Can Johnny still program?

In wake of the worst performance by U.S. students in a global coding contest, ACM President David Patterson has a few suggestions for President Bush.

Ed Frauenheim Former Staff Writer, News
Ed Frauenheim covers employment trends, specializing in outsourcing, training and pay issues.
Ed Frauenheim
8 min read
If David Patterson had his way, the president of the United States would congratulate top code jockeys just like the commander-in-chief applauds the Super Bowl champs.

That would send a message about the importance of technology smarts and skills, argues Patterson, a computer science professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and president of the Association for Computing Machinery, a group that runs a major student coding contest.

"(Our presidents) meet the winners of the football championship, right?" Patterson says. "Gee, wouldn't it be wonderful if the presidents would meet the winners of the programming contest? Wouldn't that be a better world?"

After U.S. students earlier this month made their worst showing in the 29-year history of the ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest, Patterson and others are wondering whether the United States does enough to encourage programming talent. The top U.S. school finished in a tie for 17th place. Students from China's Shanghai Jiao Tong University took the top honors, continuing a gradual ascendance of Asian and Eastern European schools during the past decade or so. The last time a U.S. institution won the world championship was in 1997.

Some argue the results don't necessarily mean much, given the way foreign schools may put more emphasis on the contest. What's more, the number of entrants has mushroomed, from fewer than 650 teams in 1994 to more than 4,100 this year.

Patterson, though, thinks there's more to the U.S. decline--viewed by some as a sign the country's tech leadership is in trouble.

ACM's leader knows a thing or two about creating important technology: He played a key role in the development of so-called reduced instruction set computers, or RISC, and was involved in a Berkeley networking project that led to technology used by Internet companies such as Inktomi.

CNET News.com recently spoke with Patterson about ACM's contest, the state of student tech talent in the United States, and how outsourcing is affecting the field.

What's measured in the ACM programming contest?
Patterson: The problems are not simply, as the title sounds like, 'Write a program to do factorial fast.' It's more problem-solving than that. One of them had to do with a cell phone tower. You had to cover this many people, so where would you place your cell phone tower, or something like that.

Gee, wouldn't it be wonderful if the presidents would meet the winners of the programming contest?

What are the origins of the contest?
Patterson: Since ACM has been around so long, it started off as a local programming contest and then it expanded to be nationwide and then international. Education was a big part of the ACM mission. Since computers were brand new, one of the big challenges was going to be to teach people how these use them. So this was kind of a natural thing to do for this volunteer organization. Somebody thought it would be nice to have a programming contest.

What's happened in the last 10 or 15 years is information technology has been spreading through a bunch of these countries, many of which do not have great economies and find information technology very attractive. It's not capital intensive. It's a nonpolluting technology. And nations think of themselves as good at things. If you think you're good at math and science--like the Russians, I think, do, and Indians and Chinese--if they think, 'Gee this is something we're good at,' IT becomes a target.

As result of your story, I've gotten feedback about how seriously this is taken. I'm told in Russia...the contest couldn't be taken more seriously.

That's one of the questions I had: Is it taken more seriously in other places?
Patterson: Yeah. As far as I know there's no steroid that you can take to make you a faster programmer. (But) you had the feeling it's almost like East Germany was with the swimmers--it was national pride how well they did in the Olympics. Well, apparently Russia takes it so seriously?that success in the programming contest affects the funding of local schools. Those that are more successful in the programming contest get more funding.

The programming contest is now like (soccer's World Cup). It's not just a national competition. You get to measure yourself against everybody in the world.

Do you think that the U.S.'s poor showing--the poorest showing so far--is a reflection of us not taking it as seriously?
Patterson: I've been thinking about that. The United States is used to being No. 1 in everything. If we were fourth and it was, 'Oh, the other guys are just trying a lot harder,' that wouldn't be as big a deal. But I suspect that--given that we're 17th--it's more than that. It's not just like, 'Well, this one country is taking it really seriously and so we're never going to beat them at that.' You know, we're 17th. There's a lot of teams from a lot of countries ahead of us. So I think it's more serious.

Why did the U.S. do so poorly?
Patterson: First of all, I think that'd be a great study. That'd be a great study to see what's happening at these other places versus here.

