Computing Applications


  1. How to Address the Global IT Worker Shortage
  2. Proposals for Attracting Women Back into IT
  3. Author

In the Introduction to the special section "The Global IT Work Force," (July 2001, p. 31), guest editors Arnold and Niederman make the following statement: "Work in industry can be so lucrative and intellectually rewarding, that many faculty are leaving academia, thus rendering it increasingly difficult to provide development of the next generation of IT workers."

I would like to address two points I view as the major cause of the lack of qualified IT faculty. One is the intellectual rewards of academia versus those of industry. The other is the difficulty of starting an academic career caused primarily by standardized testing in the U.S. (particularly, the GRE).

Two years ago, I was an undergraduate starting my senior year. After a summer at IBM T.J.Watson Research Center I concluded that a Ph.D. program and career in academia was what I wanted. Along with my group at the IBM, I published a research paper at an international conference. My mentors at IBM believed I would no have problem being accepted into a Ph.D. program. Decent undergraduate grades, an extensive research record, and strong commitment to academic research were my strong points. I then took the computer-based GRE exam, which showed my analytical skills were significantly below average. I took the test again a month later, and then again, only to learn the results consistently showed my analytical skills below average. At that point, I no longer had high hopes for an academic career.

So, I went to work in industry while earning a master’s degree part-time at NYU. Being around Ph.D. students, I realized I was glad I didn’t end up in a Ph.D. program. While in industry, I was compensated and recognized for my technical and problem-solving skills; in academia, I would have to stay up late at night grading freshman CS101 homework—not very intellectually rewarding. At night, I taught adult students—the most rewarding experience I’ve ever had, without a Ph.D.

I found most Ph.D. students, while highly skilled at taking exams, are weak when it comes to applied problem solving. While good at analyzing algorithms and mathematical proofs, they are useless in applied topics. I have grown professionally in my career in industry. After attempting to transfer to a Ph.D. program at NYU and being told I’d have to take GRE again, I concluded a Ph.D. program was not for me.

Today I am self-employed, allowing me to think my own thoughts (as opposed to thinking those approved by a Ph.D. advisor), and I hope some day to start a graduate fellowship fund for those who are intelligent and creative but for some reason whose GRE results show their analytical skills to be nonexistent.

I hope this tale sheds light on the shortage of faculty in academia. On one hand, academia makes young candidates take unscientific standardized exams that confirm nothing but their ability to solve useless problems under time constraints. On the other hand, upon entering a Ph.D. program, students become slaves, spending five to seven years grading homework and being placed in an intellectual cage.

Do I still want to join academia? Yes. I love teaching, creative thinking, and research. But I don’t want the frustration of taking standardized tests ever again.

Oleg Dulin
Staten Island, NY

Authors Respond:
It appears some issues in the U.S. are perhaps different from those in some other parts of the world, though interestingly the reports of a faculty staffing crisis show less variation internationally; everyone struggles to recruit. Dulin’s particular problem would not affect entering the academic profession in the U.K.; for example, we don’t operate any standardized entrance exams at the Ph.D. level.

The issue of the attractiveness of the opportunities to further research interests while studying toward a Ph.D. is also fascinating. There is a widespread assumption that university life at all levels is an unconstrained nirvana. The situation experienced on the ground is substantially different, and the increasing student/staff ratios are eroding what little personal time staff and grad students have. This situation is on a global level, as far as we can tell.

Evidence for the difference between industry and academia is that those leaving the academic life in the U.K. tend to have made a mid-career (ages 30–45) switch into academia, looking for the chance to explore their own ideas, and rarely seem to last more than two years before deciding the job is just too difficult and doesn’t allow the time they expected for thought, scholarship, and research. We’ve lost two this academic year.

Our vice chancellor (university president) has been reported in the national press as saying U.K. universities rely on unpaid overtime, and are still going bankrupt slowly. He is reported to have said, "This is OK with current staff, but the next generation won’t stand for it."

As someone who has been involved in industry and academia over the last few years, I find the current IT "shortage" to be somewhat self-inflicted due to several factors:

  • Super-specialized requirements. Many companies express no interest in investing in employee training. Hence, we are treated to job listings requiring a combination of skills unlikely to be held by anyone outside that specific company. For example, a recent local job ad required candidates to have at least five years of experience with a highly specialized, industry-specific software package; three years of experience with a specific software-development package; and one to three years experience in that particular industry. When contacted, the human resource manager blamed the IT shortage for her difficulty filling the position.
  • Low salaries/limited experience. A scan of recent job ads at one popular Web site showed an average salary range (where quoted) well below industry standards in the U.S. In addition, experienced programmers (for example, those with more than five years) report being rarely contacted for interviews, even when meeting all other knowledge requirements. This raises the question of whether there really is a shortage within the industry, or a shortage only of entry-level personnel willing to work for below-standard wages.
  • Inflated job listings. Companies have become notorious for the placement of job listings on popular Web sites they have no real intention of filling. For example, a large multinational company recently placed more than 100 IT job openings on a Web site over the course of a two-week period. At the same time, the company announced massive layoffs, salary reductions, and forced vacations due to declining sales. How likely is it that any of these listings will ever be filled? Yet the IT shortage studies include such listings in their statistics, thereby distorting the overall picture.

