Losing our Programming Edge
Though most folks have been paying attention to a different Duke team, Business Week has an interesting article in the May 1 edition about the Duke computer programming squad. Competing in the finals of the ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest in San Antonio, they completed only one of the challenging problems posed to them. The Russian team that won nailed six. Business Week reads into this event a Red Flag in the Brain Game.
Young American students, apparently, do not have the discipline and dedication that winning international computer programming contests requires. Business Week then sets about finding reasons this is so, and actually blames the lovely, inviting green collegiate quads that detract from programming time, Ultimate Frisbee, and all that.
The blaming is a bit tongue-in-cheek. Business Week also notes that many young American programmers are worried that the good programming jobs are going overseas. The magazine then assures us that this is not entirely true -- people with a good head for business and a knack for managing teams will always be in demand here. True. But I'd go a step farther. I think the reason American teams aren't sweeping computer programming contests anymore is that young programmers -- with their logical brains -- are looking at the job market very logically and allocating their time based on what they see.
These programmers know they are good at math and science. They're realizing that people with great math skills can command high salaries on Wall Street. Plenty of people with science and math PhDs also choose to go into management consulting, because they find it more interesting than straight programming. It's those distracting activities and green quads again. As American per capita incomes rise, the brightest, most ambitious people migrate to higher-level, higher-margin jobs. Rather than being the people in companies doing research, they become the folks arranging for licensing deals to acquire that research. Rather than become programmers, they become the people who figure out which problems programmers need to solve.
There's plenty to fret about with American schools not training kids in science and math as rigorously as they might. But this latest lamentation sounds almost like old industrialists claiming the American economy is doomed because we don't make most of our own widgets anymore. Somehow, incomes keep rising. I think our young computer whizzes will do pretty well in life, regardless. Maybe they realize that spending all their time in dark rooms programming won't add as much to their future marketability as networking with their fellow classmates and professors will. We don't seem to be losing our edge in that.