Tuesday, July 19, 2005

An interesting conversation between Bill Gates and Maria Klawe

Bill Gates is, of course, the Chairman and Chief Software Architect of Microsoft Corporation. Maria Klawe is Dean of Engineering and Applied Science at Princeton University.

Microsoft has posted a transcript of their public conversation at the Microsoft Research Faculty Summit 2005, including important insights on the decline in support of fundamental computer science research and the decline of the number of women in computing. It's a bit long, but worth reading for several nuggets. I will quote just a few excerpts here.
MARIA KLAWE: So this morning, Bill, I'd like to start off with a really important question: How many of the Harry Potter books have you read so far? (Laughter.) ... We all know that the magic in the future comes out of computer technology, and especially computer software...

MARIA KLAWE: So why do you think the government should be spending money on computer science research in tough economic times? What does the public get out of federal funding for research?
BILL GATES: Well, I think the payoff, if there's any place you can say there's been a dramatic payoff, it's in computer science. The United States in the 1980s was viewed as falling behind, Japan had a better industrial model, the U.S. just was going to lose industry after industry; and yet what really happened in the 1990s was that our economy created more jobs, new companies, lots of amazing leadership things happened. And I think you can really point to the DOD and NSF money that went into computer science work as being one of the key elements that allowed us to turn what was a period where people thought we were falling behind into preparation for one of the greatest success periods the country has ever had.
The amount of money we're talking about here is not gigantic, I mean, compared to, say, the government budget as a whole or the defense budget or even research as a whole, the portion that computer science really should get is not that gigantic, but to have a decline is really bad... And it's kind of a crime that at the time when computer science is about to solve the most interesting problems, and when computer science is not only an interesting field of its own with some exciting problems, but it's also becoming the toolkit for all the sciences where biologists are turning to us and saying, OK, how do you find the pattern in this information or astronomers or physicists or basically all the sciences are becoming very data driven, you'd think, wow, there would be a shift of NIH money into computer science techniques and standards and things like that. That's also not happening to any significant degree...
So we're saying to companies, hey, you ought to invest more in R&D, this is defining the future of the company, it is our competitive edge that we're out there on the frontiers, and we're always surprised, at least in our field, our competitors, if you put aside IBM that's kind of a special case, the amount invested in research is very small. I'd like to see that change, I think it's a huge mistake on their part...
So we'll certainly be as strong an advocate as we can be that the government is making a mistake here, and throughout the world I think governments should fund computer science research. I think in terms of creating great jobs, great companies in their area, what other area would people be funding. This is the change agent of the time, this is the thing that will drive forward. Even just say you're only going to do it just for education to build the tools for the future of education, you'd want to fund it just for that one little piece alone, not to mention --
MARIA KLAWE: Healthcare.
BILL GATES: -- yeah, e-government --
MARIA KLAWE: Environment, energy.
BILL GATES: Yeah, modeling the world, it's about time we understood things like the CO2 cycle and stuff like that, and definitely computer science will be at the heart of that.
So it is an incredible paradox, and you need examples of cases where it made a big difference, and certainly our company wouldn't exist without that funding that took place on those basic advances...

MARIA KLAWE: So let me go to the other half of the crisis in computer science. I mean, I think at least within the U.S., but I believe it's also true in other areas of the world, not only are we seeing a decline in research funding, but perhaps even more worrisome we're seeing a huge decline in interest in studying computer science.
So just give some data, the popularity in the U.S. of computer science as a major for incoming college students has plummeted. It's fallen more than 60 percent between 2000 and 2004, according to the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA.
On the other hand, according to the U.S. Labor Department, the fastest growing jobs throughout 2012 include data communication analysts, health information technicians and computer software engineers.
The most recent numbers for U.S. employment in IT are the highest ever, up more than 5 percent since the peak of the bubble in 2000. In addition, salaries in the IT area have continued to grow by a compound growth rate of 4 percent.
So it seems that there's a huge mismatch between the demand for graduates with these skills and what we're willing to pay graduates with these skills and the interest among our youth.
Do you have -- I mean, do you have a sense of what's going on here and should we be really worried about this?
BILL GATES: Well, I'm certainly very worried about it. Microsoft is trying to hire every great college graduate who has basic computer science skills and we think is highly talented. When I sit down and review projects here inside the company, the topic that always comes up is how is the hiring going, we've got open headcount, these are super well-paying jobs, you can get your own office...
And I say to myself, what are these other fields doing, I mean, what's going on? Apparently the fastest growing major is physical education.
MARIA KLAWE: No! (Laughter.)
BILL GATES: And so I think wow --
MARIA KLAWE: I thought it was economics.
BILL GATES: You know, what is going on in that field? I mean, are they making breakthroughs like speech recognition or artificial intelligence? I'm dying to see these new games they're inventing, new rules. And I think, you know, the poor Chinese, they don't realize this is the coming field, and 10 years from now they're going to wake up and say, oh no, physical education, we completely missed that activity. (Laughter.) ...

MARIA KLAWE: So let me ask you, when Microsoft -- I mean, are you finding enough people to hire in the U.S.?
BILL GATES: No, absolutely the answer is no. We have this interesting paradox where in China and India we can get lots of engineers but getting people who have sort of what we call program management type skills or general management type skills, it's very hard to find enough of those, whereas here in the United States we do pretty well at getting people with those skill sets, but then it's just the engineering we're very short of what we'd like to get. And so the competition for somebody who's got the right background is just phenomenal...

MARIA KLAWE: Well, do you have any thoughts about what are more effective ways to get more women into computing careers? I mean, one of the things that's really depressing from my perspective is that computer science is the only field in science and engineering where participation of women has gone down over the last 25 years. So, for instance, if you look at mathematics, when I got my PhD in mathematics in 1977, I think it was about 11 percent of the PhDs went to women, and now it's over 30 percent. If you look at undergraduate degrees in mathematics, it's about 45 percent, and it was down around 10, 15 percent.
So in computer science, our figures are now about 15 percent of the PhDs go to women, about 15 percent of the bachelor degree recipients in research universities are women. I mean, it's just unbelievable how bad it is. We're down there, we're below physics in some cases.
So what could we do to bring more -- what would be effective in getting more women into these fields?
BILL GATES: Well, I don't know the magic answer. I think everybody who thinks about the problem says you've got to get the women who are in the field to be more visible and get them --
MARIA KLAWE: No, no, no, no, that can't be the answer. OK, raise your hand if you're a female here. All right. Are we being visible? Are we serving on every committee, going to all the schools?
BILL GATES: Well, it's good, you should keep doing that.
MARIA KLAWE: Yeah, we are going to keep doing it, but I hate to say it --
BILL GATES: I applaud that.
MARIA KLAWE: -- we're not getting anywhere with it. The numbers --
BILL GATES: I think if you weren't doing that, we'd be even worse off, to be frank.
MARIA KLAWE: Yes, I think that's absolutely true...



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