Outsourcing, unemployment and nerdiness: all hallmarks of the negative image of computer science.

Sarah Royce
Microsoft chairman Bill Gates discusses jobs in computer science at Rackham Auditorium as the Goff Smith speaker, sponsored by the School of Engineering, yesterday. (PETER SCHOTTENFELS/Daily)

But students ignoring computer science as a possible career because of these fears may miss out on the limitless opportunities such a career can offer them, Microsoft founder Bill Gates said while speaking at the University yesterday.

“People who have a computer science education, in the next 15 years, you are going to have tons and tons of opportunities,” Gates said to hundreds of University and high school students in Rackham Auditorium.

In the past years, the field of computer science has been saddled with a negative image and a job slump that in turn has dragged enrollment levels at colleges nationwide to such a low point that some fear a future shortage of computer scientists.

In an effort to reignite interest in computer science, Gates is touring colleges to dispel fears surrounding the field, while touting computer science careers for their ability to impact the world. The visit marked just one of six colleges Gates will speak at during his three-day tour.

Gates said that while many information technology jobs have been outsourced to India and China, those jobs did not require the complex computer-related skills that many computer science graduates in the United States possess. He added that Microsoft and other software companies recognize that America still produces the best computer scientists.

“This is not like warfare, like you win some or you lose some. This is improving the opportunities for the world,” Gates said of the expansion of the world market and the growing number of computer scientists overseas.

In recent years, Microsoft has employed more computer scientists in an effort to secure qualified professionals in light of the dwindling interest in the field. In the fiscal year 2004-05, Microsoft increased its hiring of computer scientists from 673 to 1,000. From the University alone, the software company recruits about 30 students every year.

And as technology continues to evolve and new markets are developed abroad, Gates not only anticipates the demand for computer scientists will grow, but that the importance of the field will become even more far-reaching.

“We are entering the golden age,” Gates said on the various new emerging technologies he believes will streamline facets of everyday life.

From portable tablet PCs that will become the next generation of textbooks to mobile phones that can translate languages, Gates said computer scientists are on the frontier of innovation because they make new technologies a reality.

He added that unlike the stereotypical image of a computer scientist locked in a cubicle, most simply do not just program computer codes, but work through interacting with co-workers and consumers to create products.

“For me it’s the most fun field to be in. It’s the most interesting time that there’s ever been,” Gates said.

In a press conference, Gates said to increase interest in the computer science, Microsoft has been partnering with universities to improve the image of the field among college students, while also attempting to revamp education in lagging high schools.

While Gates said college campuses are at the forefront of using new technologies in the classroom, he added that learning would most likely only become digitized to a point. Gates added that the social interactions available only in a classroom setting are necessary to facilitate education. “It’s not the minute the lectures are on the web, they go, ‘Well that’s all I need. Why should I pay tuition? I’m just going to live at home’.”

Although Gates would not comment on Google’s bid to digitize the University libraries’ collections, he said, “I think Google is trying to go on the thing, ‘Okay we’ll do it unless you object,’ whereas they should probably do it on the basis, ‘Okay we’ll do it when we get permission to do it’.”

Gate’s speech at the University was for the Goff Smith Lecture, the highest external honor given by the College of Engineering, awarded for outstanding achievement in science and engineering.

Martha Pollack, associate chair for the department of electrical engineering and computer science, said of the lecture, “It was in contrast to what you read in the media. The IT industry is thriving.”

Engineering junior Alexis Mackenzie said, “It’s definitely important to get more people to go into (electrical engineering and computer science), especially more girls.”

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