This article is published in the November 2007 issue.

Perhaps the Greatest Grand Challenge: Improving the Image of Computing

Distinguished leaders from ACM, CRA, IEEE-CS, USENIX, SIAM, AAAI, NCWIT, and from Microsoft, Intel and HP, hired me to conceive and execute a national campaign to improve the public image of computing. I need your help and engagement as a vital part of this endeavor.

Talented young people are turned off by computing’s image.

Between 2000 and 2005, interest in computer science as a major among incoming freshmen fell 70 percent as “image” quickly became a primary concern across academic institutions, corporations, computing associations, and government agencies.1

At Princeton in 2005, Maria Klawe described the effects of image saying:

“The public image of computing discourages many talented young people, especially women and minorities, from choosing to study computer science. For at least the last decade the computing profession has been widely viewed by high school students, parents, teachers, and counselors as being for individuals who have been obsessed with computers since puberty and want to program sixteen hours a day. Moreover those who choose to study computer science are often stereotyped as lacking social skills and other interests, and as individuals who work and study in an isolated environment.”2

Since then, the situation has improved. A recent report from the National Association of Colleges and Employers indicates that new computer science graduates are now among the highest paid of any major with an average offer of $53,051—a 4.5 percent increase over 2006.And there has been a significant shift in categories of jobs in IT with 25.4 percent fewer programmers, yet 25 percent more software engineers and over 70 percent more network systems and data communications analysts.4 One 2006 ACM study finds employment in IT is actually 17 percent higher than at the height of the dot-com boom, even in the face of increased offshoring. “Everyone was worried about the offshoring bogeyman,” says Moshe Vardi, an author of the ACM study. “But the big whoosh of jobs to India never happened.”5 In fact, of the 28 fastest growing occupations, the National Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that seven are in computing with a predicted average growth rate of 48.1 percent by 2014.6;

With such a strong job market you would expect increases in computing enrollments, but according to CRA’s Taulbee Survey that has not happened.Broad misconceptions prevail in the minds of people across America and interest continues to decline.

To dig deeper into these image issues during my first months on the job, I have interviewed more than a hundred people, attended conferences, read a variety of articles and gathered recent research. One study with about 800 high school calculus and pre-calculus students showed 80 percent of students had “no idea” what computer scientists actually do.8 Another study of undergraduate women with high SAT scores found the top reasons for not choosing CS/CE are “I’m just not interested” and “I don’t think I’ll like the work.”9

People With the Aptitude for Computing Lack the Interest To Pursue It

Let’s dig deeper into the root cause of this lack of interest. My own investigations turned up four distinct viewpoints about computing: those of the general public, the American teen, the CS student and the computing professional. I highlight these as origination points to tap into as we help people connect the dots from where they are today in their perceptions and where we want them to be—pursuing computing as a viable, exciting and positive choice for their future.

General Public’s Image of Computing

  • Computing = programming.
  • Geeks and nerds sit in dark rooms in front of screens programming all day.
  • To compute means to “use” computers, cell phones, iPods and other gadgets.
  • There are no jobs due to offshoring and layoffs.

Teen’s Image of Computing

  • Use is important, especially connecting with friends in real time. Of all American youth ages 12-17 (over 12 million of them), 55 percent use an online social networking site.10
  • Computing is tightly integrated into daily life, and since most are self-taught they think they already know everything about computing (the reality is they only know how to use technology).7
  • Increasingly being asked by adults how to use technology and recommend what’s cool.
  • Can be idealistic and eager to bring value into the world.
  • Some just want to make money.

Students Today, the Undergraduates Image of Computing
The following findings from a recent study at Georgia Tech on retaining students in computer science shed light on why students stay in the major or leave.11

  • Stayers are much more likely to enter CS/CE if positively influenced by a high school teacher.
  • Over 91 percent of Stayers said they enjoy solving problems as opposed to 66 percent of Leavers.
  • Among the top reasons for entering the major, salary potential only places third behind: ‘likes to solve problems’ and ‘good at math and science.’
  • Students list the top three reasons for leaving CS are: unsatisfactory quality of human interaction; too much rigor and workload; and lack of relevance to the real world.

