They eat only pizza. They hunch over computers for hours at a time, eschewing social contact.
They’re nerds. They’re mostly guys.
Well, the last one is true. It seems the only thing harder than attracting college students to a computer science department is attracting female students to the rigorous course work of computer programming.
But the rest of the stereotypes annoy Jain no end. Jain, who has been teaching at Boise State for 10 years, laments the misunderstandings he hears from high school students about computer science. He’s pretty sure they’re part of the reason this department graduates only 30 students each year, not the 150 he’d rather see.
Jain partly blames the media. He must mean Hollywood, not the news media. While TV shows generally portray doctors, detectives and lawyers as stunning high-flyers with swanky clothes, computer scientists are far more likely to be depicted as lanky misfits with ill-fitting corduroys and a subversive sense of humor.
Jain does what he can to restore the cool to his profession. He informs high schoolers that they’re far more likely to get a high-paying job right out of college if they slog through the difficult work required for a computer science degree. He’s right: Many company leaders have stepped forward to say they can’t find the computer software developers they need locally.
He speaks to students, teachers and guidance counselors about computer science occupations; he advocates at the university and in the community for expanding his own department.
He points out that the bright kids who choose law school are facing diminished job prospects at best, while the bright kids who made it through Boise State’s computer science bachelor’s program have been fielding offers from employers since a year before graduation.
Part of the problem is that the course work really is difficult, and Boise State’s computer science department is very small – too small, even, to support a cohort of graduate student teaching assistants who can serve as tutors to struggling undergraduates. But the department, now at eight strong, will add four more professors thanks to an IGEM grant.
The business community is working on it, too. The Idaho Technology Council is going to ask its members to support an advertising campaign to attract software engineers. And the Idaho Businesses for Education, or IBE, joined in. The IBE is the recently renamed Idaho Business Coalition for Education Excellence, and it has a gold star computer science engineer on its board in Bob Lokken. As president and CEO of WhiteCloud Analytics, Lokken garners attention when he speaks about his own difficulty in hiring homegrown software engineers.
At a Boise Chamber event this month, he described that shortage, estimating there are more than 400 software developer jobs available right now in the Treasure Valley. Lokken’s theory is that many young people just aren’t willing to do the hard work required to get such a rigorous degree He also lays part of the blame on a lack of direction. Most young people, he says, just don’t know what opportunities are out there for talented students.
Both Jain and Lokken think there’s a lot businesses can do to steer students to computer careers. Internships can give young people a glimpse of a career direction that they hadn’t imagined.
Lokken thinks it would make a big difference if business leaders visited schools and talked about the interesting things computer science graduates can do.
Jain, who grew up in Delhi, always knew he wanted to go into computer science. He never much cared for machines; he was a creative thinker who loved poetry and writing. He was attracted to the abstract thinking required of computer scientists. And he thinks part of his own path was cultural. Take it from me (my mother is from India), Indian parents push their kids toward science, technology, engineering and math careers from an early age.
At Jain’s high school, he said, aiming for a computer science degree was common. At the schools he visits in the Treasure Valley, not so much. Career counselors don’t always know what careers a computer science graduate will qualify for; they don’t necessarily know that a creative person who is uninterested in mechanical engineering could find a niche in designing software.
That’s where business leaders can make a difference. If they really think computer science is a rewarding job with the promise of a good life, they need to tell all the students, teachers and education policymakers they can reach.
Anne Wallace Allen is managing editor of Idaho Business Review.