Series ended Lecture
Leadership in Computing

About the series

[Introduction given by Jim Foley, Chair of the CRA Board]

Thank you, Jim. It is truly a pleasure to be back here again with so many friends and colleagues, but this time in a new role. The many friendships I formed during my years as Dean at Georgia Tech and as a long-time CRA Board member have been both rewarding and important to me, and I plan to continue these relationships for a long time to come.

A number of you have asked me how I like being at the National Science Foundation. Well, as the head of an academic unit, I sometimes used to feel like a graveyard keeper. Yes, I had a respected position with a lot of people "below" me in the organization - but they didn't seem to listen very much! Now, as head of a smaller organization of people but possessing substantially greater resources, I find I suddenly have a lot more friends around the country than I ever imagined - and they are all willing to listen to me! Actually, both positions have been greatly rewarding, and I am really enjoying my new role at NSF.

I am very proud to have been a member of the CRA Board from 1988 until I accepted my present position as Assistant Director of NSF's Directorate for Computer and Information Sciences and Engineering (CISE). The CRA has grown enormously in size and influence in those years, and I consider it one of the milestones of my career to have been able to contribute to that growth.

The CRA has, appropriately, provided leadership by example. Just to illustrate, when I joined the Board in 1988, there were no women or minorities on the Board. Today, 11 women members and one minority member serve on the Board, comprising fully a third of the Board's current membership. Without the CRA, our field would not be where it is today. In my new position I look forward to working with the CRA to continue to strengthen the computing research community.

When I was asked to speak here, I provided the conference organizers with what I thought was the obvious title for my presentation - "Strategic Directions at NSF." As I prepared my remarks last week, however, I decided that it was more important to use my few minutes with you today to discuss what I think may be the single most important topic for you and for me - leadership.

I believe that we are at a point - a fairly small time window - in which our field has the greatest opportunity it has ever had - or may ever have - to lead. Lead as scientists and engineers, lead as educators and corporate researchers, and lead as informed, responsible citizens. Further, we not only have an outstanding opportunity to provide leadership at this time. But we also have a great responsibility to ourselves, our field, our organization, and most especially our country which now, more than ever, needs responsible, concerned, and trusted leaders. Let me note parenthetically that I was delighted to hear Bob Kahn last night stress the same theme, including some comments I will endorse in a moment on the need for more fundamental research.

Why do I think there is such a significant opportunity today? Let me list five specific reasons that I see - although I am sure that you will be able to supply your own list that may be more relevant to your particular situation:

First, in the broad sweep of scientific progress, the 20th century will probably be seen as the age of physics. The 21st century has been called the age of information and it certainly will be. But a century from now it may well be biology that is remembered as the dominant science of the 21st century because of this community's extensive use of information. None of us will be here to hear the final verdict, however. In the meantime, it is our field that is creating the science of information processing that utilizes physics for the applications that biology and others can create.

Second, there is hardly an area of human activity in which computing hasn't demonstrated its potential for bringing about radical transformations in the conduct of that activity. (And we all get tons of spam daily about those areas to which computing hasn't yet been directly applied!) The demand for more computing - Information Technology (IT) is fast becoming the generic term - remains unabated in all areas of research and education, and has only momentarily - if at all - slowed in business, government, and other areas.

Third, funding for research and education in IT has greatly expanded in a very short period of time. I need only point to the ITR program at NSF which has doubled CISE's research budget in just three years. Further, the prospect is good for more, significant increases in the near future. At one level, I believe one of our biggest operational challenges is how to wisely use the funds that are coming our way.

Fourth, there are a lot of us: Almost 200 Ph.D.-granting departments, scores of corporate R&D groups, many hundreds of undergraduate departments, thousands of students, hundreds of thousands of alumni. People who understand at least some of the rudiments of computing have made it to the highest level of government, business, and education. Jimmy Carter is said to have been the first President who knew how to program, and Paul O'Neill, the current Secretary of the Treasury, started his career as a systems analyst. Many corporate leaders, of course, have computing backgrounds, and not a few major university leaders, including our own John Hennessy, possess strong credentials in computing. It is not like it was 40 years ago when the joke was that there were only 20 people in the field and they all just traveled a lot!

Finally, and most importantly, 9/11 and the continuing revelations of corporate and individual malfeasance have reminded all of us - and, more importantly, many people in the general population - that there are higher objectives in life than just making a buck and that, in times of difficulty, we must rediscover the underlying principles that have guided our civilization for centuries. As researchers and educators, that is precisely the domain in which we have spent our careers and to which we have devoted our lives. What we - individually and collectively - stand for has suddenly regained some respect.

In short, there are many things that support my assertion that we are at an inflection point at which there is great opportunity for leadership. The need is there, the conditions of funding and public attitude are favorable, and there is a small army of people at all levels to help carry out the activities that may be proposed.

