Increasing the Lure of Computer Programming the Government Is on a $28-Million Mission to Get More Students Wired about the Field

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Jered Floyd is a self-described "all-around computer geek" - a hot-shot software engineer the likes of which United States companies are tripping over themselves to hire straight out of college.

Before he could ride a bicycle, Mr. Floyd could program a computer. At age 5, he picked apart "Basic," a language installed on his first computer, an Apple II. In third grade it was Pascal.

Today, some 15 years later, Mr. Floyd has a Pentium-Pro personal computer in his bedroom and a picture of his head spinning on his home page. Such oddball humor is a trademark of the fraternity Floyd belongs to - a cold-pizza-and-soda-at-midnight culture - that separates hard-core software programmers from the rest of humanity. The nation desperately wants more software programmers like Floyd, currently a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. American colleges are churning out computer science grads - 36,000 in 1996. Yet the US has 190,000 to 450,000 unfilled computer jobs. One subtle reason for the shortage, some analysts suggest, is that relatively few people have - or would want to have - the right stuff to do what Floyd and his buddies love most: Getting into the "zone" - where solutions to software tangles flow. Programmers say it usually happens while staring at a computer monitor during a 24- to 48-hour stretch in a cubicle curtained off from the outside world so sunlight and normal life do not distract from pure concentration. The standard programmer's breakfast (often between midnight and 2 a.m.) is pizza, candy bars, and quantities of soda. "What I do is a lot like solving a puzzle or brainteaser," Floyd says. "I may work four to 48 hours at a stretch. Along the way I may pick up a snack ... work a while, then nap for an hour or two. Programming can be like that when you're on a roll and getting results. It's kind of exhilarating, like, you feel like you're doing something important." Not always fun Most others, though, describe programming in different terms. "Writing code is probably the least fun job in the world," says Richard Skinner, president, Clayton College & State University in Atlanta. As head of a government task force looking at the software-programmer shortage, he is charged with exploring ways to train a new generation of programmers - including the use of virtual college courses on the Internet. Even Floyd agrees that writing "device drivers" and other mundane software is far from fun. He prefers the cutting edge of software development. But it is precisely the other kind of programming - the updating and rewriting of exacting, tedious software routines in America's technological infrastructure - that must be done by somebody. Since 1996, an explosion of interest in the World Wide Web by companies from grocery stores to stock brokerages has created huge job demand for people who can string together lines of computer source code. …