I started on this about two weeks ago, but got interrupted by a combination of workshop and conference travel, doctor's appointments (everything's fine), and the sinking realization that I don't know what I actually want to say. But what the hell, I've never let that stop me before...
Princeton dean Maria Klawe, former president of ACM, former Dean of Science at the University of British Columbia, and kick-ass educator and computer scientist, recently held an hour-long discussion with some uneducated rich guy. Klawe and whats-his-name decried both the lack of interest among incoming college students (especially women) and the low levels of federal research support. The session was covered by Newsday, InternetNews, Eweek, the CRA Research Policy Blog, and even (shudder) Sl*shd*t. There's lots of interesting stuff here to highlight.
First there's Bill's slack-jawed cluelessness about increasing the participation of women in computing.
MARIA KLAWE: Well, do you have any thoughts about what are more effective ways to get more women into computing careers? I mean, one of the things that's really depressing from my perspective is that computer science is the only field in science and engineering where participation of women has gone down over the last 25 years. So, for instance, if you look at mathematics, when I got my PhD in mathematics in 1977, I think it was about 11 percent of the PhDs went to women, and now it's over 30 percent. If you look at undergraduate degrees in mathematics, it's about 45 percent, and it was down around 10, 15 percent.
So in computer science, our figures are now about 15 percent of the PhDs go to women, about 15 percent of the bachelor degree recipients in research universities are women. I mean, it's just unbelievable how bad it is. We're down there, we're below physics in some cases.
So what could we do to bring more -- what would be effective in getting more women into these fields?
BILL GATES: Well, I don't know the magic answer. I think everybody who thinks about the problem says you've got to get the women who are in the field to be more visible and get them --
MARIA KLAWE: No, no, no, no, that can't be the answer. OK, raise your hand if you're a female here. All right. Are we being visible? Are we serving on every committee, going to all the schools?
BILL GATES: Well, it's good, you should keep doing that.
MARIA KLAWE: Yeah, we are going to keep doing it, but I hate to say it --
BILL GATES: I applaud that.
MARIA KLAWE: -- we're not getting anywhere with it.
Allow me to distill that that down a bit.
MK: Yo, Bill! Where the white women at?
BG: Gee, I dunno. Have you tried waving your, um, hands in our faces?
MK: Hello!! Do you see me standing, like, right here?
Perhaps I'm a bit cynical, but this sounds like Bill is saying that the lack of women in computing is the women's problem, not computing's problem. No, no, it's not that people in computing are immature, defensive, overly competitive, and sometimes overtly sexist. Heaven forfend that Mr. Gates himself should actually help the situation somehow. True, the Gates family is hard at work on more important problems, but as the public face of the computing industry, Bill has some responsibility here.
Earlier at the summit, Klawe hit the nail squarely on the head:
But I know from having spent a lot of time both talking to my daughter and her friends, but doing broader research as well, including surveying thousands of high school students, that one of the issues that really stops a lot of particularly young women but also minorities and others from wanting to study computer science is the image of the computing career and what a computing professional is like.
And so just to quote some of the young women I've spoken to over the last 10 years or so, they say things like, "Well, if you're going to work in a computing career, all you're ever going to do is program, it's going to be 24x7 programming, you're going to be pale because you never get outside, you never talk to anyone, and then you have to work with all these horrible other people who don't have a life, they don't know how to talk, they don't even know how to do these things; and besides, it's boring." (Laughter.)
I don't know, anyone out there had this conversation with someone?
I suspect a more faithful transcript would have said "(Strained laughter.)"
To his credit, Bill at least tried to counter this criticism.
I mean, the nature of these jobs is not just closing your door and doing coding, and it's easy to get that fact out. And, in fact, the greatest missing skill is somebody who's both good at understanding the engineering and has good relationships with the hard-core engineers, and bridges that to working with the customers and the marketing and things like that.
And so that sort of engineering management career track, even amongst all the people we have, we still fall short of finding people who want to do that, and so we often have to push people into it.
And so I'd love to have people who come to these jobs wanting to think of it as a lot and exercise in people management and people dynamics, as well as the basic engineering skills. That would be absolutely amazing.
And we can promise those people within two years of starting that career most of what they're doing won't be coding, because there are many career paths, say, within that Microsoft Office group where you're part of creating this amazing product, you get to see how people use it, you get to then spend two years, build another version, and really change the productivity in this very deep way, take some big bets on what you're doing and do some things that are just responsive to what that customer wants.
