Things as they are
It is a known fact that to get anywhere in the IT industry, you need at least a degree qualification. It is extremely rare and virtually unheard of in Sri Lanka for dropouts to work in a local tech company- despite highly publicized stories of the Zuckerburgs’, Gates’ and numerous other dropout stories in the interwebs (this aspect of talent recognition deserves a separate discussion – we should not dwell on that here).
Currently, there are several types of graduate programs that are recognized by the local IT industry:
- Local university degree programs.
- External degree programs offered by local universities (ex: BIT)
- Affliated Degrees offered by private universities
- Foreign Degree Programs
- University Grants Commission (UGC) sanctioned private/semi government institution offered Degree programs (ex: SLIIT)
However, not all degrees are made alike: there is apparently quite a difference in the recognition given to each of these. In reality the industry mostly leans towards the local university graduates. Based on extensive chats with software developers and recruiters (who wish to remain unnamed) from companies all over Colombo, I have a couple of theories to offer as to why:
1) The Old Boys’ Club
The first crop of IT professionals was mainly from local universities. These professionals now hold some of the highest positions in the industry and naturally they have high regards and loyalties towards their universities (and local universities) in general. The cream of the crop attitude also reinforces this stance. In some cases this comes across as a dislike of privately-qualified students, who are viewed as slightly bourgeois. This attitude is not alien to Sri Lanka – in fact, we see this quite publicly when it comes to schools in Colombo, for instance. It’s easy to see how that mentality transfers over.
2) The Culling Process
The general norm is that local university graduates are the best. It is taken for granted that the best of the local A/Ls (in itself one of the toughest exams) students make it to the government universities. It is then taken for granted that these bright minds are the cream of the crop in the industry.
This perception holds some truth, but in reality there can be and there definitely are better or similar caliber IT professionals who have been groomed outside of the local university system. This ties closely to the fact that the syllabuses are not perfect and many local graduates walk out with a mostly theoretical grounding, coupled with a somewhat bloated sense of self-worth if they happen to be from certain universities. In many cases, this translates to a lack of practically applicable skill, especially in teamwork – for example, almost every senior software developer I met had come across that one batch top who couldn’t work as effectively as the rest and eventually had to be sent away.
3) The Difference of Standards
One main concern with the private universities has been the standards of professionals produced by private institutions. When you identify yourself as coming from a private university, that automatically lumps you in with the likes of APIIT, IIT (for example) as well as other lesser-know institutions with lower standards. There was also concern among a select portion that foreign degrees are “easier” and therefore worth less.
In my opinion, the underlying arguments for these concerns are valid, but they ultimately this falls to the interviewer to be familiar with and capable of judging the standards of Institute X and Degree Y as opposed to another combination. Some courses (BCS’s PGD, for example, which is equivalent to a UK Honors Degree) are more industry-oriented than a purely general Bsc and might be instrumental in helping a company hire candidates who can quickly adapt to their new work.
The Difference of Standards also comes into play among the local universities. For fresh recruits, higher weight on the starting salary is given on the university. Given how Sri Lanka allocates students to universities, interviewers cannot realistically be faulted for an easy way to gauge skill, and this is not a problem unique to Sri Lanka: it happens everywhere. For example, if you had one applicant from Harvard, and one applicant from the Missisippi State University, which one would you choose?
Going Solo, and how the hiring works
Software Engineering related jobs ranks high in my list of “Occupations that I can ace on my own”. With access to internet, open source opportunities and online communities, if a person has the passion you can go a long way in becoming a great IT professional on their own. There are lot of examples of people who have self-learned coding to become star Programmers or great Product Architects. The argument that one university produces the best has no validity today. If a person has the passion, he or she can become self-learned individual of highest caliber in the IT field. That’s how we have seen promising projects like Soosci coming from school kids.
Unfortunately, local hiring processes rarely take this into account. In an ideal world, university pedigree should not be given a huge weight in the selection process – it should be more focused on what they have done. Unfortunately, that system doesn’t scale: you’ll have one or two epic overachievers and a small army of perfect capable people with no track record failing interviews. Thus, both the hiring process (read: the people behind the process) and the education system has to meet halfway. On one hand, the industry could certainly use more forward-thinking graduates who think outside the box. On the other hand, interviewers must learn to take these traits into account.
I particularly feel that we, as an industry, could benefit from how Google hires people. Google looks not for IQ, but for learning ability, intellectual humility (so people can learn), technical competence – but downplays the importance of expertise or brand-name colleges. Perhaps – hopefully – Sri Lanka, as a whole, will learn from the examples set for them. After all, we can’t afford to make mistakes.