Friday, July 18, 2008

Image Problems

The Association of Computing Machinery's (ACM) flagship journal Communications of the ACM gets a new look in July and has a couple of interesting articles related to technology education. (If you don't have an ACM membership, you can get the magazine online through the Sno-Isle library's ProQuest service. Go to, select the research menu and follow the links to magazine and journal articles.)

On page 33, Rick Rashid, Microsoft's Sr. Vice President for Research, weighs in on the lack of students in computer science, computer engineering, software engineering, et al. You should read the article, but let me summarize the problem:
  1. Not enough students are going into this area of study in spite of evidence that the job opportunity remains high
  2. The situation is worse than it seems because significant numbers of students, particularly at the post-graduate level, are foreign-born and may not want to or be able to stay and contribute to our economy
  3. This lowers are ability to innovate and remain competitive in the global marketplace
Rashid goes on to say that computer science and engineering has an image problem. All too often it is the stereotypical view of the lone programmer (male), sitting for hours coding and debugging, that turns students off. Students with a view of computer science as a means to solve important problems are more likely to enter and finish computer science programs.

As I read the article, however, I begin to think less about the image problem and more about what an incredible opportunity is available to interested students by having one of Microsoft Research's sites located right here in the Puget Sound area. Not everyone is going to be interested in this type of work, but for those that are, they can do cutting-edge, world-class research right here.

I am reminded of the incredible work done at other research labs like the legendary Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) or the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) by the likes of Alan Kay and Douglas Englebart. I will digitally dope slap anyone who says "who are Alan Kay and Doug Englebart". If you use a mouse, a laptop, a graphical user interface, hypertext or program in an object oriented programming you can, in large part, thank these two gentlemen. Just for fun, check out this video of the famous 1968 mother of all demos in which Engelbart demonstrates how to use a mouse to cut and paste text while on a video conference (contrast it with this 2007 TED Talks presentation by Kay on using computers to help children learn through modeling concepts).

Browse over to the site for the Redmond research campus and take a look at what they are working on. Sure there is work on compilers and operating systems, but there are also projects in speech technology, visualization and social computing. And while I certainly don't want to discourage anyone from going into Computer Science, you will note that not everyone needs a Ph.D. in Computer Science to work at Microsoft Research. Mary Czerwinski, for instance, is a Research Area Manager of the Visualization and Interaction (VIBE) Research Group and has her PH.D. in Cognitive Psychology. Marc Smith does research in computer mediated social interaction and his degrees are in, you guessed it, Sociology.

Rashid closes out his article by calling on professionals to reach out to students and to the people who influence students - teachers, parents, counselors. The message is that programming isn't an end in itself, but a means to an end. The programming and design skills and knowledge gained will help your students to tame information overload, help the disabled to communicate through voice commands, or just build a cool new cell phone interface. Who knows, maybe you've got a Turing Award winner in your class right now.

Okay, you've officially been reached out to (ouch, nice grammar). Now I'm going to re-watch the Engelbart video. How did they do that in 1968?

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Anonymous said...

What did those two guys have to do with laptops?

Anonymous said...

"sitting for hours coding and debugging, that turns students off. Students with a view of computer science as a means to solve important problems are more likely to enter and finish computer science programs."

Yeah, but don't you have to sit for hours coding and debugging to solve important problems? Didn't those zerox guys have to spend hours sitting and coding to make that graphical interface with a mouse? That's like saying, "We need more teachers, but students think they will have to talk to little kids all day." Well, they will! It's seems like we're trying to trick kids into studying computer science by telling them they won't have to code. If it's not programming and software, what the hell is it? If you can major in computer science and never have to code, then who the hell does the coding? If "sitting for hours coding and debugging" turns you off, you don't need to major in computer science. Your whole argument is dumb.

Corey Smith said...

Anonymous #1

I was referring to the Dynabook

Anonymous #2

I definitely didn't get my point across very well. Let me try again.

Using your analogy of teachers, the problem I am describing is one where students who do like kids aren't considering teaching because they believe all they will ever do is course development and never get into the classroom. Our challenge isn't to trick students without interest, aptitude and skill into the profession, it is to stop scaring away the ones who do have interest, aptitude and skill with an inaccurate view of what we do.

As for coding, I stand by the opinion that most of us don't start programming simply to write and debug code (some do and that's good for them). Most programmers want to solve problems with code. Further, in this discussion we are using computer science to mean software engineering, but that is too restricting of a description. People studying robotics, data communication, informatics, voice recognition, database design, information retrieval or human interface design may in fact do significantly less coding than a software developer.

lgrt said...

great post. It is unfortunate that the great R&D labs that brought us so much are gone. Research companies such as IBM, Bell Labs, Xerox Park.

It looks like the Universities are going to have to pick up the slack. I hope they are up for it and the students are able to help make the next major technology advancements.

Anonymous said...


If they are scared away by the technical side (and there is a heavy technical component to everything you named (robotics, data communication, informatics etc. etc), then it is a mistake to enter a technical field. Dont' mislead kids into believing they can major in computer science and still spend all their time traveling and talking to people.

Maybe they can move into management someday and spend all their time thinking at a high level, but only after years in the trenches doing real work (at least if they are going to be any good at it)

Corey Smith said...


I understand that we shouldn't deceive students about career options, but I didn't recommend that. I may not have been clear to that point in the original post, but couldn't have been more clear in my response when I wrote that the challenge was to

"stop scaring away the ones who do have interest, aptitude and skill with an inaccurate view of what we do"

Do you see too many people in technology education programs who hate technology? If so, is the number substantially larger than the number of education majors who discover they don't like teaching or business major who learn they don't like accounting?

And to your second point, why wouldn't CS be a good area to study even if you didn't want to be a hard-core technologist your whole career? I went to school with a lot of engineering students in the late 70's and early 80's. Most of them majored in engineering precisely to get into management. At the time it made no sense to me, but in retrospect it is obvious that the foundations skills served them in engineering, scheduling, transportation, logistics, inventory and plant floor management.

Although I think you are going down a path I didn't intend, I do appreciate your comments. Let me turn this on its head and pose a slightly different question. Most of the people I have worked with in corporate IT, myself and my wife included, didn't major in a technology field, but have thoroughly enjoyed our technical careers. How would you, if you could turn back the hands of time, encourage me into a technical degree program? Would you encourage me into a technical degree (maybe it's more important to get other learning in college)?