Transforming University Students into the “Industry-Ready” Ones

Miroslav Bozic, Head of Hardware Department at HTEC Group

Rapid technology development is shifting the ground beneath the educators, accreditors, and students, while opening new opportunities for engineers, allowing them to address societal problems, and power the economy. This race is the biggest issue for the youth trying to balance their personal education and everyday opportunities that the industry is providing. 

1.University Education Faces New Challenges

University education offers students the basic knowledge and broader point of view, but rarely the expertise and the skills that the industry needs. To fill this gap, students often apply to work in companies after they have attended just a few school terms of classes. This way, they are trying to commercialize the basic education they have acquired during their studies, as well as to gain new and, to some extent, more relevant knowledge.

Rapid technology development and the ever-shortened deadlines in the IT industry very often cause the students working in these companies to disregard their goals and, sometimes, even quit their studies.

University education has always played an important role in the overall development of the youth and provided them with basic knowledge. For this to remain so, educational institutions and the industry have to align their goals and programs to ensure the continuous development of experienced engineers, ready for everyday challenges. This is the only way to keep up with time and the new industrial revolution called “The 21st Century”.

2. The 21st Century Engineering Industry

Technology is surpassing technological education every day. There are so many concepts, techniques and tools that an engineering graduate should know, but there is not enough time during their formal education to go over these topics. With the rapid technological advancement, the gap between education and market demand is getting wider and this is beginning to have serious consequences. Undergrad students are less motivated, as they realize the gap between what they have learned and the technology they need to use is not bridged over during their undergraduate education. On the other hand, employers are frustrated because undergraduates do not have the knowledge, the expertise, the experience or the design methodology the modern industry needs. One of the solutions to this particular issue could be to first define the required qualities of an engineer and the necessary skills and help them build the awareness about business as well as the work ethic, which will be crucial for their future work.

2.1. Qualities of an Engineer

In most cases, a good engineer is a person who is ready to build personal expertise, continuously throughout their career. Since the changes in the technological world happen rapidly, a good engineer stays on top of recent developments in the industry and quickly improves their competence and knowledge. 

Most of the time, engineers work with clients who have the finances and the ideas but not enough knowledge and expertise to explain in detail what they are looking for. So, to begin with, an engineer should have excellent communication skills. This involves the ability to translate complex technical language into plain English that most of the interlocutors can understand. Once the requirements are defined, a good engineer should pay attention to the details. The system should be seen from all possible angles and each potential error that can cause an entire structure to collapse should be reviewed thoroughly. This usually goes together with the ability to think logically.

A good engineer can make sense of complex systems and understand how things work and how problems arise. They will combine excellent problem-solving skills together with strong technical knowledge, used to solve any problem that comes their way. This is a highly creative individual who always thinks of new and innovative ways to develop new systems and get the existing ones to work more efficiently. 

2.2. Talent vs. Hard Work

Great engineers are people who like to be challenged and who provide additional value and make a difference every day. They have the sense and the ability to feel the problem they should solve. Great engineering teams are built on talent, but without the hard work, the chances of building impressive teams are small. Without hard work, neither one engineer nor a whole team of them would be capable of tracking the rapid development of technology using talent only. 

Hard work means two things. Firstly, every great engineer wants a chance to learn and grow, and learning and growing always come hand in hand with hard work. Secondly, happy engineers are those who feel challenged and noticed, and who believe they truly make a difference. So, talent is definitely important, but so is the management of talent. Moving engineers from one project to another, release after release, and according to the priority is not productive. People build expertise and a strong sense of ownership for what they do, which leads to higher motivation and better output, so it is hard work to patently select the right people for the right projects.

2.3. Problem-Solving Skills

Engineering often implies developing projects from scratch. It means that if the engineers want to develop something, they will need to select the appropriate components, connect them properly, develop an application on top of it and believe that none of it would fail once the system is implemented. Keeping this in mind, systems built from scratch are susceptible to errors that need to be solved during the development, and engineers need to develop a sixth sense for this type of problem-solving.

Sometimes, this is a small bug that can be fixed with a couple of lines of code, but sometimes it is something coming from the lower system, level and which should be examined with more patience. The knowledge of the system combined with the sixth sense for problem-solving, is crucial here. Every engineer who wants to work in a great team needs to have a clear understanding of these requirements and must love the job they are doing. Somehow, engineering becomes a lifestyle. It is not a job that you choose to do from a sea of other jobs, but the one you have to love and be passionate about.

