Are Future US Programmers Being Taught to be Unemployable?

In an article titled, "Computer Science Education: Where Are the Software Engineers of Tomorrow?" in this month's CrossTalk (the Journal of Defense Software Engineering) and in a subsequent interview in Datamation under the title of "Who Killed the Software Engineers", two emeritus computer science professors from New York University argue that universities are so desperate to keep computer science student enrollments up, that they are dumbing down the curriculum to attract prospect students. This dumbing down, professors Robert B.K. Dewar and Edmond Schonberg say, is producing software engineers with a "set of skills insufficient for todayâ''s software industry (in particular for safety and security purposes), and, unfortunately, matches well what the outsourcing industry can offer. We are training easily replaceable professionals."

Dewar says in the interview that, " 'A lot of it is, â''Letâ''s make this [computer science and programming] all more fun.â'' You know, â''Math is not fun, letâ''s reduce math requirements. Algorithms are not fun, letâ''s get rid of them. Ewww â'' graphic libraries, theyâ''re fun. Letâ''s have people mess with libraries. And [forget] all this business about â''command lineâ'' â'' weâ''ll have people use nice visual interfaces where they can point and click and do fancy graphic stuff and have fun.' "

Dewar goes on, " 'Universities tend to be in the raw numbers mode. Oh my God, the number of computer science majors has dropped by a factor of two, how are we going to reverse that?â'' â''

Dewar and Schonberg point out in their article that companies like UK-based Praxis (see an article on the company published in IEEE Spectrum) who use formal methods to develop safety-critical systems are having a hard time finding people with the proper mathematical training, even though formal methods are taught in more in the UK than in the US.

I blogged a few months ago about Cambridge University having trouble recruiting computer science students, with part of the reason for the troubles being that the program, in Cambridge's words, "is a rigorous and demanding course." Yesterday's Globe and Mail also had a story about computer science enrollments dropping at many Canadian Universities by 36% to 64%.

The article has caused a stir in the defense community, with Dewar saying that he has received a lot of support for the position in their CrossTalk article.

But is the situation as dire as professors Dewar and Schonberg claim, or a natural issue of supply and demand, or is it over-blown, being one of those, "When I was your age, I had to walk fifty miles to school" arguments, or is it something else?


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Robert Charette
Spotsylvania, Va.
Willie D. Jones
New York City