ly, but she must remember that she
will not become a friend to her clients.
non-Myth #5: Programming Is only
for Those Who Think Logically
Well, yes. The nature of programming
needs clarification. I define programming as any activity where a computation is described according for formal
rules. Painting a picture is not programming: first, it obviously does not describe a computation, and, second, you
are free to break whatever rules there
are. At worst, they will call you an “
Impressionist” and not buy your paintings
until after you are dead. Constructing
a Web site and building a spreadsheet
are both programming, because you
have to learn the rules for describing
the desired output (even if the rules
concern a sequence of menu selections and drag-and-drop operations),
and you have to debug incorrect results
that result from not following the rules.
Tiffany’s good grades in mathematics imply she has the ability to think
logically. She may prefer to study music
so she can play violin in a symphony
orchestra, but she should certainly consider studying computer science and
her guidance counselor should insist
this alternative be thoroughly explored.
non-Myth #6: Software
Is Being outsourced
Of course it is. However, the share of
software being outsourced is relatively
small compared with that in manufacturing. This is not a fluke but an intrinsic
aspect of software. Almost by definition,
“soft”-ware is used whenever flexibility and adaptation to requirements is
needed. If a machine tool is going to
turn out the same screw throughout its
entire lifetime, it can be outsourced and
programmed in “hard”-ware.
Software development can also be a
path to other professional activities like
systems design and marketing, since
software reifies the proprietary knowledge
of a firm. A bank might outsource the
building of its Web site, but it is not likely to outsource the development of software to implement algorithms for pricing options or analyzing risk, because
this proprietary knowledge is what contributes directly to the bank’s success.
It would be reasonable for Tiffany
to prefer designing jewelry over study-
ing computer science, but not because
software is being outsourced. It is more
likely that her jewelry business will fail
when confronted with outsourced prod-
ucts than it is that her programming job
at Boeing or Airbus will be outsourced.
non-Myth #7. Programming
Is a Well-Paid Profession
That’s great. Potential earnings
shouldn’t be the only consideration
when choosing a profession, but it is
not immoral to consider what sort of
future you will be offering your family.
It would be a good idea to remind Tiffany that the chasm between the life-styles of her mother and Aunt Jennifer
is not the result of luck.
I recently read the controversial
book Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. 1 The third
chapter—“Why Do Drug Dealers Still
Live with Their Moms?”—based upon
the work of sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh3 is quite relevant to the issue of
potential earnings. As a graduate student, Venkatesh was able to observe
and document the lives of the members of a drug gang, and he eventually
obtained their financial records. These
were analyzed by Levitt, an economist,
who came up with the following conclusion, expressed as a question: So if
crack dealing is the most dangerous job
in America, and if the salary was only
$3.30 an hour, why on earth would anyone take such a job? The answer: Well,
for the same reason that a pretty Wisconsin farm girl moves to Hollywood. For the
same reason that a high-school quarterback wakes up at 5 a.m. to lift weights.
They all want to succeed in an extremely
competitive field in which, if you reach
the top, you are paid a fortune (to say
nothing of the attendant glory and power). The result: The problem with crack
dealing is the same as in every other
glamour profession: a lot of people are
competing for a very few prizes. Earning
big money in the crack gang wasn’t much
more likely than the Wisconsin farm girl
becoming a movie star or the high-school
quarterback playing in the NFL.
Ambition to succeed in a glam-
our profession is not something to be
deplored, but a young person must
receive advice and support on what
to do if she is not the 1 in 10,000 who
succeeds. If Tiffany wants to become a
professional singer, I would not try to
dissuade her, but I would prefer that
she pursue a CS degree part time while
she tries to advance her singing career.
The Real World Is not So Bad
I found the striking image appearing
the beginning of this Viewpoint on
the NASA Web site. The image shows
Margaret Hamilton sitting in a mockup of the Apollo space capsule. Hamilton was the chief software engineer
for the development of the Apollo
flight software. She and her team developed new techniques of software
engineering, which enabled their
software to perform flawlessly on all
Apollo missions. Later, she went on to
establish her own software company.
Hamilton looks like she is having a
lot of fun checking out the programs
that she and her team developed. I am
sure the long hours and whatever routine work the job involved were placed
into perspective by the magnitude of
the challenge, and there is no question
she felt immense satisfaction when her
software successfully landed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon. I
do not know if Hamilton felt locked out
of the male-dominated “clubhouse,” 2
but my guess is that the difficulty of the
task, the short schedule and the weight
of the responsibility felt by the whole
team would have made such issues
Teachers, parents, and guidance
counselors have the responsibility
to explain the facts of life to talented
young people: computer science and
programming may seem like boring activities suitable only for asocial
geeks, but a career like Margaret Hamilton’s is more fulfilling and more rewarding than what awaits those who
do not study science and engineering
based upon superficial perceptions of
1. levitt, s.D. and Dubner, s.J. Freakonomics: A Rogue
Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything.
allan lane, london, 2005.
2. Margolis, J. and fisher, a. Unlocking the Clubhouse:
Women in Computing. MIt Press, cambridge, Ma, 2002.
3. Venkatesh, s. Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue
Sociologist Crosses the Line. allan lane, london, 2008.
Mordechai (Moti) Ben-Ari ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is an
associate professor in the Department of science teaching
at Weizmann Institute of science in rehovot, Israel, and
an acM Distinguished educator.
I would like to thank Mark guzdial for his helpful
comments on an earlier version of this Viewpoint.
copyright held by author.