Town and gown met in Auckland recently hoping to find ways to build links between the University of Auckland and the IT industry.
IBM hosted the meeting, which was organised by the university’s faculty of engineering. About 50 people attended, including representatives of the university and companies including IBM, Peace Software, Navman, HP and Datacom.
The meeting was opened by university vice-chancellor John Hood saying universities were sometimes seen as “rather distant” institutions. “People are a bit uncertain about what goes on there,” he says. “In fact it’s our belief that universities are creations of their communities and nothing more.”
Hood says the university wants to hear what type of graduates the software industry needs. “We really do need your guidance in terms of your particular needs.”
Peter Brothers, the dean of engineering, says industry can gain from working with universities. “Interaction with the school can bring real value and business benefits to industry,” he says. “The school can act as a pseudo-research and development arm for small companies unable to afford that capability on their own.”
Businesses such as Fisher & Paykel are able to lower their R&D costs through their long-term relationship with the university, Brothers says, while identifying the best graduates for recruitment.
The director of software engineering, professor John Grundy, listed ways the university could work with local businesses, including site visits, technical knowledge transfers, joint research projects, guest lecturing and technical or ideal reviews.
New Zealand’s can-do approach might produce entrepreneurs, but that might not be what the international market is looking for, according to Peace Software research director John Harpour (pictured).
“We tend to create these jacks-of-all-trades; we don’t necessarily specialise in one thing,” Harpour told the meeting.
“We focus on innovation. That focus on innovation leads to us developing entrepreneurs. It also results in us become outwards looking.
“The reality is, perhaps that’s not what they’re looking for on the world market.”
Internationally, companies tended to focus on value rather than innovation, he says. “This means we need to be better, to be competitive.”
Harpour says employers are now able to select software engineers from a more mature employment market. “We don’t necessarily have to employ the guy in the Metallica T-shirt anymore just because he can use a computer,” he says.
“Technical skill is not enough. We’re looking for qualified professionals.”
University qualifications should equip graduates with base skills, Harpour says, which can then be developed by an employer. He defines the qualities that employers look for in graduates as rigour, professionalism, a product mindset, communication skills and professional practice.
To identify those graduates, Harpour recommends working with students. “For the last few years we have had some students involved, and that is by far the best way to find your people,” he says.
“The ability to see these people up close and effectively give them a three-month
interview is just invaluable.”
IBM’s Ian Brackenbury endorses the view that companies can benefit from getting close to universities.
Brackenbury, on whom the company bestows the title “distinguished engineer”, says software engineering is a relationship between business and technology, adding that students learn their business and people skills on the job. “There’s quite a lot of monotonous, hard work,” he told the audience. “You know that but quite a lot of the students coming through don’t see that.”
Successful software engineers can be identified by their attitude, ability to work as part of a team, and their human communication skills, Brackenbury says. He recommends working with students to see how well they will perform on the job. “The best possible experience that you can understand about a person you’re going to employ is ‘Try before you buy’.”
He is concerned about the lack of diversity among the students attracted to software engineering. “I’m pretty ashamed by the way that only half the human species seems to be represented in the software community.” The universities’ “pipeline” of graduates is almost devoid of women. “That’s a bad, bad thing.”
He says ambitions to compete with India as a provider of outsourced software to large companies will be affected by the perception of New Zealand software engineers, noting an anecdote heard abroad: “If you send a spec to India, you’ll get back exactly what you asked for. If you send a spec to Australia or New Zealand, you’ll get back exactly what they think you should have asked for.”
- IT students in Auckland and Wellington will have a chance to meet prospective employers at events this month. The Auckland meeting on September 17 is being organised by the New Zealand Computer Society and University of Auckland MSIS department, and staged at Old Government House. It gets under way at 6.30pm. The Wellington event, being staged by the NZCS in conjunction with Massey University, will be on September 24 at the Old Museum at 5.30pm.