08 March 2009

Nerds & Computer Science jobs

Thanks to @tdoerr on Twitter, I recently read the Science Daily article, "Geeks May Be Chic, But Nerd Stereotype Still Exists, Professor Says". It describes a number of scenarios where the nerd stereotype still exists in popular culture, but then gets into some statistics about how women and minorities are either staying at a steady (low) percentage of computer science majors, or declining in some areas. Women in particular are less likely to get into IT jobs, even after earning a computer science degree.

There's no comment area on Science Daily that I could find, so I'm standing on my soapbox here. I've worked in enough IT jobs that I know I can answer this one without referring directly without breaking my current company's security policy (which, come to think of it, is very similar to the security policies of the other companies I've worked for).

First, the correlation between a computer science degree and an IT job only works for a certain portion of those jobs, and even there you can still get in if you have a long history of related experience. I have an English degree. I have worked with people who also have English degrees and are in IT, plus people with degrees in biology, political science, philosophy, education, history, music, and business. We wound up in IT because we're also geeks, and learned about computers on our own time.

If studies only look at what happens to people who take computer science, they're going to have an awful lot of "dark matter" data they'll have to erroneously assume is "management." IT never exists in a vacuum; it is always in service of a business need, whether that need is managing a factory, a hospital, or a bank. A lot of people start on the business side and then join IT because they have strong computer skills plus a very good knowledge of the industry the IT is supposed to support. It's not just about getting a software or hardware solution out — it's about getting the right solution out.

Second, I thought it was very strange that the article correlated women and minorities not getting into IT with the cultural expressions of Weird Al Yankovic and others, but didn't bother to track down any women and/or members of a visible minority who have degrees in computer science but chose not to follow that as a career path. What did they encounter when they applied for jobs? Was it an old boy's club (certainly not anywhere I've ever worked, but I have heard tell of such things)? Was it the working conditions? The hours? The career path? The fear of being outsourced mid-career?

Or was it that even people studying your job prospects think you're dumb enough to be influenced by parody rap songs?

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