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Birth of a (Programming) Nation

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October 01, 2001
Bill Fitzpatrick - bill_fitzpatrick@spartancomputer.com

© 2001 Hospitality Upgrade. No reproduction or transmission without written permission.

Just six months ago you placed an ad for a programmer and got two responses. One person had no background and the other applicant had more baggage than Samsonite. Of course you are not surprised because you know the numbers.

You’re the vice president of IT for a major hospitality company. You’ve been told that a new software project must be completed in 18 months. The unexpected project will require resources that you don’t have. Your lead developers and crack programmers are already committed. The rest of your programming staff reminds you of the second five in the movie Hoosiers: they’re on the team, but their main job is to help the starters. Hire new programmers? Even if the CFO gave her approval, it wouldn’t happen. Just six months ago you placed an ad for a programmer and got two responses. One person had no background in programming and the other applicant had more baggage than Samsonite. Of course you are not surprised because you know the numbers.

The Computer Technology Industry Association’s studies indicate that IT service and support personnel shortages cost the economy over $100 billion annually in salaries and training. Over 250,000 IT positions remain unfilled; costing U.S. companies $4.5 billion a year in lost worker productivity.

You consider your options.

Was it Bruce that mentioned offshore programming? That’s right, he contracted with a group from India.

“Don’t do it,” he said. “They’re halfway around the world and it’s a different culture. They don’t drink or swear and they don’t like conflict. Nothing wrong with any of that, but it’s not how our culture, or more specifically, my group of programmers operate. My team likes to go out after work, and, over beers, hash out problems. Sometimes I even join them. When the programmers from India were here onsite, they rarely participated, and when they did, they were not comfortable with the setting, the beers or the free-form discussions. It became a problem.”

Don’t need that problem, you think.

You’re Phillip Paulwell, the Minister of Commerce and Technology for Jamaica. You know the greatest economic power in the world has a problem that’s costing them $4.5 billion a year. Their problem is simple—they don’t have enough programmers. There’s got to be a way to make this work, you think. The unemployment rate for Jamaicans under age 35 is 45 percent. After completing their high school education, the brightest of the bright have few, if any, choices. You understand how they feel. Most of the available jobs are as dreary as the inside of a bauxite mine.

But you also know the truth.

Your workforce is untrained. You don’t even have the resources to train the workforce. There are cultural barriers to overcome. And there is that small matter of perception. American companies believe the only Java that Jamaicans understand is the type that is poured in a cup by a guy who says, “Here you go, Mon.”

Like Russia, Canada and other countries that have recently decided that they want a small slice of the American pie, you elect to forge ahead. You develop a plan and it is an expensive plan.

You enlist the help of H.E.A.R.T., the national training agency in Jamaica. The agency agrees to put up the money to make the operation a success, paying $4,000 of the $6,000 total tuition per student, while loaning many of the students the remainder, if necessary. The students must sign a pledge to remain in Jamaica for at least three years after they graduate. That requirement is based on the fact that demand for programmers is so high in the United States that beginning college graduates can sometimes fetch up to $50,000 per year.
But who will develop the curriculum? Who will provide ongoing educational support? Who will provide the expertise to start the school?

You’re Ken Abernathy, the head of the Computer Science Department at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. The President of Furman, David Shi, has asked you to work with the Jamaican officials to develop a program that will help the Minister of Commerce and Technology succeed in developing a capable workforce. You are attracted to the challenge. You analyze the problem.

Software engineering and programming are relatively labor-intensive activities that require highly trained individuals. However, in 1995, only 4 percent of the population in Jamaica had attained tertiary education while enrollment in tertiary education was only 770 students per 100,000 inhabitants.

From research you know that these numbers are not unusual. Jamaica is fairly typical of developing countries (World Bank, 2000). By comparison, in the United States 49 percent of the population has successfully completed tertiary education and 5,339 students are enrolled in a tertiary institution for each 100,000 inhabitants. You come to a conclusion. If Jamaica is to succeed, traditional educational efforts will not yield the desired results. Come to think of it, traditional educational efforts in this country have not yielded the desired results.

The received wisdom in the United States, you conclude, is that entry-level programmers must have a bachelor’s degree. Less clear is the rationale behind this received wisdom. All agree that the early stages of software engineering, which involve the precise identification of the problem that an organization or individual might be facing and the specification of a piece of software to solve this problem, do require the types of skills that are typically acquired via a university education. There are other aspects of the programming process that might not need such highly trained individuals. For example, the translation of a specification into actual program code (or “code-cutting” in programming parlance) might not require a university degree. There is support for this hypothesis.

In 1998 Richard Heeks makes several observations concerning the nature of the Indian export that applies directly to the Jamaican effort in a paper called The Uneven Profile of Indian Software Exports. One of the observations is that Indian exports are dominated (over 90 percent) by software services as opposed to products. Software services often take the form of low-level, simple programming work.

Maybe it can be done, you think. We may be able to design training programs that would take students with a good secondary education and train them, in a relatively short period, to become entry-level programmers. You go to work on the full plan.

Your thorough research and proposals assist in the establishment of the Caribbean Institute of Technology (C.I.T.) in Montego Bay, Jamaica, a training institute offering a non-traditional “fast track” training program (10 months of full-time study) to produce professional programmers.

The C.I.T. curriculum includes an introduction to computing, Web authoring, client-server computing, Java programming, databases and SQL, C++ programming, Visual Basic programming and advanced SQL. The first class of 41 students graduated in December 1999, the second class of 81 graduated in November 2000, and the third class of over 100 is scheduled to graduate in November 2001. And, encouragingly, more than 80 percent of the graduates from the first two classes placed in software development jobs in Jamaica. And the early returns are positive—employer surveys indicate a high degree of satisfaction with program new hires.

“Our students will have more hands-on computer experience in their 10 months here than most university graduates will get in a four-year degree program,” said Michael Glova, C.I.T.’s managing director. “The universities promise a diploma, but we promise the skills that are in demand.”

The students are convinced.

“I saw a newspaper ad for this course and it seemed like the answer to my prayers,” said Salomie Lyles, 23, who worked in the hospitality industry before enrolling. “To get a degree in computers would’ve taken three years, but here we are doing it in 10 months.”

“A lot of us have sacrificed to be here,” said Traceyann Samuels, 27, who gave up a government job to enroll at C.I.T. “But it has to pay off. In four to five years, I see myself having my own consulting business, doing work in software, imaging and communications.”

You’re James Ram, president of Indusa Global. You operate a privately held company that develops custom software for the U.S. and U.K. clients. You have been part of the extended team that has been part of the effort. You are from India, and believe that like India, Jamaica can also develop into an overseas force in software development. Some of the systems in place—such as a good basic education system based on the British model, the use of English as a native language, a surprisingly good telecommunications infrastructure, and the fact that Jamaica is in the same time zone as the Eastern United States—are all significant advantages. But it takes time. You study the data from India. 

You set up an Indusa operations center in Montego Bay and employ most graduates from the first C.I.T. class. Several major companies have already contracted with your firm. Nothing too big, but it is a foot in the door. You make sure your existing clients are happy before you board the plane in search of new business.

You’re Ranford W. Palmer, a Caribbean scholar at Howard University. You are asked if the Jamaica initiatives will succeed. “If the skills are there, and Jamaica is closer, and they speak English, I don’t see why not,” he said.

Bill Fitzpatrick is the national sales manager for SCS and can be reached at (800) 866-3352, or at bill_fitzpatrick@spartancomputer.com.

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