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Does a computer science degree matter anymore?

Some argue that computer science is crucial to U.S. competitiveness, others say business skills are more relevant today

By , Network World
March 30, 2009 12:03 AM ET

Network World - The number of college students pursuing computer science degrees at U.S. universities rose in 2008 for the first time in six years, according to a just released study. Academia and policymakers are hailing the news, but the question facing CIOs and others in charge of IT hiring is: How much do computer science degrees matter?

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Not surprisingly, computer science educators, software companies and hardware manufacturers are adamant about the need for computer science majors to drive innovation at U.S. tech companies. The dearth of U.S. computer science graduates is forcing companies to look offshore for qualified people, they argue.

"Not having enough computer science majors has serious repercussions for our competitiveness," says Professor Cary Laxer, head of computer science and software engineering at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. "There are a large number of Chinese students and Indian students who are very, very interested in doing this work. We're going to lose our competitive edge as a country if we don't turn out more software engineers."

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But CIOs and IT staffing firms say the skills they need most are collaboration, problem solving and communications – all of which can be developed by any motivated college student. After all, today's tech-savvy Millennials have wireless and social media technologies integrated into their lifestyles and grasp how to exploit them far better than their 40-something bosses.

"Computer science degrees mattered a lot 20 or 15 years ago, when IT was a cost center. But the job of being in IT has completely changed. The huge IT budgets are not even under CIOs; they're under the lines of business," says David Foote, CEO of Foote Partners, which conducts a quarterly survey of IT skills and pay. "This has brought in a whole new group of IT skills that come out of mathematics, economics, business and marketing."

Computer Science enrollments are increasing

On March 17, The Computing Research Association issued its annual report on the number of college students pursuing computer science bachelor's degrees at U.S. universities. The numbers have shown a sharp decline throughout the decade.

In the fall of 2000, there were around 16,000 newly declared computer science majors. That figure dropped by half after the dot-com bust, bottoming out at 8,000 for the last two years. But in 2008, there was an 8.1% increase. (See how computer science major is cool again.)

Having enough computer science and software engineering majors is critical for U.S. tech companies, who say they need to hire undergraduates with deep technical skills and practical programming experience.

"For our software engineering roles, we tend to look for people with a strong computer science background who have experience with programming," says Yvonne Agyei, director of Talent and Outreach Programs in Google's People Operations Department. "We need core programming skills, algorithm skills and quantitative analysis. We're looking for people who have majored in computer science or engineering or sometimes math or physics."

Agyei says Google hires computer savvy business majors for other departments, but not software engineering.

"In addition to software engineering roles, we have roles within business, within legal, within finance where having a facility for technology and a passion for technology are important," Agyei says. "It helps if they have familiarity with our products. Having that knowledge is really important regardless of what aspect of the business you go into."

Even with this year's rise in computer science majors, U.S. tech companies say there are still not enough computer scientists and engineers to fill all of their open jobs. That's why tech companies and CIOs often hire computer-savvy business majors instead.

IBM pushes computer training to business majors

In 2004, IBM responded to the drop in computer science degrees by creating the IBM Academic Initiative, which provides free software, training and tools to college professors across disciplines rather than computer science departments. IBM is working with more than 9,000 college faculty worldwide and around 900,000 students.

"As companies have a greater and greater need for computers, communications and software, there's been a decline in students going into IT…The consequence is the supply and demand are not in balance," says Kevin Faughnan, director of IBM's Academic Initiative.

IBM's goal with the Academic Initiative is to encourage college students to become more familiar with IT and how to apply it across industries. With this initiative, IBM is focusing on strengthening the technical underpinning of business majors rather than encouraging more computer science majors.

"The business students don't have the computer science skills – intro to data management or Web 2.0 – because it's not part of their major," Faughnan says. "We try to encourage faculty to be more interdisciplinary."

As part of its initiative, IBM has provided 100-plus universities with Innov8, a simulation game that teaches business process modeling

"It's incumbent on business schools to integrate technology into the curriculum," Faughnan says. "I think of technology not so much as computer science majors, but as a horizontal skill that can be applied across disciplines. For example, you can't do marketing these days without data mining."

CIOs look beyond computer science degree

CIOs say they are hiring more business majors with IT experience than computer science majors.

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