Real-World Commencement

Opinion: Tech grads have lots to offer-but they need to be prepared for a tough and always-changing global skills competition.

It is graduation season in the United States, and for those graduates with computer science and engineering degrees, this graduation should mark a promising start—if theyve learned the right skills.

There are lots of reasons for those grads to be optimistic that theyll be able to put their skills to work and enjoy a rewarding and lucrative career.

There are also lots of reasons for them to be pessimistic in view of a changing work environment, a tough and competitive worldwide technology skills market, and a hard-nosed business environment where you often are expected to hit home runs your first time at bat.

First, you might want to think about the following questions: Did you get the education you need for todays technology environment? How are your translation skills? And Im not referring to translating languages but translating a document full of business needs and expectations into a technology project that you can deliver on time and on budget.

Business needs can be as vague as "We need to sell more widgets" to as specific as "I need to know exactly how many sales calls translate into sales."

The documents containing those needs range from quick BlackBerry thumbed messages to multipage detailed documents. Have you ever had a class that followed the development of a technology application all the way from business wish to technology deliverable? Youll need this skill.

And how are your team skills when you never get to meet the team? Widely dispersed groups are certainly the norm in big corporations today and are becoming the norm in small and midsize companies as well.

Your interactions will be over e-mail, and they will be endless. It is great that a world-spanning development team allows the project process to continue round-the-clock. The great feeling becomes less so after the third night of getting up to answer e-mails and take part in conference calls around 3 a.m.

Learning how to navigate in a team environment is crucial. I hope you didnt sleep through that lecture. The rise of the Internet has created a base to run that global team web, and it has also given you a much simpler way to deploy your applications once completed. But that Web also means you are now in a global skills competition.

How complete is your knowledge of the current immigration and visa policies for technology-savvy foreign nationals? Heres a quick quiz: What is the current annual cap for H-1B visas? How soon was the 2007 visa allotment completed? Is there a current proposal to double or halve the number of visas? What in the world is this proposal for an F-4 visa category? (Answers: 65,000, May 26, double, and a fast-track green card for foreign students completing graduate work in engineering or physical sciences.)

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Why do you even need to know about visas and such? As any older tech worker will tell you and as your professors should have instructed, your technology career will hinge on how well you understand the economic forces in which you operate.

What is the value of your skill set? How do you set that value? Should you rely on your employer to safeguard your career and build additional skills, or should you essentially become—a company that is dedicated to keeping you competitive and growing?

Heres a hint: It is you, not the company you work for, who has to be concerned about making sure you have the right skill set offered at the right price.

So I havent said anything about whether you should be a Java or a .Net programmer. Or whether you should work on consumer social applications, business processes or military technology.

I havent said anything about the value of working only with open-source projects or narrow proprietary projects. Or about RFID developments, data and identity protection, compliance processes, or hybrid engines.

Your efforts in undergraduate and/or graduate school have provided a basic tool set, but now you should be thinking about how you are going to distinguish yourself as a master craftsman apart from all the other workers also carrying their toolboxes.

Editorial Director Eric Lundquist can be reached at

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