Gates: No magic answer to tech worker shortage

Industry hasn't done enough to position itself as exciting, say academics and Microsoft execs. Can Hermione Granger help?

Ina Fried Former Staff writer, CNET News
During her years at CNET News, Ina Fried changed beats several times, changed genders once, and covered both of the Pirates of Silicon Valley.
Ina Fried
4 min read
At Microsoft's annual gathering with university researchers, executives again bemoaned the lack of computer scientists, both globally and in the United States.

Part of the problem, say both academics and Microsoft executives, is that the technology field just hasn't done a good job of positioning itself as hip and exciting. There needs to be more of a sense of romance and magic, says Kevin Schofield, general manager of Microsoft Research communications and strategy.

"You don't have to go to Hogwarts to learn magic," Schofield said in an interview with CNET News.com, referring to the fictional school in the Harry Potter series.

In a speech to 400 university researchers gathered Monday at the company's Faculty Summit in Redmond, Wash., Chairman Bill Gates admitted that he has not read enough Harry Potter--and noted that majors like physical education are growing in popularity while computer science continues to lag, even though there are plenty of jobs. In fact, the number of computer science majors dropped 60 percent between 2000 and 2004.

"I'm certainly very worried about it," Gates said. "We're very short of what we'd like to get. The competition for someone that has the right background is just phenomenal."

Gates made similar observations at last year's event. But even as Gates deplored what he sees as a lack of both people and research in computer science, he made his annual pitch for more attention from those who are in the field. This year Microsoft offered funding in three areas, including its perennial favorite: grants for those that are exploring ways of writing more secure code.

Microsoft is also looking for research proposals from those who want to study software tools that can automate work for scientists doing research in different areas. By looking at the work that different scientists do, the company can see whether there is enough commonality to create specific research tools or even a sort of Microsoft Office for researchers.

"The competition for someone that has the right background is just phenomenal."
--Bill Gates
Chairman, Microsoft

Schofield noted that many researchers already use Office, but he said it is too soon to say whether Microsoft will pursue a product geared specifically toward scientists.

"It's clear to me that e-science continues to gain momentum," Schofield said, noting that he is a researcher and not a product planner. He added, though, that there will clearly be software written that automates researchers' tasks. "I hope some of them may come from Microsoft."

The last area that Microsoft put out a call for research in is the area of preserving digital memories. The company has long been pursuing such technologies. One project, known as "Sense Cam," combines a wearable digital camera with other sensors to automatically record a person's activity throughout the day, using motion sensors and pulse readings as a guide for when the camera should take its 2,000 pictures. The readings from the camera can be combined with the MyLifeBits software, which creates a sort of electronic journal of one's day.

The idea is based on the 60-year-old "memex" concept outlined in an Atlantic Monthly article by Vannevar Bush. But with memory and disk space continuing to drop in price, Schofield said, such concepts are now possible. "We think there are hundreds if not thousands of (ways that) people can take this...and really apply it today."

As part of its call for research, Microsoft will make available prototypes of the Sense Cam and MyLifeBits products.

On Tuesday, the researchers on hand for the conference will have a chance to check out a number of projects from Microsoft Research in a three-hour DemoFest. Among the three dozen projects are Teddy, an experimental consumer robot, and PlayAnywhere, a demo that turns any flat surface, such as a table or a whiteboard, into a display or input device.

But even as there are areas that show great promise, the breakthroughs won't happen unless there are enough people doing the research, said Princeton University engineering school dean Maria Klawe, who appeared with Gates in the conference's main presentation.

Of particular concern, Klawe said, is the fact that the already small number of women in computer science is actually declining in some areas. After years of participating in talks with women and girls of all ages, Klawe said, she is convinced more is needed, ideally something from Hollywood that glamorizes computer work in the same way that the popularity of law and medicine have helped draw more women to those fields.

Just 15 percent of doctoral computer science students are women. At the top research schools, about the same number of undergraduate computer science students are women.

"We're down there below physics in some cases," Klawe said. Klawe said that at this point her best hope is that Harry Potter's friend Hermione Granger decides to pursue a career in computer science.

Gates added that it is clear the industry is losing talented girls and women at many stages of their academic career, and that there probably is no single solution.

"I don't know the magic answer," Gates said.