Something for everyone

IT managers sometimes need a little help to do their jobs more effectively. Kirstin Mills looks at what's on offer at the country's universities and asks IT managers what they like and dislike about days back in the classroom.

IT managers sometimes need a little help to do their jobs more effectively. This feature looks at what’s on offer at the country’s universities and asks IT managers what they like and dislike about days back in the classroom.

You’re about to put a case to the board that your company should invest in a new technology. The problem is, the idea scares the hell out of you.

It’s not that you don’t have faith in your idea, but you’ve never had any experience or training in how to do such a presentation to non-IT people. You understand what the technology can do, but how do you translate the concepts into plain English and/or business-speak?

It’s this sort of skill gap that leads IT managers to look for courses. While IT managers need to keep on top of the latest technology, such training tends to be at an overview level rather than learning detailed nitty gritty. It’s in management and business areas that many IT managers find they have a skill gap.

And that’s something Bernie Goedhart, technical architect with Natural Gas, finds disturbing. “I wonder if we’ve actually got a good path mapped out for IT management training in universities.”

Goedhart admits some skills are best learned on the job, rather than from a lecturer “standing in front of you telling you how good he was when he was looking after 200 staff”.

But he does see some progress in the university system. “You go back 10 years and you’d never even hear of anyone doing a BBS [Bachelor of Business Studies] in IT ... So getting that up and running was pretty good.”

Natural Gas CIO Brett Bennett suggests that perhaps the message is getting through to the tertiary education sector.

“It’s quite important to have that people management skill as well, especially when you’re working in large IT operations. The technical people would see that the only way they could really get the top remuneration was to become management. And yet they had no management skills whatsoever. When you did put them into management they became a total disaster. Or else you had to really put a hell of a lot of support in for a period of time.”

He says a lack of people skills has always been a major challenge in IT.

“In a lot of cases [technical people] don’t turn out to be very good people managers.”

Bridging the gap

The Auckland University of Technology is trying to address some of these issues with its Masters of Information Technology.

The qualification, which takes between 18 months and four years to complete depending on whether students study part-time or fulltime and whether prior learning is recognised, has been running for just one year.

AUT began offering the qualification because it felt there was a gap in the market, says Jim Buchan, the degree’s programme leader. The qualification is aimed at IT professionals working fulltime. One of its aims is to bridge the gap between purely technical IT people and those with business acumen.

Although it has some technical depth, it also emphasises the commercial significance of technologies and their strategic implications.

“So we look at how could you put forward a case to a board if you are looking at IT investment. What are the potential competitor advantages of investing in a particular technology or looking at a particular technology?

“It really is bridging that gap between someone who knows how to put the semi-colon at the end of C# code and someone who can put forward a case to a board.”

Buchan says typical students include people wanting to upgrade their qualifications and those who have no qualifications.

“[Having no qualifications] is quite common for people who came through in the early 80s and 90s. And they may be wanting to take that next step in their career.”

It also attracts students who have an overseas qualification, but want a local one.

Buchan says AUT wants to link academic research and IT professional practice with the degree.

Industry people are involved in the course — guest lecturing, doing full delivery and preparation of a course, quality assurance and taking part in discussion groups.

“We might look at some academic aspect of research in a particular topic, and then we’ll say: what are the implications for a professional practice? And we’ll involve industry people in terms of leveraging their expertise and having them look at our thinking.”

Buchan says it’s not a straight “academic pie-in-the-sky degree. It really is founded in professional practice.”

With little advertising the degree has attracted 15 people and another 30 are expected this year. Face-to-face sessions take place early in the morning (about seven per semester), or at the weekend (about three or four Saturday mornings per semester).

For full-time students the workload is about 40 hours a week. Part-timers face about 20 hours.

“That 20 hours has a fair amount of flexibility, very little of it is face-to-face. In the face-to-face sessions we tend to leverage the fact that we’re all together and we do a lot of interactive and group work and have experts come in and so on.”

Students can choose to do papers and a thesis, or papers and a smaller dissertation.

AUT also offers exit qualifications in the form of a certificate after one full-time semester and a diploma after a year fulltime.

Getting beyond mid-career

Another new masters degree is Victoria University’s Master of Information Management. The university, which launched the course last year, budgeted for 30 students. Programme director Tony Hooper says they ended up with 110.

“And we’re up to 120 now for the next trimester.”

