Increasing the Lure of Computer Programming

The government is on a $28-million mission to get more students wired about the field

Jered Floyd is a self-described "all-around computer geek" - a hot-shot software engineer the likes of which United States companies are tripping over themselves to hire straight out of college.

Before he could ride a bicycle, Mr. Floyd could program a computer. At age 5, he picked apart "Basic," a language installed on his first computer, an Apple II. In third grade it was Pascal.

Today, some 15 years later, Mr. Floyd has a Pentium-Pro personal computer in his bedroom and a picture of his head spinning on his home page. Such oddball humor is a trademark of the fraternity Floyd belongs to - a cold-pizza-and-soda-at-midnight culture - that separates hard-core software programmers from the rest of humanity.

The nation desperately wants more software programmers like Floyd, currently a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. American colleges are churning out computer science grads - 36,000 in 1996. Yet the US has 190,000 to 450,000 unfilled computer jobs.

One subtle reason for the shortage, some analysts suggest, is that relatively few people have - or would want to have - the right stuff to do what Floyd and his buddies love most: Getting into the "zone" - where solutions to software tangles flow.

Programmers say it usually happens while staring at a computer monitor during a 24- to 48-hour stretch in a cubicle curtained off from the outside world so sunlight and normal life do not distract from pure concentration.

The standard programmer's breakfast (often between midnight and 2 a.m.) is pizza, candy bars, and quantities of soda.

"What I do is a lot like solving a puzzle or brainteaser," Floyd says. "I may work four to 48 hours at a stretch. Along the way I may pick up a snack ... work a while, then nap for an hour or two. Programming can be like that when you're on a roll and getting results. It's kind of exhilarating, like, you feel like you're doing something important."

Not always fun

Most others, though, describe programming in different terms.

"Writing code is probably the least fun job in the world," says Richard Skinner, president, Clayton College & State University in Atlanta. As head of a government task force looking at the software-programmer shortage, he is charged with exploring ways to train a new generation of programmers - including the use of virtual college courses on the Internet.

Even Floyd agrees that writing "device drivers" and other mundane software is far from fun. He prefers the cutting edge of software development. But it is precisely the other kind of programming - the updating and rewriting of exacting, tedious software routines in America's technological infrastructure - that must be done by somebody.

Since 1996, an explosion of interest in the World Wide Web by companies from grocery stores to stock brokerages has created huge job demand for people who can string together lines of computer source code. Salaries are soaring, yet the shortage continues.

Impact of shortage

The Clinton administration says the shortage could hurt the nation's economy and has earmarked $28 million for training new programmers. The money will fund grants to schools and businesses retraining the unemployed as programmers; a Commerce Department initiative to train the poor; and a Web site where resumes and jobs can be posted.

Ironically, America had a programmer glut as recently as 1989, when a sour economy and Fortune 500 layoffs squelched interest in the field.

The number of bachelor's degrees in computer science fell 42 percent, from 41,889 to 24,404, between 1986 and 1995, according to the National Software Alliance, a government-industry interest group based in Arlington, Va.

The Internet has changed all that. Today, starting salaries for someone with a bachelor's degree in computer science and zero job experience can run $40,000 to $50,000. A graduate may expect as many as 20 to 25 job offers.

That kind of money can overcome a lot of boredom, and some colleges report a surge of programmer recruits.

A new breed

If the nation succeeds in training new programmers, it will be because the likes of Bridget Curtis can be retrained. About the only thing Floyd and Ms. Curtis have in common is their love of computers - and bright job prospects when they graduate. Curtis's holy grail is a certificate from an innovative course by Worcester (Mass.) Polytechnic Institute (WPI).

"I love helping people," she says during a break in a three-hour night session. "But my motivation now, honestly, is money. I could have a PhD in counseling and not make anything close to what I would make five years from now" in computers.

Before taking her seat at the back of a WPI classroom of 25 adults in Westborough, Mass., Curtis spent seven years in an emotionally rewarding but low-paying job as a counselor in the Massachusetts state prison system.

Her life changed last summer when she succeeded in helping a neighbor who was struggling to install Windows 95. Curtis had already taken several classes on popular software programs. But then she took out a loan to enroll in WPI's $5,900 class in C+ and Unix languages.

Curtis expects a job in the $30,000 to $40,000 range. But elite students like Floyd with an MIT pedigree and experience in the industry can pull down $70,000 or more. Both Curtis and Floyd expect their services to be in demand for a long time.

"I want to have my own place where city kids can come after school and play computer learning games," Curtis says laughing. "I will be the administrator."

After college, Floyd wants to play games too - as a game developer.

"All I really want is to make enough [money] at work to continue playing with my tech toys and gadgets," he says. "As long as I have enough money to pay for those I'll be just fine."

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