2.4. Dynamic Collaboration and Planning

A system is a combination of different components. If one of the components does not work properly, the complete system could fail. To avoid this, a good engineering team needs to collaborate, get things done and communicate all the time. 

Engineers need to pay attention to all the details and to select components that will meet all the requirements carefully. Usually, projects last for several months and the first thing that should be developed is the system architecture. Once the architecture is developed, the system can be completed and all its components can be integrated and finalized. If something is missing, it could cause system failure, or the application could simply fail to run due to lack of performance. These are the pain points that could bring the engineers to the beginning, and could cost a lot of time and money. However, careful planning is the key to avoiding such issues.

To minimize risks and reduce the number of issues, selected engineers work on the system design phase, and each project starts with a requirements study and detailed system planning. During this phase, the engineers read the requirements, communicate with the client, communicate with each other, define system architecture, etc. 

After this phase, everything is defined. Major components are selected, and each team member can begin the implementation of their part. All parts need to work together, so engineers need to keep communicating and planning each of the tasks on time.

3. Industry Ready Engineers

Transforming university students into the "industry-ready" ones, from the academic perspective implies producing a clear understanding of the qualities engineering graduates should possess, as well as promoting the changes in curricula, pedagogy, and academic culture needed to instill those qualities in the upcoming generation of engineers. Moreover, the companies must tightly cooperate with the educational institutions to provide modern equipment, tools, and practices, as well as their engineers’ time and experience, to prepare these students for what lies ahead of them. This way, once they finish their studies, they can come with good communication skills, curious learning capabilities, drive and motivation, business understanding, high ethical standards, and critical thinking – equipped with the knowledge and the skills to be life-long learners.

4. HTEC Summer Internship

To help students bridge the gap between the academy and the industry, here in HTEC, summer internships are organized every year. After these six weeks, students leave packed-up with positive experiences, newly acquired skills, and the tips and tricks they picked up from their Project Managers, and delegated mentors. During the Internship, they work on projects which combine different technologies. The projects are designed to help the students learn more and ultimately become better engineers.

To become an intern, a student should pass the technical task and two interviews, after which HTEC chooses the final participants. The selection process is similar to the real interview and provides a real-life experience which the students can utilize once they apply for jobs after graduation.

The methodology used during the internship and project implementation is Scrum, the same as on every other commercial project in the company, which gives the interns a chance to learn more about sprints and daily standups. They are presented with all the tools HTEC engineers regularly use – Git for version control, BitBucket as a web repository, and Jira as an issue tracker. Additionally, the HR team organizes communication and presentation skills workshops, to make collaboration even easier.

Each year, interns are assigned mentors from the corresponding technologies. The mentors are always available to the students and can help them resolve problems, set up the project and improve their development skills. 

While the mentors are assigned to the interns to give them guidance in their respective technologies, the responsibility of the Project Manager is to organize the project well, to create tasks, to assign them properly, and to offer additional guidance when needed. During the Internship, because of the tight time schedule, the sprints last one week each. At the beginning of each sprint, the Project Manager holds a planning meeting with the whole team and moderates a discussion and grooming sessions for every task in the upcoming sprint.

The purpose of the internship is to educate the students and help them understand how knowledge acquired during the studies can be applied in real life. The whole internship is completely focused on the students’ experience and on boosting their learning process. They have a lot of training and education not only on technical issues but also regarding the software development processes and public speaking. By the end of the internship, HTEC aims to provide students with enough knowledge, experience, and confidence to be able to work on commercial projects with the help of a mentor.

5. Conclusion

In an engineering team, each project is a challenge. Some are smaller; some are bigger. But since the engineers are doing things from scratch, it is always challenging to get things done. Over the years, engineers have learned that it is important to work as a team – communicate, discuss, listen to each other and encourage others’ opinions. Once engineers make a decision, they move together as a team. Without looking back!

To transfer these skills and qualities to future engineers, changes in the approach need to be made by both the academy and the industry. Universities need to adjust their degree requirements and place more emphasis on teaching, promoting more cross-disciplinary instructions, and welcoming the involvement of the industry in supplying case studies, mentorship of students, and shared laboratory experiences. 

Here in HTEC, above all else, we appreciate our engineers being good people. A great engineer is always an integral part of a great team, and an amazing team always represents the synergy of amazing people working together towards the same goal, doing great things in the most efficient way.

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