Computer science needs to be a top career

01:34, Apr 04 2013
Craig Nevill-Manning
MORE WORK NEEDED: Google's Dr Craig Nevill-Manning.

Kiwi kids aspire to be All Blacks, musicians, doctors and sailors. However, many will grow up to be experts in areas that don't even exist today.

If you'd asked me when I was a teenager what I wanted to do when I grew up, I wouldn't have said, "helping to build a search engine", because the web didn't even exist then.

That's an exciting thought. Vint Cerf, one of the fathers of the internet, is fond of saying that 99 per cent of the web's uses haven't even been discovered yet (Vint has been saying that for a while now, so maybe we're down to 98 per cent.) But he's absolutely right, and for every new internet application, there will be a whole new set of associated jobs.

While some aspects of the future are difficult to predict, there are some things we know for sure. Technology qualifications will become more and more valuable. Subjects like science, engineering, and mathematics prepare young people for the creative and computational thinking that tomorrow's companies will need as they build the next generation of connected apps. Computer science, which is a niche subject today, will be a core skill tomorrow.

Since completing my PhD in computer science at Waikato University, I've been lucky enough to stay closely connected with New Zealand computer science students, and I can confidently say that the skills they're learning in this country put them on a par with the best and brightest at Google or anywhere else. However, computer science grads are still rare as hen's teeth. We need many more of them to graduate, and we need more of them to put their entrepreneurial Kiwi drive to work on tech startups at home as well as around the world.

Here are three things that would drive a step change in the number of talented Kiwis getting to the top of the world in computer science.

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TALK ABOUT COMPUTER SCIENCE EARLY ON

Our internal research shows that exposure to computer science subjects before university strongly influences future career paths. In fact, 98 per cent of Google engineers had some level of exposure to computer science before university.

There are some amazing New Zealand organisations leading the way, like the Programming Challenge for Girls, which encourages Year 10 girls to program using the Alice environment to find out just how engaging and rewarding programming can be.

Computer Science Unplugged provides activities to teach important computer science concepts without even using a computer. PC4G and CS Unplugged are so successful that they have spread around the world from their New Zealand roots.

PUT COMPUTER SCIENCE ON A PAR WITH OTHER TOP CAREERS

It's natural as parents to want the best for your kids - which often equates to highly paid, secure jobs. Or maybe you prioritise your kids being happy, creative, and fulfilled.

Software engineering stacks up extraordinarily well on both counts. Software engineers are among the most sought after people on the planet - and from my first-hand experience at Google, we'll go to extraordinary lengths to hire great candidates and pay them well.

Once we have them on board, we give them free, creative, inspiring workplaces and a perk here or there. OK, the perks are legendary, but they're an indicator of how prized these young people are.

Parents - suggest computer science as a career alongside law and accountancy.

SUPPORT OUR COMPUTER SCIENCE TEACHERS

Computer science is a tough subject to teach, and too many high schools are resorting to teaching spreadsheets and word processing. That's about as similar to computer science as driving a car is to designing a new hybrid engine. And if schools do teach genuine programming, it's hard for teachers to stay ahead of increasingly tech-savvy students.

New Zealand's new national standards for Computer Science are a step in the right direction. Companies like Google have a role to play here. Google recently announced a collaboration with Canterbury and Victoria universities to deliver free computer science training to high school teachers. Computer Science for High Schools (CS4HS) aims to promote computer science in high school and middle school curriculums. With a "teach the teachers" approach, we fund universities to develop two to three-day workshops that provide training, tips, and actual classroom materials to help them teach programming and computing in their schools. Through CS4HS, we hope to reach 20,000 students across New Zealand and Australia this year.

Good work is also being done by the likes of Tim Bell from Canterbury University, who has just created an online field guide for educators. Teachers can't help but be won over by his passion and creativity in teaching computer science - and it's resources like this which will help the subject flourish. The future is bright, not just for New Zealand's young people and their job prospects, but also for the positive impact this will have on our economy.

As well as leading to a wave of new tech startups to meet the needs of future web users, these grads will transform the productivity of the big sectors we rely on most heavily today - agriculture, dairy, forestry, tourism - to make sure that they are ready for whatever the 21st century might throw at them. So let's help today's students get ready to build an even better tomorrow.

Craig Nevill-Manning is Google's engineering director, based in New York. He was raised in Blenheim and holds a PhD in computer science from Waikato University. Since joining Google in 2001, he has been involved in significant innovations around Google's core functionality, playing a key role in the project that became Google Maps, and spearheading the launch of Google in Maori.