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The 'Anti-Java' Professor and the Jobless Programmers

By James Maguire
July 29, 2008

When I noticed that this list of the popular programming languages placed Java in the top position, I picked up the phone to call Robert Dewar. Several months back I interviewed Dewar, a professor emeritus of computer science at New York University, about Java’s role in the college classroom.

What he said in that interview about Java in the classroom wasn’t pretty.

In essence, he said that today’s Java-savvy college grad is tomorrow’s pizza delivery man. Their skills are so easily outsourced that they’re heading for near-term obsolescence.

Dewar stresses that he’s not against Java itself. But the fact that Java is taught as the core language in so many colleges is resulting in a weak field of computer science grads, he says.

The reason: students’ reliance on Java’s libraries of pre-written code means they aren’t developing the deep programming skills necessary to make them invaluable. Colleges, alarmed by falling CS enrollment, have dumbed down the course requirements. Consequently, CS majors sail through a curriculum of Math Lite, earning a smiley-face on their papers for “developing” projects using pre-built libraries.

In the end, they graduate with a diploma whose value is questionable. They may be equipped for a dynamic career in fast food delivery, yet they are not fully prepared to compete against what is now a global field of rigorously educated software developers.

But What About the List?

But wait a second, Professor Dewar. (Actually, Dewar is both a professor and a CEO. He co-founded AdaCore, whose clients include Boeing and Lockheed Martin, so his experience includes decades in private industry.) I wanted to ask him, since this list of popular programming languges puts Java at No. 1 – ahead of biggies like C, C++ and Visual Basic – doesn’t that negate his theory?

I mean, if Java is this popular, maybe universities should teach it first. It called “being in touch with the real world,” isn’t it?

“This list is pretty meaningless in my opinion,” he says. “Using YouTube and Google to measure popularity just means that you pick up the buzz factor. Many serious application developers are not even present on the Web, which tends to overemphasize academic and hobbyist views. As the list itself says, this has nothing to do with quality of languages or level of usage.”

“Furthermore, Java is mainly used in Web applications that are mostly fairly trivial,” Dewar says, with his characteristic candor. “If all we do is train students to be able to do simple Web programming in Java, they won't get jobs, since those are the jobs that can be easily outsourced. What we need are software engineers who understand how to build complex systems.”

“By the way Java has almost no presence in such systems. At least as of a few months ago, there was not a single line of safety-critical Java flying in commercial or military aircraft. I recently talked to a customer who had a medium-sized application in Java, which was to be adapted to be part of a safety-critical avionics system. They immediately decided that this meant it would have to be recoded in a suitable language, probably either C or Ada.”

Robert Dewar, New York University
Robert Dewar
(Ada, by the way, is down at No. 19 in the list of popular programming languages.)

Dewar says he has been deluged with emails supporting his view that computer science programs must move beyond – far beyond – focusing on Java.

“One was quite interesting,” he says. “It was from a software/hardware company in the Valley. The writer said that at the end of ads for software engineers, they added the sentence ‘This job will not involve any use of Java, or any Web-based application programming’, and that this single sentence was enough to essentially eliminate American applicants for their jobs – which was their idea; they felt they had wasted too much time interviewing incompetent college graduates.”


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