Computer Science Needs More Rockstars

Posted on July 30, 2010


Like me you may well have missed the recent online debate about Google offering funding to women in Computer Science (whether students or working full time). A number of comments that followed pointed out the lack of female role models in the industry. This made me think, how many role models are there, male or female, that are well known?

The most obvious name these days is Mark Zuckerberg. Even though he’s (I assume) a more than competent programmer and computer scientist we never hear about this side of him. I suspect he may not even be involved in that side of Facebook anymore. If he is then we need to hear more about it.

So Zuckerberg doesn’t seem to fit the bill, let’s turn attention to the industry giant and look at Microsoft. First instinct here is to say Bill Gates. Now this isn’t a bad choice, the stories of Microsofts’ and Gates’ rise are relatively well known and he is often seen as the coder in his early days. Even without the distaste for Microsoft, at 54 and having effectively left Microsoft without taking up any other tech-heavy posts Bill Gates can no longer be seriously considered a role model for aspiring developers.

The only other member of staff at Microsoft I suspect many people outside of the industry could name is Steve Ballmer, an economics and mathematics student hired as a Microsoft’s first business manager. Therefore I doubt Ballmer has the desire (or I suspect the ability) to get his hands dirty in the actual Computer Science aspects of the business.

The elephant in the room in this discussion is, of course, Google and their founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page. Both went to Stanford, Sergey having moved out of the Soviet Union to overcome adversity and continue his computer science education, and began work on the Google search engine during their PhDs. Surely this tale of hardworking students who made it big through sheer hard work would be the cause of many people going into Computer Science?

Well, no, probably not. Both seem to be quite private people and they tend to shy away from the limelight (relatively of course). Furthermore, I think you would be hard pushed to find people on the street who could name either of them, never mind any of the other developers at Google who constantly amaze us with their projects.

There is of course one person in the tech industry I believe many of the general public would be able to name. He is, of course, Steve Jobs of Apple fame. Whatever else you may think of him, a charismatic speaker and someone with the knowhow to turn Apple into one of the largest computer companies around. However, as with most of the other people mentioned very little is ever made of his proficiency (or lack of) at a technical level and has again reached the levels of upper management where he can hardly be considered a developer.

As for the current internet darling, Twitter, I had to look up the founders (Jack Dorsey, Evan Williams and Biz Stone if you’re interested) despite having seen at least one interview with Biz recently. Unless I’m in a minority for not knowing this I think it’s safe to rule them out as role models for aspiring Computer Scientists.

Maybe the Free and Open Source Software community can help. After all, open source software thrives on ideas from a single person that make it big and rely upon the active participation of unpaid developers who do it because they want to. Ubuntu, the most well known open source operating system is run by Canonical Ltd, owned by Mark Shuttleworth. However, until I looked it up now I believed he was just a rich supporter and didn’t realise he had any kind of development background and I suspect others may have thought the same.

How about the father of Linux operating systems themselves, Linus Torvalds? After all, the guy behind the kernel of many Operating Systems must surely be a role model for people? Well, no, the industry can be quite blinkered about the success of Linux and Open Source software and forget that, once again, the average person will no little to nothing about it.

Now obviously there are a number of amazing developers I follow through Twitter, blogs and the like but there are even more that I’ve not found (and probably never will). If I haven’t found them with an active interest in the field how can we expect young people to see someone and want to enter the industry because of them? If we want to get the best people into Computer Science we need to show that they won’t just disappear into a basement like the IT Crowd stereotype or be forced into the upper echelons of management if they’re vaguely successful. We need to get some rockstar developers into the public conscious as the developers behind what they use, not just the rich guy who had an idea…that will be easier said than done though.