The Reinvention Of Computer Science

I had the pleasure of attending an event, “New York: A City for Tech Innovation?” at the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College recently, part of their Changing New York series. The main event was a panel discussion moderated by Manoush Zomorodi, host of WNYC’s “New Tech City,” which included lively discussion on the state of technology and innovation in NYC. But one of the more interesting takeaways for me came at the very beginning. The panel was introduced by Stanley S. LitowIBM’s Vice President of Corporate Citizenship & Corporate Affairs and President of IBM’s Foundation. As is the case when public policy is discussed these days, the issue of employment — or more specifically unemployment — comes up. Stanley Litow remarked that “we don’t have an unemployment problem, we have a skills problem.” Now this is not necessarily news, but he followed it up with a comment on how developing curriculum to feed the skills needed by companies today requires businesses to work with educational institutions and the public sector that really got me thinking.

“Where did Computer Science come from?” Litow asked. “It was started by IBM as a corporate/public effort.”

Fortran Coding FormIBM did indeed play an important role in the birth of computer science, serving as a catalyst that eventually led to Columbia University offering one of the first academic-credit courses in computing in 1946.

For me, growing up, computer science was about programming. I’ve often said there are very few people older than I am who started programming as young as I did. I took my first programming class at Hunter College in NYC at the ripe old age of 13 back in 1978. We used the famous IBM Fortran Coding Forms and punch cards to program WATFIV. Later, in high school, I learned Pascal and computer programming soon became a staple and requirement in school curricula. There were no sophisticated user interfaces. To get a computer to do what you wanted it to do you had to speak it’s language. For my computer science degree I learned a bunch, from assembly language and C to arcane languages like SNOBOL and LISP. And when I went out into to get a job, these were the skills I needed.

Today there is still plenty of need for programmers, sure, but programmers are no longer the only ones using computers. In fact the vast majority of people who work with computers (and use computers for work) are NOT programmers. However, they need to be fluent in a paradigm of computer and technology usage — beyond digital literacy, which is a given — to be effective and productive in the workplace. Where I learned about compilers, NAND gates and finite automata, today’s computer professional needs to be fluent in API’s, network architectures and platforms. And it’s not even appropriate, I suppose, to call them all computer professionals as technology has taken us beyond what was once traditionally considered a “computer.”

What was created more than a century ago out of a need to train people to operate the latest technology in the workplace needs to revisit it’s roots. We need to address the “skills problem.” We need  to look to corporate, public and academic leadership for a  partnership to recreate educational curricula, to develop the skills needed for today’s workers. I suggest we need a reinvention of computer science.


This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. I’ve been compensated to contribute to this program, but the opinions expressed in this post are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.


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