Although information technology was white hot in the late 1990s, the shine of the IT world has been wearing off. This effect has been true even in academia, in which the number of foreign students, who made up the majority of computer science (CS) departments, has dwindled in graduate schools across the country. However, for the last several years the Computer Science and Software Engineering Department  at Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama, has strived to improve the quality, quantity, and diversity of its faculty and students.
I recently interviewed three of the department's young, energetic, African-American professors, Gerry Dozier, Juan Gilbert, and Cheryl Seals. Over the phone, they shared their views on a variety of topics concerning CS and IT. We discussed the current outlook for the CS and IT workforce and their views on technological breakthroughs on the horizon and how best to navigate one's career in these fields.
Meet the Professors
Dozier was the first to arrive at Auburn in 1997. He is also the only one who currently has tenure, although Gilbert is up for review this fall. Dozier had been a professor at North Carolina A&T State University, which is primarily a teaching institution. Although industry is always an option for computer scientists, he always sought to do research in artificial intelligence (AI) and evolutionary computation at an academic institution. (See sidebar for each professor's research interests.) At the insistence of Auburn engineering professors whom he met at a professional conference, he applied for, and subsequently received, a professorship there.
For Gilbert, it was Dozier's encouragement, along with Auburn's research opportunities and friendly atmosphere, that persuaded him to join the faculty in 2000. He had considered industry and other schools to continue his studies in human-computer interaction (HCI) and how culture affects the way people develop, use, and implement new technologies.
Together, Dozier and Gilbert encouraged Seals to come to Auburn in 2003. Like Gilbert, she had been considering industry as well as academia. However, Seals's desire to teach as well as do research led her into academia. She studies HCI, but more specifically, end-user programming.
Research Interests: Machines, Humans, Their Simulations, and Interactions
Gerry Dozier examines how best to navigate changing physical terrains for his AI projects. "We're always looking to do things intelligently," Dozier says about the importance of studying AI. Evolutionary computation does problem-solving by means of biological principles (e.g., reproduction, mutation, competition, and selection). One of Dozier's evolutionary computation projects uses the human immune system to model a network security system. The other project involves interactive evolutionary algorithms in which a "trainer" provides input to "teach" a robot how to perform its objective
Juan Gilbert's projects include e-learning, spoken language systems, and databases. His e-learning project tries to create intelligent strategies to personalize instruction. He is trying to create user interaction with spoken language systems that is available from anywhere and to enable speech capacity in large databases. Gilbert's database research involves data mining, data warehousing, and information retrieval.
Cheryl Seals studies novice programmers, specifically middle-school science teachers, unlike most other studies of this kind that deal with expert programmers. Seals aims to create a framework to support the way the teachers program educational simulations with visual programming techniques.
Coping With a Workforce Downturn
Although Dozier, Gilbert, and Seals have successfully transitioned from graduate school to their professional careers, many in CS and IT are currently struggling. It wasn't long ago that some labor market experts projected a surplus of jobs in those fields. However, these three professors are optimistic about the career prospects--in industry and academe--for American CS and IT professionals.
The professors stay informed about the political situation to insure they survive changes in policy. CS academicians, like others in the workforce, are subject to changes in government policy, because it affects the source and availability of grant money. "It's hard to predict where it's going to go," Gilbert says. "But we adapt and go where the money is."
Right now federal grant money is in homeland security, so Gilbert believes that American CS and IT jobs may get a boost as the government begins to make grants available for such expenditures. A major threat to domestic CS and IT jobs is sending projects to foreign countries in a trend called outsourcing or offshoring. However, many homeland security jobs cannot be offshored, because national security regulations require that American citizens perform the work.
Protect Yourself, Educate Yourself
The key word here is many. "Anybody can do a basic programming task," Seals says about offshoring. And those relatively low-level jobs will likely continue to go abroad. However, Seals continues, "one thing I've heard is you can never outsource creativity. So if you have very good problem-solving skills, there will always be a demand for your talent." Seals, Gilbert, and Dozier all agree that graduate education is the best protection in the current job market.
Dozier believes that "going back and getting a graduate degree is something that everyone is going to have to do sooner or later." Degree inflation (jobs that once went to those with bachelor's degrees now require a master's degree) means it is necessary to pursue graduate education to improve the chances of career success, according to Dozier. "With the Ph.D. at least you're at the top," Dozier asserts. "You have a better chance of being able to write your own ticket or call your own shots."
Although the current outlook for IT professionals may look bleak, Dozier believes that the current downturn is because the market is just now beginning to understand the new and diverse ways that this technology can be applied. He also believes that the field of CS will continue to expand with the proliferation of computers in the workplace, at home, and throughout our society. The professors all agree that computers and their applications will continue to become more intelligent, but they will remain incapable of creative thought. With their lack of creativity along with their ubiquity, there will always be a need for people with the skills to manage them.
Coming to a Multiplex Near You: The Next Killer App
So, no matter how intelligent computers become, skilled CS and IT professionals will continue to innovate computer applications. The professors expect a better tomorrow for CS careers, so I asked them what they expected to see in this brighter future. Dozier recommended a book called Our Molecular Future  by Douglas Mulhall. Mulhall predicts that the future's "killer apps" will combine the fields of genetics, robotics, artificial intelligence, and nanotechnology. This integration of CS with other technologies is how the professors see their field going, and no place is more indicative of that than Hollywood.
"The way to really tell where technology is headed is to go to the movie theatre," Gilbert says. The sleek technologies that are shown on the silver screen are often in their infant stages in the real world. For example, Gilbert mentions the film, I, Robot, which features intelligent and autonomous androids. The concept is a sexier version of a project that Gilbert and Dozier are working on together, in which they explore ways that computers can be made to adapt to human users, instead of how users must now adapt to computer functions and thinking.
Similarly, Seals and Dozier are developing an application that will allow a program to intelligently evolve on the fly. The work combines Seals's and Dozier's specialties (end-user programming and evolutionary computation). The application is designed to take input from a large population of individuals to train the system.
Gilbert also sees data management and data mining as growth fields. He says that as Earth's human population increases, there will be an ever-increasing demand for data retrieval, sorting, manipulation, and security. Ultimately, the ability to intelligently adapt to society will separate the new technologies from those of today.
Likewise, adaptability to changing demands will determine those CS and IT professionals who will survive in the near future. Dozier, Gilbert, and Seals have protected their careers by educating themselves formally (through graduate school) and informally (staying aware of the political and economic nuances that affect job demand). They say it's a blueprint that CS and IT professionals can adapt for their own careers.
Clinton Parks is a writer for MiSciNet and may be reached at email@example.com .