David Brin has an outstanding article up on Salon titled Why Johnny can’t code.
I’ve been the chairman of the National Center for Women & Information Technology for the past two years and have learned an enormous amount about the sociology of computer science, especially among women and kids. This summer I decided to “practice what I preach” by teaching my Alaskan 14 year old neighbor Eric how to program. I received a bunch of interesting comments and eventually settled on Ruby – which we are making ok progress with.
However, Brin’s article smacked me over the head. I learned how to program on an Apple II using BASIC when I was 13. I eventually learned Pascal, but did most of my programming – until I was in college – in BASIC. When my best friend Kent came home with a prototype for the first TI PC in 1982 (his dad – ultimately one of the early Compaq guys – was the TI project manager for the PC) we programmed a complex Yahtzee game in BASIC (the TI graphics were incredible – I learned a lot about abstraction manipulating them.) In my first real job (in 1983) at a company called Petcom I wrote two sophisticated commercial programs in Basic (PC-Log – Oil Well Log Analysis; PC-Economics – Economic Forecasting for Oil and Gas projects). Lest you wonder how sophisticated this could get, I also contributed to an Oil and Gas Accounting System (PC-Accounting) that ultimately used Btrieve as the database engine and probably could have been a competitive stand-alone accounting system in the 1990’s if the company had evolved that way.
So – when I read Brin’s article, I longed for the simplicity and beauty of BASIC as a teaching tool. Yeah – I know – it teaches you “all the wrong stuff”, but as I’m working through basic looping with Eric, I’m not sure objects and methods are the right way to learn this stuff. Maybe I’ll hop on eBay and buy Eric an old Apple II.
Lucy Sanders – the CEO of the National Center for Women & Information Technology – was a key participant in last week’s Microsoft Annual Faculty Summit. InformationWeek has a good summary of the meeting – and the issues – up on the web in an article titled “Funding Innovation Where It’s Incubated.”
The basic message – as stated directly by Dan Mote (president of the University of Maryland) is that “”Students do not see opportunity in our field [IT and computer science]. And it’s not just kids in poor districts–even the rich kids don’t get jazzed about tech. That’s going to be a problem as computer companies hunt for the next generation of workers.”
Lucy – who is one of the most insightful and articulate people I know when discussing this issue – added “Part of the reason the U.S. isn’t grooming enough future computer jocks could be that the discipline mystifies lots of kids. Computer science is a stealth profession – no one really knows what we do. Instead of teaching how computers can help solve practical problems, schools’ coursework couches things in terms of technologies – Java and C vs. business and medicine. That’s just the wrong way to approach it, [Education needs to get] away from the notion that computing equals programming.”
Google is having a similar summit in a few days. I’m glad major software companies are thinking hard about this and getting engaged. We’ve got to figure out how to get our kids to get re-excited about computer science.
My friends Larry and Pat Nelson just put up an interview with Lucy Sanders, CEO of National Center for Women & Information Technology. Not surprisingly – Lucy is the most articulate person I know concerning the issues NCWIT is addressing. If you have any interest in what NCWIT is up to, have a listen.
Senator Barack Obama spoke at the National Center for Women & Information Technology Town Hall last week. If you are an Obama fan, or just want to hear about what he has to say, NCWIT’s friends at Microsoft Research have put both Obama’s speech as well as much of the town hall conference on “IT Innovation and the Role of Diversity” up on the Research Channel web site.
NCWIT had a “town hall” event at the National Academy of Sciences Auditorium last Wednesday.
Along with the NCWIT participants were a number of special guests, including Senator Barack Obama (D-IL), Rick Rashid (SVP Microsoft Research), and Senator Mark Udall (D-CO). The agenda included a keynote address from Padmasree Warrior (EVP and CTO of Motorola), an Executive Branch Panel, and a Congressional Panel. I wasn’t able to attend because of my trip to Paris, but Lucy Sanders (NCWIT’s CEO) told me the event went extremely well. Thanks to everyone who participated.
On Friday, Microsoft announced that it had donated $1 million to the National Center for Women & Information Technology. I was at Seattle University at the Future Potential in IT seminar where this was announced and got to say a few words on behalf of NCWIT to the 500 people (mostly students – about 25% women) that were there.
I’ve been chairman of NCWIT for the past 18 months and this marks a huge milestone for us. A year ago Avaya partnered with NCWIT at the $1 million level, making them NCWIT’s first “investment partner.” While we have a great workforce alliance, Microsoft has stepped up in a huge way and is showing real leadership with our organization as our most recent investment partner.
