American Idol for the rest of us

This morning, Rick Rashid, Senior VP for Microsoft Research kicked off our annual TechFest; an event here on the Redmond campus that celebrates the genius of Microsoft Research's worldwide labs by presenting more than 150 demos and 24 lectures. Think of it as a kind of exhibition of cutting-edge technologies from some of the best and brightest computer scientists and engineers from around the world all in one place. I always enjoy this event because it gives me a lot of insight to what's coming down the line and how it might be applied to my own industry, healthcare. One of the technologies Rick highlighted in his keynote this year was SenseCam, a little wearable device capable of digitizing audio, video and other data from every second of your life and storing it forever. When I first saw this technology more than a year ago, it got me to thinking about how it might impact future versions of the electronic or personal health record, or how this technology might be useful to patients with chronic disease. There are already promising results from small studies with people suffering from dementia and other cognitive disorders.

But there was something else Rick talked about this morning that has far more profound implications for our industry, and certainly for our country. He reported that only about 1 in 100 college freshman today are selecting computer science and engineering as a major, a trend that has been on a downward spiral for the last several years and has reached its lowest point ever. In my own travels I’ve been hearing colleagues, and deans of medical schools, bemoaning the quality and quantity of young people seeking careers in medicine today. Yet surprisingly both fields, IT and medicine, are forecasted to be leading industries for new job creation far into the future. Clearly, the number of jobs will far outstrip the supply of qualified candidates.

What's going on here? Somehow I think we are failing to instill a work ethic in our youth. Perhaps I can't blame them when all they see on television, magazines and the Net are glorifications of the rich and famous among us; movie icons, sports stars, rockers, rappers, instant celebrities and wanna-be's. Math and science are hard. It takes time to build a fortune the old fashioned way. Who wouldn't want to rake in millions for singing on the radio, blasting a home run, or acting on the silver screen? But you need only watch American Idol to confront the hard fact that the odds of that happening are solidly stacked against you. It's also interesting to note that even those American Idols generally got there by working very very hard, and often for many years in poverty and total obscurity, before hitting it big.

Yes, majoring in computer science is hard. Becoming a doctor is perhaps even harder. There are years of self sacrifice, delayed gratification, and countless hours studying and taking tests. But doing anything really worthwhile in life takes an equal amount of effort. That's why they call it "work". It's a message that seems to be getting lost on an entire generation of young people. And, it's a loss for which we will all pay dearly.

What do you think? Let us know.

Bill Crounse, MD Worldwide Health Director Microsoft