An article by InformationWeek asks “Where are the Programmers?” The future of computer science in the United States is in peril as indicated by a sharp decline since 2001 in college undergraduates choosing computer science as a major. Furthermore, this decline comes just as a new challenge of programming tomorrow’s multicore processors arrives. As a degree holder in computer science, I feel a personal concern at the prospect of a skill vacuum in my industry.

InformationWeek quotes Rick Rashid, senior vice president of Microsoft Research:

We are at a low point of interest in computer science. Jobs will go begging in the next few years because we don’t have the people willing to take on the field.

Researchers and large technology corporations are looking for tomorrow’s talent. This shows a marked difference from just a couple of years ago when I earned my bachelor’s degree and entered a saturated market. During my undergraduate academic career I regularly became concerned about the prospect of encountering difficulties finding a job once I graduated. (Luckily, these fears were not realized.) In a future post I will divulge a little more about why I chose a path in computer science. For now suffice it to say that technology has been an interest of mine since receiving a personal computer as a gift for my seventh birthday.

But I happened to declare my major at the peak of computer science undergraduate enrollment. Dot com hype had not yet given way to dot bomb fallout. Indeed, there were quite a few classmates who unabashedly proclaimed they were only studying CS for the money. These “insincere” techies of course were the least successful. But in addition to diluting the talent of the workforce, those money grubbers may have also contributed to the watered down image of computer science as a viable industry. Barely muddling their way through programming classes and not bothering to learn the fundamentals of the subject matter, they concentrated instead of finding ways to pass their classes. They then emerged into the workforce lacking fundamental computer knowledge. One stands out in my mind as not knowing how to access the volume controls on her computer and needing help with her sound problems.

Is it any wonder that computer scientists are viewed by the general public more as technical support operators than as research scientists? I may be more interested in discovering how Noam Chomsky’s theories in linguistics apply to programming languages, but others see a degree in computer science as a help ticket in setting up a wireless network.

An undergraduate major in computer science no longer means a guaranteed comfortable paycheck upon graduation. The fluff is gone. So are the unskilled tech wannabes who are only interested in making an easy buck. For me this trend is a good thing. Highlighting the enrollment decline can be seen as stripping away the veneer and exposing an underlying problem. That problem is an overall public ignorance of what computer science is. Until that image is made more clear the aforementioned “insincere” techies won’t be the only ones staying away. If the genuinely talented youngsters out there are unaware of the challenges offered in computer science, they will continue to stay away as well.

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