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NYC high school will train badly needed software engineers

The new Academy for Software Engineering will train high schoolers in one of the most in-demand jobs in the technology world. But students will also get a rigorous academic education.

Grand Central Terminal in New York City could one day be the hub where software engineers freshly trained by the new Academy for Software Engineering change trains and get themselves to their high-paying jobs.
Daniel Terdiman/CNET

While the general state of the American labor market these days is dismal, talented software engineers can easily find themselves fielding multiple lucrative job offers.

In part, it's because technology companies are sprouting up everywhere and hiring like crazy. And it's also because there's a dearth of people skilled enough to build the software that's powering all these new outfits.

That shortage is one of the main reasons a group of influential New Yorkers--led by, among others, Union Square Ventures' top-tier VC Fred Wilson and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's education team--will be opening the doors this fall to The Academy for Software Engineering.

This isn't Bloomberg's first effort to boost the state of the technology industry in the Big Apple. In 2009, the city's Economic Development Corporation unveiled a plan to provide inexpensive work space and resources to nascent tech startups.

It would be easy to think of The Academy for Software Engineering as a vocational school for software geeks. After all, its focus is going to be to train the next generation of software pros. But according to Joel Spolsky, a board member for the new school, the 400 to 500 students who enroll will also get a "rigorous" academic education that will prepare them for college. Still, Spolsky admits that "college is not for everyone--many of the best programmers I know were just not interested enough in a general four-year degree and went straight into jobs programming."

The theory behind the school is definitely that the U.S. is suffering a serious shortage of the very high-paying jobs that can help boost our struggling economy. And Spolsky--and many others, of course--are putting some of the blame on America's university system. "The U.S. postsecondary education system is massively failing us: it's not producing even remotely enough programmers to meet the hiring needs of the technology industry. Not even remotely enough. Starting salaries for smart programmers from top schools are flirting with the $100,000 mark. [Yet] Supply isn't even close to meeting demand."

Clearly, one small high school in New York City isn't going to solve a national problem like this, but it's a start. New York City seems primed--assuming that this experiment is successful--to expand special programs like this to other schools.

At the same time, Spolsky argues, a specialized school like The Academy for Software Engineering--which is using applicants' specific interest in computer science, not previous grades or test scores, as the major criteria for considering who to accept into the school--could be a crucial way to address one of the institutional problems behind the shortage in programmers. As he put it, "One of the reasons the elite U.S. colleges seem to turn out so few computer science majors every year is that they are only drawing from a narrow pool of mostly white and Asian males. Minorities and women are embarrassingly underrepresented. Hopefully an unscreened school in New York City can pump a lot more diversity into the pool."

As well, Spolsky wrote, "A lot of immigrants (especially in New York) are not yet proficient enough in English to get good grades in all their subjects, but they're going to make great software engineers....And in my humble opinion, a school that accepts a cross-section of students is bound to be more enriching than a school that only accepts academic superstars."

One would think that the technology world and the educational establishment will be watching what goes on in New York. If this new school is a success, perhaps we'll see similar programs popping up elsewhere. There's no doubt such a program could be a big hit in Silicon Valley. But perhaps the real answer to the software engineering shortage is not to focus on finding the next coders just in existing technology hot-spots, but also in communities in unexpected places. So here's hoping that the seeds planted in New York sprout in places throughout the heartland, and everywhere that school-age geeks are finding themselves with no place to nurture their valuable talents.