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RealTime IT News

Gates: Good Techies Are Hard to Come By

Microsoft Chairman and CEO Bill Gates kicked off his company's sixth annual Research Summit with a discussion of how to get kids interested in computer science.

In an on-stage discussion with Maria Klawe, dean of engineering at Princeton University, Gates admitted falling enrollment and incomplete skill sets made it difficult for Microsoft to find good people.

The summit, held today and tomorrow, expects to draw 400 academic researchers to the Redmond campus to discuss the next 10 years of computing.

But today, Gates and Klawe focused on the present; specifically, how to encourage more students to enroll in computer-science programs so that the industry will have enough qualified engineers to work on those future innovations.

Klawe presented some grim figures: The popularity of computer science as a major has fallen more than 60 percent between 2000 and 2004, she said, even though the software engineering and several related jobs will be among the fastest growing through 2012.

Some of that slack might be taken up by girls if they didn't have such a seeming aversion to the field. Klawe said participation of women in computing has gone down over the past 25 years, with only around 15 percent of computer-science Ph.D.s going to women.

When Klawe asked Gates what could be done, he seemed to flounder. When he responded, "There's no magic answer. Maybe get women in the field to be more visible?" Klawe hooted him down.

"No, that's not the answer," she said. "We all do it, but we're not getting anywhere with it."

"You lose them at about five stages," Gates agreed. "And, if there aren't enough women in field, it makes it less attractive, even if everything else is good. There's a critical-mass element to this."

The decline in federal funding for academic research and graduate education doesn't help, the two agreed. Money from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) dropped by half last year.

"The biggest payoff for federal funding or research is in computer science," Gates said, pointing to the economic and technology boom of the 1990s. "Department of Defense money was one of the elements that allowed us to turn this into one of the greatest success periods the U.S. has ever had."

Computer science could fuel another such boom in the next 10 years, according to Gates.

"Computer science is becoming the toolkit for all the sciences," he said. As all disciplines become more data-driven, they're turning to computer science to make sense of the huge amounts of data. "Computer science helps model the world," he added.

Gates admitted having problems finding enough qualified employees at Microsoft -- especially in the United States.

While talented engineers are plentiful in China and India, candidates who can act as product and program managers are in short supply. In the United States, on the other hand, it's engineers that are in short supply. In general, product management is Microsoft's most-needed skill, he said.

The perfect engineer, he said, knows more than just programming languages. He or she understands how to use programming to solve a problem. Unless a potential employee has actually written some programs, it's difficult to evaluate how they'll perform as a Microsoft employee.

"They have to understand algorithmic thinking," he said, "some degree of thinking through a tough problem."

While cross-disciplinary programs can make computer science more interesting for beginning students, Gates said, "There are a lot of super important problems that are pure computer-science problems." They include security, privacy, data organization and data navigation.