Microsoft’s Annual Faculty Summit

Lucy Sanders – the CEO of the National Center for Women & Information Technology – was a key participant in last week’s Microsoft Annual Faculty Summit.  InformationWeek has a good summary of the meeting – and the issues – up on the web in an article titled “Funding Innovation Where It’s Incubated.” 

The basic message – as stated directly by Dan Mote (president of the University of Maryland) is that “”Students do not see opportunity in our field [IT and computer science]. And it’s not just kids in poor districts–even the rich kids don’t get jazzed about tech. That’s going to be a problem as computer companies hunt for the next generation of workers.”

Lucy – who is one of the most insightful and articulate people I know when discussing this issue – added “Part of the reason the U.S. isn’t grooming enough future computer jocks could be that the discipline mystifies lots of kids.  Computer science is a stealth profession – no one really knows what we do. Instead of teaching how computers can help solve practical problems, schools’ coursework couches things in terms of technologies – Java and C vs. business and medicine. That’s just the wrong way to approach it, [Education needs to get] away from the notion that computing equals programming.”

Google is having a similar summit in a few days.  I’m glad major software companies are thinking hard about this and getting engaged.  We’ve got to figure out how to get our kids to get re-excited about computer science. 

  • Jessica Schallock

    As you know Brad, my brother is crazy about IT and computer science, and he’s 14. I’m 16, and I’m very interested as well (not as a career, but as a skill). I’m glad this is an issue for software companies, but not because of the need to “groom future computer jocks”. Kids should be interested in computers because information is power, because computers open up the world to us. The more information available, especially to young people and students, the better. There should be a big push for better education in programming and computer science, but not to benefit the software companies–to give more information and power to everyone.

  • Dave Jilk

    I don’t really see how Lucy’s suggestion helps to create more actual software developers or system managers. In fact, there’s nothing stealthy about what software developers do: they sit in front of their computers and write code most of the day. The fundamental challenge is that a lot of people aren’t interested in and/or good at that. When computer companies talk about shortages, it’s the heavy technical people they’re short of, not the people who took a few computer science classes so they could be more effective in business or medicine. Selling the field by couching it in different language doesn’t solve this issue, because even if you get a few more people to major in the field, they will quickly move out of IT or programming.

  • Convincing students that computing != programming will get a lot easier if companies (anywhere) start offering “computing” jobs to grads that aren’t simply programming positions. One of the reasons I’ve deviated from the expected path as a CS grad is that every “computer science” job I could find was, in essence, entry-level code-monkey. You work a couple years as a code monkey coding to specs, you do well, and then you can start developing the specs, and then eventually start supervising projects at others’ direction.

    There are a few exceptions: “project management” or “product management” positions at some of the biggest firms like MS and Google. But for the most part, these selfsame software companies that are expressing so much concern have been telling us all for years at job fairs that computing == programming, or at least until you have five to ten years of experience.*

    *One of the alternatives, clearly, is to start your own thingamagummer. But that’s a lesson that most students have to figure out for themselves.

  • Lucy Sanders

    You may be right about people who only take one or two CS classes, but that’s not who we are talking about here. We are talking about computing prefessionals, and there is an extreme lack of understanding about what the profession is all about. There is a lot more to computer science than software development, and more to software development than writing code. The best computer scientists on any team I led could conceptualize a business problem from a human perspective, translate that problem to algorithms and interfaces understood by a computer, perhaps invent a new concept or two, and then write the code, not forgetting such inconvenient and complex things like code performance, reliability, security, etc. Good curriculum explores this entire creative process, presenting it in a relevant fashion to today’s students. While it may be true that some folks drone on in cubes only writing code, it’s not the case for most IT professionals. If they don’t understand the problem they are solving and only work in isolation, they won’t really produce anything of business value.

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