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Addressing the skills shortage in infrastructure and “hard computer science”

When one of our founders went back to his secondary school in 1999 for a visit to thank the people of the computer science department who had supported him racing ahead in his career, he discovered that the computer science department had been closed! This was peak “dot-com”, however the school said that due to low enrolment they had shut down the program, replacing it with a spattering of “digital skills” courses in using computing technology to do things (coding, graphic design, business apps…). Gone was the course that taught you how to design and build the computer system – it was simply assumed that “it already exists”.

What this looks like has been explored in some detail (from the US perspective, though the same trends would apply to any of the western nations) by the ITIF (‘Information Technology & Innovation Foundation’).

This graph from that study tells the story better than any words could:

Yes, you read that graph correctly.

Since the Dotcom boom degrees awarded in Electrical, electronics and communications engineering have grown far slower than all others, and this growth in the early 21st century has actually been slowing!

Looking out further the stats are even more frightening. At the IEEE VLSI Symposium in 2022 (The IEEE is the parent organization responsible for layer 1 & 2 on the OSI model and much of our modern telecommunications technology) they identified a 90% drop in EE enrolment in the USA vs computer science (the science of applying computer technology i.e. programming and software development).

The skills needed to design and build the computer systems we rely on are just not being developed anymore. Increasing numbers of people are entering the workplace with the assumption the computer systems already exist and work.

Forbes has confirmed that the issue is already being felt here in the UK. 93% of UK businesses have identified an IT skills gap.

No where is this skills gap worse than in areas of infrastructure design and engineering. These lower 5 layers of the OSI model start with the physical (cables, power, equipment) and extend up to the networks, datacentres and clouds that the exiting and emerging technologies like AI and machine learning all depend on.

You aren’t going to have any AI without a hardware and a network somewhere to run it.

In the Forbes study 41% of respondents said “insufficient training opportunities” and 37% a “lack of relevant education programmes”  were to blame for the skills shortage. What this fails to explain is that as infrastructure becomes more complex, more virtual, and generally more powerful there are fewer and fewer opportunities for people to develop and maintain these skills in the workplace. Companies do not have buildings full of computer and telecoms hardware anymore, they rent it “as-a-Service” from a mix of different providers.

This means that while the students are more interested in “soft computer science” there is also less opportunity to learn and get hands-on with “hard computer science”. Infrastructure however, is fundamentally hard. Behind that cloud, that web software, or that unified comms… somewhere… deep in…  (Slough usually!) there’s still a building full to the rafters with computer and telecoms hardware, power, cooling, networks and cabling.

At Infratech Digital, we have had to create our own unique training program to grow and develop the infrastructure architects of the future ourselves.

This is why we firmly believe, at least where Infratech is concerned, that IT consumers should not even try to hire internally. There is just no way that an IT consuming organisation can compete with the hyper-scalers and service providers for the learning and development opportunities they offer. Without this, and with the state of education in these core electronics and telecommunications technology lacking, any infrastructure staff going to work for an airline, a bank or the public sector will, frankly, just not be very good. If they were good they would already be working for a service provider making a lot more money than a consuming organisation could afford.

Bottom line, most organisations should face up to the fact that the skills shortage is not going to get better, it will continue to get worse. The solution therefore is to stop looking for those skills as internal hires and strengthen your IT teams user-experience facing skills (coding / BI / app development), supplier ecosystem, and consider implementing internal SIAM (Service Integration and Management)… but that’s for another blog.

For now, any time you need Infratech experience, start with a team of brilliant and experienced Infratech architects who have developed their own training to solve the skills-gap and fostered people who live and breath the lower OSI layers every day, for organisations of all types. They will then help you engage successfully with the right service providers, on the right terms to deliver real results for your business… something about “outcome obsessed” comes to mind.