In the US and Canada (and in many other parts of the world) the image of computing careers and computing professionals discourages many talented young people, especially women and minorities, from choosing to study computer science. For at least the last decade the computing profession has been widely viewed by high school students, parents, teachers, and counselors as being for individuals who have been obsessed with computers since puberty and want to program sixteen hours a day. Moreover, computer science majors are often stereotyped as “people without a life” who lack social skills.
During the dot.com boom of the late nineties the impact of this negative image was somewhat mitigated by the high salaries and possibilities of gaining extreme wealth through working for start-up companies. In the years since the dot.com crash the negative impact has been exacerbated through media stories on the ‘end of IT’ and the off-shoring of software development jobs. This is in spite of the fact that US labor projections continue to show computing-related jobs as the area among science and engineering that will experience by far the largest demand over the next ten years.
During the past three years the enrolment in computer science undergraduate programs has steadily declined. I wish I had a dollar for every parent who has asked me if there are still jobs for CS graduates. The reality, at least at Princeton, is that among engineering graduates CS majors are still the most highly sought after. And their average starting salary is significantly higher than any other engineering major.
The significant decline in enrolment in computer science undergraduate programs has raised great concern not only in academia, but in the IT industry and in government. It’s unlikely that we will reverse the decline until we figure out how to improve the image of computing careers. I’d love to see a media campaign that convinces teens, parents, teachers and counselors that computing careers are exceptional opportunities for the best and the brightest. Careers that let individuals combine talent and interest in many different areas and create technical solutions that address the most important problems in society; Careers in which all academically able and creative individuals can flourish independent of gender, race, or social inclinations. Failure to address our image problem may have a very negative impact on the field of computer science, the IT industry, and the North American economy.
Maria Klawe is Dean of Engineering at Princeton University, Chair of Board of Trustees of the Anita Borg Insitute, and former President of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM).