Starwood Hotels & Resorts (HOT) Chief Information Officer Martha Poulter vividly recalls the moment in 11th grade when she got hooked on the idea of a career writing software applications.
Her high school, progressive for its time, let students dabble in the BASIC programming language. “I thought, ‘This is amazing. I can tell this inanimate object what to do, and it does it,’” Poulter recalled during a panel in New York with two other chief information officers. “And if I tell it wrong, it does it wrong.”
Like every other senior executive responsible for steering technology strategy, Poulter worries daily about the persistent technical talent shortage and the public school system’s systemic failure to prepare K-12 students for degrees in computer science. Consider that not a single state requires a single computer science class as a graduation requirement, although some cities—like Chicago, New York, and San Francisco—are seeking to fix this.
That gap puts the onus on corporate America and the private sector to be far more creative about cultivating and mentoring the next generation of information technology workers, according to Poulter and her peers from PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and Ford Motor Co. (F) One tactic all three women are employing far more often: reminding kids how technology affects their everyday lives.
Poulter shares the story of her encounter with a teenager at an inner city school in Philadelphia who challenged her to prove why he should be interested in engineering. In response, she asked the young man to give her a demonstration of the applications on his smartphone. She was able to talk about some of Starwood’s own groundbreaking innovations, like an app that lets travelers check in with their phones. (Skip the line at the front desk!) By the end of that encounter, he found the idea of a tech career far more intriguing, especially given how many openings exist. “All of us need to focus on connecting the dots in very simple ways,” she said.
Sigal Zarmi, vice chairman and network chief information officer for PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), related to that epiphany. Originally interested in teaching math, she gravitated toward industrial engineering after her experience in Israel’s military. Her ulterior motive after her tour of duty: use technology to find ways to sidestep bureaucracy that prevents organizations from acting as quickly as possible. That led her into studying computer science. “It’s a really good skill set to have, no matter what you’re doing in life,” she said.
One of Zarmi’s current priorities at PwC is exploring how business analytics software could make audits more thorough and far less manual, by allowing the accounting firm to scour and evaluate more information than can be considered manually. “What does it mean to be able to advise a client based on all of its data, rather than just a portion of it?” she asked.
Like Starwood and PwC, Ford considers technology skills central to the future of its entire business. Its “Big Data Drive” initiative, for example, is gathering valuable data that could be used for telematics applications. One example is optimizing the routes that repair teams take to reach service calls. Another project is exploring how sensors in connected cars could contribute data about driving habits that might be used to set insurance premiums.
The company sponsors a myriad of activities within its local community to raise awareness about technology careers, sponsoring competitions in design and robotics (among other things). It has also rethought how teams interact, creating open office environments that co-mingle IT teams with their colleagues rather than segregating them in different departments. Some executives have been assigned “reverse mentors,” millennial employees who are helping them become comfortable with tablets computers and other mobile technologies.
“There is an intersection between computer science skills and almost every other discipline,” said Marcy Klevorn, vice president and chief information office for Ford.
It’s worth noting that Klevorn’s rise to her position followed a very different path than her colleagues: she started in marketing with AT&T. Soon thereafter, she tested into a technical career. “You need a foot in both camps,” she said, explaining her leap.
Early this week, Facebook (FB) launched a resource called TechPrep with the goal of encouraging more “underrepresented people” to pursue careers in technology. The social network believes that to get more girls and minorities involved, their exposure needs to start far younger. Part of the site’s mission involves educating parents and guardians about careers in programming, with the hope that they’ll advocate the field with their children. It even includes primers for learning how to write software code. That skill, it seems, will only become more important for next-generation IT job seekers.
“Our intern class this year, we hired through a coding competition,” Poulter noted. “It was hugely effective, hugely motivating and, candidly, a much better screening process.”
Python, Java, or C++ anyone? Perhaps we need a new language requirement for public schools.
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