Computing Community Consortium (CCC)
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Back to May 2004 CRN Table of
[Published originally in the May 2004 edition
of Computing Research News, Vol. 16/No. 3, pp. 4, 22.]
Outsourcing: Threat or Opportunity?
By Jim Foley
The answer is simple: outsourcing is both a threat and an opportunity.
Outsourcing is a threat in the short term because people's lives are
disrupted when jobs are lost-and the current wave of outsourcing is happening
more quickly than in the past, thanks to the very technologies of digital
computers and communications that our research community has invented!
Fortunately, we don't have any neo-Luddites laying siege to our research labs.
There are also some short-term threats to our graduate programs (more on that
Outsourcing is an opportunity in that it challenges our academic institutions
to do what we do very well-think and act creatively, out-of-the-box, and
innovatively. Let me suggest some ways of thinking about how we can innovate in
our graduate research and education:
- Continue, and even accelerate, the emphasis on connecting computing and
applications, both in our research and in our education. When CS undergrads
attend grad school, have them learn about something in addition to computer
science. Jobs-whether at the BS, MS, or Ph.D. levels-that involve
understanding computing + X are less susceptible to offshoring than are jobs
that are heads-down programming and development-if for no other reason than
the skill set of computing + X is not likely to be as well developed in some
of the offshoring destinations, at least not yet.
- Research that focuses on Human-Centered Computing-usability in its many
forms-helps people work smarter and learn better. We have already enjoyed a
lot of IT-driven productivity. There is no reason to believe that we have
reached a plateau. Indeed, every time I have a glitch with my desktop
computer, I know we have not reached a plateau!
- More research is needed on tools and languages and methods that speed up
the software development process. The goal is to further reduce the need for
traditional programmers (which is the hardest-hit US IT job category,
according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics) and increase the ability for
analysts, designers, and end-users to directly translate user needs into
system designs and implementations. This means end-user development tools,
rapid prototyping tools, development environments, and so on.
Remember the stories from the early days of telephony about how the increase
in phone usage would require exponentially more switchboard operators so that
everyone would ultimately be an operator? Fortunately, technological progress
led to automatic exchanges and the cost of making phone calls went down. The
telecom industry prospered and jobs developed that were much more interesting
than operating a switchboard. In some sense, today's programmers are yesterday's
operators. They will be replaced; indeed, many already have been as better and
better development tools have come along. Imagine where we would be if all
programming were done in assembler, or even in Fortran II or IV! We would have
lots of programmers (switchboard operators) and programs (phone calls) would be
very expensive indeed.
- Research is becoming internationalized-this has been happening for
decades. The opportunity is to prepare our North American graduate students
to work in an international environment. Most of our grad students have
summer jobs, but how many of them are outside North America? Let's help our
students look beyond our shores for internships. And let's encourage them to
do a semester abroad with international research colleagues.
- Research innovation is not enough. Transfer into commercialization is what
creates jobs. We are good at this, but can be better. As I discussed in the
January 2004 edition of CRN, university licensing offices sometimes present
barriers to partnering. After that piece ran, I heard a horror story from a
CRA industrial member, describing a year of agonizing delays in negotiating
a university research partnership. What could have been a win-win became a
lose-lose. We can also do better in helping our graduate students and junior
faculty colleagues understand industrial research and tech transfer.
There are also threats and concerns. Undergraduate CS enrollments are
decreasing, due initially to the dot-com bust and currently to the popular image
that all the CS jobs are moving overseas. This leads to several potential
- Because money at universities is always tight, decreasing enrollments
might lead deans or provosts to cut the budgets of computing units. (At
Georgia Tech, our undergrad majors are down, but our undergrad credit hours
are actually up as more and more non-majors take our courses.)
- The Bureau of Labor Statistics jobs forecast released in February shows IT
as still the fastest-growing field for the next ten years (see related
article by John Sargent on p. 1). More than 1.6 million new workers will be
needed. A companion Commerce Department study shows the production of IT
workers as being far below this projected demand. Unfilled demand will lead
to even more rapid offshoring.
- Historically, the United States and Canada have depended on international
students who study here to remain here to fill many computing jobs,
especially at the MS and Ph.D. levels. But, increasingly, attractive
opportunities in their native countries may take these students back home.
This will exacerbate the projected imbalance of supply and demand.
- There could be a backlash against educating international students in the
United States-some would say we are educating those who will return home and
take jobs away. There have been occasional attempts to limit federal funding
of international students. Doing so would create new problems without fixing
any of the old ones.
- The perennial problem of too few US students pursuing careers in
computing, engineering, and science will become still more dangerous if the
above trends are correct. Already, the United States is producing far fewer
first degrees in these areas (5%), versus 9% in the UK, 8% in South Korea,
and 7% in Canada, Japan, and Taiwan. From whence cometh our future engineers
Jim Foley, CRA's board chair, is Professor and Stephen Fleming Chair
in Telecommunications at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
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