Thursday, August 25, 2005

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The future of computer science?

On of the common laments about offshore outsourcing is that it is causing a decline of interest in computer science and related engineering tasks.

Via Slashdot, I see that Steve Lohr had an interesting piece in the New York Times earlier this week that provides some support for this lament -- but the market is doing interesting things to the study of computers:

Jamika Burge is heading back to Virginia Tech this fall to pursue a Ph.D. in computer science, but her research is spiced with anthropology, sociology, psychology, psycholinguistics - as well as observing cranky couples trade barbs in computer instant messages.

"It's so not programming," Ms. Burge said. "If I had to sit down and code all day, I never would have continued. This is not traditional computer science."

For students like Ms. Burge, expanding their expertise beyond computer programming is crucial to future job security as advances in the Internet and low-cost computers make it easier to shift some technology jobs to nations with well-educated engineers and lower wages, like India and China.

"If you have only technical knowledge, you are vulnerable," said Thomas W. Malone, a professor at the Sloan School of Management at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the author of "The Future of Work" (Harvard Business School Press, 2004). "But if you can combine business or scientific knowledge with technical savvy, there are a lot of opportunities. And it's a lot harder to move that kind of work offshore."

Read the whole thing.

Meanwhile, in India, the returns to offshoring are declining because of rising wages, according to CNN's Parija Bhatnagar:

A new report from market research firm Gartner, Inc. warns that a labor crunch and rising wages could erode as much as 45 percent of India's market share by 2007.

Indian industry watchers acknowledge that the country's outsourcing industry -- its golden goose of the moment -- is indeed facing a "serious" problem.

In an interview with CNN/Money from New Delhi, Kiran Karnick, president of the National Association of Software and Service companies (NASSCOM), said he's concerned that these challenges could stymie India's strong double-digit growth in outsourcing services....

India can't afford to rest on its laurels, said Sujay Chohan, one of the authors of the Gartner report and vice president and research director of offshore business process outsourcing with Gartner in New Delhi.

Unless India devises a long-term roadmap to improve infrastructure and consistently grow its skilled labor force, he said India will see some of its offshore BPO clients shift business elsewhere.

"Although India's infrastructure is improving, it is not keeping pace with the rapid growth of the industry," the report said.

See Ed Frauenheim's reaction on CNET's Workplace Blog

posted by Dan on 08.25.05 at 11:52 PM


What a wonderful idea! I'm sure we can just hire some Indians (or, even cheaper, mainland Chinese slave laborers) to write our missile guidance systems.

posted by: The Lonewacko Blog on 08.25.05 at 11:52 PM [permalink]

Computer Science out of favor at MIT and Cal

"Computer science today is poised to do all these amazing things," Gates told students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,
where computer science enrollments dropped 44% from 1999 to 2003.

The decline has hit just about every type of school. At UC Berkeley, the number of students enrolling in computer science and computer
engineering dropped 41% in that period. Enrollments at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta fell 45%.

Nationwide, new enrollments are at 1996 levels and few expect them to rebound soon.

"It's been precipitous," said John Guttag, head of MIT's electrical engineering and computer science department.

At UC San Diego, home to the largest engineering school in the University of California system, applications to the program fell 24% from 2002 to 2003.

Jeanne Ferrante, associate dean of the UC San Diego school of engineering, said there was little mystery why. After hovering under
2% in the late 1990s, the jobless rate for computer scientists and systems analysts grew to 5.4% in the last three months of 2003. It
then jumped to 6.7% in the first quarter of this year outstripping the overall national unemployment rate of 6.1%.

posted by: bhaim on 08.25.05 at 11:52 PM [permalink]

As an IT professional, I've seen what the industry is doing to fellow workers. I have made sure to steer my kids away from anything IT related, lest they be caught in what will eventually become a glorified janitorial service. I've told them, however, that whatever field they choose, they must have strong computer skills in order to excel in that field.

posted by: Ernie Oporto on 08.25.05 at 11:52 PM [permalink]

Lesson: Maybe that broad based liberal arts degree isn't such a bad thing after all. The more you learn to do, the less you have to worry about the folks in Hyderebad learning to do it.

posted by: Appalled Moderate on 08.25.05 at 11:52 PM [permalink]

Maybe that broad based liberal arts degree isn't such a bad thing after all. The more you learn to do, the less you have to worry about the folks in Hyderebad learning to do it.

