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Opinion: Future Leaders of Software Engineering

Guitar Player. Image courtesy www.sxc.hu.

It took a musician to get me to think about how the computer had changed the computer workforce. Freddie moved to New York ten years ago to seek his fame and fortune as a guitarist and bandleader. When he resurfaced in my life last fall, he had become a married IT professional, with a child and the need for steady income. After I asked him how he had trained for the position, he explained that he had taught himself what he had needed know and learned the details of computer software on the job. In reply to my question of whether anyone in his office was formally trained, he replied "No, but I'm the only one who can play guitar."

The field of software production has a long tradition of needing more workers than the colleges were capable of providing. The software industry started during a period called "the programmer crisis" by industry observers. During the last decade, the United States has required 313,000 software engineers from the labor force. Increasingly, these workers are not coming from traditional computer science programs but are learning their trade through informal study.

Over the last ten years, the bulk of those 313,000 software engineers were trained outside of the computer field. Over that period, American universities produced about 60,000 bachelor's in software engineering, with the enrollment in software engineering programs actually declining. American programs graduated 400 fewer software engineers in 2010 than they had in 2001.

No matter how you look at the statistics, you'll see that the bulk of America's new software engineers have been coming from non-computing disciplines. Other engineering programs have provided a few of the new 253,000 engineers but they have enough trouble filling their own ranks. Some were trained in Information Technology in business schools. Roughly 80,000 were educated in Asia and immigrated to the United States. However, none of these programs were able to provide all of the new software engineers and still replace those that retired or moved to other jobs during this decade.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the field of software engineering is not defined by educational preparation but by the "work performed." Like other forms of labor, the field has seen more and more of its expertise incorporated into software tools that shield workers from many of the details of their work. Very few software engineers deal with the actual machine codes. Only a few need to know how to compute the efficiency of specific algorithms or the details of data structures. Workers like Freddie can use advanced tools and sophisticated development environments. They assemble much of their systems from pre-existing code.

If software tools have relieved engineers of much of the routine work of developing systems, they have demanded greater intellectual skill, more judgment, and better communications skills. As it has in other industries, the computerization of software engineering has eliminated routine work and demanded more sophisticated skills. "Declining portions of the labor force are engaged in jobs that consist primarily of routine cognitive work and routine manual work," explain labor economics Frank Levy and Richard Murnane. "Growing proportions of the nation's labor force are engaged in expert thinking or complex communication." Like their counterparts in other industries, software engineers need to have better tools for handing unexpected events, such as: a specifications sheet filled with misunderstanding, a client with poor judgment, a software system that does not work as described.

World Cyber Games 2004 Finals at Warsaw Fair Center EXPO. Image courtesy www.sxc.hu.

If we are looking for the next generation of technical leaders in the field of software, we would best look not to the software engineering programs but to the fastest-growing technical program in American Universities: game design. Both the number of game design programs and the number of graduates of these programs have risen dramatically over the past 8 years. Estimates from various web sites suggest that as many as a hundred programs are operating in the United States and that they may be producing as many as 5,000 to 10,000 graduates per year.

The number of jobs in game design is small and those that are open to new graduates are smaller still. Like the graduates of programs that stir the imagination such as acting or playwriting, the new holders of game design degrees cannot honestly expect to be employed in their field. Their best chance for a job may be software engineering or at least IT, where they will join a former musician who has laid down his guitar. Such individuals may well be the future of software engineering. We may soon discover that our technological leaders are drawn from educational programs that gave them scant formal training for their careers.

Editor's note: Grier gave a seminar at CERN in early December on trends in computing, and graciously agreed to write an opinion piece based on his remarks for iSGTW.

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