which companies to apply to, what chance does that young person have to find the right route into employment?

Our challenge is to provide clearer routes from schools into IT apprenticeships so the supply of talent is not restricted to graduates. The way things stand, there is no way of identifying the demand for apprenticeships and matching that demand to suppliers.

The good news is the government has recognised the need to restructure the GCSE IT curriculum to place more emphasis on designing software and writing computer programmes, which will make the course more business focused. We are working with the government and industry partners to help pilot the revised curriculum which will teach pupils to think of IT in business terms. This will make them more aware of the opportunities out there and more prepared for a role in the IT sector once they leave school.

We at Capgemini already offer a Higher Apprenticeship Programme for 18-year-olds. Our first 24 Higher Apprentices have joined us this year to start with hands on work experience while studying for a degree in Computing & IT Practice from the Open University.

This is an extension of the apprenticeship scheme we established in 2008 and is the first time we have sought an alternative to IT graduates, which have traditionally been the mainstay of IT recruitment not only of our company, but the IT industry as a whole. We expect to have a new generation of qualified developers and engineers who have been through the scheme working on some of our key clients.

The apprenticeship programme is just one channel and if we are to provide clarity to potential employers we need to agree five or six entry routes ratified as an industry standard so everyone can recruit from the same designated channels.

This will ideally lead to a charter with signatures from E-Skills, the National Apprenticeships Service (NAS) and industry partners. But this is no quick fix. Our roundtable has shown there is a broad understanding of the issues around apprenticeships and also the opportunity this presents IT companies.

We hope this is another step towards reaching the industry vision of a signed IT Services Charter in 2012 supporting the recruitment and development of apprentices in our sector.

WorldSkills 2011: Apprenticeships at Cisco, 3M and XMA launched

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Worldskills_smaller.jpgWorldSkills kicks off today at Excel in London and will run from 5th-8th October. WorldSkills London 2011 is the world's biggest international skills competition, covering hairdressing to stone-masonry to ICT skills.

Celebrating the plethora of skills on show, companies are using the event to launch new apprenticeship schemes and hire apprentices.

Out of the 1,300 apprenticeships being launched at the event, technology companies 3M, Cisco and XMA have announced new apprentice placements. 

Zoe Dickson, HR director at 3M said: "As an innovation company 3M will always need talented individuals to ensure we can continue to grow and prosper into the future. The very best companies look for the very best people. However, being technically skilled is not enough in itself - equally important are those 'soft' skills such as the ability to interact with others and communicate effectively."

Lesley Giles, UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) said: "Engineering is an area that is expected to increase as the UK looks to develop high level skills in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects. This will be critical as we move towards the future and also in replacing workers set for retirement."

Computer Weekly is supporting the Worldskills event as a media partner and has been following competitor, Matthew Mack, during his training to compete at the event.

IT sector must speak in skills to bridge gaps in capability and boost IT workforce

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Kevin Streater is executive director for IT employer engagement at The Open University. The Open University will be contributing a series of articles for ITWorks over the coming weeks breaking down the skills requirements for making your way in the IT profession. First in the series looks how the problems the IT sector faces in plugging its skills gaps

Whatever the uncertainties around the economic climate one thing that is increasingly clear is that the fate of the IT sector will be central to the UK's economic recovery.

E-Skills UK's Technology Insights report for 2011 calculates the ICT sector to be worth £100bn to the UK economy - a figure they predict could grow by £50bn over the next decade causing employment in the industry to grow nearly five times faster than the UK average.

But as we have seen from concerns over imminent skills shortages and falling numbers of IT and computer science graduates, it is not safe to assume that we have the workforce to fill a widening job market.

The crisis in UK IT centres on the development of new professionals and the system that supports their development through to senior management. The future of the sector is being harmed by graduates who are frustrated at the standard and relevance of their personal development - and employers that are concerned that the graduates they take on lack the skills and experience to transfer their understanding of IT into the workplace.

It's a challenge that requires a brand new approach from educators, dispensing with the traditional course brochures and starting to speak in the industry language of IT skills and competency.

The fact is a lot the difficulties facing the IT sector at present come down to barriers, both perceived and real, that have cast doubt on the public's views of IT as an affordable and accessible profession with a traversable route up to well paid senior management roles.

If companies want to attract and retain the best talent coming out of university into entry-level positions (which often can't compete financially with those offered by the City and law firms), they need to demonstrate clearer career pathways supported by intuitive and strategic staff learning.

At the Open University we are looking to untangle the multitude of job roles and skills requirements which we hope will help kick start a new openness in IT and see the numbers return to an industry that desperately needs them.

Over the coming weeks The Open University will publish a series of articles aiming to introduce Computer Weekly readers to a new approach to IT education and professional development throughout their sector.

This new model is based on intensive research and industry engagement by the University, encompassing skills mapping and job profiling that together meet the capability requirements of modern business. By breaking down the business driven competencies for each role into a selection of skills elements these articles will demonstrate the change in skills demand as you work your way up the IT ladder and guide you through the education tools available to help you make this transition.

This approach will help CIOs and IT managers create a skills development path that will put in motion a conveyer belt, turning entry-level staff into the company's future senior management.

Throughout these articles we will be encouraging Computer Weekly readers to ask questions via the ITWorks hash tag #ITworksCW, the Facebook page and the comment sections under each article. These questions will be collated and the most popular ones will form the basis of final article with answers provided by The Open University's expert careers advisors.