Probably only if you go to a prestigious college and if you have contacts.

Otherwise you're probably better off (like most Californians :-) making money in real estate.

Incidentally, while wage rates are hurting the profits of oursourcers, they are trying to move into more advanced areas as well so they can command higher prices. This sort of statement from the companies is a common litany to put pressure on the Indian government to improve infrastructure, to spread education beyond a few elite univs.

posted by: erg on 08.25.05 at 11:52 PM [permalink]

One other factor that should be mentioned is that computer programming has, unnoticed by most, become much easier in the last ten years. Languages have become more robust. Libraries of high-quality pre-built functionality have become enormous and are largely free. Development tools are more powerful and intuitive, and also either free or dirt cheap. Actually measuring productivity in computer programming is enormously difficult, but anecdotal evidence suggests that an average computer programmers is putting out considerably more code per year than in the past (possibly as much as 5x), and that that code simply does much more. While software is in some ways still more a craft rather than an industry, it's become a vastly more productive craft.

The net effect of this is that for most sorts of programming, the required skill levels have fallen greatly, and look set to continue to do so. It should come as no surprise that this has resulted in downward wage pressure. The fact that these technological improvements have also resulted in programmers being much more valuable (since they can produce so much more) has mitigated this to some extent, but not enough.

posted by: dave on 08.25.05 at 11:52 PM [permalink]

Not to mention that the downward trend in new IT people for the last several years has, I think, been in response to the dot com bust. Believe me when I say that the field was overpopulated. During it's height there were a lot of people in the field who shouldn't have been (I'd bet real estate is much the same now).


posted by: Will Gore on 08.25.05 at 11:52 PM [permalink]

There really wasn't a IT job boom at the end of the 90's, only linear growth from 94 at a good clip. IT employment, is still 25% down and at current growth rates will take a decade to recover. By then, a lot of Chinese should speak English or won't have to since most things will be produced there. So much for that industry. There is always room for creative ideas though.

posted by: Lord on 08.25.05 at 11:52 PM [permalink]

Libraries of high-quality pre-built functionality have become enormous and are largely free.

I'm sure there were COBOL and Fortran libraries back in the 60s, but they're only used today on systems that haven't been updated since that time.

Times change and new systems and technologies are developed. Even if many libraries are available now, new ones will need to be written for those new technologies.

And, we can't rely on foreign suppliers to write those libraries when they're used in defense or even less critical applications. Unless you have the local expertise to examine every line of code, you don't know what could be hiding in there: viruses (like the Soviet power plant code), backdoors that would let those countries take control of our systems, etc. etc.

posted by: Lonewacko: Illegal immigration news on 08.25.05 at 11:52 PM [permalink]

When I was at Cal last year, I did a presentation on outsourcing for a Haas class and pointed out that a big hike in the cost of living was inevitable for any country who succeeded, with India first in line. Infrastructure was second on the list of problems that threatened India's outsourcing meal ticket. I can't say I deserve much credit, since both seemed pretty obvious.

On the decline of CS degrees: for most of the past 25 years, an enormous number of programmers working in some area of the tech industry haven't had CS degrees. I don't know the numbers, but it has always been substantial. I spent fifteen years in the industry as an applications consultant and never had more than an English degree--and for most of that time I was at the high end of the hourly consultant rate. So I dunno about "downward pressure" caused by the ease of programming letting any poor schmoe into the field.

Which is not to say that getting a liberal arts degree is a good idea--rather, there are lots of people who got liberal arts degree despite having a strong aptitude for programming. In all cases, it turns out they weren't good at the type of math taught in high school and so never considered going into CS. But it was still the norm just a couple years ago.

