Is IT on the rise again?

SOA will help spur the growth of a new breed of interdisciplinary IT workers

When I read the press release that IBM was “helping” the computer science department at Georgetown University develop an SOA (service-oriented architecture) curriculum, and that the courses would use WebSphere integration middleware, I raised an eyebrow. Wouldn’t that be like a pharmaceutical company developing a curriculum for a medical school on how to treat depression, I wondered?

There is no denying the fact that there has always been a close -- almost symbiotic -- relationship between the high tech industry and the universities that spawned many of its founders. But I decided to call Brian Blake, the associate professor of computer science at Georgetown who is heading up the program with IBM, to hear his response to my analogy.

Blake chuckled. “In this case we are in some of the same venues,” he said. To hear Blake tell it, it is Georgetown that is using IBM, both for its technology and its great customer contacts. Blake sees it as an excellent way to focus on the SOA skills that his students need before they enter the real world. By developing a curriculum built around designing SOA, the academic world is adapting to meet the dramatic changes taking place in IT.

Offshoring has a large part to play in these changes. As IT jobs went overseas, savvy students looking to the future began staying away from computer science in droves. During the past four years, Georgetown had seen a 15 percent to 20 percent drop in computer science enrollment, Blake said. However, enrollments are now starting to climb again -- possibly because, while outsourcing continues unabated here in the States, IT is carving out a new niche for itself.

Part of it is simply due to the very nature of offshoring. There is a natural disconnect between requirements gathering and actual coding. And when software is completed overseas, you need IT people stateside to hook the new stuff into the existing environment.

But more than just cleaning up any disconnects, SOA represents something new. In the old days, a company had to adjust its business processes to the packaged application. Now, due to SOA, a company can adjust the applications or services to the business processes they want. Along with this reversal comes the need for IT staffers who have the business acumen to organize these services.

Paul Brunet, an IBM spokesman for the Georgetown partnership, puts it this way: Instead of telling the CIO that it will take four months to program a service, IT staff must be able to say, “Here is the value this service will return, and we can bring this service to this market in three months and to another market in four months.”

IT is expanding its tentacles in other ways, too. What’s really hot now is “multidiscipline” IT, and schools are starting to focus on what Blake calls “subfields.” For example, spurred on by the mapping of the human genome, computational science (which combines science with IT) is a major growth area. Incidents of identity theft and the loss of personal information make the mix of IT with government, public policy, and law yet another dynamic IT subfield.

Computers are becoming more entwined with our professional lives. As long as that is true, the need for IT people, whether they are forced to dress in business clothes or a lab coat, will continue to expand.

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