"Tech guru": What Americans wanna be when they grow up

Survey finds that people respect the nerdly calling but don't want to slog through the math.

Published October 1, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Everybody wants to be Bill Gates -- but no one wants to spend the time learning to be a computer scientist. That's the lesson of a recent survey produced by Techies.com, a new career portal for technology professionals that is on a crusade to focus the world's attention on the plight of "techies."

According to the company's survey, which phoned up 1,000 Americans picked at random and asked them their opinions about the technology profession, "the new American dream is to be a technology guru." More Americans agreed that children should be encouraged to pursue a technology education over studying business, medicine, or law (by 75, 72 and 58 percent, respectively). Meanwhile, 31 percent of respondents said that the computer was the most important technology invention of the 20th century (the TV and automobile took second and third place). Bill Gates was nominated the "Techie of the Century," with 47 percent of all first place votes; Henry Ford took second place. Considering the recent fawning media coverage of Gates and his billions, that is probably not surprising.

But despite this apparent interest in technology careers, Techies.com founder Doug Berg says that there is a national shortage of technology professionals. He produces numbers from the Gartner Group and the International Data Corporation, claiming that there are 250,000 unfilled American technology jobs and predicting a dire future if we don't educate more geeks. (This, of course, is a debatable point -- many claim that the shortage is a myth -- but that's another story.)

This is where Techies.com springs into action. Techies.com has conveniently invented a holiday called National Techies Day, taking place Oct. 5th as "the first annual celebration for technology professionals to acknowledge their contributions to our world." Sponsored by CNet, Compaq, FedEx, the Garner Group and Information Week -- and boasting Marc Andreessen as a spokesperson -- the celebration's site encourages visitors to participate by sending e-greetings to their favorite techie, organizing local school events that encourage kids to study technology, nominating favorite techies for awards, holding an open house day at the office and (my personal favorite) "buy a techie friend a sandwich." (The suggestions do not include giving your engineers a day off.)

One might well ask whether the technology workers of the world truly need yet more recognition for their toil, beyond the hefty stock option packages and fridges stocked with free Coca-Cola that they already suffer under. But the point, says Berg, is less to laud the geeks than to encourage others to enter technology careers -- despite the hard work that it will entail.

"They want the big salaries, the excitement, work on fun projects and gadgets, but they have to be OK with the changing demands inside companies" that require constantly updating your technology training, Berg says. Many are put off by the idea of toiling through a few years of tedious computer science training, "but do they want a huge house out on the Puget Sound where every room greets you as you go through, like Bill Gates? Sure! Take the good, not the bad."

The current lure of Silicon Valley riches, perhaps, explains why so many (61 percent) of those surveyed by Techies.com also wished they could start their career over as a technology professional -- rather than, perhaps, choosing the "easy" liberal arts route. But will parading geeks around high schools "help kids really understand what a technologist looks like" -- as Berg puts it -- and encourage more kids to learn their code? Regardless, the man surely deserves a sandwich for his efforts.

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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