By Brenna R. Kelly
Most people wouldn’t think of Humana, one of the nation’s biggest health insurance providers, as an information technology company. But on the street level of a downtown Louisville parking garage, the vibe inside Humana’s Digital Experience Center is more tech start-up than multi-billion dollar healthcare giant.
Thirteen computer science teachers from across the state recently visited the center and several other Humana facilities to learn about career opportunities for their students and what it takes to work in information technology at one of Kentucky’s largest employers.
“It’s about tying what we do in the classroom to what’s going on in real world,” said Scott U’Sellis, the Kentucky Department of Education’s information technology and media arts consultant. “We want to expose kids to all the opportunities in IT and to make connections with Kentucky corporations like Humana.”
This past year, KDE launched a computer science initiative in hopes of creating more computer science graduates to fill vacant high-demand, high-wage information technology jobs. Each year in Kentucky there are more than 2,400 open IT jobs, but only about 450 computer science bachelor degree graduates to fill them, U’Sellis said.
Humana has been working with KDE and Jefferson County schools for years in hopes of finding and retaining local talent, said Scott Hublar, the company’s director of end-user computing.
“I want to help teachers learn what are the skills kids need in order to be career ready,” he said. “There are new and exciting technologies that teachers may not have been exposed to in education, but are going to be the hot six-figure jobs in the next few years.”
Inside Humana’s Digital Experience Center (DEC), software engineers, product managers and other information technology professionals in jeans and T-shirts work at rows of Mac computers next to full-length plate glass windows that look out onto the busy 5th Street sidewalk.
The center works as an internal agency developing software for other parts of the company. For example, last year the center created an app that allows customers to track all of their medications.
Product manager Nick Hill told the teachers they constantly create software, test it, learn from their mistakes and then improve it before moving on.
“We don’t expect to get it right the first time,” Hill said. “We feel a piece of software is never done. It’s only a failure if you didn’t learn anything from it.”
Software engineer Justin Wilke urged the teachers to allow their students to experiment. Instead of learning everything about a computer language, let them jump in and start designing, Wilke said, comparing the process to building with Legos. If it doesn’t work, start over, he said.
“That’s much more reflective of the actual changing nature of software and technology,” he said. “You have to learn to be flexible and adjust in real time.”
In the DEC, employees work in pairs, switching partners every day. At the end of each row of computers, floor-to-ceiling white boards are used to sketch out ideas. The workers talk back and forth to help others follow along, said Zarek Parker, a DEC software engineer.
“Whenever we hit a roadblock and we can’t get through it ourselves, we’ll go get more people and talk it through to figure out how to solve the problem,” Parker said.
Those skills of communication, collaboration and determination are all skills that teachers should be using to help students learn, U’Sellis said.
“Beyond the technical content, which is important, but just learning how to have grit and persevere when problems arise is important,” he said. “It’s crazy when a student gets it wrong and a teacher says, ‘OK, let’s move on.’ If they didn’t get this and you are moving forward, how are they going to learn?”
It’s often hard for teachers to give students room and time to fail, he said.
“It’s not what we were taught in our teacher prep programs,” U’Sellis said. “But moving forward, it should be if we are hearing from employers that these are the things that businesses want kids to come equipped with. I think we’d really be doing them a disservice if we don’t do that.”
In addition to the DEC, the teachers met with college interns to learn about their experience with information technology in high school and what they believe today’s students need to learn. They also visited Humana’s data center to learn about cloud technology and met with the company’s head of cyber security.
The experience will help give his students an idea of the careers that are possible in information technology, said Patrick Coomes, a computer science teacher at Eastern High School (Jefferson County).
“They need to know what it’s going to be like outside of the school environment,” he said. “A lot of people get into a career and then realize it’s not what they want to do. If they can see that in high school before they even go to college for it, it makes a difference.”
Brian Chastain, a teacher at the Caldwell County Area Technology Center, said the experience will broaden the opportunities of his students.
“I just thought of Humana as an insurance company,” he said. “I didn’t know about all of the information technology career opportunities they have here.”
Not all of the information technology careers require computer science degrees, said product manager Sarah Cooke. Cooke, who works in the DEC, said she majored in Spanish in college. And not all of the jobs require college degrees; industry certifications are also important, Hublar said.
“As a hiring manager, I’ve started to see how the value of a college degree is greatly diminished,” he said. “Kids come out of college in debt and with no experience and haven’t really learned applicable skills.”
Hublar noted that during the discussions the teachers asked Humana workers what skills their students needed to get a job, not what they needed to do to get into college.
“Nobody asked that,” he said.
The most important skill students need to find a career in information technology is a passion for learning, Cooke said.
“Everyone has a place in technology,” Cooke said. “If you are curious about things, you like to solve problems and help people, if you like to do those things then there is a place for you.”
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