David Notkin says he's running the computer-science program at the University of Washington because decades ago, kids at his junior-high...

Share story

David Notkin says he’s running the computer-science program at the University of Washington because decades ago, kids at his junior-high school made fun of him for wearing a checkered shirt and checkered pants that clashed cataclysmically.

Well, maybe that’s overstating things, but he did find a niche that allows him to show up for work wearing sneakers, shorts and a black T-shirt with Sapporo stamped on it.

In computer science, mostly what anyone cares about is what comes out of your brain, not what goes on your body.

It’s the cool stuff you get to do with your brain that really attracted Notkin to computers, and it’s drawn lots of other people into the field, in its post-IBM-white-shirt-and-tie boom.

It’s been a cutting-edge field, so I was a little surprised to read that Bill Gates says Microsoft can’t find enough tech workers.

I’ve known Notkin for years, so I asked him about computing from the supply side.

He says a lot of people have gotten the idea since the Internet business bubble burst that there aren’t any jobs, which has contributed to fewer people choosing to study CS.

Science, technology, engineering and math are all down nationally, as more students choose other disciplines. But it is IT in which demand greatly outweighs the supply.

In fact there are more information-technology jobs now than there were before the dot-com peak.

Notkin just joined the board of the Computer Research Association. At his first meeting, they talked about the drop-off. Someone suggested that most people know what biology is, for instance, but ask about computer science and they talk about spam.

What computers really do is enhance what we can do mentally, Notkin says, in the way the industrial revolution expanded the range of physical things we could do. And the field is so new it has hardly touched its promise. There’s still a lot of exciting stuff to do.

There are still unemployed people with computer-related degrees, and some jobs are migrating to India and elsewhere, but he says the picture is different for higher-level jobs. That’s where people are needed.

“There are more IT jobs here in the United States than there have ever been despite the hue and cry over offshoring,” he says.

Some more mechanical jobs will continue to move offshore, but there is still a need for design and other higher-level computing skills.

I checked and, sure enough, the Bureau of Labor Statistics is predicting rapid growth in the number of IT jobs and salaries over the next decade.

Microsoft, Google, Amazon and a few others sit at the top of the pyramid and want only the very top performers. There may always be a shortage of the kinds of people they are looking for, and there won’t be any more of those overseas than there are here.

Microsoft and Google are fighting in court now over Google’s wooing of Kai-Fu Lee from Microsoft.

Ed Lazowska, who preceded Notkin as department chair, and who has been working on the issue of labor supply and demand, says Microsoft’s hiring this year is 20 percent ahead of last year.

Jobs will be easy to find for the high-skilled, but still hard to come by for others.

Lazowska believes the central message is the one put forth by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman: that the world is getting flatter. Everyone is in competition with everyone else. It’s a world where no one can afford to be average.

Isn’t that why Seattle parents fight to get their kids into the right school, the right program?

Microsoft, despite its vacancies, hires only 1 percent of the people who contact the company. Good isn’t good enough.

IT may be leading the way, but we are all getting there.

What’s worrisome for everyone is the lack of interest on the part of students in science overall. Are they being adequately acquainted with and prepared for the sciences in K-12 education? Gates has been a notable critic of K-12 education, and he’s not alone in that.

I asked Notkin about that before, but he said he preferred to get his own house in order before criticizing other levels of education. One tactic is to expand the pool of people who consider going into IT, so he’s been working to get more minority and female students interested.

Part of the effort is combating stereotypes. It’s not a field of socially inept white guys working in isolation. There are some Asian guys, too — no, just kidding.

Notkin says writing code requires interaction with other people. A lot of that contact is face-to-face, but some of it is via e-mail or online conversations. It’s still communication and it requires people with good social skills.

Some of them are even snazzy dressers. (Notkin favors jeans and T-shirts because he has partial colorblindness and it’s easier to coordinate. He still has to wear a tie sometimes.)

And it’s not just about combating spam and building games. A group of UW students are working on programs to help Alzheimer’s patients. Almost every field of endeavor is affected by computing.

Who knows where the young field is going? Notkin had no idea when he got interested. Notkin saw his first computer in 1971 in high school, when his suburban New York school district bought three computers and gave them to a math teacher, who didn’t know what to do with them. Notkin and his buddies played around with them and he got hooked.

The next summer, he and one of his friends got jobs with the company that made the machines, and he worked with a computer-animation firm his first year in college. He began taking computing classes and doing what he does now.

Notkin’s special interest is how to more effectively build programs. He focuses on the people who write code — what they do, how they do it, why doing it can be such a pain, and ultimately how the process could be made better.

He’s also chair of the Department of Computer Sciences and Engineering and has a really cool Moses-like beard, something executives in other fields probably couldn’t pull off. But in IT, performance is what counts.

Jerry Large: 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com. His column runs Thursdays and Sundays and is found at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.