Software developers are the superheroes of the startup world, and Silicon Valley can’t seem to get enough of them. With the number of coding jobs in America exploding twice as fast as standard job growth, it’s no surprise that everyone wants to learn to code. It’s a “hot” profession, one that comes with plenty of money, glory, and opportunity. Across the country, startups and nonprofits like Code Academy, Code.org, and Treehouse have sprung up to fill the growing demands of aspiring coders.
Coding allows the tech world to churn out new apps and websites, but with 20,000 new apps a month, the majority of these projects are incremental innovations at best. Shouldn’t the nation’s brightest minds be accomplishing much bigger things than yet another video- or photo-sharing app?
Software engineering garners more attention than many other types of engineering, like mechanical, structural, electrical, and environmental. In 2012, the number of undergraduate computing majors in the U.S. rose 29.2 percent for the fifth straight year, while other types of engineering bachelor degrees only rose by 6 percent (PDF). A lack of variety in education means a lack of variety for the workforce, as studies show that science and engineering majors are the most likely to have careers closely related to their major. There’s a STEM crisis in the U.S., but the singular focus on software engineering stunts the growth of other important STEM skillsets — skillsets that are needed for the U.S. to continue competing in the global economy.
The scientific advancements we have made today provide us with astonishing knowledge and power. We can alter DNA, in some cases eliminating certain genetic diseases. We can track time with such precision that a clock could be correct for the next five billion years. We can also measure a single photon without destroying it, a technology that scientists predict will have an enormous impact on the medical and molecular biology fields for years to come.
From a scientist’s point of view, there are no limits. Why can’t your smartphone measure the exact chemical composition of all the food you eat, the air you breathe, and the water you drink? It easily could. Why can’t the walls of your house be incredibly stable and heat insulating, while simultaneously thin, light, and even act as a huge screen? They could be. Such advances are not science fiction — the basic principles underlying them have basically been sitting on the shelves of our labs for decades, waiting for the right hands to bring them to life in our everyday world.
But who will transform these scientific discoveries into world-changing consumer products? The task requires engineers with a little more than a month’s worth of online coding bootcamp and a Stroustrup book.
Of course, we should be realistic about the challenges here: Developing the type of engineering skills (electrical, mechanical, environmental, etc.) that are required to turn lab work like I describe above into real products requires years of dedication. It’s not for everyone. However, if we continue to funnel our resources and our brightest STEM minds into computer programming so they can build the next cool social app, we will continue to waste money and drain talent needed to advance potentially world-changing markets like wearable healthcare devices and nanomaterials.
The risk is one we simply can’t afford to take.
One great example of an area with huge potential is consumer devices in healthcare. This market is expected to be worth $5.9 billion within five years, but could be worth much more. We already have access to devices that can analyze our blood without even piercing the skin. Now, imagine every household being equipped with analytical healthcare devices that can measure contaminants in our food and drink or detect cancer via our breath. Research already exists that could make such products possible and completely revolutionize how we approach health and well-being. Another growing industry is nanotechnology, where the global market is expected to reach at least $3.3 trillion in just four years. While current products, such as nanopowders and graphene, have made a huge impact, many other possibilities with nanotechnology exist and could grow the market twice as large. Nanomaterials can transform the normal properties and behaviors of materials as we know them today and nanoscale capabilities have the potential to impact everything from the military to space exploration to entertainment.
While many if not all of these areas will indeed require software engineers, they also require hardware, chemical, and environmental engineers with in-depth knowledge of science and math. The tech industry is in the midst of a dangerous cycle, one where talent follows money and money follows software. Younger generations aren’t being sufficiently encouraged to pursue certain educational or professional careers because these areas don’t get the same level of public attention, media coverage, or private funding that software benefits from today.
The U.S. needs a cultural shift in order to continue fostering the pro-science culture that we need to achieve our potential as a society. We should take advantage of the growth of online education and use it to provide more free or low-cost engineering courses to generate public interest. Additionally, after one of the most frothy years in venture capital since the dot-com bubble, VCs should take more risks, expanding their portfolios to invest in science-based innovation, not just the next hot app. And taking a hint from recent TV-hit Big Bang Theory, we should do what we can to increase positive depictions of science, math, and engineering in pop culture and the entertainment industry.
Now is the perfect time to slow down our feeding of the crowded software and Internet spaces. So many incredible science-based innovations are on the cusp of becoming real, and if we continue to glorify coders at the expense of other engineering roles, there will be no one left to build the Hyperloop, design a cure for cancer, or send humans to Mars. The next generation can make these innovations a reality — but only if we provide them with the skills, support, and resources they need.
Serguei Kouzmine is Managing Partner and Founder at QWave Capital, a venture fund focused on investing in quantum technology and other SciTech innovation.