Cloud, Thought Leaders

Teaching the Next Generation of Cloud Computing “Plumbers”

July 6, 2017

by Riley Panko

Marketing Communications Manager

Clutch spoke with Dr. Timothy Chou, an experienced lecturer at Stanford University, about his cloud computing course, cloud’s impact on non-IT industries, and the importance of software education focused on hard technical skills.

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How does an institute of higher education teach a technical field that is relatively young and still rapidly growing? This is the challenge when it comes to cloud computing education.

In May, Clutch released a report analyzing the state of cloud computing education at universities and colleges across the United States.

Through discussions with experienced Stanford University campusprofessors, the report analyzes the relative scarcity of cloud computing courses, as well as the obstacles institutions may face when they do try and implement a cloud computing course.

At Stanford University, a unique type of cloud computing course has existed since 2005.

CS309A: Cloud Computing is a one-credit, lecture-based class, and features little coursework. Instead, students simply attend to listen to an impressive slate of visiting lecturers, drawn from the surrounding powerhouse region of Silicon Valley.

There have been nearly 80 guest lecturers – almost all CEOs of public companies. The roster has included the CEOs of Box, Adobe, Salesforce, LinkedIn, Docusign, and Kaiser, as well as the Vice-Chairman of General Electric.

We interviewed Dr. Timothy Chou, the founder of the course, to discuss CS309A’s unique style, which focuses on the cloud’s real-world influence on all fields. Our interview with Dr. Chou then emphasizes how the cloud’s real-world influence needs to be facilitated by an overall greater emphasis on hard skills related to the cloud and IT maintenance and repair skills.

Cloud Computing Affects a Wide Variety of Industries

Cloud computing does not have a niche effect specifically on IT industries. Rather, it has the power to transform industries not often thought of in connection with IT. Cloud computing education should reflect the immense reach of the technology.

When developing the course, Dr. Chou didn’t seek to replicate a standard computer science course.

CS309A is open to any student at Stanford University, not just computer science or software engineering majors. The class is intended to bring in students from the liberal arts, business school, law school, and medical school.

Building these connections with various fields is important for understanding the potential influence of cloud computing beyond IT industries.

Dr. Chou wants to “help students understand that computer science is not just what’s happening in the Gates [Computer Science] Building [at Stanford University].”

For example, Dr. Chou pointed out that eight law students were in the class in 2016.

“I was happy that they were there, since most of the public policy is being established by people with no knowledge of what technology can or will do,” he said. “The [legal] system is primitive in how it thinks about [technology], and we will continue to be this way, until we change the way in which laws are created.”

Those law students hopefully left the course with a greater understanding of the cloud’s abilities. If an industry is affected by cloud computing – as more and more will be in the future – it’s important to gain a basic understanding of the technology, even if you do not directly work with it.

Cloud Offers an Unknown Range of New Capabilities

Cloud computing offers a new frontier of capabilities when it comes to technology, and it's important for students of different industries to understand the cloud's power.

Dr. Chou spoke of the massive shifts in perspective required to use cloud computing in its full potential. For example, he described how the cloud allows computing power on a newly massive scale.

“In 2008, Amazon gave me $3,000-worth of [Amazon Web Services] time,” he said. “This [money] can buy a computer in northern California, Virginia or Ireland – which can last for three and a half years – or it can buy 10,000 computers for 30 minutes.”

The two options – one computer for 3.5 years or 10,000 computers for 30 minutes – have very different capabilities in what they can achieve. The cloud's ability to wield a large number of computers' processing power at once is upending traditional IT environments. We’ve yet to understand all the possible new outcomes.

Timothy Chou Quote Box 2

“The question is – what can be done with [10,000 computers for 30 minutes]?”, he asked. “When economics shift to something that was never available before, we can all of a sudden build new applications which would never have existed before…”

Dr. Chou seeks to educate his students on the widespread power of the cloud's newfound innovation. Rather than teaching technological details, Dr. Chou instead wants his class to reveal the everyday influence of the cloud.

“At the end of the day, there are classes which can teach people about the issue from a technology point-of-view, but the other half centers on how it can change the business, transportation or construction businesses. I look more at this side of the equation, and try to get it right.”

By teaching a viewpoint focused on everyday applications, cloud computing becomes less of a mystery understood solely by IT technicians, and instead a tool to be used by many fields.

The Importance of Software Education

These is a missing component to software education, something Dr. Chou calls teaching software "plumbers."

Dr. Chou uses an analogy with the field of plumbing to discuss the difference between traditional computer science education and practice-based education.

“Getting a computer science degree from a major institution is similar to being taught how to build a P-trap [the curved pipe underneath sinks] in the field of plumbing,” said Dr. Chou. “In order to build a better P-trap you need to understand fluid dynamics, material science and mechanical engineering principles.”

Timothy Chou Quote Box

While creators of P-traps need in-depth design and innovation skills, plumbers don’t need to understand the physics or engineering.

Plumbers learn which P-trap to install and when through practice. They don't need to understand how it works, but only that it works.

“A plumber does not have a notion about the actual fluid dynamic of a P-trap, nor does he need this. He simply needs to know when one is necessary and how it should be installed. Higher education now, particularly in the world of software, is very good at explaining to people how to design a more efficient P-trap, but we need way more plumbers than design engineers.”

This kind of software “plumbing” education does not exist and most of the training happens on the job. The only formal examples we see now are apprentice-oriented programs like DevBootCamp and Code Factory. “All of this [education] is happening as on-the-job training, which is extremely inefficient in the world of software,” said Dr. Chou.

Evidence already shows that many technology sectors face a serious lack of available talent to hire. As the cloud and computing in general grows in demand, education will need to adapt to train more skilled software “plumbers.”

“We have a massive gap… How do we teach the next generation of plumbers?”, asked Dr. Chou.

The future of the IT industry’s job market may depend on expanding practice-based cloud education.

Connecting the Cloud

CS309A: Cloud Computing at Stanford University offers a unique perspective on the technology. The lecture-based class seeks to draw connections between cloud computing’s enormous potential and other fields not often associated with the cloud.

These connections are vital for industries to understand the enormous impact cloud computing may have on their work, without their knowledge.

Yet, as the cloud grows, the job market will require more and more skilled workers to create the plumbing for our new software houses. The current state of education is not filling that demand adequately, as it focuses too much on how the parts are designed, and not enough on how to connect them together.

Visit the website for CS309A: Cloud Computing at cs309a.stanford.edu.

Questions? Comments? Contact Riley Panko at [email protected]

About Dr. Timothy Chou

Headshot of Timothy Chou

Dr. Timothy Chou has had a career spanning academia, startups and large corporations. He was one of only six people to ever hold the President title at Oracle. Today, he serves on the Board of Directors of Blackbaud and Teradata.

He began working at Stanford University in 1982. He launched Stanford’s first course on cloud computing and, in 2010, began lecturing at Tsinghua University in Beijing. He has delivered keynote speeches on all six continents and recently launched a new book Precision: Principals, Practices and Solutions for the Internet of Things.

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