As I’ve mentioned in the past on the blog, NCWIT is addressing an issue much larger than simply the obvious gender imbalance in the field of information technology and computer science. There is a growing demand / supply gap in the US and we are now entering a time where – as a country – we run the risk of becoming less competitive in this critical area because of a lack of qualified IT and computer science professionals. There simply aren’t enough men interested in this area to fill demand – as a result, it behooves us to encourage women to enter this field. In addition, as computers become increasingly pervasive throughout everything we do, it has always made intellectual sense to me that women be as involved in the creation and implementation of the technology as men.
Thank you Microsoft for showing real leadership in this area. And – thank you to the many people at Microsoft that worked behind the scenes to make this happen.
I stumbled over a post on the re:invention Marketing blog (a toolbox for & about enterprising women) about BusinessWeek’s recent article on tech entrepreneurs under the age of 30. Kirsten Osolind points out that of the 16 “cutting edge entrepreneurs under 30” that were highlighted, none were women (ok – two were women – Sandy Jan and Elaine Wherry – of Meebo.) I forwarded this to Lucy Sanders, the CEO of National Center for Women & Information Technology – and she logically responded “well Brad – blog about it.” Interestingly, the ratio (2:16 or 12.5%) is about the same ratio of high school girls to boys that take the AP Computer Science test.
After writing a “where are the women?” at Sun post last month, my partner Heidi reminded me that two high profile Silicon Valley CEO’s – Carol Bartz (Autodesk) and Kim Polese (Sun, SpikeSource) – are Sun alums.
Last weekend, the Rocky Mountain News ran a nice profile of Barbara Bauer, VP of Software Engineering and Development at Sun’s Louisville, CO campus. Bauer (no relation to Jack as far as I know) was inducted into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame and had some good thoughts about attracting new blood into the technology field.
Jonathan Schwartz – the president and COO of Sun – just posted on his great trip to Sun Mexico and raved about their recent performance. He posted a picture of “the winning team” – my first reaction was “where are the women?” I know Sun is a member of the National Center for Women & Information Technology Workforce Alliance so I was a little surprised. I decided to dig a little more and discovered that two of twenty three senior execs are women and two of nine directors are women. Unfortunately I had no easy way to go any deeper in the organization – it’s certainly conceivable that there is a higher ratio of female engineers at Sun than female executives – although if history is a guide this probably isn’t the case.
I’ve been involved in NCWIT not because of an innate desire on my part for gender parity, but because I’m a strong believe that if the U.S. wants to continue to be competitive in IT and computer science 20 years from now, the dramatic gender split that currently exists needs to be gone – for multiple reasons, not the least of which are the fundamental issues of design (if 50 percent of your users are women, don’t you want 50 percent of your designers to be women?) and supply and demand (there simply aren’t enough men to satisfy the growth of the industry.) I recognize the irony of this statement in the context of a photo of the Sun Mexico “winning team”, and while I think of Sun as an international company, it’s clearly headquartered in the U.S.
To continue to be relevant in the long term, Sun has to out-innovate a number of fierce competitors and they should be using all of the weapons at their disposal. While I can imagine a typical response of “Brad – get off your soapbox – quit being a feminist – no room for that here”, I hope someone high up at Sun is actively thinking about the long term gender dynamics in the IT industry and how this can positively impact innovation. It’s an interesting challenge and I can assure Sun that some of their most aggressive competitors are not just thinking about it but taking aggressive steps to take advantage of the idea.
As you may know, I’m the chairman of the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT). NCWIT’s mission is straightforward – to ensure that women are fully represented in the influential world of information technology and computing. NCWIT has had an awesome fall, including accomplishing the following.
- Hosting a superb national meeting at Carnegie Mellon University.
- Establishing a partnership with Cisco on an awareness campaign that leverages Cisco’s national educator’s network to reach students, teachers and parents.
- Creating an entrepreneurial alliance in partnership with the Kauffman Foundation.
- Creating a K-12 alliance.
- Adding several new members to the Executive Advisory Council, including Linda Dillman (EVP & CIO Wal-Mart Stores), Charlie Feld (EVP of Portfolio Management, EDS), and Ruth Bruch (SVP and CIO, Lucent Technologies).
It’s been an honor to work with Lucy Sanders, the CEO of NCWIT, and her team on year three of this incredibly vibrant organization.