It wasn't "Plastics" as Dustin Hoffman was advised in the movie The Graduate, but computers that Bill Gates told a college audience would be the ticket to a good career in the near future. "You can't go wrong in computer science," the Microsoft chairman and chief software architect advised students at the University of California at Berkeley during a Friday appearance.
Some UC-Berkeley students, however, were unhappy with the way Gates responded to questions about increasing competition for jobs from China and India. "It is a little scary for me to see people thinking of this as a zero-sum game. It is not like a war where you have one winner and one loser," Gates told the students during his appearance. "China and India are the big change engines for the years ahead, and as we embrace that and understand our new role in that, that's the path forward."
But while Gates' regular university visits are meant to evangelize the field of computer science, several students felt Gates did not address their concerns about outsourcing and the growing number of engineers in lower-wage countries like China and India.
"Gates sort of glossed that over. As chairman of a corporation, does he care where he hires his employees?" wondered Anatoly Smolkin, an electrical engineering and computer science student at the university. Jobs will move overseas and salaries for computer scientists and engineers will fall as a result of competition with countries such as India and China, he said.
Another student, Ali El-Annan, said Gates' comments made him a bit anxious. "I was sort of surprised. They can't really create jobs there while leaving jobs here," he said of outsourcing. "There is a lot of concern about that among students."
The United States will have to compete with China and India on the merits and not through protectionism, Gates said. Universities play a major role in that competition and funding for universities will need to be protected, he added. "I believe that the university system is the number one thing that has allowed us to be at the center of innovation," he said.
Gates was interviewed at Berkeley by Richard Newton, dean of the university's College of Engineering. Talking about computer science, Gates said there is plenty of work that still needs to be done. He also pitched a double major of computer science and biology as a ticket for a great future career.
"If we look at the PC today, it is certainly a glass half-full in terms of the ease of use," Gates said. Advances in storing data and in user interfaces, such as unified storage and speech, will make PCs better in the future. Also, artificial intelligence and graphics are major areas of innovation, Gates said.
Looking ahead, Gates sees biology as a "sister science" to computer science. "I think a lot of the breakthroughs will be made by people who were trained in biology and computer science," he said.
Last February, Gates went on a week-long tour to visit five top universities in the U.S. At Berkeley, he also faced some tough questions from students about the effect of the PC industry on the environment and on Microsoft's anticompetitive behavior.