It’s aimed at mid-career people in IT or management. Hooper says the average age is 40 and students include programmers, telecommunications engineers, database administrators, systems analysts, project managers and software developers.

“They come on the programme because they now realise their future depends on having a greater awareness of management skills. And an awareness of the sorts of issues that IT is projecting on to management and how best to exploit that.”

Even though it is a management programme and not an IT one, another group it has attracted is those already in management who want a better understanding of IT because they realise it is strategically important.

Study can be done part-time at evening classes or fulltime. Study takes in about a year, possibly longer because the research may spill over into the second year. Students must do a thesis or case study.

Yet another masters is available through Massey University. The Master of Information Systems degree has been offered for about four years. It is also a post-experience qualification — one of the entrance requirements is that people been working for five to 10 years. Students normally do the 200-point degree part-time and the first students finished at the end of last year. So far it’s attracted people from around New Zealand, says senior lecturer in Massey’s Department of Information Systems, Peter Blakey.

“We think there are lot of people out there who have possibly been in the field for quite a while but haven’t actually got a qualification.”

All the university’s post-graduate courses are delivered in block mode, which means students go to Massey for a total of five full days of lectures and group work throughout the semester, usually divided into three and two days. They also have to do preparatory work on their own.”

Blakey says Massey’s postgraduate courses usually have five to 10 people, sometimes 15 if it’s a course of particular interest.

Massey also has a postgraduate diploma of one year and a postgraduate degree that involves one year fulltime (or more than that part-time). There is also an honours degree which can be done either fulltime over one year or part-time over two years.

Shorter stints

For those who don’t want to commit to longer qualifications, there are other options.

Christchurch-based Gough, Gough & Hamer’s infrastructure manager Gerard McQuilkin has both a technical and operational role. He has done short block courses on topics such as management skills and staff retention.

“It’s all about [getting out of your] comfort zone and getting into a more general business-type training, because with IT you can become very entrenched with what you’re doing and not get a wider view.”

He said his training was valuable, even if he didn’t always agree with the points made.

“It certainly put you in a group of people that were struggling with similar issues and not all of them were from a technical background.”

Many universities and polytechnics run shorter courses in addition to the traditional degrees. Canterbury University, for example, has a wide range of professional short courses — usually two days’ long — that could suit IT managers. These include management skills, making teams work, accounting for non-accountants and employment law.

Programme manager Loren Madden says the aim is to bring “fairly fundamental” competency training to mid and senior managers. Usually the courses have between 12 and 18 people.

In addition to those courses, more personalised training can also be developed to suit technical people who haven’t been trained in people skills.

Another option for IT professionals working full-time keen to improve in a particular discipline is to do a certificate of proficiency or a graduate diploma.

University of Auckland Department of Management Science and Information Systems associate professor Lech Janczewski says the certificate allows people to study a subject without having any prerequisites. At the end, if they follow all the course regulations, they get a certificate saying they studied, for example, database management systems or telecommunications essentials.

Meanwhile, Otago University IS Department lecturer Dr Colin Aldridge says IT managers and those with some reasonable prior knowledge are ideal candidates for the graduate diploma.

“The idea of a dip grad is that it’s for somebody who’s already got a degree or has got substantial industry experience.”

The make-up is very loose, Aldridge says: “Basically it’s anything that constitutes, in the university’s opinion, a coherent course of study.”

He says the aim is to allow people to change their discipline area in an equivalent one-year fulltime course. The minimum requirement is 36 Otago University points. Of that, half the points have to be third-year papers or above.

“This is where having some significant prior knowledge in the field is a huge advantage. In fact we don’t really encourage people who don’t have some reasonable prior knowledge to it to go into these things. If you don’t have that, then you go into a third-year paper and you’ve got no idea what’s going on. It’s unreasonable to expect the teachers to spend an inordinate amount of time getting you up to speed.”

He says an alternative to a dip grad is starting with first year papers.

“That’s pretty daunting when you’re later on in your career. Being able to do a fast track entry into a new discipline is a real opportunity. But it is significantly challenging … It is possible to do it part-time. It would take a couple of years.”

Auckland University’s Janczewski says Auckland’s Graduate Diploma in Business in information systems teaches basic information about IT and is suited for those who find themselves in IT but never studied it.

The Diploma in Business is offered one evening a week. It normally takes about two years to do the diploma.

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