2012 Winter President’s Message

Message From the President’s Desk – Michael Olin

Winter 2012

All in the Family

My son is a freshman at a well regarded engineering university in Massachusetts that sits atop the US News rankings (http://www.usnews.com/education/worlds-best-universitiesrankings/top-400-universities-in-the-world).
While he has not formally declared a major, based upon his interests, and the other programs he applied to, we were pretty sure that he was headed towards a degree in bioengineering. As a parent, I was quite happy with this choice, especially with such a degree projected to be the most valuable based on Bureau of Labor Statistics projections for the next decade (http://www.forbes.com/sites/jennagoudreau/2012/05/15/best-top-most-valuable-collegemajors-degrees). He was interested in the field, and had already been quite successful with his biomechanics-related research during high school. Imagine my surprise as I drove him back to campus after Thanksgiving when he told me quite casually that he was considering following in his parents’ footsteps and pursuing a degree in computer science.

The Allure of Shiny Things

While he has always been quite adept at using technology as a tool, until this point, my son had never expressed any interest in what makes all of that technology work. He has never written a line of code. Although he has used sophisticated software in the biomechanics lab, and to analyze the data he collected, I doubt he has ever written a simple script or Excel macro to help automate the process. Take apart an old computer or dead MP3 player to see what’s inside? Not even a moment’s thought about it. However, now he is talking about taking an introductory programming class and becoming a Computer Science/Electrical Engineering major. Where, I asked, did this sudden interest come from? It turns out that he was looking at a different set of projections than those produced by the BLS. While we all know (or should know) that the plural of anecdote is not evidence, it turns out that CS/EE graduates of his university (and they are the majority) end up doing quite well. They are almost all employed immediately after graduation, many by the top technology firms in the world. Alternatively, they head right off to their own tech startup, often with university provided support. There is no disputing that alumni have done incredible things such as: inventing Ethernet, starting pioneering companies like TI, HP and DEC, and quite recently founding Dropbox. I doubt that my son expects that his name will be added to this extraordinary list, but he is pretty confident that, within a year, he too can land a summer internship at Google that not only pays fairly well but also provides him with a brand new Nexus tablet and smart phone, both free of charge.

Mommas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Coders

My initial reaction was not exactly supportive. My son reminded me that a few years ago, his mother suggested that because he was such a logical thinker, he might enjoy programming. Today, I don’t think logical thinking is enough. It turns out that his friend who lined up a great internship during the break between semesters has been coding since he was a kid and already generates a steady income from a few of the smart phone apps he wrote. Quite a few of his classmates who are heading towards their CS/EE degree have been doing similar things for years. They tinker with hardware; they write software; they root their smart phones and do the most amazing things with hacked video game consoles. This is how they have focused their creative energies for years. For these students, a CS/EE degree puts some formal structure around concepts they have been exploring on their own for as long as they can remember.

My introduction to computing was similar, although the gadgets I had access to were significantly less sophisticated. I disassembled my Telstar (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Telstar_game_console), one of the first home video games that played three variations of Pong, and was disappointed to discover that all of the sounds (actually, the one sound) it made were produced mechanically, with a spring loaded plastic rod that struck a diaphragm. At school, we had a timesharing account on a PDP-11 running RSTS/E (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RSTS/E) that we accessed via a 10 character-per-second teletype with punched paper tape for backing up and loading our programs (http://www.columbia.edu/cu/computinghistory/teletype.jpg). A friend and I quickly wrote a BASIC program that emulated the RSTS/E login and used it to steal the password to our school’s system account. A decade later, I was building my first database systems using the just-released Oracle V4. Back then, programming was as much art as logic. In college, we learned about bootstrap loaders that only required a few instructions, since they would have to be entered into memory by hand. We programmed using assembly language, and discovered which data structures were the most efficient for accessing varying types of data. Computers were still fairly expensive; processing speeds were a fraction of what they are today (8 MHz vs. 4 GHz); and memory was limited. The best programmers used a wide variety of creative tricks to maximize the use of fairly limited resources.

Now, I bear witness to how programming has become less of an art and more of a commodity. Computer programs today do not need to be elegant, efficient, or even particularly logical. A combination of Moore’s Law and powerful frameworks have supplanted much of was fun and creative about programming with a drive to get the job done as quickly and inexpensively as possible. A whole industry has emerged with legions of commodity coders, both onshore and off, to feed the appetite for cheap programming. I have no doubts that some of my son’s CS/EE classmates will be incredibly successful. I would expect, however, that their success will be more a function of their developing a brilliant idea rather than writing exquisite code. They may do the initial coding by themselves, just to develop a prototype. Once their idea takes off, they too will begin to rely on the commodity coders to keep things moving along. There is still a niche market for artful, extremely efficient coders, but I don’t exactly see my son working on high-speed trading systems. It’s just not the sort of thing he’s interested in.

We’re Number 3 (and 4)

For our children who do decide to pursue the family business, the outlook is actually still very good. According to the data, Computer Science and Software Engineering degrees are not such a bad choice after all. They don’t fall far behind on the BLS list (Biochemistry comes in at number 2), but I just don’t see the same opportunities that there were 20 years ago. Only a relatively small handful of Computer Science graduates will land jobs with companies that allow them to explore their full potential. Even fewer will be able to strike out on their own and bring a brilliant new idea to market. In a corporate setting, IT has become a drag on the balance sheet when, in the past, it used to drive innovation. Perhaps it’s just me, but the scope of the projects I’ve seen lately and the vision behind them doesn’t come close to what I remember from the days of the Dot Com bubble. Some of the best coders I ever met just fell into their jobs. They were writers or research scientists or dancers before they discovered programming. Now, I meet great programmers who want to be fashion designers or open a restaurant. If my son was passionate about programming, I’d tell him to go for it, but I’m not so sure that he’ll go from completely uninterested to being consumed by the idea in a few short years. If he comes up with an incredible idea that requires programming to bring it to life, I am confident that he will have plenty of friends to whom he can turn. For now, I’d rather see him get the education he needs to pursue his passion in a research lab. I’m pretty sure that he’ll be much happier working on a project to improve peoples’ physical, rather thanvirtual lives. It sure seems a lot more exciting than what his dad has been doing lately.

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