Education not in sync with IT goal

SUMMARISED: Nick D'Aloisio, 17, sold his company for $35m.
SUMMARISED: Nick D'Aloisio, 17, sold his company for $35m.

The story of the 17-year-old British teen, Nick D'Aloisio, who sold his app Summly to Yahoo for $36 million has resonated with me and is an inspiration for the next generation of tech start-up entrepreneurs.

While I'm the same age as D'Aloisio, and would like to replicate his success, I find New Zealand, and particularly the Government, somewhat contradictory about its ambitions for information technology and the technology sector.

We want technology entrepreneurship to be an engine for economic growth, but little is being done to incite this among people my age.

What I find interesting about the debate regarding New Zealand's lack of IT skills is the focus on students learning to code, as Orion Health chief executive Ian McCrae highlighted.

I believe this situation is occurring because these skills are highly undervalued. There are several reasons why this is so.

First, schools prepare most students for university, not the working world or entrepreneurship. Students are focused on building credentials to raise them higher in the academic hierarchy. Their main concern is the value of their high school CV.

Students grasp on to the more traditional, more highly regarded "academic subjects", as they perceive these to be better recognised by tertiary institutions.

Information and communications technology (ICT) has been trampled by English, maths and the sciences as a subject that yields no value in progressing to the next stage of education.

This is confirmed by University of Auckland's entry requirements to certain subjects. University course entry often requires a certain number of "Table A" or "Table B" subjects. The more of these subjects completed at high school, the more certain a student can be of acceptance.

ICT does not even feature in this list. It also lacks a mention in many "subject guidelines" for students looking at prospective university courses.

Secondly, the coding landscape is ever changing. As students, we're confronted with an ambiguous vision of the future New Zealand economy. We're constantly bombarded by statistics like this one from futurist Jim Carroll: "Sixty-five per cent of the kids in preschool today will work in jobs or careers that don't yet exist."

We've been repeatedly told that the future cannot be predicted and today's employment buzzword may be tomorrow's hackneyed cliche.

This notion is even more pertinent within the world of code. Most people have the perception that if they learn a coding language now, it will be obsolete by the time they apply for a job. However, this ignores the principle that learning basic code in school would give students an invaluable foundation in staying up to date in the future. Most don't see this benefit.

My peers and I grew up in a society that was already globalised. From the time we could understand how things were produced, we understood that any job that involves repetitive labour would be either automated, or performed by some low paid worker in a newly industrialised country.

Coding is seen as the techies' equivalent of sweatshop labour. Those with business interests just "hire a guy" with a knowledge of code, to sort out all that messy production stuff. If there's a massive demand for coders, then that demand will surely be filled by China or India's 10 million graduates a year at a far lower rate than the average North Shore student aspires to.

But an understanding of basic code gives people with ideas a platform from which to conceptualise the next big thing.

To nurture the coders of tomorrow, there must be some perception shift, which starts with true academic recognition. Embedding it from the ground up does nothing to ensure that our best and brightest undertake the challenge of learning to code, if such learning isn't validated by institutions creating guidelines for study. Perhaps Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce needs to take the same approach as he did with engineering and science - guiding universities into accepting more of these students via funding changes.

A national technology strategy, like the one called for by Xero founder Rod Drury, would be a great start.

New Zealand has no direction in the IT sector. It is being treated as a possibility rather than an exciting new platform that we can master better than anyone right now. If we're serious about wanting my generation to embrace this opportunity, we need to start reflecting that in our education system.

As the late Sir Paul Callaghan so rightly stated: "New Zealand should be a place where talent wants to live."

We still have a lot of work to do to make his vision a reality.

Medcalf is the head boy at Westlake Boys' High School in Auckland and a participant in the Young Enterprise Scheme where he represented New Zealand in the regional business strategy finals last year in Hong Kong.

Sunday Star Times