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Legitimate University Programs Are Not Certification Training

The university educational process is one that is meant to broaden the mind, increase exposure to different areas, teach students to think outside of the box, encourage exploration, develop soft skills, and to make students better prepared to tackle more learning such as moving on to trade skills needed for specific fields.  The university program, however, is not meant to provide trade skills themselves (the skills used in specific trades), that is the role of a trade school.   Students leaving universities with degrees are intended to not be employable due to specific skill sets learned at college, but to be well prepared to learn on the job or move on to additional education for a specific job.

In the last two decades, led primarily by for profit schools looking to make money quickly without regards to the integrity of the university system, there has been a movement, especially in the United States, for trade schools to get accredited (an extremely low bar requirement that has no useful standing outside of legal qualifications for educational minimums and should never be see as a mark of quality) and sell trade degrees as if they were traditional university degrees.  This has been especially prevalent in IT fields where certifications are broadly known and desired, acquiring properly skilled educational staff is expensive and essentially impossible to do at the scale necessary to run a full program, degree areas are easily misunderstood by those entering their college years and where the personality traits most common to people going into the field sadly makes those people easy prey for collegiate marketing drives.  The promise of easy classes, double dipping (getting the certs you need anyway then getting a bonus degree for the effort) and the suggestion that by having a degree and certs all at once will open doors and magically provide career options that pay loads of money triggers an emotional response that makes potential students less able to make rational financial and education decisions, additionally.  It’s a predatory market, not an altruistic one.

Certificates play a fundamentally different role than a university education does.  Unlike universities, certification is about testing very specific skills, often isolated by product or vendor, things that should never appear in any university program.  Certification may be broad (and closer to collegiate work) in certs like the CompTIA Network+ which tests a broad range of basic networking knowledge and nothing specific to a vendor or product, but is still overly specific to a single networking technology or group of technologies to be truly appropriate for a university, but is, at the very least, leaning in that direction.  But more common certifications such as Microsoft MCSE, Cisco’s CCNA, CompTIA’s Linux+ or A+ are all overly product and vendor specific, far too “which button do I press” and far too little “what does the underlying concepts mean” for collegiate work.

Certifications are trade related and a great addition to university studies.  University work should prepare the student for broad thinking, critical thinking, problem solving and core skills like language, maths and learning.  Then applying that core knowledge to certifications should make achieving certifications easier and meaningful.  University should show a background in soft skills and broadness, while certifications should show trade skills and specific task capabilities.

Warning signs that a university is behaving improperly would include, in regards to this area of concern, overly specific programs that sound as if they are aimed at technologies like a degree in “Cisco Networking” or “Microsoft Systems”, if certifications are achieved during the university experience (double dipping – giving out a degree simply for having gotten certs) or if the program leans towards an indication of preparing someone “for the job” or expected to “get the student a great job upon completion” or is expected to “increase salary”.  These are not goals of proper university programs.

Critically evaluating any educational program is very important as educational investments are some of the largest that we make in our lives, both monetarily and in terms of our time commitments.  Ensuring that the programs are legitimate, valuable, meet both our own goals and proper goals, will be seen as appropriate by those that will see them in the future (such as hiring managers) are very important.  There are many aspects over which we must evaluate the university experience, this is only one but it is one that is a newer problem, suddenly very prevalent and one that specifically targets IT and technical hopefuls so requires extra diligence in our industry.


Choosing a University for IT Education

In previous articles I have tackled the questions around approaching university education and selecting a degree program but, thus far, I have not provided any guidance in selecting an institution at which to study.  That will be rectified now.

There are basically five categories of universities in the United States that we need to consider.  These types of educational institutions are:

  • Unaccredited schools
  • Accredited Trade schools
  • Accredited Online schools
  • Accredited Brick and Mortar Private schools
  • Public Brick and Mortal schools

There are more types of schools than these but we can basically lump all schools into one of these categories as these are the general categories that a hiring manager will view schools on a candidate’s resume.  University education has two key benefits, the first is in broadening thought processes and introducing students to many topics through liberal studies.  The second is in providing beneficial resume line items and for this second category we need a university that provides a positive reaction.

So assuming that we are concerned about putting our degrees and education onto our resumes, we need to consider carefully how our choices of educational institution will reflect on us.  You will notice that I carefully did not say that universities provide skill training to prepare workers for the jobs that they will do.  This I have covered in other articles; the university system is not intended nor generally capable of training people directly for work.  There is no mandate to do this, no expectation and little potential capacity especially when we are considering highly technical or quickly changing career fields.  IT maybe be among the most extreme of these kinds of fields, but this issue applies across the board.

