Making IT cool again

We’re willing to pay hockey and baseball and football players millions of dollars if they excel at their sports. But those who use their brain muscles to achieve great things are largely ignored or even made fun of, referred to as geeks and nerds.

Most people could tell you who won MVP in the last World Cup, but wouldn’t have a clue who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry or physics. And probably wouldn’t care much, either. So is it any wonder we’re struggling to attract young people into computer science programs?

If we’re sending our manufacturing jobs off to China, then we should be concentrating our efforts on building a knowledge economy. But we’re not doing a very good job of that. It’s not about waving more money in front of Gen Y. This generation has an entirely different set of expectations about career and work-life balance. They want more than a steady paycheque. They want to make a difference in the world.

So when it comes to IT, how can we make it cool again?

When Apollo 11 first landed on the moon, enrolment in science programs soared. Suddenly, it was cool to be in this field, working for NASA. And in the late ’90s, it was trendy to be part of a dot-com, jetting back and forth to Silicon Valley to make your millions before you hit your 25th birthday.

Blame it on the dot-com bust — or perhaps Hollywood’s unflattering portrayal of computer geeks — but somewhere along the way computers became uncool. Girls, in particular, are affected by this perception, with fewer and fewer enrolling in computer science programs.

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So, on a recent trip to Switzerland where I visited various organizations that specialize in nano- and microtechnology, I was surprised to find myself thinking about how cool it all was. Universities work with the private sector to help students start their own companies, many of them inventing technologies that can truly make a difference, from alternative energy to life-saving medical devices (or, building Formula 1 race cars and $100,000 Rolex watches). The “factories” are well-designed spaces that look like they should be showcased in an architectural design magazine. And nobody looks like a geek.

The Swiss don’t put non-competition clauses in their contracts because — gasp! — people actually like their jobs. These jobs are highly respected and highly paid, and people tend to stay with the same company for a long time. Job-hopping just isn’t the norm. That’s rather “American.”

This is not to say Switzerland is some sort of technology utopia. But it’s managed to build a strong knowledge-based economy smack dab in the middle of the most expensive continent on the planet. Canada could learn a lot from the Swiss (aside from how to make better chocolate and cappuccinos).

Last April, IBM hosted the International Collegiate Programming Contest in Banff, where 100 teams from 33 countries competed in a Battle of the Brains. But, sadly, the competition didn’t make the front page of any major newspaper.

Jonathan Schaeffer, professor and head of the Department of Computing Science at the University of Alberta, says we don’t celebrate brain games enough. We’re willing to pay big bucks to people for their physical abilities, but we don’t value intellectual pursuits in the same way. And we should appreciate mental muscles more than — or, at the very least, as much as — physical muscles.

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