Not everyone can be a great engineer, but a great engineer can come from anywhere

Identifying great engineers is the biggest challenge the technology market faces

Talent compass pointing to the most highly skilled jobs hiring
Credit: Thinkstock

I recently participated in a White House roundtable discussion with Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez. The goal of the meeting was to figure out how the private sector could help achieve the goals of the newly unveiled TechHire initiative.

This initiative is designed to create "pathways to better, high-paying tech jobs and [meet] urgent employer demand across the U.S." It is a "bold multi-sector initiative and call to action to empower Americans with the skills they need ... for a well-paying job."

The White House is absolutely correct that this is a critical issue facing businesses and our nation as a whole. There is a rapidly growing demand for technologists driven by a need for technology expertise and leadership in innovation.

The White House recently put the number of IT job openings in the Untied States at over 500,000. But it's not the number of positions that matter. Whether this number is 500,000 now or ten million a few years from now, our ability to be a leader in innovation depends on our ability to develop technology expertise.

Identifying technologists who can bring an understanding of what enterprises can do with technology, from a product and core value perspective, is the foundational challenge our economy faces in the coming years.

There are multiple approaches to filling this demand. But in the long term, we need better education and to restructure how the economy evaluates and measures talent.

These are critical pieces to the puzzle because there is a vast chasm between the contributions of a good engineer and the contributions of a great one.

While the industry has a truism that a great engineer is worth 10 good ones, the issue goes beyond that. Technology expertise is about more than coding talent. It is about the ability to apply technological understanding to the broader issues facing an enterprise in transition.

Technologists who can do this do not necessarily all graduate from Stanford's computer science department. Some of the most exceptional engineers in history have come from nontraditional places, whether it is from a college other than Stanford, or even no college at all.

The biggest challenge the technology market faces is identifying the truly exceptional engineers who will consistently and reliably deliver. Often, the market overlooks them because of their credentials.

After evaluating hundreds of thousands of engineers over 14 years, my company, Catalyst IT Services, has found no statistically significant correlation between a college degree and success as a software engineer. And only 1.5 percent of those we evaluate are truly exceptional engineers. The implication is that while, as the administration has stated, an engineer can indeed come from anywhere, the critical qualifier to that statement is that not anyone can be an exceptional engineer.

Opportunities to find exceptional technologists are critical for the development of our economy. For the US to continue to be a leading exporter of innovation, we need the ability to figure out who the most exceptional engineers are and accelerate their trajectory into and through engineering career paths.

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