With the pace of change in today’s job market, recent and long term graduates would be well advised not to rest for too long on the laurels of their bachelor’s degree. While tertiary education of any kind was once the realm of society’s elite, it now is estimated that 32 per cent of all 25 to 34 year-olds have made it to, and subsequently completed, a bachelor-level degree. If Prime Minister, Julia Gillard’s education vision comes to pass, the figure could rise to 40 per cent by 2025, further watering down the credibility and currency of an entry-level university degree.
Yet only a quarter of overall tertiary education students are undertaking postgraduate study.
By contrast, those who took the vocational route through TAFE and equivalent institutions decreased by 2000 in the same period. In total, 41,800 students enrolled for IT vocational degrees during 2009; a decline of 72 per cent from the 108,000 who enrolled in 2002, according to the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER).
Put simply, the bar has been raised.
Postgraduate degrees are no longer for the ‘old and decrepit’, nor those engaged in permanent student-dom. Instead, they have become the key to unlocking the knowledge required to move up in one’s career, widening the focus and diversifying the skills necessary to take on complex problems in more than one specialised field.
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Theory precedes the practical
It’s easy to see why some may find postgraduate education a waste of time; universities may be on the cutting edge of research, but the same can’t often be said for their education curricula. Unless you’re studying 18th century English literature, there’s a good chance what you learn in tutelage will be outdated by the time you apply it in the workforce.
Individual subjects might change between semesters or years, but the overall course and its materials remain largely the same for vast lengths of time, quickly outdating their content.
Keeping abreast of those changes is certainly no easy task; one that Curtin University of Technology postgraduate course leader, Dr Tomayess Issa, says is largely dictated by the corporate world.
“Some companies are sending us details saying, ‘we need these skills in this area’, and we send it to our students telling them to apply,” she says.
That isn’t to say universities and other tertiary educational institutions don’t try to innovate. The latest influx of partnerships between telecommunications vendors and universities in the wake of the National Broadband Network (NBN) rollout serve to show that, where necessary, institutions can fill the gap quickly if necessary.
However, even those who sign up to learn network systems architecture and construction techniques relevant to the most minute aspects of fibre-to-the-home technology will be ultimately outpaced by the latest fibre installation technique by the time their degree is signed and sealed.
Universities are certainly eager to find new areas for education and, in IT, there is no shortage of inspiration.
One of the University of Sydney’s more recent postgraduate additions, the Master of Health Informatics, looks specifically at the requirements of a “safe, efficient and effective health system”. In a burgeoning e-health arena, such a skillset is likely to come in handy.
All our courses have practical components but the practice is actually a vehicle for understanding the theory. We ensure the students drive the car and know how to use that car expertly as well, but we do not pretend that that’s the only car that exists out there.
“Unlike traditional areas where you might find yourself as an academic teaching some subject for 20 years with not much material changing, materials are constantly changing here except for the most basic subjects,” says Isaac Balbin, program director of School of Computer Science and Info Tech at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT).
The high churn of material has become an issue for academic staff, according to Balbin, who themselves are unable to keep up with the different areas they profess to have expertise in.
Most wouldn’t assume the technologically-focussed Victorian educational institution is actually 120 years old, having inherited a long history and the heritage of a series of engineering and technical colleges.
Yet RMIT has become one the focal points of what is increasingly a booming technology state, as IT businesses flock to take advantage of the growth in funding, interest and ultimately talent.
That talent has to come out of somewhere, but even at RMIT the academics choose to focus on what they do best: Theory. “All our courses have practical components but the practice is actually a vehicle for understanding the theory,” Balbin says. “We ensure the students drive the car and know how to use that car expertly as well, but we do not pretend that that’s the only car that exists out there.”
The need for business knowledge
For Mark Lindenmayer, that theory was most valuable in gaining coveted business knowledge.
At a glance, Lindenmayer’s career path isn’t too out of the ordinary. He completed a Bachelor of Industrial Design with a major in Information Systems during the ‘90s, landing up in a technical support role for Dell. He climbed through the ranks to wind up senior manager for Dell’s global support services. But his current position didn’t come out of focus on one specific area. While he had a strong technical background, he felt out of his depth when it came to financial discussions with his regional sales manager or taking on more business-focussed decisions.
“That was the initial reason for me going and seeking a postgraduate degree at the time,” he says.
Instead of looking to further his technical skills then, Lindenmayer chose to start a Masters in Business Administration (MBA), first at the ANU Master in Business Administration Australian National University (ANU) and later the Australian Graduate School of Management at the University of New South Wales when he moved back to Sydney. Dell paid for the course — one of Lindenmayer’s key incentives to actually complete the degree — with managers continuing to encourage further education. Lindenmayer wasn’t alone in his venture, either. Phillip Grasso, networking engineering and operations manager at Google, as well as the Special Broadcasting Service’s (SBS) chief technology officer, Peter Stavrianos, were classmates, and both completed MBAs to further their existing technical portfolio and potentially boost their understanding of the business dynamics underlying the companies they worked for.
