Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Tech tykes

Last week, Bill Gates was quoted in several publications including this one lamenting the fact that more American kids are not studying computer science. He claims to be concerned that Microsoft will run out of graduates to recruit into its coding ranks.

Information Week's Mitch Wagner thinks Gates has himself to blame. Wagner thinks today's kids see the writing on the wall. He cites reports that technology jobs are getting exported to countries with low-cost labor and that fewer US employers are offering IT-centric summer internships. Why pursue a computer science degree if there might not be enough IT jobs upon graduation, he argues.

I think they're both missing a bigger point.

Rather than focusing on the sheer quantity of US college graduates studying computer science, they should be highlighting the quality (or lack thereof) compared with their international brethren. The results of this year's ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest were telling. Only three US universities finished in the top 29 (and none of them was in the top 15).

The ACM winners are some of the brightest technology students in the world. They represent tomorrow's innovators. They are most likely to found the next technology giant -- the Microsoft (or Intel, Cisco, Apple, etc) of the future. Over time, the center of the global technology industry will emigrate from the US and, based on the ACM contest results, will probably land somewhere in Asia. The venture capital and related investment banking ecosystems will follow the technology entrepreneurs. Then will go the lawyers and accountants who help these technology companies to grow up. This is not just about IT jobs.

Fortunately, the average video-game playing American kid has good hand-eye coordination and nimble wrists. Both are good for flipping burgers.

6 comments:

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Masood

John Yau said...

The elite universities of the US claim to churn out computer scientists and not programmers or software engineers. Good computer scientists are typically good programmers as well (although I've seen plenty of good computer scientists that're terrible programmers), however there are far more good programmmers in the world than good computer scientists.

The ACM contest is an exercise in programming and problem solving...a good math exercise aided by programming, but in my opinion not truly an exercise in computer science.

What then is computer science? If you ask yourself what is a computer and what it means "to compute" you may just figure that out. (Hint: if you can't define it in theory of computation terms and then simplify that definition into layman terms, then you probably have the wrong answer)

Few CS undergrads get their degrees with a true appreciation of computers...and I suspect the situation is far worse outside the US. I jokingly asked 2 CS Ph.D candidates at an Ivy League university "what is a computer" over beer on one occasion and it took over half an hour worth of discussion among the 3 of us to come up with a satisfactory answer. The field is far wider than most think and the US is just way ahead of game compared to the rest of the world so I don't see much cause for alarm just yet.

On the issue of the number of CS and engineering graduates:

They're difficult subjects to study and if there's no __perceived__ economic payoff down the road, why should anyone even bother? There's even a negative social factor to studying these subjects. The media is partly to blame...we see all over mainstream American media awesome stories about actors, hip-hop artists and professional athletes...very few engineers ever get mention and computer savy people are quite often protrayed in negative ways. I remember reading somewhere about a poll asking Americans who's richer: Michael Jordan or Bill Gates... most answered Michael Jordan. I'll bet they don't make that mistake in Asia.

John Yau

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