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March 1, 2004
Microsoft, Amid Dwindling Interest, Talks Up Computing as a Career
By STEVE LOHR
 
CAMBRIDGE, Mass., Feb. 26 - Bill Gates went on a campaign tour last week, trying to reinvigorate his base, as they say in politics.

The number of students majoring in computer science is falling, even at the elite universities. So Mr. Gates went stumping at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Carnegie Mellon, Cornell, M.I.T. and Harvard, telling students that they could still make a good living in America, even as the nation's industry is sending some jobs, like software programming, abroad.

"Will this create more competition? It will," he told students at M.I.T. on Thursday. "It means the U.S. will have to keep its edge in skills."

Later, noting fears of widespread job losses, he said in an interview, "But people are way overreacting."

Mr. Gates urged the students to stay in the game, no matter where they worked - for Microsoft, a rival, a start-up, a research lab.

Matthew Notowidigdo, who came to M.I.T. five years ago and will receive his master's degree in computer science in May, has chosen not to. The head of the department said Mr. Notowidigdo, a 22-year-old native of Columbus, Ohio, was one of his brightest students, who would be welcomed at any computer science Ph.D. program in the country.

But Mr. Notowidigdo has decided not to be a software engineer. Instead, he plans to head to Wall Street this spring to join the bond trading desk at Lehman Brothers, where he will work on research and analyzing fixed-income securities. While he may pursue a Ph.D. someday, he says it will be in economics rather than computer science.

Enrollments are down at the best computer science schools, where the potential stars of technology's future are groomed. Professors say there is less enthusiasm for the discipline among students, and they worry it may be more than a lingering disenchantment after the dot-com bubble burst.

In an effort to counter the trend, Mr. Gates, who personifies technological optimism and the potential payoff, sought to reassure students that their futures were no less bright in an era of outsourcing. The effect of computer technology, he told them, is just beginning and opportunity abounds. Computing, he added, is an ideal field for fine minds to make a difference in society.

"We need your excitement," he told students at Harvard. "Most of these jobs are very interesting and very social - you work with lots of smart people. I'm excited about the future of computing, and I'm excited to see how each of you can contribute to it."

But Mr. Notowidigdo's expertise in software design and programming are also valuable tools on Wall Street, as sophisticated computer programs and models are increasingly used to sniff out profit-making opportunities in the financial markets.

And he said his summer job last year, doing programming work for a New York investment bank, also influenced his plans for the future. The bank's technology department was outsourcing some software work to India, and as part of the project, programmers from Wipro, a large India outsourcing firm, were brought to New York. Mr. Notowidigdo was impressed at the level of their skills.

The outsourcing trend, Mr. Notowidigdo explained, "factors into my thinking about what I want to pursue as a career."

His current path as a technologically adept investment banker, he decided, gives him "a broader set of skills and is less risky than software engineering."

Mr. Notowidigdo arrived at M.I.T. in 1999, when technological exuberance was in the air and the allure of computing was at its peak. Now, even at elite schools like M.I.T., the number of students choosing to major in computer science is down.

John V. Guttag, head of the university's electrical engineering and computer science department, points to the "worrisome" downward trend. In the current academic year, 229 sophomores selected his department as their major, down from 282 in 2002 and 342 in 2001, a 33 percent decrease in just two years.

Nationally, there is a similar trend. The Computing Research Association's annual survey of more than 200 universities in the United States and Canada found that undergraduate enrollments in computer science and computer engineering programs were down 23 percent this year.

M.I.T., like other universities, is seeking to counter the trend by emphasizing that computer science is increasingly a collaborative discipline, involving work with experts in other fields of business and science to solve all kinds of economic and social problems. "What we have to emphasize is that a good computer science education is a great preparation for almost anything you want to do," Professor Guttag said. "It's a terrific time to be a computer scientist."

That was the central theme of the Gates tour, which was planned and carried out with the precision of a presidential event. Political veterans were consulted. Aides did a "walkthrough" two weeks ago, checking locations, logistics and travel times. Mr. Gates met with dozens of professors at the five campuses and nearly 5,000 students attended his talks.

After it was over Thursday night, Mr. Gates, pacing in a basement conference room at Harvard, explained his purpose. "Computer science is about to be able to accomplish things that people have been working on for decades," he said. "Yet there doesn't seem to be the buzz, excitement and understanding of that so that the best young people are drawn into it."

With each lecture, his message was that because of ever-faster machines, improved software and the accumulated wisdom of decades of research, computer science was on the cusp of genuine breakthroughs in areas like speech recognition, artificial intelligence and machine-to-machine communication. These advances may take five years, 10 years or more, but they are not so far off now, he said. The trouble with the dot-com years, Mr. Gates told the students, was the delusion that technological revolutions happen overnight, without years of hard work by bright, talented people like them.

Yet already, Mr. Gates told them, the established disciplines - ranging from biology and astronomy to industrial design and finance - increasingly rely on computer analysis and modeling. And the new disciplines, like nanotechnology, are deeply computational.

In that regard, he got no disagreement from Mr. Notowidigdo, the M.I.T. student who has decided to enter the field of financial services. He said he had no regrets about his choice of major. "It opened so many doors for me," Mt. Notowidigdo said. "And understanding computational technology is going to be essential to almost any field in the future."

Mr. Gates said electronic commerce had not yet even begun, and that huge gains in communication, convenience and productivity are on the near horizon. He acknowledged that there were challenges to be overcome in areas like privacy and computer security, skipping lightly over the fact that security flaws have bedeviled many Microsoft products. But even the headaches, he said, are merely intriguing problems for smart computer people to conquer, and profit from.

Mr. Gates scoffed at the notion, advanced by some, that the computer industry was a mature business of waning opportunity. In one question-and-answer session, a student asked if there could ever be another technology company as successful as Microsoft.

"If you invent a breakthrough in artificial intelligence, so machines can learn," Mr. Gates responded, "that is worth 10 Microsofts."


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