Utah Industry Snapshot: Computer Science

EDCUtah logoWhat does the educational environment supporting workforce development within Utah’s IT industry look like? To answer that question EDCUtah sat down for a conversation with Dr. Ross T. Whitaker, director of the University of Utah School of Computing.

Describe for us the current student body in the School of Computing. What are your demographics?

Dr. Whitaker:
Our typical student is a Utah resident who has enrolled in computer science (CS) after high school, or after serving a mission for the LDS Church. Many of the students have extensive real life experiences, so they tend to be more mature than, perhaps, students at universities in other states. What’s more, half of our students work part time while attending school, so when they graduate they will have a CS degree and a significant amount of work experience behind them.

Currently, our undergraduate female enrollment is about 11%, which is an increase for us, but still a little lower than the national average. It’s an issue we are actively working to address. We have doubled our female faculty, and we have organizations within the department to help women connect and receive mentoring. This has improved our retention of female students and their overall participation in the program. Meanwhile, the University as a whole has also made significant progress in the recruitment of students from underrepresented groups (generally), and this is reflected in our incoming freshman class.

We also enjoy virtually 100% placement of our students and our program is highly ranked. About half of our students will stay in Utah – this is a higher in-state retention relative to other states. Our under graduate program is very solid and very rigorous. It covers the fundamentals of computer science, software engineering, design and soft skills such as team work and communications.

We also have a significant Master’s program – we graduate 50-60 MS students per year. These students are from all over the nation (and the world), and they are highly sought after here along the Wasatch Front as well as in Silicon Valley.

Are there any initiatives at the university to grow enrollment in the School of Computing?

Dr. Whitaker:
There are a variety of initiatives helping us grow our enrollment. One is the legislative effort to increase the number of STEM graduates in the state, which at the university level is called the “Engineering Initiative.” We are also growing our resources by adding more CS faculty and teaching assistants in order to respond to the increase in demand. And by adding more faculty and TAs, we are able to offer more classes, larger class sizes and more electives. The bottom line is that our students have more educational choices and greater one-on-one engagement with faculty and TAs, which helps with both enrollment and retention.

Another new, exciting initiative allows direct admission into our program, so when a student applies for admission to the university, they may also apply for admission to the School of Computing and be directly admitted to our program. The minute they land at the U they are in the program, which removes any uncertainty about getting into the program later. To support these freshmen – and all of our students – we have added more online resources, access to lectures and increased hands-on time with our professors and TAs. Of course, as our enrollment grows, we will need to simultaneously grow our faculty and class sizes to meet the demand.

In some other exciting areas, the state has initiated a STEM Action Committee with the mandate to expose more kids to STEM careers. That committee is working really hard to promote computer science in K-12. Meanwhile, the State Board of Education has agreed to let the high schools accept computer science in fulfillment of a science requirement. And a computer science curriculum is being installed in schools with a program to educate teachers on how to implement the curriculum. I think all of these efforts will really increase the exposure of CS to students, especially young women. We hope this will decrease the gender disparity in our CS program.

Taking a look into the crystal ball for a moment, what do you see ahead for Utah’s IT industry?

Dr. Whitaker:
There are two big areas driving the IT industry: data science and ubiquitous computing. Accordingly, we have lot of activity in the state in those areas. Many of the entrepreneurial IT companies have analytics as part of their methodology. Hence, the U is responding to that demand for data analytics and data science by implementing classes for the undergrads in our program. This growth in data analysis dovetails with an overall increase in computational infrastructure and interaction. More devices means more software, and the variety of opportunities to build things that impact people’s lives is astounding – from banking and transportation to healthcare and games.

Also, Utah is becoming recognized as a hub for computer security, so that is another area we are investing in. Of course, computer security involves networks, computer communications and all of the interactions with that. We see computer security as a key area of growth in the state, so we’re working to grow our program to meet the demands in those areas. Speaking of computer interaction, we can’t overlook the growing demand for workers trained in entertainment arts and engineering (EAE). Utah is really at the epicenter of this area, so we continue to focus on preparing our under graduate and graduate students with the tools and knowledge to design and engineer games, apps and all that goes with them. At the undergraduate level, CS majors have an option to take EAE-related courses and do gaming-related projects to get an emphasis in EAE with their computer science degree.

If you were in an economic development meeting with us, talking, perhaps, to an IT company about why locating or creating a satellite office in Utah would make sense for them, what would you say?

Dr. Whitaker:
Utah is such an attractive place for many people. It’s a great place to raise a family. It is a healthy place to live. It is a place you can attract people and once they come here they tend to stay. Companies in Utah also find that the talent here seems to be “sticky,” meaning that people don’t readily move on. What’s more, salaries here are good and solid, but not what you’d expect on the coasts. The upside of that is IT companies find Utah to be a cost-effective place to find software talent and to do business.

Utah also enjoys a whole infrastructure of schools that teach CS. And, if you look at the quality of the programs at the U, BYU, UVU, USU, etc., Utah offers topnotch programs in engineering and computer science. The U and BYU are two outstanding schools in the country, and both are producing quality CS grads. Really, the students coming out of our programs are of a national caliber.

The software IT industry in Utah is also very active. NPR looked at Bureau of Labor statistics and inventory and found that Utah is one of four or five states where software engineering is one of the most prevalent jobs. The Utah workforce is hardworking, talented and entrepreneurial. It’s a demographic that tends to identify with what Utah has to offer in terms of lifestyle.

What kinds of partnerships do you have with local companies? Any thoughts on how to strengthen those partnerships?

Dr. Whitaker: We are very active with the Utah Technology Council, which represents about 5,000 technology companies, mostly in software and IT. We also interact with a variety of high profile companies and encourage companies to engage us. That translates into active programs to engage students. For example, we have direct interactions with Goldman Sachs and similar companies. We have a Goldman Sachs lecture series, in which we bring in three or four national caliber speakers every year – top academics or industry people – that get to know the U and also Goldman Sachs. It’s a great program.

We also have a co-op program with Goldman Sachs, which allows CS students from the U to work at Goldman and receive course credit. We have also established additional programs for people in the workforce that want to expand their credentials or knowledge base, so that they can add specialized skills on top of their skill-set without having to leave the workforce.

The bottom line is that the U’s CS program is highly engaged at many levels–with our students, our business partners, with the state, and all of the initiatives to grow the number of CS graduates in the state. It is an exciting time for computer science in Utah.