Thursday, July 17, 2008

Educator Interview: Ronald Hartung

This week, I'm talking with Ronald Hartung, Ph.D., of Franklin University.

What do you do now?

I have three titles at work. I am Division Chair for Computer and Information Sciences. I am also Program Chair for masters and undergraduate computer science programs. Finally, I am also a professor. Division Chair is less than a Dean but I manage across computer and information science curriculum areas—or herd cats.

You weren't always an academic. How did you get to where you are now?

Many years ago, I was at a U.S. Navy lab and was put into management. I responded by going to school and getting my Ph.D. I taught as an adjunct at Franklin for many years. At some point, I didn't need an industrial salary anymore and since I love teaching, I focused on that. Academia is my second career.

Do you find that your industrial experience makes you more effective as an educator?

I would say that because of my years in industry—and my colleagues' years in industry—we've made strong efforts to create a curriculum at Franklin that balances the theoretical foundation and the practical. That's the focus of Franklin's computer science program. Our degrees are practitioner degrees by design. We make sure that courses build on and support one another, giving a basis for lifelong learning because we know it'll change but they can walk out the door with skills that pay off immediately. The practitioner part of my life gives me a lot of insight in how to do that.

What should organizations hiring and promoting technology practitioners know about what's happening in the world of education?

Much has changed compared to where computer science was twenty years ago. We've specialized the field and we run four degree programs for people who manage infrastructure to people doing requirements, people producing web related systems, and the standard old fashioned software developer. We see that as specialization. If you look at the history of the ACM curriculum, the number of core areas has exploded over twenty years.
At Franklin, we're aiming for a mainstream developer, not a security specialist, for example. A security specialist will still need to know a lot about the inside of an operating system, but today that's much less important for the average developer. We seem to be in era ruled by this little language and that little language, but they're not terribly different until you get into Lisp, Prolog, or some interesting ones—outside of the mainstream. We won't necessarily produce a graduate that can use your favorite language but they should be able to jump from one to another.
It's always hard to find someone who can be able to go into the niche. Mainstream is still Java. We expect that to shift one day but we just don't know where that will go. We're trying to make sure that people walk out the door with teamwork skills and understand how an industrial organization works. You don't teach that by having team projects because that's where strong person does all the work and everyone else looks open-eyed. We need to simulate an industrial organization where you have a team lead, testers, different roles, etc., and each person has responsibility to that team. We've tried to incorporate that in curriculum. We hear a lot about soft skills. My colleagues and I are not so hot on them because our sense is that if you don't have technical skills, no amount of soft skill will save you. We'd love to go to five-year degree program if we could but we can't, so we do the best we can in four years. Those are some of challenges.

What do people who lead graduates need to understand in order to make best use of newly-graduated practitioners?

Recognize that there's a learning curve no matter what your background and that people do different things at different stages in their careers. First out of school they have to get their hands dirty and write code. People out of school are prepared to do that. We try to make sure they understand how to put things together from components, which is major part of today's world: most programmers work with components and stitch them together. It makes software harder to write, not easier!
Second off, employers need to invest in technology people so when practitioners come out of school employers can get them into testing and development—but to get them to grow to understand complex architecture and larger system issues, that takes time. You can't just bring people in, use them for a project and shove them out the door without losing the future talent. Industry needs to do better job of building those people.
I think in today's world you need to come back and study for a master's degree. The master's degree teaches you to put knowledge together, to integrate, and to deal with the higher-level stuff. That high-level understanding takes time and there's no way we can pack that into undergraduate degree. Requires investment from the employee, as well.

What does someone pursuing a degree from Franklin want?

Students are all over the map. Some I talked to are trying to change careers. They may have been in all kinds of things. Someone was administrative assistant and wants to jump off and study software development.
Some are looking for more of an infrastructure job. They want to put networks together and they're happy at that level.
A lot of students we get are career-oriented and looking for job. They're driven that way, so they're trying to get their program done as fast as possible and get right into the field. Some want to jump up a level. In some ways I think many students are looking for how to get the degree, to get into a career, and to get moving.
Some are full-time students looking for internships, into company to do some work and to show what they can do. Some have difficulty doing that because they have families and other obligations.
Students really are all over the map; you'll need to talk to someone to find out where they are.

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