SEATTLE — Leandre Nsabi, a senior at Rainier Beach
High School here, received some bluntly practical advice from an instructor
recently. “My teacher said there’s a lot of money to be made in computer
science,” Leandre said. “It could be really helpful in the future.”
That teacher, Steven Edouard, knows a few things
about the subject. When he is not volunteering as a computer science instructor
four days a week, Mr. Edouard works at Microsoft. He is one
of 110 engineers from high-tech companies who are part of a Microsoft program
aimed at getting high school students hooked on computer science, so they go on
to pursue careers in the field.
In doing so, Microsoft is taking an unusual
approach to tackling a shortage of computer science graduates — one of the most
serious issues facing the technology industry, and a broader challenge for the
There are likely to be 150,000 computing jobs
opening up each year through 2020, according to an analysis of federal
forecasts by the Association for Computing Machinery, a professional society
for computing researchers. But despite the hoopla around start-up celebrities
like Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, fewer than 40,000 American students received
bachelor’s degrees in computer science during 2010, the National Center for
Education Statistics estimates. And the wider job market remains weak.
“People can’t get jobs, and we have jobs that can’t
be filled,” Brad Smith, Microsoft’s general counsel who oversees its
philanthropic efforts, said in a recent interview.
Big technology companies have complained for years
about a dearth of technical talent, a problem they have tried to solve by lobbying
for looser immigration rules to accommodate
more foreign engineers and sponsoring tech competitions to encourage student
interest in the industry. Google, for one, holds a programming summer camp for
incoming ninth graders and underwrites an effort called CS4HS, in which high
school teachers sharpen their computer science skills in workshops at local
But Microsoft is sending its employees to the front
lines, encouraging them to commit to teaching a high school computer science
class for a full school year. Its engineers, who earn a small stipend for their
classroom time, are in at least two hourlong classes a week and sometimes as
many as five. Schools arrange the classes for first thing in the day to avoid
interfering with the schedules of the engineers, who often do not arrive at
Microsoft until the late morning.
The program started as a grass-roots effort by
Kevin Wang, a Microsoft engineer with a master’s degree in education from
In 2009, he began volunteering as a computer
science teacher at a Seattle public high school on his way to work. After executives
at Microsoft caught wind of what he was doing, they put financial support
behind the effort — which is known as Technology Education and Literacy in
Schools, or Teals — and let Mr. Wang run it full time.
The program is now in 22 schools in the Seattle
area and has expanded to more than a dozen other schools in Washington, Utah,
North Dakota, California and other states this academic year. Microsoft wants
other big technology companies to back the effort so it can broaden the number
of outside engineers involved.
This year, only 19 of the 110 teachers in the
program are not Microsoft employees. In some cases, the program has thrown
together volunteers from companies that spend a lot of their time beating each
other up in the marketplace.
“I think education and bringing more people into
the field is something all technology companies agree on,” said Alyssa Caulley,
a Google software engineer, who, along with a Microsoft volunteer, is teaching
a computer science class at Woodside High School in Woodside, Calif.
While computer science can be an intimidating
subject, Microsoft has sought to connect it to the technologies most students
use in their everyday lives. At Rainier Beach High recently, Peli de Halleux, a
Microsoft software engineer, taught a class on making software for mobile
The students buried their faces in the phones,
supplied by Microsoft. They were asked to create programs that performed simple
functions, like playing a random song when the phones were shaken.