11 May 2016

Software engineers – driving the future

By Dr Loke Kar Seng

In April 2011, a strange thing happened on Amazon. A book titled “The Making of a Fly” sold at US$23,698,655.93. Was it a gilded treasure from the past? No. What actually happened was that the system got out of hand in a crazy pricing war. A year earlier, the US Dow Jones Industrial Average had fallen almost 1000 points, losing a trillion US dollars in value in a span of three minutes. Dubbed a flash crash, it was caused by automated high frequency trading. Then in 2012, Knight Capital, an American global financial services firm, lost US$440,000 within the first 30 minutes of trading caused by algorithmic trading. In the same year, Facebook’s IPO was delayed 30 minutes, affecting 30 million shares due to an obscure “race” condition in the system. In 2015, a flash crash recurred.

The root cause of all these incidents, it seems, were the machines manning the systems. In reality, it was the software that runs the machines. It is this “soul” that ties together the machines that run enterprises, conglomerates and systems across nations.

In 1997, the European Space Agency’s Ariane 5 rocket exploded on its maiden voyage due to an error in the code. In 2000, 28 cancer patients at the National Cancer Institute in Panama were overexposed to radiation from radiotherapy machine. Five died due to misinterpretation of data by the radiation planning software. Between threats to life and financial ruin lies a whole spectrum of incorrectly operating or improperly designed software. It is therefore important that those who design and create software systems are trained professionally in ICT and computer science because software is so extensive in our lives that the consequences could be dire.

However, it is not all about deadly consequences. It is also about creating jobs and new ways of creating jobs, and shaping the future because it creates a new way of living and working not previously envisioned. The World Wide Web changed the way we access, consume and interact with information. YouTube and Facebook displaced mass media as our primary mode for receiving information. But before YouTube could happen, computer scientists and software engineers developed the multimedia compression system that deliver video directly to the mobile, tablet or computer. And now with Netflix, we have Internet streaming TV on demand. Its data-driven software analytics will also analyse your preferences and tastes to customize movies for you. It might even deliver your lunch one day.

It is also almost inconceivable to imagine the Internet without the Google search engine. It is the invention of the software system that powers its search engine. Possibly for the first time, it is something not bestowed by Mother Earth, something that we extracted, excavated or exploited from earth, but created from the mind. Travel, retail, transportation, manufacturing, healthcare and banking continue to be transformed by ICT. Some of these are driven by engineering and science but ICT will have a cross-cutting role because of its ubiquity. What lies in the future? The list is long: virtual reality, augmented reality, internet of things, data-mining, intelligent machines, self-driving cars and cryptocurrencies. We won’t know, but we do know that it will surely involve those that can understand and create software.

he continued mass adoption of digitization of content and software–driven services by consumers, enterprises and government has made ICT a pivotal economic driver for growth and job creation. In the 1990s, Malaysia had the foresight to embark on this journey with the creation of the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) and the 10th and 11th Malaysia Plans emphasised ICT as a means to transform the economy. Putrajaya has set a target that ICT industry grows at an annual rate of 10.7%, and historically we have exceeded that. The MSC Talent Supply-Demand study 2013-2017 reported that there will be a shortage of 5,000 to 7,000 ICT graduates from 2014 to 2017. The Manpower Group’s Talent Shortage Survey 2015 found that IT staff are ranked fifth in terms of most difficult-to-fill jobs for the Asia-Pacific region. Globally, a shortfall in ICT professionals is also expected.

The latest National ICT association of Malaysia ICT Job Market 2015 survey reported that the average ICT salary increased by 7.7% in 2014, and a 7.4% increase was expected in 2015. From 2010 to 2014 the average annual growth was 8.2%. The average monthly salary of ICT professionals in 2014 was RM7,706 and expected to hit RM8,278 in 2015. The Malaysian household income rose 24.2% from 2009 to 2012, but the salaries of ICT professional rose by 28.3% in the same period. The same report listed the 2014 median monthly salary of fresh ICT graduates as RM2,600 with the 1st and 3rd quartile at RM1,800 and RM3,250 respectively. It further reported that the most in-demand job in ICT is a software developer with a projected growth rate of 22.5% in the next five years. The prospect of an ICT job seeker is indeed bright.

Software is like a string that threads through all human endeavours. It is not difficult to see that with the changing demographics and the maturation of digital natives, and the encompassing dependence on software in all areas of human enterprise, the role of ICT professionals and computer scientists are of critical importance. They are not churning out codes in their lonely cubicles. On the contrary, they are the innovators, inventors and harbingers of the future. They are solving problems of today and creating the future of tomorrow.

Dr Loke Kar Seng is a senior lecturer with the Faculty of Engineering, Computing and science at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. He is contactable at ksloke@swinburne.edu.my