Skills search broadens, forensics takes limelight

Has your bachelor's degree lost its currency? Do you aspire to be a manager? Or do you simply want to specialize in a particular area of IT?

While the reasons for pursuing postgraduate education may differ from student to student, there is no doubt that further study is now seen as a crucial step in an IT professional's career.

According to Macquarie Graduate School of Management (MGSM) professor of management Ernie Jordan, with 25 percent of Sydney's working population having a bachelor degree, undergraduate education is not enough anymore to make you stand out in a crowd.

"To be distinctive you have to have a master's degree, and when people have been in the IT industry for five to eight years, they start to question what their master's degree should be in," Jordan said.

"A lot of the MBA students have an IT background, I would estimate around 20 percent, with some having 10 to 15 years experience in IT and now looking to move into a more general management role."

And it seems these IT professionals are making the right choice in the institutions which they select for further.

Macquarie Graduate School of Management's MBA ranked #1 in Australia and Asia by the Economist Intelligence Unit's 'Which MBA?' survey and is designed for individuals already in positions of responsibility who have been identified as possessing higher management and leadership potential.

The MBA covers 16 units, of which students can select six electives from specific areas including information technology management. It can be completed in one year full-time study, or two to three years part-time study.

However, the MGSM Master of Management is a specialized Masters-level program that lets students focus on a particular field of management; its IT specializations can be completed in nine moths to one year of full-time study or 18 months of part-time study.

According to Jordan, IT professionals often need to decide whether to pursue management goals or specialize in a technology.

"I think when IT people look at the Master's level there's a fork in the path, either enhanced technical advancement, where they can become specialists in a particular area, or the other side of the fork is management," Jordan said.

"The IT industry is always introducing new technology, and there's always change in organizations, so as a group of people, the IT professional is keen to keep on top of things and gain better qualifications."

Electives include computer-based modelling for management, IT management, IT strategy, managing electronic business and operations management. A postgraduate diploma is also offered for those who simply want to consolidate their work experience or advance their career in a given field and can quickly gained in six months of full-time study.

Despite this range of choice, fitting study into a work/life balance could prove a problem for some, with no online options available.

However, Jordan claims this shouldn't be a problem.

"MGSM strongly believes in interactive face-to-face learning. Our average student is 32 to 35 years of age and is really good at what they do, and even for group work the students prefer to meet, rather than work over e-mail," Jordan said.

Like Jordan, Monash University dean for the faculty of information technology Professor Ron Weber is adamant that the need for technical currency is paramount in the IT industry.

"For companies, the imperative is to ensure that, at an aggregate level, the productivity and competence of staff enhances overall competitiveness and for the individual IT professional, the impact is upon personal capacity and competence," Weber said.

"With so much emphasis these days upon certification, there is a need to explore the acquisition of IT skills at a more conceptual and fundamental level."

According to Weber, Monash embraces almost every conceivable IT specialty, allowing students to combine research with a coursework Masters program, as well as offering executive certificates that can provide a bridge into higher degree studies.

"We're always reviewing our offerings to ensure that our programs are meaningful to industry, and we expect to announce some changes in our postgraduate offerings soon," Weber said.

Australian Computer Society vice president Chris Avram believes that the course and subjects you pursue in your postgraduate education really depends on your work function.

"One should think 30 years ahead when selecting an undergraduate degree, 20 years ahead when choosing a change of career course, and 10 to five years when choosing a knowledge and skills enhancement course," Avram said.

"I look back to 1995, from within the ICT industry and ask myself, could I have foreseen the essential understandings and knowledge needed in 2005? Obviously this is a very difficult task.

"For the person choosing a 'career enhancement' or 'career change' postgraduate course, I would be conscious that my training would take two to five years to complete, and so I would be focusing on background knowledge, on theory and on the fundamentals.

"I would be asking about skills development only in areas where I can see myself working in the very near future. The fundamentals of security, of IT project management, of business information systems, of e-commerce, of software engineering, of database management, and network management provide solid foundations that will support a career."

Avram recommends that for those younger, 'change of career professionals', a broader Masters program, covering fundamental conceptual skills and technical depth is a better preparation for a longer career in the industry.

"Most of those who undertake an IT degree and who have a non-IT background, choose a one-year graduate diploma or a three-semester Masters program," Avram said.

"On the other hand, those pursuing the change of careers option sometimes have many years of work experience in their first career, and are looking for early promotion to senior IT management positions, so three semesters is enough.

As for people in the ICT industry, they are often looking to round out their skills, filling in holes in their work experience or prior learning. These people are attracted to a course with a large offering of elective study in the whole discipline of ICT."

RMIT postgraduate program leader Audrem Tam claims that programs at their institution are designed for those working in the industry who seek to complete a high-level Master's degree, or for those who need to brush up on their technical skills.

However, those with less experience can apply, with other applicants including those seeking a career change into the IT industry and those with suitable industry experience but no tertiary qualifications who wish to obtain one.

RMIT offers three Master's programs, each with a corresponding Graduate Diploma and Graduate Certificate.

"One of the programs specializes in Internet and Web computing, while the other two give students a choice of eight areas of specialization, including two new specializations, computer security and bioinformatics," Tam said.

"For applicants with a strong background in hands-on software development, the Master of Applied Science in IT provides an opportunity to complete eight specialist courses, plus a minor thesis or project.

"A longer version of the Master of Technology allows applicants with little or no programming background to complete a minor thesis, which may form part of an application to a research program."

Next year RMIT will be offering a new program, Master of Technology in Enterprise Architecture, and an interim award Graduate Diploma, intended for ICT professionals with substantial experience in software development or ICT management who wish to advance their career to the role of enterprise architect within an organization.

"The Master of Technology in Enterprise Architecture program will also include new courses such as enterprise architecture case studies and a new course developed by the School of Business IT for this program, IT governance and change management," Tam said.

Other new courses being offered this year and next also include mobile application and development, algorithms for efficient data engineering, advanced topics in bioinformatics, computer and Internet forensics, mobile and wireless computing and algorithms for efficient data engineering.

The school offers several methods of study, though Tam recommends that face-to-face contact is still the best method of learning. "Some Internet and Web courses run on Saturdays, but most of our other postgraduate courses run weekday evenings," Tam said. "All of our courses have considerable online resources, but, although some students do well with minimal class contact, most benefit more from face-to-face lectures and practical sessions where there is more interaction with teaching staff and fellow students."

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