Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Building Buildings

This week during focus groups I spoke with someone who described their introduction and computing in a manor I hadn't really examined very closely. Specifically, she didn't cite teachers, parents, or counselors as the main factors that encouraged her pursuit of computer science. While they were supportive, it was the barrage of software companies she saw everyday in her hometown that sparked her interest. Seeing the gigantic buildings of software giants everyday were her biggest factor in continuing to pursue computer science. She talked about passing them everyday and seeing them at every corner. The ubiquity and presence of the companies made her realize that maybe pursuing a field of software would be a good field for her to get into.

It brings us back to the question of images which have always been an important part of our research. We're always asking "What is the public perception of computer science? Who are computer scientists?" But while I've always focused on geeks and nerds and the computers they love, I didn't think of the massive buildings that house our computer scientists around the world. When I think about it, big technology firms weren't very present in the landscape I grew up around. Granted I didn't grow up in Silicon Valley but nevertheless software companies weren't seen as necessarily giants of industry.

Rather, the buildings I saw everyday were banks and sports stadiums. The sports stadium speaks to the idolatry we hold professional athletes in and is a whole other tangent, but when I think about major corporations, it is the giant Bank of America building in Mesa that first climbs to my attention as buildings that dotted my hometown skyline. Consequently, I've realized how I've always thought about that company as massively powerful. There presence in my hometown serving as almost a beacon and essential landmark spoke mounds of how strong a company I personally believed them to be.

While Bank of America undoubtedly employs a large team of computer scientists, theyn're not the first job you think of when a company has "Bank" in its name. Getting back to the example of software companies, most people are familiar with Microsoft and Apple and they definitely have the feeling of large powerful countries but they also seem so far away at the same time. The software companies just aren't the ones that seem to dominate the landscape.

But then I also think to when I first visited Qualcomm, one of the things that got me was how large and powerful the buildings were. It evoked feelings of security and made me feel like they were a powerful and successful company. While at the base of what I'm getting to is probably just the biggest is the best, I wonder how people's perceptions of software companies are when they drive pass massive software companies everyday rather than banks or sports stadiums. While "building bigger buildings" may be a bit silly of an argument in order to bolster computer science participation, it's worth exploring strange avenues to present a face to the public of a discipline so often shrouded in secrecy.

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