Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Making Money or Making a Difference

I found this very interesting info graphic (OK Doug Peterson tweeted the link so really he found it first) from Seattle University at Training in Technology: The Merits of a Master's Degree [INFOGRAPHIC] It is intended to show the financial and career security benefits of getting more than a bachelors degree in computer science. The data makes a solid case, financially, for getting a masters degree in terms of potential income and potential for getting and retaining a good job. Nothing I can argue with there. But is that the best argument? For some I am sure it is. There are people who chose their educational path and career path based on financial concerns to a great degree. But not everyone does. For some people selecting an academic and/or career path is driven by other passions. Passion for a subject or for specific non-material goals.
I remember once having a discussion about why students do or do not select computer science and someone suggested that it was “because computer science is hard.” It’s a tempting argument and many students do look for the “easy A.” At the same time though medicine is also very hard and our medical schools have so much unmet demand that many good students go overseas to get a medical education. Clearly hard work isn’t scaring those students away. Why not? Money? Well the money is good but that seems like it would not be enough given how hard pre-med and medical school actually is. No, medical students have a passion for medicine. They want to heal people, cure disease and make life better for others. They will work hard to satisfy that drive, that passion, that self imposed mission. So I don’t think it is just that computer science is “Hard” by some definition of hard. I think it is about work played against reward. And cash is not always enough reward.
I remember seeing a cartoon some years ago where a person was saying something along the lines of “I’m not one of those geeks who started a company and sold it for millions of dollars. I’m just a regular geek.” That’s pretty much me. I’ve had a good career, live a reasonably comfortable life but I’m no where near rich. But that isn’t why I went into the computer field in the first place. I got into it because I loved writing code. Learning computer science concepts was and remains a lot of fun for me. It can be hard work at times but the payoff in the joy of learning is great. It makes the work worth it for me. Which just goes to show that people have to find their own motivations.
I was able to see a lot of Imagine Cup teams and their projects while I was at Microsoft. A good many of them and most of the best of them were inspired by a passion to solve a real and often personal problem. I do believe that computer science offers a great many ways and strong possibilities to make the world a better place. It is and will continue to change the world and we need good, talented people who are not afraid of some hard work to make that difference.
Money works for some people but I think we need to promote the ability to make a difference in the world as well. SmartPhones, GPS, eBay and PayPal and youTube and Facebook and many other things are revolutionizing our world. If young people realized that they could be part of changes on that sort of scale I think more of them would be interested in studying computer science. Making them aware of those possibilities is perhaps our greatest challenge.


Anonymous said...

Interesting thoughts, Alfred. I think I was drawn to computer science for the same reasons. There's something special about being able to tell a machine what to do. In our case, our cards had to be shipped 100km to be run on a university computer and then returned two days later. We waited anxiously to see if it worked.

If WE were motivated because of that, the fact that someone has a computer in front of them or a robot or a breadboard should put people over the top. And, it does for some. Yet, for others as you note "it's hard". It's a concept that I've always had difficulties with and really don't fully understand.

Alfred Thompson said...

I wonder if computers lack the mystery that they had back in the day when we started Doug. Being able to even get in the room with a computer back then was an honor and a privilege but today's young people take them for granted. Plus we expected computers to require work to make function while today they are expected to obey our simplest command.