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Originally published Saturday, November 17, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Gates sees engineer shortage looming

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates sees a talent shortage coming. "The overall picture is that the United States is not turning out, from any...

Seattle Times technology reporter

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates sees a talent shortage coming.

"The overall picture is that the United States is not turning out, from any group, as many of the great engineers as there will be jobs for," he told an energetic audience gathered at the company's Redmond headquarters for a weekend conference of the National Society of Black Engineers.

That's a problem for Microsoft, which relies on thousands of engineers skilled in math and computer science.

"Our factory is people sitting in their office and writing lines of code," Gates said.

He talked about the company's goal of hiring a diverse work force, but acknowledged that Microsoft and the tech industry at large still has a ways to go.

"To be frank, if you look at this, there's some success stories, but there's clearly much more to be done on it," Gates said.

Fewer people remain interested in technological work as they progress through school, and there's a particular drop-off among women and minorities, groups that are already underrepresented in computer science, Gates said.

"We have to think, what is it, in high school, in college, that really knocks things off track," he said.

Later, drawing on his work through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation with U.S. high schools, Gates said solutions include smaller classes; curricula focused on specific themes and immersion of students in them; and new ways of measuring teachers and holding them accountable.

"The quality of our education, for me, rises above all the other issues in our country," said Gates, who will shift next summer from full-time work at Microsoft to full-time work at his foundation.

He said students also need professional role models and commended groups such as NSBE, which this year selected Microsoft as its employer of choice, for efforts to help more minorities enter the field.

"African Americans are going into computer science in greater numbers," Gates said. Since 1995 the number has doubled, but "we're going to have to double it again and again to get up to where we should be."

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More than 700 people — NSBE members from high schools, colleges and companies around the West — registered for the conference, which includes training, networking and entertainment events.

The group is working toward its mission, which the crowd recited in unison shortly before Gates took the stage, to "increase the number of culturally responsible black engineers who excel academically, succeed professionally and positively impact the community."

After his prepared remarks, the Microsoft chairman fielded several questions about the early days at Microsoft and what it takes to succeed.

Gates said that along with passion, focus and hard work, one needs good fortune.

In his case, Gates pointed to his access to computers in his early teens and his friendships and long-term working relationships with Paul Allen, with whom he was introduced to microcomputers and co-founded Microsoft, and Steve Ballmer, a college buddy who has helped Gates expand the company to its tremendous size.

"You better be very lucky to duplicate what I've been graced with," Gates said.

Benjamin J. Romano: 206-464-2149 or bromano@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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