Wednesday, May 10, 2006

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.


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Anonymous said...

I think it *is* a problem that the US is no longer capable of manufacturing most of the products we use. In a few years we'll no longer be capable of designing them, and a few years after that we'll no longer be able to buy them from the people that design and make them.

The solution is much that same as it has been throughout US history---import the brains and the labor. Unfortunately, our leaders have decided to export the jobs instead, and to borrow massive amounts of money from the rest of the world to delay the reckoning.

Anonymous said...

I immigrated to the US from Russia, USSR back then, in 1977. I was 13 years old and about half way through 6th grade (Russian kids start 1st grade at 7). In 6th grade we were studying Algebra, Geometry, and Physics. When I finally arrived in the US I was placed in 8th grade in a math class that was studying long division and order of operations.

I still have my Russian 3rd grade math book, I don't know how I managed to take it with me, but somehow it made it into our luggage. So, I can tell you without a doubt, that in 3rd grade math, Russian kids are learning sets, vectors, angles, and solving sets of equations with two variables. I also clearly remember learning simple one variable equations in 1st grade. I think this might offer some explanation as to why Russians do so well in mathematics and computer science and why our Physics and Math departments at many top universities are filling up with Russian grad students and professors.

My sister was only 6 when we immigrated, so she started school here. I remember how horrified my parents were when they saw what she was doing at school in the early years.

I have to add, thought, that we've come a long way since the late 70's, but we still have a long way to go.


Stormia said...

Unrelated to the topic of your post but.... you're speaking at graduation!?! This is exciting! Yay!

Laura Vanderkam said...

Stormia: Yes, I'm speaking at the Indiana Academy graduation. I'll do a post shortly seeking advice on what I should say! - Laura