The Profession of IT
Voices of Computing
The choir of engineers, mathematicians, and scientists who make up the bulk of
our field better represents computing than the solo voice of the programmer.
IN computing degree programs appear to have bottomed out at approximately half of their 2001 level,
there is no reassuring upward trend.
The industry need for computing professionals will continue to exceed the
pipeline by at least one-third for some
time to come. Why do low enrollment
rates persist in such a good market?
Several key factors influencing low
enrollment rates are connected to the
myth “CS=programming”—tales of
dwindling employment opportunities, negative images of computing
work, and inflexible curricula. 2, 3 Reversing this myth can result in considerable
Thirty-five years ago, Edsger Dijkstra
reacted to his generation’s version of
this myth by declaring himself proud
to be a programmer. 5 Many followed
his lead. ACM has been proud: half the
A.M. Turing Award winners are in programming, algorithms, and complexity. 3 But our internal self-confidence did
not dispel the external myth.
Twenty years ago, the ACM and
IEEE warned that the myth could become damaging. 4 Today, the word
“programming” itself generates misunderstandings. Internally, it is broad:
design, development, testing, debugging, documentation, maintenance of
software, analysis, and complexity of
algorithms. Externally, it is narrow: the
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics defines
“programmer” to mean “coder.” Often
without realizing it, insiders and outsiders interpret the same words with
entirely different meanings. When insiders broadened to object-oriented
programming, outsiders thought we
narrowed to the Java language.
Ten years ago, we tried another tack.
We broadened our view of computing to include information technology
(IT), 1 and we defined what it means
to be fluent in IT. 7, 8 These works were
embraced in high schools and helped
generate enrollments in IT but not CS.
They have not dispelled the myth.
Today, Clay Shirky notes a trend that
may help explain the durability of the
myth. 6 The general public is now confronted with an amazing array of powerful tools for the common computational
tasks. Many believe they can accomplish
what they need as amateurs. Only a few
professionals are needed to program all
these tools for the many. There is no spe-
cial attraction to being a professional.
How can we communicate the richness of our field and dispel the myth?
What if we learn to speak in the voices
of the many kinds of computing professionals? The programmer is a solo
voice. The whole, loud choir could
dispel the perception that the bulk of
computing is about programming. The
choir might also help make professionalism more attractive by showing our
many critical specialties that cannot
be done by amateurs.
To speak in a professional’s voice, I
immersed myself in the professional’s
practice. I spoke of war stories, experiences, ambitions, fears, and everyday
things. I sang the joys (and sorrows) of
being a professional.
Education philosophers such as
John Dewey maintained there are two
ways of learning, which can be called
“learning-about” and “learning-to-be.”
Learning-about means to acquire a description; learning-to-be means to acquire the practice. Learning about carpentry, music, or programming is not
the same as being a carpenter, a musician, or a programmer. Programming
seems to blur this distinction because
programmers build descriptions of al-