All of us in technology depend on smart, well-educated college grads who have majored in the STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering and math. That need will only increase as data becomes ubiquitous in our lives and every gadget, appliance and machine – from refrigerators to cars – becomes a “smart device” capable of sending, receiving and responding to data. The state of education in the U.S. and the high demand for qualified employees present tech leaders with an opportunity to play a vital role in creating our future workforce now.
Data is driving the need for educated software engineers
No one reading this article will be surprised by the suggestion that data is exploding. It’s a common topic in the tech industry, leading to questions such as: How will all this data be stored? Where it will be stored? How will it be managed? How will we protect and secure it?
Here’s a question we don’t ask enough: Who will manage it?
Where will the software engineers come from? How will they get the expertise needed in this new era of accelerating growth in business and personal data? And, importantly, what can we, as U.S. high-tech leaders, do to help address our shortage of qualified technology employees and expertise?
There’s no question that innovation in hardware will be vital, but I would like to call attention to software engineers especially because of the trend toward software-defined everything (SDx). Data storage is increasingly software defined. We’re seeing more software-defined networks (SDN). Really, the whole data center is becoming software defined. These technologies can take advantage of low-cost, commodity infrastructure (hardware), thereby shifting the focus of innovation from hardware engineering to software engineering.
The software-defined data center, or SDDC, is emerging as a way to better manage data that’s growing to unprecedented volumes – driven by proliferating mobile devices, new bandwidth technology, data-intensive formats like video and the Internet of Things (IoT). Yet, I would say that we’ve only scratched the surface.
For example, research analysts predict that by 2018, investment in software-defined infrastructure — which includes SDN, SDS and SDDC — will grow to $5.41 billion, from its 2013 value of $396.1 million (source: ctptech.org). At an estimated 68 percent CAGR, that’s remarkable growth.
That’s what we know. Here’s what we don’t know: Where will the IT expertise come from? Can the U.S. meet our need for intellectual capital—and compete with countries like China and India?
H-1B visas and the shortage of intellectual capital
A sign that the high-tech sector feels the shortage of qualified employees is the continual high demand for H-1B visas, which allow U.S. employers to temporarily hire foreign workers for specialty occupations, such as software engineering. In fiscal year 2014, for example, 65 percent of approved H-1B petitions were for workers in “computer-related occupations.”
Fast Company reports that while some politicians in this election year have threatened to reduce immigration, tech CEOs like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg have called for an expansion of the H-1B visa program “to attract more skilled engineers from abroad.” These companies, I would venture to guess, would prefer to hire locally – if the talent were available.
Preparing for the future with employer-ed partnerships
Whether or not immigration reform takes place or the H-1B visa program is expanded, we need to lay a foundation for the future competitiveness of college grads and the high-tech industry in the U.S. We will need many more employees with the skills and expertise to meet our data challenges.
Unfortunately, American colleges and universities are not fully prepared to educate and train the software engineers we need today, much less tomorrow. That’s why investment in education is needed now, and the right partners are high-tech companies that understand the need and feel the pain.
And, indeed, some tech companies and universities have begun working together to develop curricula for the 21st century. Andrew Hsu, dean of the College of Engineering at San Jose State University (SJSU), says his department is “constantly seeking to collaborate with local tech companies.” Hsu says that as the largest contributor to Silicon Valley’s high-tech workforce, SJSU strives to equip students with the skills prized by employers.
“It’s undeniable that cloud computing, software-defined everything and big data have ushered in a totally new era in the ways we collect, store and use data, creating a demand for technologists with this kind of specialized knowledge,” Hsu says.
Nexenta is one of the tech companies proud to partner with SJSU, as well as the College of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Colorado (CU) Denver. These programs are intended to solve the chronic tech worker shortage and encourage more collaborative efforts between industry and universities developing the engineers and computer scientists of the future.
I encourage you to think deeply about where you might participate in an employer-education partnership program. I’ve outlined where technology companies fit into the picture. There’s also a role for venture capitalists who can bring together startups, established companies and universities, using the power of investment to create a human capital multiplier. I invite you to contact me to explore opportunities to keep the tech industry strong in the U.S.
To ensure our industry remains competitive, those of us who depend on an educated workforce must work with our partners in education to give our future employees the skills they need today. Now is the time to take action.
Tarkan Maner is chairman and CEO of Nexenta Systems, Inc. He is a global executive operator, investor and advisor in social media, mobility, Internet of everything, big data and cloud computing, where software-defined infrastructure trends now redefine enterprises from data centers to end users. Tarkan and his team have a passion to build game-changing and customer-focused businesses and deliver disruptive and revolutionary solutions. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter.