What is to become of Computer Science?

When people ask what I do, I normally say I work with computers. “Ah,” they say. “You’re in IT. My nephew is in the same line.” Well actually, no – I don’t do IT and I don’t do the modern version: ICT. I was around long before these terms were coined, and they really don’t apply. IT is all about setting up Windows and writing Macros in Excel (if you’re advanced).  If I say I’m a computer programmer it’s assumed I’m a “web developer”. System programmer doesn’t mean anything to most people; assembler programmer even less.

Then a few years ago I realised what I was – I’m a Computer Scientist. Well I lecture on Computer Science degree courses, ergo I must be. Actually this antiquated term is very appropriate for an antiquated computer person, and if the hat fits…

Back in the 1970’s and early 1980’s we were all Computer Scientists. If you wanted a computer you pretty much had to build it yourself with a soldering iron and a load of chips and when complete, you had to program it. If your employer purchased one of these expensive items ready built, you still had to program it yourself – unless you were an operator, in which case you merely had to understand it. You learned a lot in the process, if you were that way inclined.

These days people want a career in IT, so they do Computer Science courses at University. They’re wasting their time. They learn very little from the university about computer science, and the university is perfectly happy with that. The way computers work is difficult; difficult means expensive to teach and certain to put off students. If you put off students, you get less money. So you need to teach easy stuff.

Easy stuff in Computer Science basically comes down to playing around with luser-land software, animation packages and an SQL query or two – but not too hard. Perhaps write a bit of HTML by hand before moving on to some web page design package or CMS.

Here’s the conundrum.

Students = money, but only if they stay the course.

A low pass rate = Less students want to do the course.

Without lots of students passing the course, you don’t get enough money and everyone loses their job.

Computer programming is difficult. Most IT students can’t hack it. Therefore it has to be dumbed down to an extent you’d never believe. Those with the aptitude could program before they came on the course; those without it would never learn.

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In 2009 the university I taught programming at decided that the need to pass the programming module was affecting their overall pass rate, so they made it optional. Yes folks – you can get a Computer Science degree without being able to write a single line of code. I’d name names here, but I understand this is common practice at many institutions, so what’s the point?

Now I’m not saying I’m unique or even special in understanding how computers work. There are plenty of others of my generation that know as much, if not more. What I’m wondering about is what happens when our generation retires? It’s not possible to go through the learning process we had back then – learning by tinkering and doing (because frankly, the education system was nowhere near the leading edge back then either).

I believe there was a sweet spot at the end of the 1970’s, where microprocessors had just appeared on the scene and you had to understand things from first principles if you wanted to do anything with them. If you didn’t have to construct a machine yourself, you certainly needed to program it if you wanted it to do anything – and they were simple enough back then that this was a realistic possibility.

Sitting in front of a modern Windows PC is not the same experience at all. With a PET/Apple/Tandy computer you turned it on and the first thing you saw was a prompt to start entering your program in BASIC. You lived in a programming environment. With CP/M it was only a few keystrokes away. Now we’re presented with a graphic user interface and no programming language whatsoever – just Facebook. The complexity of the Windows API is daunting; more so given that everyone thinks its cool to write stuff using the current favourite object-oriented wrapper library. In order to achieve anything looking like a modern computer program (where the graphic user interface is everything) you have to jump through numerous hoops before you can get started. If I complain, I’m pointed at the application generator – it’ll write most of the code for me, apparently. If you ask what the reams of generated preamble code it actually produces is for, people just shrug their shoulders and ask why you’re questioning it.

In 1998 I found myself writing a system-level utility for Windows inside a large company, and needed to sort an array into alphabetical order. I don’t think there’s a Windows API function, and qsort seemed to be missing from the library, so I consulted the lead Windows programmer across the room. The answer came back to put my strings (one by one) into this file selector structure (as file name), make some call or other to the file selector box and presto – my strings would come back sorted. No, he wasn’t joking. Two minutes later I’d written bubble-sort, for the umpteenth time.

This was thirteen years ago; how much has it deteriorated since then? I’m lucky to be developing software either solo, or with a developer of my generation, so I’m probably insulated against the worst excesses.

So, back to the point: where are we going to get Computer Scientists from? I started on the sweet spot, where it was possible to learn pretty much everything about the computer in front of you – every instruction, every I/O register, and every line of the operating system. As computers expanded, our knowledge expanded, but could rest  on these early foundations. We can’t do that any more. If we ran a three-year degree course in computing and started from the basics you’d end up with me someone whose knowledge was wide enough to cover a BBC Micro. They’d need another twenty-seven years after that to reach the modern era, and by the time they qualified they’d be thirty years out-of-date.

And why should anyone even bother? I can assure you, there’s more money to be made out of IT than Computer Science. The only decent return available if you understand computer fundamentals appears to come from cyber-crime, and even then that’s as  perpetrator; no one wants to pay for security.

I’m told that the government plans to bring back an element of programming into the ‘O’ level maths (or its modern equivalent). This is a start, but a small one.

In the mean time I’m watching the other members of the OS/2 drinking club fall away and wondering what is to become of us. The draw of Bletchley Park grows every stronger.


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