Industry demands dictate IT course updates

Content for IT courses should be constantly updated to match industry needs but "hard" technical and other fundamental skills need to be retained, say insiders.

Dynamic industry forces mean IT courses in Singapore need to be constantly reviewed and updated to meet pressing needs, but it does not mean neglecting computer science or "hard" technical skills such as programming, insiders urged.

Foo Jong Tong, second vice chairman of the Singapore Information Technology Federation (SiTF) and chairman of its SiTF Academy, which works with the education sector to help equip IT professionals with needed skillsets, pointed out that most academic institutions in Singapore offer "hard" computer science skills as well as focus on new ICT knowledge.

That said, the type of job functions that are available or in demand by the local IT industry will influence the course development and content in any institution most of the time. As such, these institutions will then need to find the best balance as to which areas of their IT courses need more emphasis and focus to cope with demand, he added in an e-mail.

"Ultimately, industry market forces and economics drive the right emphasis and attention," Foo stated.

Focus on foundations
Wong Lim Soon, head of computer science department at the National University of Singapore's (NUS) School of Computing, chimed in by saying the higher operating costs in Singapore meant the local IT industry must differentiate itself from regional competitors such as India and the Philippines, where services are cheaper.

One way of distinguishing Singapore from lower-cost market competitors is the local IT talents' ability to handle high-complexity software engineering and development projects, which requires strong computer science skills, he noted.

Candidates with computer science background are not only sought after by IT organizations but also by fast-growing industries such as banking, in which system reliability is essential, and the games industry, where employers are looking for leading-edge talent, he said.

"As such, the competitiveness of the local IT industry will be hampered if our IT professionals don't have a strong foundation in computer science," Wong surmised.

Leong Fong Sow, course manager for Singapore Polytechnic's diploma in information technology, added that programming and coding are some of the other core skills that IT students need to have to meet the vocational demands of positions such as application engineer and software design and development.

She noted that the two positions are among the top five job categories with the highest vacancy rate locally, according to the 2010 annual manpower survey by the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA).

These core skills are necessary for local talent in the IT industry which constantly evolves and where "what is most relevant today may not be in just two to three years' time", as having the right grounding will enable one to pick up new technologies or programming languages quicker in the future, Leong said.

Their comments were in response to BBC report in November where the United Kingdom government said the current teaching of IT in schools was "insufficiently rigorous and in need of reform".

Mix "hard" and "soft" skills
NUS' Wong said a "well-designed and relevant" computer science course should be structured with a strong and stable core--giving students a firm basic grounding of computer science--which augmented by a suite of advanced electives that evolve with the latest industry trends.

The electives will get updated regularly to ensure they remain relevant, whereas core modules are reviewed and updated at longer intervals of between three and five years, he explained.

SP's Leong added that "soft" skills are integral for an IT professional's development. This is because there is an increasing need for the industry to have a good mix of both hard technical skills and soft people skills that allows team members to communicate well with each other and, in turn, be more productive, she explained.

A course should cater to both technical competence and soft skills for graduates to have the "personal effectiveness" to deliver right-sized and complete solutions to cater to an organization's specific needs, she said.

"Hiring managers are very explicit and demanding in positions they want filled, so if a candidate does not have the skills required, the manager may simply continue looking [for other potential candidates]," she added.