Monday, April 24, 2006

Business Week on the computer brain drain

Business Week has published an article on the latest defeat of US programming teams at the annual ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest.
America's dismal showing in a contest of college programmers highlights how China, India, and Eastern Europe are closing the tech talent gap

Ben Mickle, Matt Edwards, and Kshipra Bhawalkar looked as though they had just emerged from a minor auto wreck. The members of Duke University's computer programming team had solved only one problem in the world finals of the ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest in San Antonio on Apr. 12. The winning team, from Saratov State University in Russia, solved six puzzles over the course of the grueling five-hour contest. Afterward, Duke coach Owen Astrachan tried to cheer up his team by pointing out that they were among ``the best of the best'' student programmers in the world. Edwards, 20, still distraught, couldn't resist a self-deprecating dig: ``We're the worst of the best of the best.''

Duke wasn't the only U.S. school to be skunked at the prestigious computing contest. Of the home teams, only Massachusetts Institute of Technology ranked among the 12 highest finishers. Most top spots were seized by teams from Eastern Europe and Asia. Until the late 1990s, U.S. teams dominated these contests. But the tide has turned. Last year not one was in the top dozen.

The poor showings should serve as a wake-up call for government, industry, and educators. The output of American computer science programs is plummeting, even while that of Eastern European and Asian schools is rising. China and India, the new global tech powerhouses, are fueled by 900,000 engineering graduates of all types each year, more than triple the number of U.S. grads. Computer science is a key subset of engineering. ``If our talent base weakens, our lead in technology, business, and economics will fade faster than any of us can imagine,'' warns Richard Florida, a professor at George Mason University and author of The Flight of the Creative Class.

Software programmers are the seed corn of the Information Economy, yet America isn't producing enough. The Labor Dept. forecasts that ``computer/math scientist'' jobs, which include programming, will increase by 40%, from 2.5 million in 2002 to 3.5 million in 2012. Colleges aren't keeping up with demand. A 2005 survey of freshmen showed that just 1.1% planned to major in computer science, down from 3.7% in 2000...

Yet computer science advocates say that unless the government enacts sweeping legislation aimed at improving the nation's technology competitiveness -- legislation now bogged down in Congress -- there's a limit to what can be done. ``The attitude in the House is very toxic, and I don't see much chance of them coming together,'' says Deborah L. Wince-Smith, president of the Council on Competitiveness.

While Congress was fiddling, the kids from Saratov State were marching toward victory in San Antonio. The 83 teams sat at tables that were gradually festooned with color-coded balloons signaling which group had solved which problems. After an announcer ticked off the last 10 seconds in the contest, Saratov's players, coaches, and hangers-on shouted with joy and gave each other back-pounding bear hugs. ``I feel euphoric,'' said team member Ivan Romanov. Victory was especially sweet, he added, because it came on the anniversary of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's 1961 voyage into space.

Gagarin's rocket ride shocked Americans out of their postwar complacency, sparking a national quest for tech superiority that led to such breakthroughs as the moon landing and the microchip. A trouncing in a programming contest doesn't inspire the same kind of response today. Truthfully, Americans just don't feel threatened enough to exert the effort. But if we wait too long, we might find ourselves playing catch-up again.
Thanks to Cameron Wilson for the pointer. See also the USACM blog.

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