Seeing the Big Picture
As a distinguished engineer, Dr Samson Tai, chief technology officer at IBM China-Hong Kong, is used to tackling complex technical challenges, his recent challenge, however, is more human-centric — closing some of the misalignment gaps between the career outlooks held by many Hong Kong university students studying technology subjects and the actual needs and practices of employers.
From his front row seat as IBM’s focal point for forming collaborative partnerships with Hong Kong universities and vocational educational institutions, Tai is familiar with both the skills and aptitudes employers are looking for and the career expectations of students. According to Tai, students that join IT programmes without having a broad picture of their future career opportunities when they graduate can become despondent. “It’s disappointing to see IT students decide not to make the most of their skills once they graduate,” says Tai who also notes there is a tendency for graduates to leave IT roles after three or four years in the workplace because they feel disillusioned with their career prospects. While a disconnect between the skills content of university programmes and what organisations need is a cause of some career dissatisfaction, a lack of preparedness and “big picture” understanding is also responsible for what Tai describes as withdrawing from the IT sector. “Often, it’s not just a skills mismatch gap, there is also a career awareness gap,” Tai explains. “Students don’t know what they don’t know”, he adds stressing that it is important that IT students receive relevant guidance early in their tertiary journey that steers them towards the “right” programmes to achieve the best outcomes.
With this in mind, in his professional capacity as well as using his personal time, Tai is at the forefront of a number of initiatives that aim to narrow the differences between what students are taught at tertiary level and what employers are actually looking for. For instance, Tai works closely with the Vocational Training Council (VTC) on the curriculum design of its Higher Diploma in Data Science and Analytics programme. Now in its third year, through IBM resources, Tai has also helped to provide teaching tools and course materials for the programme, which has enabled more than 150 students to graduate with job-ready-skills. Earlier this year, in recognition for his dedication and personal commitment, when Tai was chosen from across IBM’s global workforce as one of 15 recipients of the IBM Volunteer Excellence Award, he donated the US$10,000 prize money to the VTC to further support its IT programmes.
In addition, dubbed the IBM Data Science Workshop@PolyU, open to anyone interested in acquiring data science skills such as cognitive computing, big data, and analytics, Tai initiated a series of free monthly analytics and the application of technologies workshops. Believing that students are never too young to start leaning about the fast evolving world of technology, Tai has taken his “insight” workshops into secondary schools. “The interest level and feedback from students and their parents is really enthusiastic,” notes Tai whose activities reflect IBM’s broader commitment to nurturing and supporting Hong Kong’s IT education environment. For instance, the Joint IBM/PolyU Enterprise Data Analytics Laboratory (EDAL) focuses on big data research, design of software tools, and analytical algorithms for enterprise and social media data. IBM also offers a number of free online courses through its data science and cognitive computing platform.
With the days long gone when tech companies trained employees from the ground up, similar to programmes offered in the retail sector, Tai would like to see the government, employers and tertiary institutions collaborate to offer programmes that combine classroom-based theoretical knowledge with on-the-job practical experience. While acknowledging the Government’s Innovation and Technology Fund is designed to encourage organisation to upgrade their technological level and introduce innovative ideas, Tai believes a combination of hands-on and academic experiences would provide students with better new IT competencies insights, while easing pressure on the global trend universities are facing trying to keep their programmes up to date with next-generation technology developments.
A perception that Tai is particularly keen to dispel is that IT students, once they have graduated, need to spend their entire career coding or working in a specific IT-related job. With traditional roles increasingly being redefined by technology and digital advances, Tai says the opportunity to mesh IT-skills with a wide range of business operations is rapidly expanding. “Organisations across all industries are waking up to the fact that employees with technology skills are increasingly valuable,” Tai says. Whether it is marketing, business development or customer relations, IT graduates can use their technology know-how to springboard into areas that interest them. To succeed, however, Tai stresses that it is important for IT graduates to develop an “innovation application mindset”, which he defines as the ability to integrate technology into the business process in a way that underpins the “real value of technology”. Put simply, Tai explains, the application of technology has moved beyond automating processes to take the place of human labour —although this is still a major function — to open up new ways of doing business. Meanwhile, in today’s fast-paced technology environment, Tai cautions that even the most seemingly secure technology skills can become outdated, consequently, it is crucial to stay informed and leverage new knowledge to your own advantage.