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<< Back to May 2004 CRN Table of Contents

[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 later).

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 problems:

  • 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 and scientists?

Jim Foley, CRA's board chair, is Professor and Stephen Fleming Chair in Telecommunications at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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