Tuesday, November 21, 2006

What Inspired You to Study Technology?

I've been working in the industry for nearly 15 years in a variety of capacities (mostly software design and development), but I've been an adjunct instructor in Information Technology for nearly 6 years (I took a year off from teaching to complete my Master's Degree). As I worked with these students over time, I always wondered what inspired them to pursue a career in technology.

Let's be honest - while the end results of technology are exciting, such as the latest gaming consoles that are causing riots in the US or the slick robot that will help increase productivity, the "nuts and bolts" of technology is dry and boring. Don't believe me? Nearly all of the "techie shows" on TV focus on the end product, and of these shows, most of them focus on gaming. Rarely do they focus on the "behind the scenes" processes.

So if the nuts and bolts of technology is so flipping boring, then what inspires someone to go in this field? When I first started teaching, here was the breakdown of my "unofficial survey":

  • 1/2 of the students were inspired by the large paychecks that companies were paying to either prevent or fix year-2000 problems or to prevent their staff from going to the latest "dot-com" company.

  • 1/4 were inspired by the latest game creations, and many of these students were interested in developing the next big game.

  • 1/4 actually liked the field. These were the people that really enjoyed taking apart things and tinkering with them to make them better or make them suit their own needs.

Not all of the dot-com businesses failed during this time. Amazon is one of the biggest success stories of the dot-com boom. Technology had very little to do with the cause of the dot-com failures. The main reason why dot-coms failed is the people who were running the failed dot-coms were not "business people". They did not have a good, solid business model nor did they have a business plan. In addition, they did not spend their capital wisely. For more information, this article explains the reasons why the dot-coms failed.
However, when the bottom dropped out of the IT industry in about 2002 (beginning of a recession in the US, hot "dot-coms" were becoming "dot-bombs", trend of US companies to outsource IT work to countries charging 1/3 the labor costs), the number of students in IT dropped dramatically as well. When I taught a Java class in 2001, there were 18 students in the class (the college maximum), with 5 students on the waiting list. When I taught that same class in 2003, there were 6 students in the class. My "unofficial survey" results have changed dramatically:

  • 3/4 of the students were displaced IT workers who were looking to update their skill set in hopes of being more marketable.

  • 1/4 actually liked the field and were taking the classes for fun.

What fascinated me was even when the demand for IT workers dropped in 2002, why would these displaced workers continue with studying IT, and not change to a field that was a dead cert to land a job (like medicine and nursing)? Simple answer - they loved the work.

So what's so "cool" about IT? To be totally frank, IT was not my first choice. My first choice was medicine. I always liked the problem solving element of medicine where one has to think of the best answer - if Plan A is not feasible, then you need to find a Plan B. However, after my first biology class in my first year of college, I didn't have the constitution for this field. I did very well in the class, but the experiments that we had to do really didn't sit well with me. As a hobby, I played with computers. My computer teacher, Dr. Flowers, suggested that I go in computers. A lot of the elements that I did like in medicine were in computers, and I didn't have to go to school for a very long time. So I gave it a try. I really liked it, and I'm still in the field today. At this stage, I'm redefining my role in the IT industry where I'm trying to do more business-related and research work, but I still like writing a program that does something cool.

I'm interested in hearing about what inspired you. Post a comment and let me know.

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