Because such a huge portion of the value of a degree comes from how that degree is perceived by a hiring manager, we have to consider that impression very carefully.  And this produces what I would consider “the dead line” in selecting educational institutions.

For a large percentage of hiring managers, and much of the population, only certain types of universities are considered valid.  This is not a judgment call, only an observation of hiring reality.  Whether the quality of education, rigors of study and such are valuable or not, certain categories of schools are considered non-valid in enough of the marketplace that we must effectively discount them from consideration.

From the list that I have provided, any school that is unaccredited, purely online or a tech/trade school should be completely avoided.  These three categories are routinely views as such a strong negative that in a great many cases a candidate will be eliminated based on this one factor alone.  It is commonly said that hiring managers will see one of these schools and throw a resume directly out without any further consideration, but in reality in many cases an HR filter will do this before any human even sees the resume.  The same logic that says that we use degrees to get passed human resource gatekeepers to get our resumes in front of hiring managers based on “black and white” filter requirements, also tells us that we must avoid schools that would be considered to be on a “black list.”

This leaves only two categories of schools for any serious consideration: private, accredited brick and mortar schools and public, accredited brick and mortar schools.  Now, it must be noted, that just because a school is brick and mortar does not mean that they do not also offer online or alternative classes.  And at no point has it been suggested that it is necessary to attend a school in person.  What is critical is simply that the school be perceived as a valid, traditional educational institution.  In many cases, online classes are the best option as they provide more flexibility and better use of time avoiding time wasted in commuting, moving between classrooms and such.

Of this remaining category, public schools fare far better than private ones because the lower cost of attendance lowest, quite dramatically, the risk inherent in spending time and money on education: the less money spent, the less risk taken.  In only rare cases are private schools any better than public ones and in very many cases, they are worse.  The risk/reward calculation on most public schools is simply far better in the majority of cases.

With any school choice, reputation matters.  Schools with a good reputation are best, especially those that are broadly known.  Schools that have no reputation can be fine, as long as they truly are unknown and fall into good categories.  Schools can get a bad reputation regionally or globally, however, and this poses a risk that is difficult to predict or to avoid.  What is a top ranked school today can be poorly viewed tomorrow, and vice versa.  Large schools have the advantage of increasing the chances that someone on a hiring team will have attended that school increasing personal affinity.

There is no simple answer to selecting the right school.  Does the school benefit you through education, reputation or association (with people that will help you later in your career) is unique to each person and school combination.  But he universal guideline to follow is to stick to accredited, broadly well respected, brick and mortar, public or private not for profit schools and consider cost carefully.  Avoid online and/or for profit schools or any school that lacks proper accreditation.

As a modern side note: many schools, even sometimes others good ones, that advertise heavily especially on television or radio, often earn a bad reputation simply because of the medium of attempting to lure students.  If you have seen a school because of their marketing campaign, assume that a hiring manager has as well and while some good schools do this, it may not matter.

Choosing a University Degree Program for IT

In my last article I looked at the overarching concerns and approaches to an university program and how it would apply to us in IT. Now we will look at individual programs and how to approach the selection of a major and focus area within the university system.

Of actual degree programs we face a world of complexity as universities and colleges often use any variety of names for their programs of study and often attempt to use one program to teach another so a program name will often not match the actual field of study which can be very bad as you do not want to be in a position of needing to explain this discrepancy to potential employers or existing employers. An example of this was a well known northeastern school that lacked the ability to offer an IT program so relabeled their existing library science program to IT and passed that off as such for many years.

The first thing to consider is if we want to have a focused program in our field or one outside of the field. Given what we learned from the last article, that universities excel at liberal and traditional subjects and do poorly at technical ones and that our goals are to be broadly educated and not focused on specific skills, I general prefer to see students or job candidates who have been through non-technical course loads rather than technical ones.

There are any number of good non-technical programs from which to choose. Great examples include communications, business, accounting and psychology. It is good, of course, if any program includes some technical concepts such as project management and systems analysis, but these can simply be addressed through electives. It is also best if any program include studies in math, especially statistics and risk analysis, and general business classes, basic accounting and management. Students, we hope, will leave school with a firm foundation in understanding business context, people and communications because these are the soft skills that are most critical to an IT career and even moreso to an SMB IT career where there is far less departmental isolation between some tech positions and the operational side of the business.

