In a wide-ranging discussion Microsoft chairman and chief software architect Bill Gates offered his views on the decline in government funding for computer science research, hiring in the industry, solving hard IT problems and bringing more women into the field, among other issues.
At the sixth annual Microsoft Research Faculty Summit at Microsofts Redmond, Wash., headquarters, Gates and Princeton University Dean of Engineering and Applied Science Maria Klawe sat down for a chat on the issues facing the industry overall and the research community.
Speaking on the decline in federal government funding for research in computer science, Gates said, "Its kind of a crime that as computer science is about to solve some of the most interesting problems…and is becoming the toolkit for all the sciences," the government should pull back on some of its funding.
Gates said that although much of the funding from Defense Department and classified agencies has been reduced, he would expect other sectors of the government, such as the National Institutes of Health, to pick up the slack. Meanwhile Defense-related funding "has become shorter-term or more focused," Gates said.
"We want to be as strong an advocate as we can be that the government is making a mistake here," Gates said, noting that computer science "is the change agent of the time."
Moreover, Gates said there are two barriers the U.S. high tech industry "must be very clever about." One is the boundary between academia and commercial research, and the second is the barrier within companies between their research groups and their product groups.
Gates cited the example of Xerox Corp.s Palo Alto Research Center and all the technology it spawned, which helped Microsoft and Apple Computer Inc. and a host of other companies.
"Were saying to companies You ought to invest more in R&D, this is our competitive edge," he said. "If you look at our competitors—put aside IBM, theyre sort of a special case—the investment [in R&D] is pretty small."
Indeed, Microsoft is concerned about staffing its research and product groups, Gates said.
"Im very worried about it," Gates said. "Microsoft is trying to hire every great college graduate that has computer science skills…"
Microsoft taps both native-born talent and foreign talent, but Gates said he is frustrated that more U.S. students are not going into computer science. "The fastest growing major is physical education," he said. "The Chinese are going to wake up and say we missed this opportunity," he joked.
In particular, Gates said finding recruits who have project management skills is difficult. Management overall is an area of need, he said. Indeed Gates said he welcomes students coming out of engineering management career tracks.
"We often have to push people into it," he said, noting that not so many programmers want to get involved in managing people. "We can promise people in this career path most of their work wont be coding."
Moreover, "the competition for somebody whos got the right background is phenomenal," Gates said.
In the 80s Microsoft looked at things a little differently when it came to hiring, Gates said. "We werent looking for a specific skill, we wanted somebody who understood the field," he said.
"We look for people who have written reasonable programs—that gives us a sense of would they enjoy this for the long run," Gates said. "If they said theyd read The Art of Computer Programming and they did all the problems, Id hire them right away!"
Klawe chimed in: "So would I!"
Gates went on to say "What youre really teaching about design is pretty much the same information you used to teach 30 years ago… There may be some rich runtimes we could give the person to make them feel they are working with something cool and interesting."
Meanwhile, Gates said the industry now faces problems that need to be solved.
"We have an interesting dilemma coming up in that clock speeds are not going up much from 3 to 5 gigahertz," he said. "That turns out to be one of the great unsolved problems. We need brilliant people thinking about that problem" and others, Gates said.
One place to find new blood for the computer industry is among women. Klawe noted that "computer science is the only field in science and engineering where participation of women has gone down."
Klawe said computer science lags behind math, and "were behind physics in some areas." And Klawe said Asia is not better in terms of numbers of women in the field.
In fact, the top two countries for women in computer science are Ireland and Turkey, Klawe said. "Part of that is this is the dominant economy in Ireland right now…and there is a lot of single-sex education there and girls find their way into particular programs."
In contrast, Klawe said the number of women in law and medicine has reached parity with men. Why? "I think there is a correlation with TV shows," that even when Klawe was a teenager, showed women happily at work in those fields. "I think computer science is a lot more creative than the jobs doctors and lawyers have," she said, asking why Hollywood doesnt do more with the IT field.
Replied Gates with a chuckle: "Say a bunch of movie cameras went over there to that Microsoft office building with cameras, it wouldnt be so exciting."
Klawe said she doubts the average law firm or medical practice would be so entertaining either.
Meanwhile, Gates touched on a few of his favorite Microsoft things. "Every student should have a Tablet," he said. Also, "the Xbox is sexy because its a video game. The first year we knew we didnt have the credibility or the skill set to be the leader," but now Microsoft is in the thick of the game," he said.
Web search is another area Gates singled out. Web search "is an example of a competitor doing well and we have to catch them and get ahead of them."
In addition, "Ive always had a small bias for the things we do that help people at work."
But Gates also spoke of how Microsoft technology helps make change in less developed countries in areas such as healthcare. He mentioned a doctor in Mozambique that uses an Access database to track the health history of people in the village where he works.
"This technology, because its now very low-cost, high-volume stuff, can be used at a very low cost," Gates said.
Rick Rashid, senior vice president of research at Microsoft, said Microsoft is trying to "make sure computer science remains one of the top areas people want to go into." He said the past year has been a "really great year" for Microsoft Research," having published more than the division ever has before.