Fewer CS Majors Not a Big Concern

My nephew Matthew is 21, an age when anyone who knows how to cook is his best friend.

He has stopped growing, at 6 feet 3 inches tall, but he's still as skinny as a fishing pole. I love to cook, and at a recent family reunion, he joined me in the kitchen.

I'd read that graduation rates for women in computer science were still hovering around 25% and that overall graduation rates for computer science majors had declined from a high point in 2000. Since Matthew is currently in college, I asked him for his observations and why he hadn't taken up computer science.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that his roommate is in computer science. Matthew told me he's really into gaming and entered computer science as a back door into making money in gaming. Yes, there are quite a few women in the classes, but male or female, they all look the same to Matthew: pale, out of shape and with long fingernails. These men and women aren't antisocial. That myth was busted when advanced games started to be played over networks and the gamers all began to interact online.

Matthew said he isn't in computer science because, well, the lifestyle isn't for him. He needs something more active, interactive and tactile.

Matthew's story of his roommate echoed one I had heard at dinner a few weeks earlier from a friend's son. He, too, had decided to enter computer science so that he could do computer gaming.

As someone who years ago started playing Pong and later spent many, many hours expanding houses in The Sims and shooting beasts in Diablo II, I understand why kids would want to be computer game designers and builders. It's just that very few of these skills are useful in the corporate world. (OK, there is a parallel that involves bathroom breaks. Neglect them in a long meeting or with your Sim, and bad things happen.)

Are all computer science students gamers? Of course not. But I think that these two young men are not atypical in wanting to build a career around an enjoyable diversion. After all, making a career around what you like is exactly what the book What Color Is Your Parachute? is all about. Outside of simulation training, though, gaming skills don't help corporations. In fact, very few computer science degrees are useful to most corporations.

Corporations need accountants, marketers, and operations and manufacturing staffers who are infused with computer skills. The PC and Internet revolutions have been all about moving information closer to the decision-maker and, in the corporation, closer to those who need the data.

So is it a problem that fewer students are graduating with computer science degrees? Absolutely not. If we assume that a capitalist society will continue to reward innovation and protect intellectual property, then the best minds will continue to migrate to the best research centers, regardless of where one graduates.

Much has been said about the University of Florida study on the effect of video-game violence on children. Just as I wouldn't take Matthew's 7-year-old cousin to an R-rated film, I wouldn't let her play Doom or Grand Theft Auto, regardless of how much I enjoy the games myself. But I am encouraging her to play Sims and the huge stash of computer learning games that her family has given her. With gaming, we older ITers have found the way to win the hearts of teenagers and twentysomethings everywhere.

Virginia Robbins is CIO and managing director at Chela Education Financing in San Francisco. Contact her at v_m_robbins@yahoo.com.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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