Oh, joy. After two years of slave labor, I might make a real impact on business productivity tools. Woo. How exciting.
Later, Bill compares computing with sales jobs "where you're always just measured by a number basically, OK, give me a bigger number, and you're not doing anything that's really all that new and different." Apparently it didn't occur to him that these number-chasers are precisely the customers and marketing people that his coders get to talk to after their initial two-year term. This is supposed to be motivation?
MARIA KLAWE: And I have this feeling that there is some correlation between that and the fact that there were tons of TV shows around the time that I was a teenager, but they're still there, about really exciting careers in medicine and law that show women and men having lives and status and doing really important things. And I know lots of lawyers and doctors and I know that I think being a computer scientist is a lot more interesting and a lot better job, a lot more creative than the jobs that many doctors and lawyers have.
BILL GATES: Well, I think it is a tough field, because it involves -- say somebody went over with a bunch of movie cameras into that Microsoft Office building, there would be some terminology that would not make sense --
That's right, because people are stupid! No, Bill, it's because most people in the software industry are glorified factory workers. Highly trained specialists, yes, but in the end, most of them are just putting more bolts on more widgets (and trying to deal with with someone else's crappy widget design) to make more money for people like you. Booooring. Boring boring boring.
Mind you, the work is very important. Widgets need to be built; bolts need to be put on them. And moreover, some people are very good at putting bolts on widgets, and they should be rewarded handsomely for their skills. But it's just a job.
(What's that? Why yes, actually, two years at a startup and two years at Claris, before I escaped back into the Ivory Tower. The less said about StyleWare the better, but Claris was a great company, at least until it got reabsorbed into Apple's reorganization-of-the-month club. The work was challenging, frustrating, and mentally exhausting, but it didn't require (or reward) much creativity. Why do you think I study theory?)
Of course, the same could be said of most medical and legal work, or any other job, for that matter. "Law and Order" doesn't show the endless hours poring over legal documents, filing reams of paperwork, the actual crucial boring grunt work. No, just the dramatic stuff: stories people would tell to their family about if they were personally involved, things they can imagine happening to them. There aren't many stirring stories of heroic derring-do in which the protagonist saves the world and/or gets laid thanks to the well-timed development of a more efficient word processor file format translator. Sure, I've heard a few, but not many, and I doubt you'd want to hear them.
What stories do most people tell themselves about computers? The most common story, of course, is Dammit! This Thing Never Works!, thanks in no small part to the efforts of Bill's company. Then there's Be Afraid! Be Very Afraid!, which has its latest Hollywood incarnation in Stealth. All too rarely, there's Oh Wow! This Is So Cool!, although that's usually just a short intro to Dammit!, or Be Afraid!, or both. And that's basically it. Oh wait, there was that recent revival of Revenge of the Nerds and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, but that didn't last very long.
This lack of stories is an endless source of frustration for those of us who say Oh Wow! every day. We see power and beauty in computer science, even while we rage against the limitations of the technology that grows out of it. We see our field not (just) as a way to make boxes that beep, but as a fundamentally new way of thinking about the world. We are craftsmen, taking great satisfaction in the structures we build. We drag abstractions kicking and screaming from Plato's cave, and we make them real. We are explorers, proud of our hard-won discoveries but humbled by the depth of our ignorance. We have changed the world, utterly and irreversably. Our influence on your daily life may be less immediate than the influence of doctors, lawyers, politicians, bankers, and soldiers, but it is no less profound. And we are just barely getting started.
The last interesting point is what Bill means when he says there aren't enough people going into computing. He points out three basic skills that he would love his prospective employees to have. One, quoted above, is people/management skills. A second is a deep understanding of low-level details of how computers and programs really work, which Bill mentions via a back-handed stab at Java. And the third thing? Abstract problem-solving skills. Algorithms. Theory. You know, math.
BILL GATES: ...In a certain sense, yeah, the curriculum has changed, but say somebody came for an interview and they said, "Hey, I read the Art of Computer Programming, that's all I ever read, I did all the problems, I would hire them right then."
MARIA KLAWE: You'd hire them right then.
BILL GATES: Yeah, that's right.
MARIA KLAWE: So would I.
Suddenly I'm out of snarky things to say.