Computing Professionals, Image of Computing

  • Satisfied with their individual role as innovators and their positive impact on society.
  • Recognize the need to give computing a more human and less abstract orientation.12
  • Intend to preserve the rigor of computer science as a discipline.
  • Some encourage expanding the boundaries of computing through interdisciplinary collaboration.
  • Many are concerned about continued under-representation of women and minorities in computing.

What Are We Going To Do?
These varying views of computing point out the work ahead of us and the real opportunity for change.

The Next Steps: The National Campaign “iCompute”
I am engaging a visionary youth marketing firm that has the pulse of Gen Y and knows how to make social change; I am also creating a partner architecture to support a national image campaign. Together, we will ignite a new conversation about computing and creativity and deliver it to youth through social media—in a way they will consume, in a tone that is attractive, and with a message that is relevant to them. This “iCompute” Campaign has a four-phased approach:

  1. Call-to-Action: Engage the computing community. Aggregate resources. Align on a new image.
  2. Summit on the Future, a guide for teens as a future vision to encourage enrollments.
  3. Conduct a tour with teen journalists engaging their peers directly. Capture their reactions. Stir debate.
  4. Public outreach through a key set of those who influence teens, such as journalists and bloggers.

As we undertake Phase 1, I ask for your help as a member of the computing community.

Take the Challenge
To create a consistent way to speak to the public, I need your views in your voice. Please take time to thoughtfully answer 10 strategic questions through this on-line tool. I will aggregate answers into a set of talking points to for use by the research community. To take the challenge, go

Computing has fueled much of our economic wealth and innovation over the last decades, and it will provide the lion’s share of new job growth over the coming decades. Information technology is a fundamental tool of U.S. business and of national security; it is changing the economic and social foundations of our society. The key role of computing makes it essential that we engage our youth and attract creative talent. As computer scientists, we need to make sure that students and the broader general public have a foundational understanding of our discipline and how they might participate as future researchers, innovators and professionals. Please join in on this important cause.

Jill Ross is Director, Image of Computing, at the University of Colorado at Boulder (Contact: e-mail: jill.ross [at]; tel: 303-898-9048)

End Notes

1. Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles, CIRP Freshman Survey. CRA’s analysis of the data can be found in the article “Low Interest in CS and CE Among Incoming Freshmen,” Jay Vegso, CRA Bulletin,
2. Invited Talk, “Changing the Image of Computer Science,” Maria Klawe, 2005.
3. The press release for the 2007 NACE Salary Survey is available at CRA’s analysis of NACE data for CS majors can be found in the article “Starting Salary Offers to CS Majors, 1990-2007,” Jay Vegso, CRA Bulletin,
4. USACM Technology Blog, CRA Study, “IT Job Prospects and Salaries on the Rise,” 2007.
5. ACM, “Globalization and Offshoring of Software–A Report of the ACM Job Migration Task Force,” Aspray, Mayadas, Vardi, 2006.
6. National Bureau of Labor Statistics, Fastest Growing Careers, 2005.
7. “Continued Drop in CS Bachelor’s Degree Production and Enrollments as the Number of New Majors Stabilizes,” Jay Vegso, Computing Research News, Vol. 19/No. 2, March 2007.
8. Point Loma Nazarene University, “Why Are Students With the Apparent Aptitude for Computer Science Not Choosing to Major in Computer Science?” Lori Carter, SIGCE 2006.
9. IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, “Just Ask! Why Surveyed Women Chose Not to Pursue IT Courses and Careers,” Catherine J. Weinberger, 2004.
10. Pew Internet & American Life Project, “Social Networking Websites and Teens: An Overview,” Amanda Lenhart and Mary Madden, 2007.
11. “Student Perceptions of Computer Science: A Retention Study Comparing Graduating Seniors vs. CS Leavers,” Georgia Institute of Technology, Biggers, Brauer and Yilmaz, 2007.
12. Position Paper for ICER 06, “Re-creating Computer Science,” Peter Denning, 2006.

Perhaps the Greatest Grand Challenge: Improving the Image of Computing