How to Mentor the Next generation of Technologists

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By Charles Eaton

My last article for ITSP defined the term “technologist,” a label that applies to people working in companies of all shapes and sizes across the country along a broad spectrum of industries—not just those that write software and make hardware. I explained that, while technologists have diverse interests and multifaceted personalities, most share five traits:

  1. A technologist thinks strategy first.
  2. A technologist has a passion for solving problems and a general sense of curiosity.
  3. A technologist sees technology in a constructive context.
  4. A technologist believes tech is about humans, not hardware.
  5. A technologist values respect, cooperation and collaboration.

Based on this core set of qualities, I believe today’s tweens and teens—especially those from groups currently under-represented in the tech industry—are suited to become tomorrow’s technologists. Why? Because we asked them what they really want for their future careers in our “Teen Views on Tech Careers” report, and I feel, on the whole, their answers align well with the personality of a cybersecure technologist.

But before I elaborate on our research, I want to clarify what we mean when we refer to tweens and teens as the “next generation of technologists”:

In general, we are referring to young people currently in their middle- through high-school years. Some demographers call them Generation Z, a large and culturally diverse cohort of children born during the mid-90s and later. In our studies, we emphasize urban youth and girls because those populations provide perspective on the “under-represented” groups I mentioned above—namely, African-Americans, Hispanics and women. We also worked with IDEO, a global consulting firm, to review the broader body of research in this field and synchronize our findings with over-arching conclusions from other studies.

The reason we are focused on Generation Z is the oldest among them are preparing to start work. Already making up a quarter of the U.S. population, Gen Z-ers will account for more than 20 percent of the workforce in the next five years—and become one of the vital forces that shrinks our nation’s “tech skills gap.”

To refresh your memory about the tech skills gap, some sources claim there are as many as half a million unfilled IT jobs open in our country at any given time. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts IT occupations will grow 12 percent by 2024 to compound this skills gap issue, along with the fact that many in the tech industry are now nearing retirement age. Perhaps the most troubling angle to this trend is cybersecurity. Researchers foresee cybercrime tripling during the next five years, while the number of cybersecurity professionals employed to keep cybercrooks at bay will not keep pace with this hazard. During the next five to six years, analysts project the number of unfilled positions in cybersecurity could surpass 3 million globally, creating a talent fissure that could cost businesses $6 trillion.

My organization believes the shortest path to filling this cybersecurity gap is tapping under-represented groups. If we increase the participation of existing populations in cybersecure thinking, we jump-start the process of closing the gap. And then, to develop a talent pipeline with a cybersecure mentality from youth to adulthood, two shifts in our educational mindset are necessary:

  1. Preparation for a career working with technology must include development of hard technical skills and business acumen, such as clear communication, analytical thinking and team dynamics. In other words, as argued in my last article, we need to be educating technologists, not just technicians.
  2. Mentorship programs should not wait until young people enter the workforce, as these initiatives can make a greater impact during the formative years of middle and high school.

Both beliefs are based on data. To address the first, here’s my interpretation of our “Teen Views” study results in terms of a technologist’s talents:

“Strategy First”

My preferred definition of “strategy” is a “plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major or overall aim,” and I believe technologists favor strategies—i.e., plans or policies designed to achieve broad goals—before tactics—i.e., actions and activities implemented to achieve specific objectives. I see this sort of “step back and plan before taking action” attitude among teens participating in our research. And it strikes me as fertile ground for cybersecure thinking.

“Passion for Solving Problems”

Roughly eight in 10 teens in our study responded that they would be motivated to learn more about IT programs if “it involved helping to solve a problem in their school.” About the same proportion said they would be motivated if “it involved helping to solve a problem in their community.” Given cybersecurity is a global challenge, those results speak for themselves.

“Constructive Context”

Most teens (78 percent) in our survey said “learning new things all the time” and “helping other people” would be important to their future careers. To me, these answers suggests young people value technology largely for its benefit to others rather than just for its impact on their own personal or professional lives. Again, the cybersecurity connection here seems obvious.

In terms of cybersecure mentorship, our IT Futures Labs research team reached three conclusions about cultivating technologists:

Role models are highly persuasive: Their ability to inspire and influence future career choices cannot be overstated. So, if we want more kids to grow up to be technologists, during their middle-school and high-school years tweenagers and teenagers should meet more cybersecure technologists and learn what they do.

Mentors model mentality more than method: What makes a good technologist is more mindset than best practices. Traits such as thinking “strategy first,” showing a “passion for solving problems” and believing that technology is about “humans, not hardware” play out more in professional performance than technical manuals and are conducive to secure computing. By interacting with young people, mentors can provide an early look at how a cybersecure technologist thinks and acts, enabling students to visualize a future beyond the next level of education.

Kids have bought into the “follow your passion” message: They want careers that allow them to do something they love. That’s why meaningful contact with professionals who love their work, too, is vital. Extending mentorship out of the workplace and down to middle- and high-school years is about inspiration—not training—and extending a cybersecure mentality.

What method of mentorship works best for tweens and teens? There are several essential elements we incorporate into mentorship models we use with NextUp, our organization’s initiative to orient young people toward tech careers, that apply to any course of education:

Timing is key: It’s important to work with kids in middle school or early high school, the time in their lives when we classify them as "dreamers", meaning they have yet to consider the practicalities of a career, money or security.

Guest speakers only go so far: Don’t stand up and lecture to students. To make connections with young people, work on projects together. The more sustained the connection, the more likely it is that growth will happen. Help them visualize how cybersecurity influences day-to-day business decisions and operations.

Guide, don’t control: A student will never become passionate about something without having some amount of autonomy. Give them the tools they need to get started—then get out of their way. Let kids take over your laptop or tablet and run the apps. In short, let them put their hands on the tools and start practicing cybersecure computing as early as possible.

You’ll be amazed at what they are able to do—and they will be, too. That just makes them hungry for more, creating an appetite for cybersecure computing that will serve businesses and society for decades to come.

About Charles Eaton

Charles Eaton leads three philanthropic endeavors for CompTIA, the world’s largest IT trade association: Executive Vice President of Social Innovation, CEO of Creating IT Futures and NextUp, the organization’s initiative to inspire young people to choose technology careers.

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