I was in the UK last week, where I visited a number of universities and was a keynote speaker at a conference sponsored by BCS - a leading organization of IT professionals around the world which was originally known as the British Computer Society. The conference, entitled Perceptions in Computing, focused on the challenges facing Information Technology -- specifically, the fact that despite IT's unprecedented ubiquity and importance, there has been for several years a decline in the number of students choosing careers in IT. The conference web site succinctly describes this paradox:
"A number of widely varying perceptions of computing are…
‘One of the most significant advances of the 20th century’
‘Of vital importance to the future economic prosperity of the UK’
‘The agent of chaos when projects fail’
‘Now in nearly 60% of households’
‘Not the subject I want to study at university’
… these perceptions challenge the UK academic community to deliver world-class applicable research, and exciting degree programmes producing high quality graduates that industry needs."
I addressed the challenges presented by these perceptions in my talk at the BCS conference on "Innovation in the 21st Century," as well as in other talks and meetings I had at the universities of Manchester, Glasgow, Oxford and Warwick. Innovation is a very hot subject around the world, driven both by the seemingly unlimited possibilities in technology, business and society, as well as by the Darwinian necessity to evolve and adapt in today's fast changing environment or else be overcome by it. No one disputes that, so why then would young people not flock to choose majors in universities that would prepare them to go on to exciting IT-based careers in academia, industry and government?
But, as the BCS conference theme explicitly pointed out, students are not convinced that IT is the subject they want to study in university. This was echoed in my various other meetings in the UK, and it is an equally serious concern in the US, as evidenced by a recent ACM study on globalization and IT job migration and a subsequent March 1 editorial in the New York Times which observed that “ . . .the computer sector is booming, while the number of students interested in going into the field is falling.”
What is going on? We have a huge gap between young people's perceptions of careers in IT and the realities of those careers in the marketplace. This perception gap occurs at multiple levels -- from a misunderstanding of what the majority of such IT-based careers are like, to whether they exist at all in the US, UK and other developed countries or are all being outsourced to countries with lower-cost labor like India, China, Brazil and Russia. Let me reflect on these perception gaps.
First, as IT increasingly permeates just about all aspects of business, society and our personal lives, the vast majority of the jobs are out there in the marketplace, developing applications and designing, building and operating integrated systems in every possible industry, from health care and financial services to consumer electronics and digital entertainment. There is a smaller but still sizeable number of IT jobs based in labs, plants, centers and similar "back-office" operations developing, building, operating and maintaining products and services. Finally, there is a considerably smaller number of jobs in universities and R&D labs in industry and government conducting research into future technologies, systems and applications.
At IBM, for example, the number of market-facing technical jobs is several times larger than the number of positions in our R&D labs, in spite of us having one of the most extensive R&D capabilities in the private sector. I believe the picture is even more skewed toward market-facing vs lab-based positions in the majority of businesses around the world. Nevertheless, many young people feel that IT jobs are highly technical, difficult-to-attain positions in universities and research labs – which is true only for a small minority of the jobs. Others believe that those jobs are easily outsourced positions in development, programming and support – which the ACM study concluded is happening only to a small percentage of IT jobs. Most are simply not aware of just how many new opportunities for IT-based jobs are out there in the marketplace.
The second major perception gap concerns the very nature of the majority of IT-based jobs, which are addressing and solving all kinds of new business, societal and scientific problems and designing systems and applications in many new areas in industry, government, health care, education and entertainment. The modus operandi for this growing number of jobs is much more collaborative, interdisciplinary and broader than for similar positions in the past. Yes, they require solid technical competence. But they also require a good understanding of business, so the technology can properly be brought to bear on industry applications and business problems. Furthermore, most such business problems and applications are quite complex and multi-disciplinary in nature and therefore require a team of people with a variety of skills, often from different parts of the world. It is therefore essential that the people working in such teams have good communications and interpersonal skills as well.
Over the past decade several studies have considered how to restructure engineering and other technical programs to better prepare students for future careers. They all pretty much conclude that a technical education must be more diverse, broad and forward-looking. Sophisticated applications -- such as those needed for the effective treatment of patients in a hospital or the management of supply chains in manufacturing -- require the ability to comprehend, synthesize and integrate lots of different factors into a holistic, human-oriented design. This is very different from the perception so many young people have of technical careers as highly abstract, isolated from interactions with people and removed from the practical concerns of society. This perception causes even some who are quite good in math and science to choose careers they deem more interesting, social and relevant.
We have our work cut out for us. It is fitting that the BCS conference at which I spoke in Glasgow last week is part of their series on Grand Challenges in Computing, as this perception gap we face in IT is arguably right up there with our toughest scientific challenges -- at least in North America and Europe. Young people in the developing world, in countries like China, India, Brazil and Russia do not seem to share the same views and are rapidly embracing the opportunities IT presents. Universities, businesses and governments, especially those in the developed world that aspire to leadership in the 21st century must do everything possible to address this challenge of perceptions and turn them around.