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leadership lab

Cherylyn Cameron is dean, School of Creative Technologies and School of Community Studies, and Ryan O’Farrell is an instructor, School of Creative Technologies, Bow Valley College, Calgary

Technology careers have always had an image issue. For decades, the perception has been that software developers and data analysts are math-obsessed males, quietly working out of cubicles, solving problems in isolation and lacking interpersonal skills.

While there is the obvious importance to understanding math and science, that old-school image just isn’t true any more. The industry is at a key turning point that demands the ability to manage people as well as to innovate.

Technology such as software, hardware, robotics, artificial intelligence, virtual reality and Internet of Things (IoT) are designed for practical efficiency and streamlined productivity. But we too often forget the majority of these dynamic systems are designed with humans in mind. This means tech specialists need to blend left-brain logic with right-brain creativity to develop a user experience that is intuitive and easily understood.

Hard skills are teachable, technical abilities, such as the operation of machinery, hardware and software, or even knowing a second language. Soft skills delve into the human side of an interface; they are just as essential, but harder to quantify. They are the interpersonal competencies that provide the basis of critical thinking, best-practice evolution and, most importantly, collaboration and inclusivity. They help us manage stress, time and projects, as well as navigate global requirements and cross-cultural teams.

While hard skills are necessary in developing products and solutions, they won’t help to stickhandle risk or rapid change, conflicting personalities and requirements, as well as the constant pressure to innovate. Those requirements land squarely in the soft category.

The recruitment process for technology careers is stacked in favour of graduates with functional hard skills that are blended with good communication and leadership abilities. Those who can’t sell a complex solution up or down the chain of influence, or guide project teams in a professional, personable manner may be overlooked for career advancement.

The challenge of combining these two disciplines in a classroom has required schools to introduce students to a project management model that breaks down activities into incremental chunks in order to develop the ability to effectively communicate solutions to every stakeholder.

Before launching the School of Creative Technologies at Bow Valley College in 2017, we conducted cross-country research with dozens of postsecondary schools, industry advisory board members, business partners, leaders and head hunters. This gave us the opportunity to hear from the front lines what would be needed from our graduates to ensure they’re work-ready.

The feedback was very clear: Graduates who have strong verbal, written communication and presentation skills, and who are trained in real or mock-work scenarios and understand the entrepreneurial approach in a gig economy, are needed more than ever. Good communicators also make the most attractive candidates and are easiest to integrate into an organization.

This gave us an interesting challenge in determining the best way to attempt to teach these “soft skills” within a curriculum geared toward the technology industry. Traditionally, tech education was missing this people-centred approach, but it’s through adding this focus that we’ve been able to help graduates prepare for an ever-changing future.

To meet these needs, we found the solution required multiple initiatives – which our college, and several others across Canada have already implemented with some success.

  • Introduce simulated client interaction, team dynamics, and communication and collaboration labs into software development streams to help students develop these critical soft skills – and that help us to assess them.
  • Incorporate projects that test a student’s knowledge and skills by solving business situations – complete with surprise turnaround timelines and industry-specific challenges.
  • Introduce more work-placement opportunities to build industry relationships, mentoring and relevant experience.
  • Conduct diversity campaigns to attract instructors and learners from various educational and ethnic backgrounds, and from both genders. We’re seeing an average 50:50 ratio of male and female student applications in tech programs, which proves the approach to boosting female enrolment is working.
  • Delivering of condensed accreditation courses with globally recognized partners to provide credentials and certifications to help current employees boost skills, or provide relevant, in-demand courses for those looking to pivot into a new career. Calgary’s Bow Valley College was the first Canadian educational hub to join a partnership with IBM Skills Academy to participate in Adobe’s Academic Initiative analytics program. More industry relationships such as these are vital for schools to stay responsive to employer expectations.
  • While market forces are adjusting to rapid changes and a looming skills shortage, government, industry and institutions need to mandate meaningful program and funding initiatives that attract students into tech streams.

Killer coding skills alone can’t guarantee a successful project or career – but blended with ability to collaborate and interact successfully with others, graduates become set up for success in a rapidly evolving and rewarding industry full of innovation.

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