For those that do not want to take the most liberal of paths as described above, universities often offer a large range of degrees within or near the IT discipline itself. This plethora of IT or IT-like options can often lead to confusion and risks making the selection rather dangerous as a highly technical degree that is in the wrong area of study would be the worst possible option – teaching neither IT nor teaching the broad skill set that IT practitioners desperately need. Even worse is going through the wrong field of study will often wildly mislead students as to what to expect when they enter the IT field and may actively look extremely bad on a resume as it can appear (and rightfully so in many cases) that the student did not take the time to understand their chosen field of study, know what degrees would be applicable to it and failed to realize this through years of university classes or did and did not bother to switch to an appropriate program! This is what we most want to avoid, actively bad degree programs.

To make this as challenging as possible, IT degrees often come with a variety of names. And IT degrees may be included under multiple schools or colleges within a university. Some universities have IT degrees inside of an IT school, others may have them within a more general science program, a math program or often within engineering. Some even have IT degrees under a business school. It is not unheard of for IT degrees to exist in multiple places within the same university with different foci depending on which college is administering the program.

We must also address the big question of “is software engineering and programming a part of IT?” In universities, the answer is generally yes even though in the professional world the answer is a resounding “no” – the two are clearly different fields of study and different disciplines. Software engineering is dedicated to the design and building of products. IT is dedicated to the building and support of the infrastructure of businesses. There is some overlap as any two fields might have, but they are very clearly different career fields that deal with extremely different day to day duties and tasks. It is quite common to find software engineering, developer and programmer courses and degree programs lumped into the same schools as IT or even put under an IT umbrella. This is not necessarily bad but can be quite confusing. We must be clear, however, that software engineering is not IT and any degree focused on programming should be avoided for someone with an interest in heading into the world of IT. Any respectable IT program is going to teach programming as a core foundation to the field, but the program will never be focused on it. If it is, this is a mislabeled program and should be avoided.

Proper IT programs should have names such as Information Technology, Computer Information Systems or Management Information Systems. IT and CIS programs are often interchangeable. MIS programs tend to be a subset of IT more focused on certain management-supporting aspects of IT.

Programs that are most insidious and dangerous to IT hopefuls are ones that are most closely named but least closely associated with the IT field: computer engineering and computer science. These two should never, ever cross paths with those looking for careers in IT.

Computer engineering is older than IT and is a subset of electrical engineering. This is a traditional engineering field that focuses on the design of computers and computer components (like processors, chips, boards, peripherals) themselves and has effectively no crossover with IT or any IT-related discipline in any way. Computer engineering and IT should almost never even appear within the same school or college within a university.

If software engineering (which itself is not an IT discipline but is at least closely related) is the programming world’s analogue to the world of traditional product development engineering then computer science is the programming world’s analogue to physics or mathematics. Computer science is truly a “science and math” type field, developing the theories and foundation that is then used by the software engineering discipline to build products often used and managed by the IT discipline. Computer Science, CS, is probably the most commonly mistaken field that IT hopefuls will enter and if a true CS program it is completely inappropriate and a waste of time. This is the program to look out for the most. Avoid CS completely and avoid any university attempting to pass IT programs off as CS, the two never overlap.

Do not take the selection of a university major lightly. My recommendation is to keep your selection as liberal as possible, use electives to introduce IT elements like basic programming and networking into your curriculum, fill your time with mind-broadening classes and learn about business, finance, accounting, communications, writing, speaking and statistics. Attempt to find internships or opportunities in the university to work with IT departments. Actively work to leverage your opportunities at university to make yourself as prepared as possible to focus on the specific skills of IT externally to your university training.

How to Approach the University Experience

All discussions of university versus non-university aside, once a university (or college as the Americans generally refer to it) is chosen, the next step is choosing a degree program that will fulfill our needs for our chosen profession. This, of course, is based on the presumption that our chosen profession is going to be IT. If you are not interested in a career in IT, this is probably not the article for you.

University programs can be problematic, especially in IT, because they are often mislabeled, students often do not know what area of study they are interested in before beginning their studies and those pushing students towards university are often inexperienced in IT and do not understand the relationship between specific programs and the field itself. So those directing students towards university studies with the intention of a career in IT will very often pressure them into university programs ill-suited to IT careers at all.

Two things that we need to consider when looking to choose a degree program: what universities themselves are good at providing and what will be useful to us in our IT careers.

First, where do universities shine? The university system, its very core goals and values, are often completely unknown to the general public which makes the broad use of universities a bit odd and problematic on its own. The university system was never meant to train students for specific careers but instead to introduce them to many concepts and foundational knowledge (not foundational industry knowledge you must note) and to force them to think broadly and critically. In this aspect, good universities usually shine.

