Thursday, July 21, 2005

An open letter to Bill Gates

Dear Mr. Gates,

I read with interest a recent Computerworld article, which discusses your worries with respect to declining enrollment in computer science degree programs in the United States. As a computer science faculty member in the closest CS department to Redmond, this is a topic which is also close to my own heart.

I agree that the recent precipitous decline in CS enrollment is something that should give one pause. I would go further to say that the longer-term drop in the percentage of CS degrees awarded to women is far more troublesome. Furthermore, I believe we see eye-to-eye regarding the perception of CS careers as unpleasant and isolating as being at least part of the cause of both. Where I part company with you appears to be that you believe that this perception is unfounded and I see it as evidence that college students are getting, at least to some extent, an accurate read on the state of computing careers.

Let's face it, unless things have changed drastically in Redmond while I've been away this past year, your technical employees (and those of other companies; this is not unique to Microsoft) put in far more than 40 hours per week. It doesn't matter how interesting that work is; I submit that there is something wrong with an industry that expects its workers, as a permanent state of affairs, to work more than the accepted standard work week. And I think students agree with this and are voting with their feet.

I understand that changing this would have an impact on your company's productivity. However, I also understand that you have been pushing, along with other industry leaders, for increased immigration quotas for technology degree holders. Don't you see that this might be viewed in an adversarial fashion by prospective CS majors? That they would perceive the primary motivation behind this a removal of pressure from technology companies to provide real fixes to CS workers' quality of life? It's true that immigration provides great benefits to universities, companies, and US society, as some of the best and brightest from around the world come here. But there is a difference between bringing in some people to enhance an organization and wanting to bring enough to materially affect the work environment.

In closing, I think that you have an opportunity to set an example and show that your interest here is not merely Microsoft's bottom line -- that you really have a concern for the long-term health of the computing profession and the student pipeline. Why don't you make the 40-hour work week official Microsoft policy, and back it up with measures such as official comp time? Why not evaluate managers poorly if their teams consistently put in more that 40 hours/week on average? Why not put other teeth behind this, to ensure that hours are accurately accounted and that comp time is actually taken? Just because an employee feels that life away from work is important doesn't mean that that employee isn't serious about his or her career. Those are the people who are more like your typical user: the people who may understand how to, as you say, "make things simpler".

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  1. Wow, this post summarizes wonderfully what's wrong with IT/CS these days. I think students are doing a good thing by not going into CS. But this is only half the battle.

  2. As much as I'd love to see it, this will never happen @ Microsoft. Software products would take twice as long to build if we only worked 40 hours a week. There are some teams where it's becoming routine to order dinner in to convince people to stay 10+ hours, and this isn't even right before it's time to ship something. "just doing your job" will get you a 3.0 performance rating (see and you won't get a raise, and will get a pathetic bonus, if any. Too many 3.0s and you will find yourself looking for a new job. (This is for meeting expectations, mind you.) Working 40 hours a week is a sure way to getting that 3.0 score. But in principle I agree with you. Lucky for me, I do love my job and am willing to put in the hours.

  3. AR wrote: "Software products would take twice as long to build if we only worked 40 hours a week."

    I believe this matter was addressed a long time ago by The mythical man-month and other essays on software engineering. Programming is not digging ditches, except in the sense that the longer you "dig" the deeper the hole you'll find yourself.

    And think how difficult it must be thinking like a typical customer when your projects are filled with people who are willing to work like this. I'm visiting family where I grew up right now, and I'm reminded that most people work to live. A friend described to me how a relative was so relieved to sell his hardware store after his kids had graduated from college and work as an employee in someone else's store. This way, when 5PM rolled along, he could say, "see ya later," regardless of what was happening in the store. Forget everything you've heard and read about everyone starting their own multilevel marketing companies or being workaholic professionals. Most people want to spend the evening with their families and the weekend at the beach. Most people want to be happy. If you don't understand that, then you won't be able to write software people want and it won't matter whether or not it's on time.

  4. So true! And I had never thought of it from a customer perspective - but that makes perfect sense. The hard part is convincing mgmt (and all the other brainwashed souls like myself). And thanks for reminding me about "The Mythical Man-Month" - I had to read it as a first-term freshman in college and it made *no* sense to me at all since I had no experience at any job, let alone software engineering. I think it'll be much more interesting if I re-read it inow...

  5. Another interesting article, sort of related to the topic at hand...

  6. Yes, I especially like this quote from the article:

    "Women could be a rich area for growth -- if the $10 billion video game industry figures out what games they want."

    It just boggles the mind that a $10 billion industry can't figure out what kind of product 50% of their potential audience wants. It's easy to understand, though, considering how unlike their potential audience their workforce is.