Gates Worries About Decline in U.S. Computer Scientists

Microsoft Chair and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates said Monday that there is a shortage of qualified computer science engineers for hire in the United States, a problem that is reflective of the decline of interest in that course of study in this country.

Speaking at the Microsoft Research Faculty Summit on Microsoft's campus in Redmond, Washington, Gates said that while his company finds many suitable engineering candidates for employment in India and China, it has a harder time recruiting qualified individuals in the United States.

"We're very short with what we'd like to get in the States," he said. "The competition for someone with the right background is very [limited]."

Gates made his comments in a question-and-answer discussion with Maria Klawe, dean of engineering and computer science professor at Princeton University, at Microsoft's annual conference for collaboration between commercial technology companies and researchers and educators in computer science. The two discussed the problem of waning interest in the study of computer science in the United States, and reflected on efforts that might be taken to remedy the situation.

Ongoing Concerns

The conference is not the first time Gates has expressed concern about the availability of computer science talent in the United States. In April, Gates spoke on a technology panel at the Library of Congress, where he urged lawmakers to ease visa restrictions for foreign workers, citing difficulty filling positions at Microsoft due to the lack of interest in computer science among U.S. students.

Indeed, Klawe pointed out Monday that the popularity of computer science as a major for incoming college students has fallen more than 60 percent between 2000 and 2004, according to the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles. She said some of the reasons that many students, especially women, are not entering computer science because is not viewed as an especially exciting career as others such as law or medicine, which are the focus of numerous television shows and Hollywood movies that glamorize positions in those fields.

Gates admitted he is "very worried" about the drop in the number of students entering computer science, and said that it is up to commercial technology companies like Microsoft to help cultivate a positive image of the work being done in this field to help lure students into IT.

"The best thing Microsoft can do is share examples of what kinds of jobs these are and how interesting they are," Gates said. He said that to dispel the myth that all computer scientists do is write code in isolation with limited social interaction, Microsoft must preach to the community the benefits of working on different aspects of technology projects, such as coordinating engineering teams and project management.

"The nature of these jobs is not just closing the door and coding," Gates said. "The greatest missing skill is somebody who's good at understanding engineering and bridges that to working with customers and marketing. We still fall short of finding people who want to do that. I'd love to have people come to these jobs wanting to exercise people management, people dynamics as well as basic engineering skills. We can promise those people most of what they're doing won't be coding."

Common Good

At the conference Monday, Gates also voiced his support for continued government funding for computer science, and highlighted technology's role in solving societal problems such as global health care and education.

In particular, he discussed how Microsoft, with the help of a physician from Spain, is having success in Mozambique vaccinating citizens against malaria with the help of a PC-accessed database that keeps track of patient medical histories.

"We have to figure out how we can make these things simpler, how this technology ... can reach out and be used anywhere in the world," Gates said.

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