It should be noted that some universities, including a very famous and well respected US university on the east coast openly stated that its mandate was not to educate or service students in any way and that students attended its schools solely to finance the professors who were its actual product – beware that your university choices see education as a goal, not a necessary evil.

Treating a university as a trade school is a fundamental mistake made by many, probably most, students. Course choices are not intended to be focused on specific skills that will be used “on the job” but on skills that will make one a more generally useful member of society. For example the intended use of a university is not to teach someone the specific ins and outs of managing Active Directory design on Windows Server 2016; that would be the job of a trade school. Instead university programs are intended to be more broadly based such as teaching data structures, authentication concepts or even more broadly in areas like writing and communications.

A student leaving university is not intended to be ready to hit the ground running in a real world job; that is not a goal of the system. Instead the idea is that the student be well versed in the necessary skills to help them learn the specifics of a job or career and be overall better suited for it. It is not about speeding someone into a career but preparing them for a lifetime in the field at a heavy cost to the short term. The hope being that either the student has no concerns with finances (the traditional amateur system) or will make up for the cost (in both hard finances and in career setbacks) of university over the span of their careers. Understanding this is key to understand how to approach university education to gain the appropriate value that we seek.

Second, What is useful education to us in our IT careers? At an early stage in our careers it is generally impossible to predict which skills are going to be the ones that we will need to leverage throughout our career lifespans. Not only do we not know what industry niches we will want to pursue, but we also have little ability to predict which skills will be needed or even exist in the future. And even furthermore nearly all people working in IT, if not every field, have little ability to totally pick and choose the area of technology in which they will end up working but will instead be required to learn the skills of the jobs that become available to them, moving through their careers more organically than in a specifically predefined way.

Because of this, as well as because of the university values mentioned above, focusing on specific technical skills would be almost wholly a waste during the university time frame. Of drastically more value to us are soft skills and more broad ones such as developing a great world view, understanding business and accounting practices and concerns, learning psychology and sociology, studying good management practices, communications and, probably above all, becoming well versed in both written and oral business communications. Companies hiring IT professionals tend to complain about the lack of these skills, not a lack of technical competence, especially in smaller businesses where nearly all IT practitioners have a large need to communicate effectively with end users and often even management. Having a broad understanding of other job roles and the overall workings of businesses has great value for IT practitioners as well. IT only exists in a business context, the firmer the grasp of that context the more value someone in IT has the potential to provide.

For the most part, what we want from our university experience actually lines up with what universities are best prepared to provide. What is least useful to us, throughout our lives, would be highly specific technical skills that are overly focused too early in our careers (or even before they have begun) and skills that would rapidly become outdated often even before leaving university.

So where does this leave us? First we should look at the broadest degree options. Whether we are beginning to look at Associates (two year) degrees or Bachelor (four year) degrees we generally have a choice of an “of Arts” or an “of Science” option and, in a few rare cases, an “of Professional Studies” option. Each of these is simply a point along a sliding scale with an Arts degree being the most liberal and focusing the least on the area of study selected. A Science degree is more focused and less liberal than the Arts degree. And the rare Professional Studies option is even more focused than a Science degree with very little liberal studies, basically the polar opposite of an Arts degree.

Of these degree options, almost universally I recommend the Arts approach. A heavy focus on specific skills is generally a poor approach to university for any degree field but in IT this is more dramatic than almost any other. Classes and coursework heavily specific are not generally useful with education becoming overly focused on a single area. A Science approach is a reasonable option, but I would lean away from it. The Professional Studies approach is a clear attempt to mimic a trade school program and should be avoided both because it is a very poor use of university resources as well as being so rare that it would require regular explanation whenever a new person encountered it.

Staying highly liberal with our studies provides the best overall benefit from the university experience. Not only does it let us best leverage what the university offers but it also gives us the best foundation for our careers. There is also a hidden benefit, and that is career risk mitigation.

Career risk mitigation here refers to our university training not being overly specific so that should we decide later that IT is not the field that we want to pursue or after some time that it is not the career in which we want to remain that our education supports that flexibility in an effective way. Perhaps our IT careers will lead us into management or entrepreneurship. Or maybe our IT experience will be in a field that we end up enjoying more than IT. Or we might live in a place where our IT opportunities are few and other opportunities exist. There are myriad reasons why having a broad, flexible education isn’t just the best for our IT careers but also the best for our non-IT careers.

Thinking about how university works and understanding its core goals and how they apply to ourselves is the first step in being prepared to leverage the university experience for optimum value.