January 23, 2011

Computer science and engineers: the (bad) French exception

French engineers are famous in all domains but computer science. This is especially a shame in the 21st century, isn't it?

French engineers come from Grandes Ecoles, a French selective scholarship from undergraduate to graduating diploma. Unfortunately, many reasons explain that grandes écoles are unable to produce good engineers in computer science. Among others,
  • students do not know anything about computer science when they join a grande école. Neither programming, nor algorithmic... neither logic, nor graph theory... How can you learn a scientific domain from scratch in only three years? You cannot teach English literature to people who don't know English in the first place. 
  • most grande écoles are generalists. The broad extent of the French engineering culture is an advantage, but also a major drawback in the case of computer science. Actually, teachers have just the time to either overview fundamentals, or to look at the first steps in software development, which corresponds to what billions of developers know.
  • each grande école is linked to a few successful French companies that massively hire their students. Unfortunately, in France, no successful company exist in computer science. There is neither IBM nor Microsoft out there. Actually, admittedly Orange is a leading company in Information Technology, but, from my experience working there for a while, I can claim that this company does not deal with computer science at all. Engineers involved in software at Orange just coordinate outsourced workers. Most of them would be unable to develop the quarter of what they outsource. As a matter of fact, Orange has never understood software innovations.
  • educational engineering system is self-fueled. Directors of grandes écoles and people in government are the same who have received this engineering learning and who have absolutely no skill in computer science. Therefore, computer science suffers from a dramatic lack of understanding. I ignore those who confound computer science with Microsoft Office, and I struggle with those who assimilate software engineering with indian outsourced low-level programming.
As a matter of fact, the prestigious grandes écoles that are the closest to computer science and software engineering (Institut Telecom (which is my current employer), SupelecEnsimag and Enseeiht) focus on producing so-called "project managers", who are expected to drive low-level developers, and who consider software development as a dirty task. They are probably ideal people for French sub-innovative companies, which passively survive. But, as it is said here and there, they can forget working at Facebook or Google. And they will not be able to boost the rare French innovative companies, e.g. Dailymotion or XWiki. 

We need more geeks. Actually. In a Internet era, this under-representation of geeks in the engineering grade severely penalizes France. A first idea would be to dramatically increase courses related with computer science and software engineering at the undergraduate level. Another idea would be to radically transform the mission of institutions like mine (Telecom Bretagne) so that computer science becomes the top priority. Finally, I wish bureaucrats at the governments (especially education and industry) were not from old-fashion grandes écoles