Ideas for Diversity, Education, and Computer Science


On December 24 2009, Xconomy published a column in which I reflected on the preceding decade and predicted for the coming one. I still quote that column in talks, because it’s the one time I can remember when I was actually right: I said that this would be the decade in which computer scientists put the “smarts” into everything.

This time I’m not going to risk predictions—my track record is one-out-of-many. Here are some ideas on three safer topics:

1. Diversity in the technology community

I always start discussions on diversity with “Why does it matter?” For reasons of workforce, sure: There’s a lot of work to be done, and if we had more workers, we’d be better off. For reasons of social equity, sure: Tech jobs are great jobs, and members of under-represented groups should have the benefit of participating. But the No. 1 reason—the reason that should appeal to even the most hard-hearted capitalist—focuses on quality. We in tech are engaged in design, which is inherently creative. Each of us brings our own perspective—our own baggage—to the creative process. If there are groups that are excluded, then there are perspectives that are not considered, approaches that are not considered, problems and solutions that are not considered. A more diverse workforce yields a superior outcome. It’s as simple as that.

I applaud Google for being the first major tech company to publish its workforce statistics, an act that compelled many other tech companies to do the same. The numbers weren’t pretty, but their publication represents a commitment to improvement.

We are, indeed, a “mirror-tocracy.” Academia is as bad as industry. All of us must commit to do something about it—beginning at home.

2. Directions for education

There are three things I’d focus on.

The first pertains to my home, Washington State. Our education system, top-to-bottom, trails the nation. Forget China and India! Why is it that among the 50 states we rank 37th in preschool enrollment, 31st in the proportion of 9th graders who graduate from high school on time, 46th in the proportion of high school graduates who enroll directly in a 2-year or 4-year college, 37th in bachelors degree participation rate, 42nd in per-pupil expenditures for K-12 education (adjusted for cost of living), and 49th in per-student funding for higher education (the sum of tuition and state support)? We are the ass-end of the donkey in educational performance, top-to-bottom. Why do the citizens of Washington tolerate this?

The second concerns Computer Science in K-12. God bless Hadi Partovi and for changing the landscape nationally. Computer Science in K-12 is important not because these kids will grow up to work in the software industry, but rather because “computational thinking” is an essential 21st century capability for everyone, and programming is the hands-on, inquiry-based way that we teach computational thinking. However, in Washington State, expanding exposure to computer science will not address the overall lame-ass performance of our education system—we cannot allow a focus on this “shiny new object” to obscure the fact that our education system, top-to-bottom, lags the nation.

The third concerns higher ed. You hear a lot of yap about STEM—Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Here’s the truth: Nationally, and in our state, the *only* workforce shortage in STEM is in Computer Science, and to a much lesser extent in other fields of Engineering. (In our state, the gap between degrees granted and jobs available is 2.5 times as large in Computer Science as in all other Engineering fields (Electrical, Mechanical, Industrial, Chemical, Aeronautical, Materials, Civil, etc.) combined—and other fields don’t even register.) In making investments, let’s be clear-headed about where the gaps exist!

3. Advice for students interested in computer science

Just Do It! The future is unbelievably bright—as Steve Ballmer recently said, “So bright you need shades!”

[Editor’s note: To tap the wisdom of our distinguished group of Xconomists, we asked a few of them to answer questions heading into 2015 on topics including diversity in technology, education, and advice for those entering their field. You can see other questions and answers here.]

Ed Lazowska holds the Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington, where he also serves as the founding director of the University of Washington eScience Institute. His research and teaching concern the design, implementation, and analysis of high performance computing and communication systems, and the techniques and technologies of data-intensive discovery. Follow @lazowska

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