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The tech industry's newest power player

Stuart Feldman is the new head of the world's biggest scientific and computing society--a role that will require diplomacy and political know-how.

Maybe you don't need to be a rocket scientist to head one of the nation's first scientific and computing societies, but it doesn't hurt. Stuart Feldman, the newly installed president of the Association for Computing Machinery, studied astrophysics and applied mathematics en route to a doctoral degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But as he takes the helm of an organization with 78,000-plus members, maybe a minor in diplomacy would be just as helpful.

Feldman steps into a two-year position where he will find himself increasingly dealing with overseas members. In fact, about 30 percent of ACM's membership already consists of non-North Americans.

That should make for some interesting policy deliberations as the U.S. IT industry wrestles with the question of outsourcing and its discontents. Feldman, whose day job is vice president of computer science research at IBM, is careful not to step into that minefield. And he is hardly unaware of the political and technology issues that are front and center for so many people in the computer industry. CNET recently spoke with Feldman after he was voted into office.

Q: Where do you want ACM to side up on the issue of outsourcing?
Feldman: We are very careful to not comment on that issue. ACM put out a very careful report on global job migration, and basically there will be a migration of certain types of jobs. There will be an increasing number of jobs of course in countries where there weren't a lot. There is no question about that.

The number of IT jobs in the U.S. is not shrinking and there is an incipient shortage of high skills.

This is simply a clear result of growth happening in both the obvious places--India and China--but also many other places. So this is not a shrinkage of either opportunity or of activity in the U.S., Canada or the EU; it's a case of growth elsewhere.

And the IT jobs outlook in the U.S.?
Feldman: When you take a look at the numbers, the number of IT jobs in the U.S. is not shrinking and there is an incipient shortage of high skills. All of my West Coast colleagues are complaining about how hard it is to get the people they want.

There was a report by a professor out at the University of Chicago in conjunction with WashTech in which they actually argued that the situation is the opposite of what you described. What do you think?
Feldman: Well, the data doesn't actually support them at this moment, and for better or for worse, the Bureau of Labor Statistics data seems to support a considerable job need in the United States with a possible risk on the supply side.

What about some of the other issues relating to job skills? Under your direction, will ACM be prevailing upon the federal government to do anything with regards to a change in perhaps tax codes, research and development, or something along those lines?
Feldman: ACM's policy activities have tended to be of a more technical nature on the assumption that ACM honestly has the credibility with respect to technical issues rather than simple financial ones.

Where would you size up the state of technical education right now in this country?
Feldman: I just came back from a conference of heads of computer science departments, and all of the attendees were concerned actually about the number and quality of students that they're seeing at the advanced levels and the continued fall in the U.S. The ongoing decrease in both interest and, in some cases, quality is a very significant concern. There are also issues, such as the number of women in the pipeline to relatively low numbers, after some very considerable improvement a few years ago. These are very real concerns because the pipeline of people takes four or eight years before people who think they want to go into a field come out educated in it.

There's the question of how do you restore the level of excitement, how do you restore the realization that IT is in essence a leading technology for students to consider?

Is this something that can be affected with the help of tweaking federal policies, or is there something at a more organic level that needs to happen? Is this something where the industry needs to take the lead?
Feldman: Partly it's organic, partly it's inward. The people in the field are refocusing on what's important for the future. Partly they are looking for federal and state improvements on funding...It is at best a few billion over a long period of time.

There's now the big question of which country will be the real engine of growth. Is it China, which has a far more developed infrastructure, or India where, besides outsourcing, you have a very literate and large middle class as well as a liberal capitalist system that perhaps helps foster more growth?
Feldman: To be honest, I'm not wise enough to come down with a bet on that. Who knows how the political systems in those countries will honestly evolve over two decades? The Chinese have made some very large education investments. In IT education at the lower levels in India it is quite phenomenal.

Both of them will end up with creating a very large number of people with significant technical skills. This does not suggest that the number of people in the U.S. and the European Union will be small either. If there's a difference between the growth rate and the total and the number, the growth rates in those countries are looking phenomenal because they are starting from very small levels.

What do you think is the biggest story that nobody is yet talking about that's going to break over the next year or so in connection with the IT landscape?
Feldman: Well, it's a little hard to guess, but you're going to see a number of incredibly fast computers built over the next few years.

At the mainframe level or more on the desktop?
Feldman: At the supercomputer and the ultra-computer levels. There are open opportunities to address problems that have never been satisfactorily met. At the more human level, the rapid changes in the ways people are building applications for personal entertainment and personal business are going to affect the ways that businesses themselves get applications either built or used.