3 min read

Of varying degrees

People who are interested in a career in information technology should not pursue a computer science degree

If you see devils wearing parkas this Halloween, don’t be surprised. Hell just froze over. I know, because a marketing executive from an IT vendor recently said something that was insightful and worthwhile.

Those of us who have been numbed by the mindless blather of marketing types have come to expect to hear all about how “at the end of the day, it’s all about the right solution to stay ahead of the curve in the paradigm shift.” But shockingly enough, I’ve found that there’s at least one marketing exec who doesn’t fit the mold.

Her name is Sandy Carter, and she is vice president of SOA and WebSphere strategy, channels and marketing at IBM. Don’t roll your eyes and stop reading. Hear me out.

At an IBM-sponsored SOA summit in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago, Carter’s responses as she took questions from the audience were far from the marketingspeak one might expect, given her job title. For example, she told one attendee that SOA isn’t for everybody and that if his company can accomplish its objectives without it, there’s no reason to go there. That alone was sufficient to persuade me to listen to what she had to say.

And what she said that I found especially important was this: People who are interested in a career in information technology should not pursue a computer science degree. Instead, Carter said, they should get a degree in service management.

She said it almost in passing as part of a response to an SOA skills-related question, and no one in the crowd followed up on it. But when you think about it, that’s a game-changing assertion. Service management — a process-focused discipline centered on IT’s provision of services that advance the business — is to the future of IT what computer science was to its past.

It doesn’t take much more than a peek inside the discipline and how it’s being practiced to appreciate the veracity of that statement. I got that peek last month, when I attended the annual conference of the IT Service Management Forum, or it SMF USA.

Just for the fun of it, I produced a tongue-in-cheek video, in which I confronted random conference attendees to address with mock indignation the question of why the “IT” in it SMF is rendered in lowercase italic. It was an affront to the field of IT, I teasingly argued.

What struck me was the earnest conviction of those attendees, who good-naturedly but adamantly insisted that it’s appropriate for SM to have the visual upper hand over IT, because it’s service management that warrants the emphasis. And the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced they’re right. As technology becomes increasingly commoditized, it’s the structures and processes created to ensure that technology delivers true business value that really count.

That brings us back to Carter’s reference to degree programs. Just how realistic is it for students to pursue a degree in service management rather than computer science? How widely available is that option?

To be sure, university programs in service management are rare. But you can expect that to change.

Carter didn’t mention it, but I subsequently learned that IBM helped create a service management degree program at Missouri State University last year. IBM claims that it’s the first BS degree in IT service management in the U.S., and so far, I’ve seen nothing to refute that.

Just this fall, moreover, Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science began offering a graduate-level degree called a Master of Science in Information Technology in IT Service Management (MSIT-ITSM). Other schools, like the University of Dallas, are beginning to offer MBAs and other master’s degree programs with an emphasis on ITSM.

There undoubtedly will be more of these programs in the near future, and students would be well advised to keep an eye out for them. Hell might freeze over again before a degree in computer science is a ticket to a successful career in IT.

Don Tennant is editorial director of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Contact him at don_tennant@computerworld.com, and visit his blog at http://blogs.computerworld.com/tennant.