The Architects of Cyberspace: Stalking the Hedgehog of 21st-Century IT

December 19, 2006 § Leave a comment

As one of my many extracurricular activities, I
happen to serve on the Dean’s Advisory Council for GCCIS, the College of Computing and Information
Sciences at RIT
. The thing I enjoy most about that experience is the
opportunity to contemplate (and hopefully influence) the future of Computer
Science/Information Technology education. Below is an essay I submitted for the
last Dean’s Council meeting, which I hope will provide a “manifesto” of sorts for the next generation of
computational educators. Combined with feedback from other members of the
Council, it led me to a “graphical hedgehog” representing the “one big
thing” I believe they should focus on. Let me know what you think!

The
Architects of
Cyberspace

Stalking the
Hedgehog of 21st-Century IT
In his landmark best-seller “Good
to Great
“, Jim Collins defined
a
Hedgehog
Concept
as the “one big thing”
a company needs to focus on — a “simple, crystalline concept” that concisely
captures the intersection of their deepest
passion,
greatest potential
competency,
and most fundamental
economic
driver. As GCCIS wrestles
with the question of how to integrate
interaction,
infor?matics,
and
infrastructure
into a coherent, world-class academic program, I believe we need to first
articulate a “hedgehog” describing GCCIS
itself.

Fortunately the
answer to all three questions — passion, competency, and economics — can be
found on the GCCIS website, which declares its mission as
preparing students to be
highly skilled computing
professionals
.” I don’t know if the
proper economic metric is “alumni dollars per square foot” or “tuition dollars
per tenured faculty”, but I do believe that the school’s passion — and
potential for both greatness and financial success — is and must be centered
around attracting, training, and graduating top-notch
students.

If so, though, then
that raises a whole host of additional questions:

? How do we attract such
students?
? What and how do we teach
them?
? How do we attract, retain, and
develop the right kind of faculty to teach
them?

I believe the answer to
those questions is, or at least should be, another hedgehog: a single unifying
concept that is not just a brand for external consumers, but a cultural
touchstone that binds the diverse interests of faculty, students, and
administrators into a coherent community. More than a slogan or a logo, it
needs to represent a deep, shared understanding of what the 21st-Century IT
professional should look like. Yet while it needs to be specific enough to
guide concrete decisions, it must also be open-ended enough to allow generations
of students and faculty to continually yet collaboratively reinterpret it as
needed.

And today, that
reinvention is needed more than ever. The functionally-trained IT professional
is being outsourced out of existence. To command jobs in the new emerging
American market?places, graduates will need to be more like entrepreneurs,
having a deep understanding of customer needs, technical possibilities, and
financial realities.

Therefore, I believe GCCIS
should focus on skills analogous to that of a brick-and-mortar architect: the
ability to balance
aesthetics,
usability,
and
economics
to deliver a coherent product within a specific context. I submit to you that
the greatest good GCCIS could do for our industry — and for itself — is to
leverage its expertise in interaction, informatics, and infrastructure to
develop a new discipline of “cyber-architects” who know how to build usable,
robust, data-rich, real-world hardware/software systems. Even if few students
master all those disciplines, they should have a deep appreciation of the
synergistic vision underlying everything that they learn.

For I honestly believe that
their professional future — and yours, and ours — depends on
it.

Sincerely,
Dr.
Ernest N. Prabhakar

November 29th,
2006

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