Can software development get its groove back?

Coders have gotten a bum rap for too long -- and if the trend doesn't reverse, it could spell bad news for U.S. industry

This week, President Obama reiterated his plans to strengthen the American higher education system by bolstering the nation's two-year community colleges, including new programs backed by a $35 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. "The goal is to ensure that every state in the country has at least one strong partnership between a growing industry and a community college," Obama said at a meeting of the President's Economic Recovery Advisory Board.

No industries could benefit from such partnerships more than IT and software development. Community colleges are in a unique position to lay the foundation for advanced coursework in information systems and computer science.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Bob Lewis sees another divide in the IT job market in "Feast or famine? The IT job outlook" | Keep up with app dev issues and trends with InfoWorld's Developer World newsletter. ]

Unfortunately, recent trends paint a grim picture. According to DARPA, the research and development office for the U.S. Department of Defense, there were 45 percent fewer enrollments in CS degree programs in 2006 to 2007 than in 2003 to 2004. The trend is even more dramatic for women; according to the Computing Research Association, women accounted for just 12 percent of CS undergraduate degrees in 2006 to 2007.

It seems clear that where computing was once considered a promising career, it has increasingly become a niche occupation in recent years. IT and CS degrees have lost their luster, and no amount of money thrown at the problem is likely to reverse the trend. DARPA goes so far as to say the decline in engineering education "affects our [nation's] capacity to maintain a technological lead in critical skills and disciplines." The question is, how did we get here and what can be done about it?

Programmers: Crooks or misfits
The media must take some of the blame. The vast majority of software engineers are creative, enterprising professionals who clock in at completely ordinary, yet essential jobs. Nonetheless, the media maintains an obsession with the idea of computing professionals as inscrutable, maladjusted outcasts.

The most famous example of coder culture in mass media is, of course, "The Matrix." Although Keanu Reeves's character Thomas Anderson is described as a programmer, it's clear from the get-go that his job has little to offer him. By day he bides his time under fluorescent lights in an endless, impersonal cube farm. By night he's Neo, a hacker who earns extra cash by selling malware out of his squalid apartment to the seedy denizens of dingy goth clubs. In other words, as a programmer Anderson's rung in society is roughly equivalent to that of a meth dealer.

By the time Anderson hooks up with a revolutionary underground, we do meet some other programmers with purer motives. But in this universe, "programming" involves the preternatural ability to see the patterns in green-screens full of gibberish. It's not so much problem-solving as reading tea leaves. What's more, we're never told where one might acquire this unlikely skill. Are there night classes? Judging by the messianic theme in "The Matrix," you presumably have to be born with it, like some highly evolved version of Asperger's syndrome.

The media loves these kinds of themes for programmer characters. In William Gibson's pioneering sci-fi novels, "cyberspace" was an all-day escape for social misfits. In the movie "Hackers," it was an outlet for the rebellious impulses of disaffected teenagers. In "The Net," Sandra Bullock's character had no relationships that weren't online or over the phone.

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