Students tackle Gates on outsourcing

Bill Gates, chairman and chief software architect of Microsoft, regularly visits US universities to encourage students to pursue...

Bill Gates, chairman and chief software architect of Microsoft, regularly visits US universities to encourage students to pursue computer science careers - "evangelising".

This year his reception has been mixed, with some Berkley students unhappy about his responses to questions about increasing competition for jobs from China and India.

Some felt Gates did not address their concerns about outsourcing and the growing number of engineers in lower-wage countries, after he told them, "You can't go wrong in computer science."

"It is a little scary for me to see people thinking of this as a zero-sum game," Gates said. "It is not like a war where you have one winner and one loser. China and India are the big change engines for the years ahead, and as we embrace that and understand our new role in that, that's the path forward."

Not all students were impressed. "Gates sort of glossed that over. As chairman of a corporation, does he care where he hires his employees?" said Anatoly Smolkin, an electrical engineering and computer science student at the university.

Jobs will move overseas and salaries for computer scientists and engineers will fall as a result of competition with countries such as India and China, he said.

Another student, Ali El-Annan, said Gates' comments made him a little anxious. "I was sort of surprised. They can't really create jobs there while leaving jobs here," he said. "There is a lot of concern about that among students."

The US will have to compete with China and India on merit and not through protectionism, Gates said. Universities play a major role, in that competition and funding for universities will need to be protected, he said. "I believe that the university system is the number one thing that has allowed us to be at the centre of innovation," Gates said.

Gates was interviewed on stage by Richard Newton, dean of the Berkley's College of Engineering, and also answered questions from students. Talking about computer science, Gates said there is plenty of work that still needs to be done. He also pitched a double major of computer science and biology as a ticket for a great future career.

"If we look at the PC today, it is certainly a glass half-full in terms of the ease of use," Gates said. Advances in storing data and in user interfaces, such as unified storage and speech, will make PCs better in the future. Also, artificial intelligence and graphics are major areas of innovation, Gates said.

Looking ahead, Gates sees biology as a "sister science" to computer science. "I think a lot of the breakthroughs will be made by people who were trained in biology and computer science," he said.

Gates also faced some tough questions from students about the effect of the PC industry on the environment, and Microsoft's anticompetitive behaviour.

"How many people in this audience might have concerns about working for a company that has been found guilty of illegal business practices, putting limits on choices customers can have and misleading the public?" asked one student. The audience remained quiet - no hands were raised.

Joris Evers writes for IDG News Service

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