The big IT consumer has always been corporate America, and from what I can tell that market hasn't even really begun to recover.

posted by: Cal on 08.25.05 at 11:52 PM [permalink]

As for programming being easier, I largely agree. Things which required "hard" - but high-performance - languages like C/C++ and a complex OS like Unix ten years ago are now done in Windows with scripting languages like C#, Java, or Perl/Python. The level of programming and systems knowledge needed to build a useful program is far less than it once was. This makes it much easier to outsource and offshore.

For myself, I saw the writing on the wall in the mid '90s and decided that I'll stay just above the metal, where the "hard" languages are required, where there's never enough performance, and the problems require skills that universities don't teach. So far, it's working; I've managed to stay employed for the past five years, while others who jumped on the scripting language bandwagon have been Bangalored.

posted by: Foobarista on 08.25.05 at 11:52 PM [permalink]

What a lot of techie types don't realize is that
the computer - for businesses - is only a tool.

A glorified adding machine.

And, as a number of posters have pointed out,
the programming languages available to make
that adding machine really sing have improved

Computer Science programs teach - quite rightly
too - is the underlying fundamentals. Stuff
just above the maching level.

What businesses typically want is a number of
levels of abstraction above that level.

The dot-commers didn't make their millions
writing better linkage editors. They made
their piles creating never-before-seen
business models.

If you want really interesting tasks to work
on get a C.S. degree. But you most likely
won't make a huge amount of money.

If you want that huge pile of cash, get a
Business Admin/Accounting degree.

If you want to learn how to learn and appreciate
the world around you, get a Liberal Arts degree.

posted by: Ted on 08.25.05 at 11:52 PM [permalink]

Not to mention the new ruralism (via InstaPundit):

Small-Town USA May Offer Solution to Outsourcing

posted by: Sissy Willis on 08.25.05 at 11:52 PM [permalink]

"If you have only technical knowledge, you are vulnerable,"

I took this to heart. Which is why I have a Computer Science degree as well as the master's degree from this program, designed to allow engineers of all kinds to leverage their technical skills into business applications.

I recommend it wholeheartedly.

posted by: Brian Moore on 08.25.05 at 11:52 PM [permalink]

The trick is indeed to be broad, but you can also be broad *within* computer science. I've watched three generations of enterprise software come and go, evolve and mutate over the past 17 years. My desire to know as much as possible has kept me afloat. But most computer programmers (especially the older, non-degreed folks who drift into a valuable job) are over-specialized and really don't know stuff outside of their niche.

I'd say the best route would be to start in a large corporation as a programmer/analyst so you can see all the kinds of systems that customers might desire (two years at any large coroporation will show you a lifetime of inefficiencies yet to be computed out). Then get to a software company so you can do a variety of jobs over the course of your career. Training, tech support, sales support, project management, QA. Not all of those are high paying like pure software engineering, but it's way better than the alternative.

In 2003, that most horrible year since Black Monday gave program trading a bad name, I wound up at a little testing outfit doing part-time contract work. I never thought I would learn anything, instead by doing things I would never ask of myself, I learned a lot.

posted by: Cobb on 08.25.05 at 11:52 PM [permalink]

At the top of this post parade Lonewacko Blog posts:

What a wonderful idea! I'm sure we can just hire some Indians (or, even cheaper, mainland Chinese slave laborers) to write our missile guidance systems.
posted by: The Lonewacko Blog on 08.26.05 at 12:39 AM [permalink]

I teach Oral English to a group of Chinese outsourcing programmer/analysts in Dalian, China and I can assure you all, Americans, Canadians and western whatevers that the Chinese IT techs I work with are not "slave laborers". They own homes, earn good pay in China terms and are all university graduates. Some of them even hope to work for their employer as outsource coordinators in the US.

I suggest that off the cuff glibness is no substitute for knowing what you're being glib about!!!

posted by: Robert Gagnon on 08.25.05 at 11:52 PM [permalink]

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