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Wall Street's collapse may be computer science's gain

From IT to hedge funds and back again

By Patrick Thibodeau and Todd R. Weiss
September 26, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - The collapse of Wall Street may help make computer science and IT careers attractive to students who abandoned these fields in droves after the pop of the last big bubble, the dot-com bust of 2001.

William Dally, chairman of the computer science department at Stanford University, said that for the last several years, he has watched some students interested in technology go into banking and finance because those fields could be more lucrative.

"Many thought they could make more money in hedge funds," Dally said. He said students are returning to computer science because they like the field and not because it can necessarily make them rich.

John Gallaugher, associate professor of information systems in the Carroll School of Management at Boston College, said he's already seeing a shift in student interest.

"Students have commented to me and written on their course wikis that they're considering changing from finance [majors], both based on the appeal of IS and concern over availability of finance jobs" in the future, Gallaugher said.

After the dot-com bust, computer science enrollments began declining. The number of bachelor's degrees in computer science awarded at 170 Ph.D.-granting institutions reached a low of 8,021 in 2007, down from 14,185 in the 2003-2004 academic year, according to the Computing Research Association (CRA) in Washington.

"Current economic conditions seem to impact the choice that students make in the majors they choose -- that has been true for computer science," said Jay Vegso, a CRA analyst who studies computer science enrollment trends. "Students who are now choosing majors might be looking for safer alternatives," he said, and IT may be a safer alternative.

The dot-com era was a wonderful time to be young, computer-savvy and in search of stock-option riches. Wall Street poured billions of dollars into hundreds of companies that were making little or no money. For instance, Webvan Group Inc., a grocery delivery firm in Foster City, Calif., that was founded in 1997, had so much money that it bought a rival, HomeGrocer, in 2000 for $1.2 billion in stock. Webvan ended in Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2001.

If the dot-com meltdown wasn't enough, offshore outsourcing also scared away students from technology. In 2004, Carly Fiorina, then CEO of Hewlett-Packard Co., summed up the offshore trend this way: "There is no job that is America's God-given right anymore." Fiorina is now an adviser to Republican Sen. John McCain in his bid for the White House.

Today, companies are suffering from a shortage of technology professionals and baby boomer retirements will only add to the problem.

"The pipeline is inadequate for IT professionals," said Jerry Luftman, who is involved in academics and business as associate dean at the Stevens Institute of Technology's Howe School of Technology Management in Hoboken, N.J., and vice president for academic affairs at the Society for Information Management in Chicago.



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