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Monday, April 10, 2006

Computer Science Dying in the US?

Being a former professor of Computer Science, I read a couple of recent articles in the Guardian with great interest:

The (Possible) Death of a Computer-Science Department

Seattle Pacific University founded its computer-science department almost three decades ago, when the discipline was still going through growing pains. But this year might be the department's last. In its heyday during the 90s, the university -- a private Christian institution -- often had more than 125 computer-science majors. Now there are only 24, and none of this year's incoming freshmen indicated any interested in majoring in the field.

Computer Science Olympiad
Last year's contest took place in Shanghai, and the local favorites from Shanghai Jiaotong University parlayed their home-field advantage into a narrow victory. The highest-ranking American squad finished a distant 17th, a disappointing showing that prompted experts to wonder if American programming was in serious decline.
When I was speaking at an event recently, I commented on these trends. Someone asked a really interesting question...
Would I recommend to my own children to go into Computer Science when they
go to college in a few years?

I have real mixed emotions on this. My company depends on having good talent emerging from Computer Science programs. The CTO group that I'm part of has real trouble finding good talent, so I believe that even with substantial offshore development there is still need in the U.S. And, I believe that learning Computer Science is a good springboard to many different kinds of jobs.

But, the honest answer, is "No, I'm not suggesting to my children to pursue Computer Science." I think that the hard core technical skills that you learn in Computer Science put you in direct competition with off-shore talent that will suppress your opportunities and salary. Instead, you really should look for a hybrid kind of degree, possibly an combination Business/IT + Computer Science that aims you at more of an analyst. You can probably do this with a Computer Science degree and an MBA as well.

I'm really not happy that this is my opinion, but, I would suspect that Computer Science programs are going to face this head-on as student populations closely follow the industry. When I went undergrad, things were booming because of defense and the PC (mid-80s). It again boomed in the late 90-s with the Internet. In between there were lulls. But, right now we are having another explosion of interest because of (roughly) Web 2.0, yet we don't see the corresponding pick-up in enrollments. I think that tells us something.

1 comment:

jw said...

All through Jr. High and High School, I was the kid that got called to the office when a computer was acting wonky and simply asked to "make it work." Naturally I pursued Computer Science when I started college in 1990 but by the end of my first year had changed my major to general Engineering because I didn't see myself working a government job combing through endless lines of ADA, Fortran or PASCAL. By the time I finished up my degree, in Civil & Environmental Engineering, I was working as a programmer for an early news site. I survived the burst of the tech bubble unwaivering in my choice of careers over what my education suggests.

Having worked with off-shore developers, I haven't always been that impressed with the quality. It has been my experience that you get what you pay for when it comes to outsourcing web development overseas. I am reminded of the cheap-fast-easy model and wonder where quality and extensibility fall.

In the end, is Computer Science dying in the US? My answer is that it is looking a bit slim, but it isn't going to completely go away. CS will most likely end up an educational choice with fewer niches made available.