Ideas to energize the IT market in a community

* Community rountable: “What’s the Future of Houston’s IT Market?”

I recently attended a “community roundtable” sponsored by American InterContinental University entitled “What’s the Future of Houston’s IT Market?” Even though it’s the fourth largest city in the U.S., Houston isn’t exactly known as a hotbed for information technology innovation. Not yet, anyway.

I recently attended a “community roundtable” sponsored by American InterContinental University entitled “What’s the Future of Houston’s IT Market?” Even though it’s the fourth largest city in the U.S., Houston isn’t exactly known as a hotbed for IT innovation. Not yet, anyway.

I was pleased to see AIU take the initiative to pull together the city’s leaders in the IT field to discuss the current state of the industry and where we want to be in the future. I’d like to share some of the ideas the roundtable brought to the forefront. Perhaps your community can rally around ideas like these to energize our IT workers and the industry.

The roundtable included a panel of executives from Houston’s top IT firms. The companies represented ranged in size from micro businesses to some of the city’s largest employers. The panel members came from many different IT disciplines, from Web design and development to wireless communications to engineering services and technical support.

Sitting on the panel with these executives were members of the education community. Getting these two groups together is vital in order to understand how to prepare the next generation of IT workers for the realities of the job market.

The audience of about 100 people included a mix of people who are intricately tied to the success of Houston’s IT industry – students, practitioners, systems integrators and the like. Ideas coming from the audience members helped spur the dialogue and energize everyone in attendance.

Here’s a recap of some of the discussion:

* Linking education to industry need is critical.

Much of the discussion focused on how best to prepare IT workers for current and future jobs. It starts in the primary schools and continues into college and the trade schools. But how do the schools know what to teach the students in order to prepare them? The schools must ask the employers what skills and knowledge are needed, and the employers must help the schools develop relevant curriculum.

Panelist Paralee Shivers is the director of Houston Community College System (HCCS) Small Business Development Program. Shivers said she was grateful for the opportunity to meet so many IT leaders. “I want to understand what you need to fill your positions and your supplier roles so that I can better prepare my students and the small businesses I work with,” said Shivers. She encourages internships so that students can get hands-on exposure to the job market.

Marcus Brown, founder and general manager of EnVision Communication Concepts concurs with the notion of internships. His advice to students: “Don’t overlook small companies when you want to get experience through an internship or first job. Small companies teach you how to perform many roles, not just one. Everyone at a small company has to wear many hats, and it’s a good way to get broader business experience.”

Roundtable moderator Michael Garfield, “The High Tech Texan,” encouraged everyone in the room to visit their local public schools. “Talk to the kids about what you do and what was necessary to prepare for your job. The more kids understand about what it takes to be successful, the more they will see the link between their education and their future success.”

* Individuals must take a path of continuous learning.

Another key to success: learning doesn’t stop when the graduate enters the work force. Panelist Curt Bludworth is director of Human Resources, Global IT, at HP. Bludworth says that the most successful employees are the ones that are continuously learning new skills. “Read books. Take classes. Do it for yourself. Find a ‘skill differentiator’ so that you’ll stand out from the crowd.”

“You have to be a continuous learner if you’re in IT,” says Marcus Brown. “Things change so quickly and you need to stay on top of your discipline.” CEO of Two Roads Media Jeff Balke agrees. “I’m a programmer at heart. Every time a new programming language or tool comes out, it’s like starting all over again. But learning new things is necessary to stay ahead of the curve.”

* IT skills must be coupled with business knowledge.

Author and lecturer Ken Dwight, known as The Virus Doctor, is a 40 year veteran of the IT industry. He says that while it’s important to have current and relevant IT skills, it’s important to know the business side as well. “The more you can learn about the business your employer is in, the better off you’ll be.”

Roger Guerrero, director of client relations at network services firm CITOC, also stresses business knowledge. “CIOs want to hire people with diversified experience, with business experience,” said Guerrero. He revealed the results of a study in which employers were asked ‘Who are you more likely to hire?’ and ‘Who are you more likely to promote?’ The majority response to both questions was ‘IT professionals who have superior business skills and knowledge.’

* We need to close the digital gap.

Spanning nearly 600 square miles in southeastern Texas, Houston is a very diverse city. While some residents are highly computer literate, others have never used a PC. Some areas of the city still don’t have access to broadband services. These factors create a digital divide, and there is a fear of locking some people out of economic and other opportunities because of their lack of computer skills or access to a computer.

Houston is looking at options for a municipal Wi-Fi system that could help bridge the digital gap. While the system would bring Internet access to areas that are currently underserved, this doesn’t resolve the issue of computer illiteracy. The elderly and non-English speaking residents are especially in need of computer classes. This presents a vast opportunity for companies and nonprofit organizations that provide training services.

In conclusion of the community roundtable, all agreed that the prospects for IT in Houston are bright. They’re a bit brighter now that diverse players in the field have begun a dialogue. What about your community? Are you ready for a roundtable of your own?

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Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.