The Apple of your eye?
THERE is a brief lull in the conversation as we skirt dangerously around the H-word. Far be it from Apple to encourage individuals to "hack" into systems, and yet there is no getting around the fact that it is those who break down programming codes, snoop around and indulge their curiosity about computers and their hidden depths who make the best employees.
Cynics may say that this is veering perilously close to anorak territory - but then cynics probably don make very good computer boffins anyway.
What exactly makes an ordinary computer science or electronic engineering graduate into a desirable employee is a question which has considerable ramifications for both academics and employers. In the world of computers and software development, where products can become virtually redundant six months after their release, colleges face particular challenges in their efforts to produce graduates who not only have the required theoretical knowledge to last a lifetime in the industry, but also the practical skills required for employment at the cutting edge of technological development.
Take, for example, quality and assurance testing. Testing is a growth area: Apple's testing department has increased in size from two people in 1992 to 100 people in 1995 and is set to increase again this year by a further 100.
"The quality of products is very important," says Charles Cheevers, integration quality engineering manager with Apple Cork. "No matter how good a product is, if it's not stable, it's useless."
Yet, in general, testing is an area which has been neglected by traditional computer science courses, which have tended not to place particular emphasis on the quality of the finished software. With this in mind, Apple have strengthened links with those colleges willing or able to produce testers and have worked in conjunction with FAS to create a tester training programme specifically designed for those with a general arts or humanities degree supplemented by, for example, a higher diploma in computers.
"If there's a huge requirement for people like this, then why not have an elective on a computer science course on Q/A techniques, bug finding and the design of bug free software?" Cheevers asks.
This is a question which will be familiar to most academics, who feel they must balance the demands of industry with the academic content of their own courses, but it is in the area of practical skills and understanding that the differences between RTCs and universities, and even between different institutions within these two categories, become most apparent.
"Based on my experience over the last 10 years, working with both RTC and university graduates, the university graduates need another year of on the job training," Cheevers says. "What happens is that many don't have a work experience programme and they spend an initial year or two on general science rather than computer science."
"They have more of a classical approach to operating systems," says Connie O'Shea, training engineer and college liaison officer with Apple. "I understand the focus of colleges is to give a broad base to each individual. That's a good tactic because you're trying to create an individual who can find a job among the hundreds out there.
"But the problem with computer science and electrical engineering degrees is that the courses always' put pressure on you to become a programmer. You're not often told about testing or localisation and because of that bias, people feel they're not as good if they don't become programmers. People still come in without a practical understanding."
"Last year we decided enough was enough," Cheevers explains. "With the help of Waterford RTC and Cork RTC, we decided we would put away 20 or so prospective graduates and nurture them over the year and, hopefully, Apple would recoup those by recruiting them on the Milk Round." This policy, centring around advanced programming electives, involves a considerable investment of equipment, software and time, yet Apple believe they will reap the benefits of what amounts to "hothouse" approach.
TIED INTO THIS is a co operative programme for students in their penultimate year of study. This involves a paid placement in Apple, during which students work as testers and then work with O'Shea in his area. Before they leave, their final year project is discussed and, where students, college and company are agreeable, the project concerns something which can be applied to Apple.
In effect, the company is cultivating potential employees through a one year courtship.
The elective system used by many RTCs, and Waterford in particular, allows a degree of flexibility where industrial demands are concerned, but at the heart of their teaching methods are the final year project and the work placement. Waterford has been using an elective system since the inception of the degree in applied computing in 1980 and every third year student undergoes a six month placement.
"The course is a three year preparation for the final project, which is seen as a culmination and proving ground of what they have learned," says Paul Barry, head of the department of physical and quantitative, sciences in Waterford RTC. "They go through all phases of a project life cycle, including analysis, design, implementation, testing and prototyping."
All projects relate to industry or real world situations and are conducted as part of a team, a deliberate reflection of the realities of the workplace. Waterford, in common with a number of colleges, is now developing the multi media aspect of its courses, in conjunction with its humanities school, to meet the growing demand for specialists.
While Apple maintains links not only with RTCs but also with universities, the common thread appears to be the importance these colleges attach to placements and projects. UL and DCU are frequently cited because of their work placement elements, which appear to contribute to an environment where industry and academia can effectively cross pollinate and develop.
In the end, not all colleges or courses have the same objectives. "It is true that some colleges would be more practically oriented," says Professor Paddy O'Regan of UCC's computer science department. "There is nothing wrong with being good in the practical sense, but some, of the universities would lean more towards the theoretical so the person is more suited to the long run."
In turn, students with a good theoretical background are capable of adapting to the wide range of options offered by the jobs market and receive their practical experience from the organisations that hire them. Still, UCC computer science students also submit a final year project and the college is to introduce placements for computer science students in the future to help them to get acquainted with the demands of industry.
"Both colleges and industry have to get together," O'Shea says. "At the end of the day, although Apple and Microsoft are bitter rivals, we could all benefit from the colleges producing enough graduates for both of us."