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Tech Industry

Uncle Sam wants you to hack code

Just when you thought there was little that could stop the U.S. high-technology boom, here come bad tidings of a major speed bump on the information highway. And no, this has nothing to do with Asian market turmoil.

Just when you thought there was little that could stop the U.S. high-technology boom, here come bad tidings of a major speed bump on the information highway. And no, this has nothing to do with Asian market turmoil.

You can blame this one on the code warriors, or more precisely their dwindling ranks. The U.S. government this week declared this programmer shortage a national priority. Yes, rescuing the Indonesian rupiah and the Thai baht is important, but by gosh figuring out ways to entice the nation's young into computer science curricula and retrain the unemployed as programmers is vital.

Our dearth of programming talent, the logic goes, threatens not only the technology boom, but the nation's very well being, what with U.S. relying more heavily on software than ever before. "The [Clinton] administration's initiatives are driven by concern about the economic implications of the programmer shortage when information technology, grossing more than $865 billion a year, is the nation's largest industry, with the software segment growing more than twice as fast as the overall economy," declared The New York Times on Tuesday.

The federal government is hell-bent on balancing this demand and supply inequity in the programming ranks, and this week launched a $28 million initiative that calls for retraining workers and providing assistance to schools so there can be a bigger pool of programmers.

However, it appears the administration might find that bailing out is hard to do. At least with the Indonesian government the feds could refute the twisted logic President Suharto offered in explaining why his country shouldn't have to observe the stringent terms of a multibillion-dollar bailout offer. Enticing many of the young into the programming field will be much tougher challenge, because their thinking simply defies logic.

College students, according to the Times, don't want to take up programming as a profession not because they fear for job security (over 200,000 jobs stand unfilled) or low wages (many 20-somethings are being hired for upwards of $50,000 a year plus signing bonuses). No, their rationale, if you can believe this, has to do with the "nerd factor."

Some college students are dodging computer science because of the dreaded "monitor tan" syndrome, the pasty pallor that supposedly results from sitting in front of the computer all day long, causing loss of a balanced social life. (To be fair, others said that the programming work itself would be tedious.)

These students might want to keep in mind that there are two Bills who have done quite well for themselves despite their pasty pallors: Gates and Clinton. Now one can try to understand--as hard as that may be--why this group of monitor-tan haters begrudges Bill Gates and his billions because he hacked code in his day and is now considered the nerd of all nerds. One can see, sort of, why they may not aspire to follow in his footsteps. But what of filling Bill Clinton's shoes? The nation's commander-in-chief sports a pasty pallor, and by recent accounts of his golf escapades he does not lack for a "balanced" life.

The people involved with the administration's we-want-you-to-be-a-programmer initiative are looking for promotional campaigns to hook people into programming. Judging from the fervor, the Clinton administration seems to want its pitch to run along the lines of "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." In other words, for the good of the country, please, pretty please, become a code warrior.

The administration might try: "Ask not what the computer can do for your tan, but what you can do for the computer industry." This call to action just might create longer lines at the computer science schools than President John F. Kennedy's original call did for the Peace Corps initiative.

Alternatively, we could have the two Bills do a "Got tan?" spiel.

Or better yet, the Clinton administration could forget about this programming bailout initiative and let free market economy forces prevail.