Graduates: Friendly tool for a mean operator: Nowadays, computer skills are integral to most organisations, says Philip Schofield - skills all graduates should make their business

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The Independent Online
Although some 3,500 graduates a year enter information technology (IT), about half having read computing, a much larger number will make significant use of it during their careers.

The information revolution started in the mid-1940s with the first electronic computer. For some years the technology and programmes were impenetrable to the layman - including the end user. Managements feared computer specialists were becoming the most powerful people in an organisation because they controlled access to all the information.

Computing capacity has since grown at a phenomenal rate, costs continue to fall, applications have increased, and they have become much more user-friendly. For most organisations computing has become an integral part of their business with the software accessible by the end user.

Those employed in IT, with the exception of those who design computers and control programmes, can no longer hide behind 'black-box' technology and an operating system which needs a professional computer operator. Today's operator may be anyone from a nurse to a consulting engineer. The end user now has direct access to the system.

This in turn has changed the type of person employers look for. In many areas of IT - increasingly called management services - your computing skills will be no more important than your knowledge of the area in which you work. Moreover,

because you will be dealing with non specialists, you must be able to describe your work clearly in non-technical language. This calls for communication skills of a high order.

Instead of recruiting specialists, employers are recruiting generalists and giving them the knowledge of the business combined with IT skills.

Of all the employers advertising computing and management services vacancies in Graduate Opportunities 1994 (GO), 60 per cent accept any discipline while a few more accept 'any numerate or logical discipline'. For example, IBM say they accept graduates from any discipline, but that for more technical posts 'degree backgrounds with an element of computing are obviously relevant'. Logica plc asks for any numerate or logical discipline but adds 'arts graduates who can show a keen interest in IT will also be considered'.

If the applications end of the job market is opening up, those entering the design and systems side are if anything becoming more specialised. There are now many postgraduate courses which focus on areas like neural network artificial intelligence and signal processing. The people coming out of these courses will be looking for posts in design and systems.

Now, even artificial intelligence is within the scope of the PC and the end user. Computer scientists at University College in London, for example, are pioneering the way to integrate the latest artificial intelligence techniques - such as expert systems, neural networks and genetic algorithms - with standard business tools such as spreadsheets and databases.

Initial users of this system will be financial institutions who are keen to employ articificial intelligence techniques but who have so far been hampered by the difficulties of incorporating them into existing systems.

The team has developed an 'object oriented software architecture'. Hansa, enables standardisation between software houses letting new applications be built up out of existing software like building blocks.

The widening gap between technical specialists and generalists entering IT will continue. A growing number of generalists already make IT only part of their career, progressing to other management functions. In the longer term, IT will probably become no more than one of many tools in a manager's portfolio. It is time for every graduate to improve and maintain their computing skills.