Wednesday, March 01, 2006

A problem of perception?

The title above links to a New York Times editorial about outsourcing, the computing profession, and employment. As anyone in education knows, the number of students interested in computing careers has dropped significantly, in reaction to the dot-com bust and fears of outsourcing. However, as in many previous cycles of engineering employment, things have now entered the stage of overreaction. The article rightly points out that the employment situation has improved to the extent that there are now more computing jobs than at the height of the bubble -- I've heard anecdotal stories from industry that are consistent with this. And fears of outsourcing have been overplayed.

Fundamentally, it doesn't make any sense to make a multi-decade career decision based on employment statistics from last year (not to mention as long ago as the dot-com bubble burst is now) -- unless you think that computing careers are going the way of blacksmithing. The real crisis is that the field is losing the battle to attract top students. Right off the bat, we lose half of the best students: women. This is not just a US phenomenon. We need to do a much better job of providing accurate information about the profession to K-12 students and teachers. Yes, as companies want more employees, salaries will increase. But, as I think we've learned, to have a profession that is perceived to be attractive only because of high wages is to have one with a very shaky interest base. We need to emphasize the non-monetary, psychological rewards of our profession. We need to work to nurture that kind of reward structure, both in higher education and in careers.

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  1. Actually, I disagree. Great salaries are a very good way to attract the best students.

    Despite everything people say, salaries are not on the rise. Yes, there is no shortage of jobs out there, but... The CS graduate gets hired. He is offered a decent salary, given a cubicle and he then works for someone with a business degree. Meanwhile, the lawyer or the finance graduate gets roughly the same salary, is much more likely to get an office with a door, more likely to get promoted early, is much less likely to have, as boss, someone with a technical degree (such as CS).

    It looked, for a time, as if technical people would take over the industry. And in some way, they did: everyone was a hacker for a time. Most managers began to claim they were hackers. It was no longer cool to hint that knowing how to install software was below you.

    Now, the jobs are back, mostly, but managers are back to where they were: fancy technical know-how is no longer so cool, a MBA is much cooler than a M.Sc. in CS, and so on.

    There are *some* exceptions, like Google, but they are rare.

    So, you can't count on the industry appeal to attract the best students. And frankly, CS has become quite mundane. The math. and engineering is no longer fashionable. Now, it is all business-related (think web services, software engineering, IT...) which is exactly the least appealing part of CS because the business connection is no longer there.

    There are ways to turn things around, but I'm afraid, they imply taking apart CS as a field. For example, IT degrees designed so that the graduates get an office with a door and actually a chance at early promotions and mixing with the big bosses, is one target, but it implies embracing totally the business side of CS.

    Software engineering, to me, is a really bad spot. For some reason, it still attracts lots of students [possibly because of the word "engineering"], but they'll end up with rather boring careers, I'm afraid, working for the rest of their lives for business executives who were out partying while they were studying C++.

    Finally, you can pull back the theory get CS back to its academic roots. This will attract the smart-but-naive students who want to be "a professor" [play some omnimous music right here]. That's the math-physics-chemistry model. It works ok, but not great.

  2. Daniel Lemire said...
    Actually, I disagree. Great salaries are a very good way to attract the best students.
    First of all, I think you go on to counter your own argument: there are things other than salary that are important. Second, may I suggest that you mean that salaries are effective, not good. Unfortunately, they are effective only over the short term. Over the long term, prospects for interesting and exciting careers are what attract the best students. Lots of students are interested in forensic science these days because they think work in a crime lab is like the CSI shows on TV. They'll learn.

    I agree that CS has some trouble. I'm not sure what the solution is, but we need to consider why neither electrical engineering nor math are in so much trouble. Perhaps we're doing such a poor job teaching that our graduates are not sufficiently distinguished in their abilities from graduates in other technical fields.