From the ACM perspective, this is great. The contest is getting more popular, and people are taking it so seriously. It's impressive. The Russians winners--they won it I think a year or two ago--they got to meet (President Vladimir) Putin. They got to meet the leader of the country.

Wouldn't that be wonderful if that were true in the United States? What happens with our presidents? They meet the winners of the football championship, right? Gee, wouldn't it be wonderful if the presidents

would meet the winners of the programming contest? Wouldn't that be a nice place? Wouldn't that be a better world?

That's a good point.
Patterson: So I think a sense of national pride (influences how different schools perform in the contest). Some of it is a sense of laziness. We've always dominated the software industry, the computer industry. The United States has always dominated it. 'Why do we care how some amateur contest turns out. We know we're the best in the world at this, so where's the problem?' I think there's some of that.

As far as I know there's no steroid that you can take to make you a faster programmer.

Filtering it down to the level of the colleges, they may not be pushing it much?
Patterson: Yeah. So, I think the question would be, what would it take for us to do well? Suppose this was seen as something that deserved more attention. It does in some sense measure us against how good the rest of the world is at these things. Would more-focused attention bring the United States higher up in this competition? And is it a simple thing or are they teaching differently? (Are) these other countries teaching more effectively?

I know as a faculty member I was kind of struck that at least the titles of the courses are the same as when I was an undergraduate student. I took a compiler course. Berkeley teaches a compiler course, you know, 30 years later...Are they actually teaching things in different ways in these other countries? Are they being more successful that way?

The other thing that's happening, absolutely, is a decision in these countries to increase their research funding in information technology. They are fairly significant increases, even in countries that don't have a lot of money. They decided that this is a good bet for some of reasons I said--it's nonpolluting, not capital intensive, 'we're the type of people who would do well at that.'

And this gets down into the colleges?
Patterson: Yeah. I graduated from a big public university and I've spent my life in a big public university. I believe in the big public universities. And part of the big public universities' model is you are able to attract pretty successful faculty, pretty successful people who could be doing a lot of things in part because there's this research side of it as well. So if these faculty are pushing the state of that research, those ideas get into classrooms. And those ideas improve the content of these courses.

So, If I'm getting you right, you're looking at this contest result as possibly a reflection of this symptom of flat or declining funding of research, and that may be not energizing the curriculum or energizing the schools.
Patterson: Yeah. That kind of goes together. The computing industry is doing less research than they used to. I think over my career what's happened is the computing industry has really driven up performance and prices down. It squeezed the margins out of almost everything...It's amazing what we're doing. But we've concentrated so much in removing margin out of everything that there's not the money around that there used to be to be able to do the research--that funded the Bell Labs and the Xerox PARCs in the past.

And then with cutting back on research funding from the government--if both those things are cut back, there's not as many vehicles for pushing the IT research as there was 20 and 30 years ago. I think (the U.S. schools' contest showing) fits in that context.

Do you think that, partly as a result of (the research funding situation), the field isn't attracting the best and brightest? Or as many of the best and brightest as it did?
Patterson: In the last couple of years, the echoes of the dot-com bust and then this outsourcing stuff has really affected high school seniors' decisions. ACM is working on a study of outsourcing. I don't think the reality is as bad as people imagine. People think, 'Look at our wage scale; look at the weight scales of some of these other countries--it's impossible for the U.S. to compete.' I don't think it's true. I think the reality won't be as dire as people are deciding on their own. But right now in the United States it's affecting what people are choosing to major in.

For me at the very height (of the Internet boom), it wasn't such a wonderful thing. We had people taking computer science courses, and they didn't like computer science...There were people who were just doing it for the money. I was just happy for those people to major in something else--become pre-meds or whatever they do.

So some downsizing is fine. But I'm worried right now whether it's actually worse than that, that people are thinking IT--because of their fears of the outsourcing--won't be a factor. And to me it's, 'Boy, we're only 50 years into this field, and the opportunities in this century are just astounding: all the things we didn't do right plus all the new opportunities. It's going to be an exciting field.'

Bill Gates gives a talk like that. I don't know how often I agree with Bill Gates, but I absolutely I appreciate him doing that.