With every opportunity, of course, there is a challenge - or many challenges, in most cases. Our field is not going to bloom automatically just because the opportunity is there. To note an obvious example, there are plenty of other research disciplines that can and will make strong cases for increased funding for their activities.

To provide a more balanced picture, then, let me briefly list four major challenges that I see in the years ahead:

First, in the research domain, I believe that we must take this opportunity to build a strong, scientific base of knowledge for our field that will serve as a foundation for research and practical activity for the next fifty years or more. In my own specialty of software engineering, for example, I am ashamed of the fact that, after 30 or 40 years, we are still not able to build complex, software-intensive systems with anything approaching the rigor with which we can build bridges or airplanes or buildings. (This is precisely the theme that Bob Kahn was stressing last night).

More generally, I strongly believe that computer science - the core discipline for all of us - is neither science, nor mathematics, nor engineering, but rather a new blend of all three; but, we have only begun to work out just what that means. There are hundreds of individual challenges of this nature.

Second, in the educational domain, based on 30 years of personally trying to devise effective curricula, I believe that we do not yet really know how to teach our core principles and techniques. Now add to that the burgeoning - and appropriate - proliferation of computer science-based curricula of many types and I doubt that any of you will argue with me that there are significant challenges in the educational domain. In case you do want to argue, let's add the challenge of devising appropriate general education mechanisms so that all educated people will have the opportunity of at least becoming literate in computing.

Third, in the human resources domain there are two challenges. The first is simply the volume of well-educated IT professionals at all levels and of all types. The momentary slow-down in demand shouldn't deflect our attention from the longer term. Most especially in the area of graduate education that concerns so many of us here, there is a continuing need for more of us.

The overarching challenge, however, is diversity in our ranks and in our student populations. How many of you here today are women? Please raise your hand. How many of you identify yourself as one of the ethnic minorities that our society believes should be more fairly represented in our institutions?

Without counting, I am quite sure that neither of these shows of hands is anywhere near their proportionate share of the population. We all know the reasoning about equity, the value of diverse work groups, the importance of looking to new sources for the next generation of employees, and the importance to our society of making sure that all segments of our population are well-educated. It would be totally redundant for me to repeat those arguments here. What I do want to stress, however, is that in our community we are not making much progress and are actually backsliding in some ways. I believe that the challenge is not to discover what is to be done, but to do it. Let me illustrate.

The June 2002 special issue of the SIGCSE Bulletin is devoted to Women in Computing. In it, there are a number of editorials, research articles, and reports concerning efforts to increase the number of women in computing. I spent most of the flight out from Washington reading the entire issue, and I strongly encourage you to do the same. On the one hand, I thought "Great!" But then I became rather disheartened because I realized I had hardly learned anything new. In other words, we know a lot of things to do that have demonstrated positive results in getting more women into computing, but we clearly aren't doing them. We may not have the ultimate solutions, but there is so much we could be doing that we aren't, and that dismays me.

While the situation with respect to ethnic participation in our field is more complex, I believe that a similar situation pertains there as well. I believe it is time for all of us to stop talking about diversity and to do something about it. While I should have done it much sooner, I am proud to say that before I left Georgia Tech, I had begun to take a much more proactive stance with respect to diversity and I intend to do the same at NSF.

As you can see, I have already started to outline the fourth and final challenge: Leadership. What is missing in our profession today, in my opinion, is a sufficient number of computing leaders. Although I have only been at NSF for 2 months, I am already seeing confirmation of what I have long suspected - as a field, we are sometimes immature and far too interested in just doing our own thing as individuals. I don't have time today to go into great detail, but I think you all can recognize the kind of behavior to which I am referring.

It is into this vacuum that someone will step, and I think it should be you!

There is no question that we continually need good people from the field to come to NSF for a time, and you know I encourage that and will do everything possible to make it easier. But, today I am focusing on what you can do as department chairs, lab directors, senior faculty, and emerging leaders.

I want to leave each of you with a challenge. A year from now will you be able to say:

  • I helped a young faculty member (or researcher) move his or her research onto a more fundamental track.
  • I contributed to my department making significant improvements in our introductory courses, and I helped a colleague in another department better integrate computing into his or her curricula; or, (if you are in industry), I helped senior management better understand what we do.
  • I helped hire a woman or targeted minority into a faculty position or a senior staff position, and I helped initiate one or more activities that have a good chance of increasing the number of underrepresented groups in our student population.
If you can answer yes to these questions one year from now, then you are leading. If you can't answer yes to at least one of them and be confident that you have tried hard on the others, then at a bare minimum please help identify someone who can lead in your setting and give them the reins of leadership.

This is the decade of computer science. You must be the leaders. If you choose not to lead, then you can still serve greatly by finding someone who will.

I look forward to hearing your success stories the next time we meet.

Thank you.

Past events in this series

July 15, 2002, 1:00 p.m. – 2:00 p.m.