As opposed to a shortage of IT professionals in the U.S., the recent experience of a local headhunter is much closer to the norm. After placing a job listing on a Web site for a SQL Server DBA, the headhunter was deluged with more than 300 resumes and 100 phone calls within a 24-hour period. A similar experience followed another listing for a C++ programmer.

The fact is many of us in the corporate world outsource our IT needs to foreign companies and professionals simply because this practice is cheaper. Programmers from foreign countries are willing to work for much lower wages than their U.S. counterparts, especially if they stay overseas. The inefficiencies caused by such remote operations are more than covered by the savings in compensation.

IT shortage? Rather than trusting questionable statistics, I’d recommend asking the people in the job market and the headhunters.

Ralph Castain
Fort Collins, CO

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Proposals for Attracting Women Back into IT

After reading Brian De Palma’s "Viewpoint" (Jun. 2001, p. 27) and several articles from the special issue on the Global IT Work Force (Jul. 2001), I have come up with a couple of proposals of my own to get women (back) into IT and to equilibrate the current "buyers’" market in IT. Like De Palma, I want to see women in IT, but—unlike some corporations—I want balance between buyer and seller empowerment in the job market. If anything, the market should favor the seller (of IT skills) rather than the buyer, as long as production and capital investment are not hamstrung.

My two proposals aim at the heart of the problem, which, I believe, is social, political, and economic:

Proposal 1. Rather than doing it to be fair, let us renew the proposal for an Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as a practical measure. Why? For one thing the birth rate of females in the U.S. is higher than that of males. For another, female educational attainment has outstripped that of males ages 25–34 (see nces.ed.gov). Approximately 15% more women than men (in 2000 and 2001) are enrolled in two- and four-year, post-secondary degree-granting institutions. This disparity has increased over the last few years. Moreover, women have a high percentage representation in most other fields.

Proposal 2. Have a meeting between representatives from the IT industry, the IT work force, the IT academic establishment, the U.S. military establishment, and federal and state governments about the H1-B visa plan, which has nearly quadrupled the cap on imported workers from 50,000 in 1997 to 185,000 in 2000–2002. Many H1-B visa holders are IT workers. They come from every foreign country, excluding Canada and Mexico. In addition to the problems with the economy and the stock market, we should discuss the sorry state of the U.S. IT job market. Let us discuss discrimination against hiring and promoting highly skilled "older" (over age 30) workers, women, and people who come from minority and mixed ethnic groups. Why? Because employers will soon find that poor hiring practices and poor conditions in the workplace tend to make talented people consider other fields. Given alternatives, these conditions cause an exodus from the field and in turn reduce corporate quality, productivity, and profits.

Now, about De Palma’s proposals. The chief argument against them is that (if they are adhered to) no graduate from a U.S. IT institution will be able to talk to, much less compete with, IT job seekers trained offshore. De Palma’s proposals might have been written by a recidivist—they take the curriculum back to one that hasn’t been popular since the early 1980s. The argument against proposal (1) is that the C and Basic families of languages are the lingua franca of the computing world. Examples of both must be studied in any four-year computer science curriculum. The argument against (2); the best cost for money computers currently available are PCs. Against (3); this is like taking an exam without taking a sample first. Against (4); this breaks down the interface between computer scientists and other IT professionals, such as network administrators and technical support folks. And against proposal (5)—the nature of programming is indeterminacy and ambiguity; the sooner our prospective graduates learn to live with it the better.

Should we assume that De Palma was writing a satire in the tradition of Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal? (Swift proposed babies be used to make stew in an effort to curb the surplus population.) If De Palma was being satirical, his chief conclusion must be that IT is a man’s world and will be for some time to come, and there is nothing we can do to change it. But the evidence against this proposition appears in De Palma’s own writing when he mentions how the numbers of women in IT reached a high watermark of nearly 40% in 1983. This percentage coincided with the time when PCs were first widely disseminated. But this was also when the effort to pass the Equal Rights Amendment came closest to its goal. Not only is it possible for women to hold a substantial percentage of IT jobs in the U.S., it is also possible for women to excel in the field.

Bill Rivera
Douglasville, GA

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