Lindenmayer’s experiences echo across the industry: If there is one non-technical area of skills that employees are crying out for, it’s business. Talk to any employer about what they want to see more of from their technical staff and the same answer keeps coming back: The ability to see both sides of a business deal, the ability to understand and apply business sense in any technical dealings they come across.
“Because IT is so mainstream and highly specialised, having solid business skills and common sense, as well as technical skills, goes a long way,” says Happen Business technical director, Paul Berger.
“That’s pretty straight forward but it’s surprising how many IT guys are just so technical and want to be the smartest guys on the planet, but just don’t have a clue. Especially when you’re dealing with clients. You have to try and put yourself in their shoes.”
The growing demand for business analysts and enterprise architects simply serve to prove the need for a balance of technical and business nous.
“Nobody wants to buy software,” says Information Builders vice president, Asia Pacific, Rob Mills. “They want to figure out what’s wrong with their business and what they can do to improve that situation.
“From that perspective, being able to analyse the business, understand [it] and change the direction of the business to take advantage of an opportunity is crucial.”
Such requirements don’t detract from the currency still held in technical skills, especially those that can be applied to a core business need. However, technical skill sets are likely to depreciate the higher you climb. Those who have diversified into business and financial postgraduate degrees are looking at some stage to head back to boost their respective technical skills, when time allows, but it’s clear putting business skills as a priority over the technical has proved beneficial.
For Lindenmayer, the ability to gain those extra skills, meet new contacts and — perhaps most importantly — learn more about Dell’s inner business practices through case studies were vital to the overall education gained from an MBA. “I think the one key thing I’ve taken away from this is really that, studying while in the workforce, it’s very effective to be working and also going through a lot of this theoretical work you’re doing in the course,” he says. “It helps the content sink in and you certainly relate it more to what you’re doing in the role.”
Financial services technology strategist for Microsoft Australia, David McGhee.
It doesn’t seem to have taken much persuasion to get David McGhee into a postgraduate degree.
He already held a Bachelor of Science Honours degree in Computing and Electronics, as well as a Diploma in Management Studies under his belt from education he undertook in the ‘90s. Complemented with several Microsoft specialist and development certifications, he had built a fairly strong technical skill base.
McGhee didn’t believe a postgraduate IT course would benefit him greatly, however.
“In my experience, IT skills are only boosted by personal application and experience,” he says.
Instead, as a financial services technology strategist, McGhee chose to complement his technical skills with the business knowledge required to get ahead.
In May, McGhee completed a Master’s in Management through distance education from Charles Sturt University (CSU), where he was able to utilise his Microsoft certifications as previous credit.
He was also able to take advantage of Microsoft’s education allowance, amounting to $5000 per year for approved courses, as well as time off for exams.
Though highly theoretical, the degree afforded McGhee the chance to reassess his personal knowledge of the business processes within Microsoft and those of his customers, he says.
“Business skills in strategic planning through to IT ethics are constantly at play in my day to day work and I regularly apply the skills and techniques I learnt at CSU to manage the complexities of my customers’ businesses,” McGhee says.
Long term, Ghee decided the Master’s degree would benefit him in future roles, and chose CSU because of course flexibility. “I saw this Master’s degree as an opportunity for personal development as well as an opportunity to see how I could use it professionally,” he says.
McGhee is already considering adding a Master’s in Business Administration in the coming years to his list of qualifications. For the meantime, however, the covetable degree remains slightly out of reach.
Looking to further IT skills
Working in the information technology industry can prove a constant challenge as new technologies frequently emerge for IT professionals to learn and grasp.
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Australian universities offer a number of courses for refreshing or upgrading IT skills as well as more advanced degrees like the Master of Information Systems, Master of Information Technology, Graduate Diploma in Software Engineering and Master of Technology. These courses contain both theoretical and practical components and introduce new technologies and concepts to expand on already existing skills and knowledge. All the degrees of this kind are structured to have specialisations or majors for the convenience of the student and the particular area they need to focus on. Degrees at this level require previous study in IT or a number of years in the industry.
Business, finance and management skills
I’m a big believer that it might help you put your foot in the door, but it’s how you execute once you get on board.
Converting to IT
The more technology develops, the more it has started to infiltrate into unexpected industries and professions such as finance and health. While these industries do often require specialised IT skills, Australian universities cater to those looking to complement their existing, non-technical skill set with degrees that cover the basic foundations, allowing flexibility to suit each student’s requirements. The degrees that fall into this category do not demand any prior training or education in ICT, usually an undergraduate degree, graduate diploma or suitable industry experience. Potential students should be looking to enrol in degrees like the Master of Computing, Master of Technology, Master of Computer Science, or a Graduate Diploma in Computing. They begin by introducing students to the core components of IT, essentially laying a foundation for them to then choose a speciality.