Some of Ireland’s most experienced technology professionals have been sharing their ideas about technology and careers with the Smart Futures website. Dr. Seán Baker taught in Trinity College Dublin before leaving for industry as one of the co-founders of Iona Technologies. He is now chairman of 3Strata Technologies, and is involved with a range of other companies and industry organisations.
“I knew nothing about computing when I started – I took to it slowly in first year and then in second and third year I realised that they were subjects that I was particularly interested in and seemed to be reasonably good at, and that was then the natural choice for me in fourth year. I didn’t go in with a preconceived idea that I would do software engineering, far from it.”
Seán reckons students have to be pretty lucky to know what they want when they’re in their late teens, but engineering can lead to a wide range of opportunities.
“Once somebody graduates, there are many directions they might take: they might move into management. They might remain very strong within engineering, they might become an engineering leader which is a very very strong position within a company.
“They could give up the dayjob and go and find a garage somewhere and work with a couple of friends to form a new company and grow that company. A very large number of the entrepreneurs in the world are engineers.”
Is computing all about Maths?
Many students are concerned about their ability in Maths, and whether they can take it at higher level in the Leaving Cert. Seán says the emphasis needs to be on how students approach and work out problems.
“I’ve talked to a lot of students in the past number of years about how good you need to be at maths in order to be able to do computer science – you need to be able to solve problems. You need to be able to look at a problem and break it down into its constituent parts and then work systematically through it and get something similar to the right answer. And then go back and improve on that if you’ve got time – which you probably won’t be able to do in a state exam. That’s what it’s all about. You don’t need to get an A in honours maths to be able to do computer science. I didn’t.”
He also says that students need not be programming from a young age to consider computing for third level.
“I don’t think it’s necessary that you are someone who tinkers around with programming or anything like that. The Leaving Cert is such a big course and people in Leaving Cert are busy enough that if you do the Leaving Cert you probably don’t have much of a life separate to that.”
Filling the job vacancies in technology
Although there is now a greater awareness of opportunities in technology, Seán says it’s understandable that many people don’t know what a career in software engineering or computing might entail – because they mightn’t even have indirect experience of it if they don’t know anybody involved.
“We don’t know as a profession what it is that the guidance counsellors need to know, what it is that we need to tell them. Maybe we can work together to find out what it is we need to tell them.
“Engineers Ireland, and the Irish Software Association can provide more information. Please don’t see it as just being suitable to the person who has an experience with computing because of their extra-curricular activities. A career in computing is for anyone who expresses a technical interest, who wants to become a problem solver, who wants to have a very technical career. Those are the people who we want to see pushed towards us.”
Ireland’s particular position in the technology sector means we need more and more graduates – but Seán points out that even the most populous countries in the world are short of the people they need.
“Even in India where there are tens of thousands per year graduating there’s a shortage. If you look at the US, if you look at Germany and the UK, they suffer the same type of problem that we have. We have an extra problem in that as a very small country we play in the top league of the software engineering companies in the world. We have an indigenous base – an Irish-owned set of companies that are really really strong and provide very strong employment to software engineers.
“We are in a position here where there is a global shortage and then we have created our own shortage by just being so good in the space.”