Monday, March 2, 2009

Five Top Myths About the Computer Field

Oh dear, I seem to be on my pulpit again. :-) I've been thinking a lot about a question I heard offline from a couple of women after my previous post. They asked why should young women study computer science if the computer field is dominated by immature males and discrimination against women. I would like to address that question and other myths I have heard over the years about the computer field.

Myth #1. There's so much discrimination in the computer field that women can't get ahead. That's not true. Yes, there's discrimination, but it makes women in the field stronger, not weaker. As a woman, you may have to work harder than the men who get unearned privileges. But there's a silver lining in that cloud. It will make you better at your work and more agile. If you find yourself in a job where the good old boys won't give you a chance, leave. The good news is that the hard work you did will make you qualified for many other jobs.

Myth #2. It's young, geeky, conceited guys who work in the computer field. This is partially true, but there are a lot of mature, non-geeky men and women also. Plus, the young smart-alecs can be funny, and they are trainable.

Myth #3. Heard from a parent: "Why should my daughter study computer science? She's already good with the computer." First of all, don't say "the computer." It dates you. :-) Kids these days are good with computers, whether it's Mac OS, Windows, Linux, or the mainframe that runs the cash registers where they sell lattes to overpaid executives who don't pay enough taxes to fund schools so your kid can get a better job. Computer science isn't about "using the computer." It's about creating the technology that makes computers function. 

Myth #4. Women are motivated by social responsibility and helping people. The computer field isn't about helping people. Try telling that to Dawn Taylor, Ph.D. who works on brain-machine interfaces for prosthetics that restore movement for paralyzed people. Try telling that to Latanya Sweeney, Ph.D. who is dedicated to creating technologies and related policies with provable guarantees of privacy protection while allowing society to collect and share sensitive information for worthy purposes. Or take me. Please take me. :-) I got into computer networking not just because I love hardware, systems engineering, and network design. I got into it because it enables people around the world to communicate and collaborate. I didn't work at Cisco just because of good stock options. I worked there because Cisco understands that it's the human network that makes a difference.

Myth #5. All the jobs are moving to India, China, Kazakhstan, etc. Globalization is real. It's here to stay. But this is good for computer scientists! We build the technology that makes the post-geographic world possible. There are still lots of jobs in the US. However, maybe your job will be in Bangalore or Dubai for a few years. Cool! You may have colleagues in Brazil, Israel, Malaysia, Germany, the US, and countries you have never heard of. Way cool.

Finally, I would say, do what you love. If you were born a nerd, you'll know. You'll know you're happiest when solving problems, tinkering with devices, or writing software. You'll know that you enjoy configuring the family's home network, or fixing Grandpa's computer, or designing a code so you can communicate with friends in a way that non-friends won't understand. When you're doing what you should be doing, time goes by more quickly than expected. You feel energized and curious about what you're learning. Yes, there will be frustrations when your software/hardware won't do what it's supposed to do. But if you feel a sense of accomplishment when you work around those frustrations, you may be a nerd, and this is a good thing.

Artists see paintings in their heads. Musicians' brains play music. Social scientists analyze people. Natural athletes pick up sports right away. Perhaps you do some of these things too, but if you also solve logic problems in your head, and think in terms of numbers and databases and systems and communications, you may be a computer nerd. Join us! Please! We need you.


  1. I'm a senior in college and I remember when I was interviewing for summer internships last year. One of the my interviewers actually brought up the topic of outsourcing. She said to me that a job that requires collaboration and creative problem solving aren't going to be outsourced at her company. She made the point that if your job can be done in a small office with no windows and no human interaction, then it's possible it may be outsourced, but a job that requires team work and collaboration is less likely. It's much easier to collaborate and work with someone in the building than over-seas.

    Great post! Thanks for working to dispel those awful myths!


  2. Indeed, the job market isn't as bad as people claim, especially for IT people. We're in the sweet spot. Check out this Washington Post article. Scroll past the info about physical therapists and you'll see that the hot jobs are software and network design, network security, programming, and anything in the spy business (CIA).

  3. You said, "Kids these days are good with computers, whether it's Mac OS, Windows, Linux, or the mainframe that runs the cash registers where they sell lattes to overpaid executives who don't pay enough taxes to fund schools so your kid can get a better job."

    Perhaps school funding in your state is low; in mine, it's over 50% of the entire state budget (CA). Please don't blame poor funding of the public school system for the lack of female engineers!!

    Am very much enjoying your blog. Extremely well-written!!!

  4. Thanks for posting, fivestartt!

    In Oregon, the proposed budget for 2009-2011 uses 58% of the general fund revenue (from income taxes) and 58% of lottery revenue for education. This is a lot, but the schools need it. Schools are in big trouble and a lot of the problem is funding. There are other problems too (like the corrupt tenure system, but don't get me going on that. :-)

    I think states have an obligation to pay for schools. It's the most important thing they do. If there were some other way to fund education, that would be good, but what would it be?

    Where else does the state money go? Hmm. I'm just brain-storming here. There's public safety, roads, courts, health and human services, salaries for state employees, etc. But are those more important the education? I don't think so??

    California could close down the silly checks at their borders for illegal fruits and vegetables. :-) I drive from Oregon to California pretty often and am surprised that these are still operational, considering the dire state of California's state budget. I guess they are worried about fruit flies, but is that really a big problem still, especially this time of year? Fruits and vegetables don't grow very well in Oregon in winter.

    Anyway, I don't have all the answers and state budgets are way outside my area of expertise, but whatever we can do to keep our students competitive in a global market seems important to me.

  5. Great post, Priscilla. Keep up the good writing.

  6. Thanks for the comments and good feedback!

    Oh, and one more quick post (more on this later maybe)...

    According to an article in Network World today, Computer Science is Cool Again!