Who Killed the Software Engineer? (Hint: It Happened in College)

A prominent professor says that university computer science programs deserve a failing grade. Today’s U.S. grads are not prepared to compete in the global high tech market.
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A conversation with Robert Dewar is enough to make you wonder about the future of the American software engineer. Dewar, a professor emeritus of computer science at New York University, believes that U.S. colleges are turning out programmers who are – there’s no nice way to say this – essentially incompetent.

To support his claim, Dewar penned a scathing broadside decrying today’s college-level computer science training. (The article was co-authored by Edmond Schonberg, also a CS professor emeritus at NYU.) Entitled Computer Science Education: Where are the Software Engineers of Tomorrow?, the widely read article has prompted heated discussion throughout the tech industry.

Robert Dewar, New York University

Robert Dewar
Professor emeritus, NYU

To sum up Dewar’s argument: today’s college computer science programs aren’t rigorous enough, and don’t promote in-depth thinking and problem solving. Instead, in an effort to boost enrollment, CS programs focus on easily accessible curricula, and so fail to prepare students to compete with their international peers.

One of the article’s main points (one that was misunderstood, Dewar tells me) is that the adoption of Java as a first programming language in college courses has led to this decline. Not exactly. Yes, Dewar believes that Java’s graphic libraries allow students to cobble together software without understanding the underlying source code.

But the problem with CS programs goes far beyond their focus on Java, he says.

“A lot of it is, ‘Let’s make this all more fun.’ You know, ‘Math is not fun, let’s reduce math requirements. Algorithms are not fun, let’s get rid of them. Ewww – graphic libraries, they’re fun. Let’s have people mess with libraries. And [forget] all this business about ‘command line’ – we’ll have people use nice visual interfaces where they can point and click and do fancy graphic stuff and have fun."

Dewar says his email in-box is crammed full of positive responses to his article, from students as well as employers. Many readers have thanked him for speaking up about a situation they believe needs addressing, he says.

One email was from an IT staffer who is working with a junior programmer. The older worker suggested that the young engineer check the call stack to see about a problem, but unfortunately, “he’d never heard of a call stack.”

Discuss this article in the Datamation discussion forumComment on Professor Dewar's views on today's CS programs

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At fault, in Dewar’s view, are universities that are desperate to make up for lower enrollment in CS programs – even if that means gutting the programs.

It’s widely acknowledged that enrollments in computer science programs have declined. The chief causes: the dotcom crash made a CS career seem scary, and the never-ending headlines about outsourcing makes it seem even scarier. Once seen as a reliable meal ticket, some concerned parents now view CS with an anxiety usually reserved for Sociology or Philosophy degrees. Why waste your time?

College administrators are understandably alarmed by smaller student head counts. “Universities tend to be in the raw numbers mode,” Dewar says. “‘Oh my God, the number of computer science majors has dropped by a factor of two, how are we going to reverse that?’”

They’ve responded, he claims, by dumbing down programs, hoping to make them more accessible and popular. Aspects of curriculum that are too demanding, or perceived as tedious, are downplayed in favor of simplified material that attracts a larger enrollment. This effort is counterproductive, Dewar says.

“To me, raw numbers are not necessarily the first concern. The first concern is that people get a good education.”

These students who have been spoon-fed easy material aren’t prepared to compete globally. Dewar, who also co-owns a software company and so deals with clients and programmers internationally, says, “We see French engineers much better trained than American engineers,” coming out of school.


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Tags: Java, IT education, coding language, programming language, college software courses


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