TITLE: Turning Students onto Entrepreneurship AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: June 07, 2005 1:44 PM DESC: This is a great time to be a computer scientist. The era of the mom-and-pop software developer is upon us. How do we and our students adapt? ----- BODY:

Modern invention has been a great leveler.
A machine may operate far more quickly
than a political or economic measure to
abolish privilege and wipe out the distinctions
of class or finance.

-- Ivor Brown, The Heart of England

I finally read Paul Graham's newest essay, Hiring is Obsolete, this weekend. I've been thinking about the place of entrepreneurship in my students' plans recently myself. When I gave my interview presentation to our faculty when applying to be department head, I talked about how -- contrary to enrollment trends and popular perception -- this is the best time ever to go into computer science. One of the biggest reasons is the opportunity for ambitious students to start their own companies. Philip Greenspun related an illustrative story in his blog:
The engineering staff at Google threw a big party for Silicon Valley nerds last Thursday night [May 5], ... Larry Page, one of the founders, gave an inspiring talk about what a great time this is to be an engineer. He recalled how at one point Google had five employees and two million customers. Outside of Internet applications it is tough to imagine where that would be possible. Page also talked about the enjoyment of launching something, getting feedback from users, and refining the service on the fly. ...
This sounds like the same sort of experience that Graham touts from ViaWeb. Admittedly, not every start-up will be a ViaWeb or a Google, but that's not the point. The ecosphere is rife with opportunities for small companies to fill niches not currently being served by larger companies. Not all such companies are doing work specifically for the web, but the web makes it possible for them to make their products visible and available. The web reduces a company's need for some of the traditional trappings of a business, such as a large, dedicated sales staff. The sort of entrepreneurship Graham touts is more common in Silicon Valley and the Route 128 corridor, and more generally in large metropolitan areas, but Grahams's advice applies even here in the Great Midwest -- no, not "even here", but especially here. The whole point of the web's effect on business is that almost anyone almost anywhere can now create a business that does something no one else is doing, or does something others are doing but better, make a lot of money. Ideas and hard work are now more important than location or who you know. UNI students have had a few successes in this regard. I keep in close touch with one successful entrepreneur who is former student of ours. When he was a student here, he already exhibited the ambition that would lead to his business success. He read broadly on the web and software and technology. He asked questions all the time. By the time he left UNI, he had already started a web hosting company with a vision to do things differently and better. I love to visit his place company, give whatever advice I can still give, and learn from him and what he is doing. Back in the old days, most people would have moved to New York or San Francisco in order to start his first company -- because that's "where the action was". I'm sure that some people told him that he should move to Chicago or at least Minneapolis to have a chance to succeed. But he started his company right here in little ol' Cedar Falls, Iowa, and did just fine. He can enjoy the life available in a small city in a relatively rural part of America. His company's building is ten feet from a paved bike trail that circles a small lake and connects into a system of miles and miles of trails. His margins can be lower because his costs of doing business are lower. And working with the growing tech community here he can dream as big as he likes and is willing to work. This guy hasn't made it big like Graham or Page or Gates, but he is one example of the bountiful opportunities available to students studying at schools like UNI throughout the world. And he could never have learned as much or done as much if he had followed the steady flow of our students to the big-box insurance companies and service businesses that hire most of our students. How can we -- instructors and the world at large -- help students appreciate that the "cage is open", as Graham describes the Brave New World of business? The tendency of most university professors is to offer another course :-). When I was a grad student at Michigan State, I sat in on a course during my last quarter that was being offered jointly by the Colleges of Engineering and Business to teach some essential skills of the entrepreneurial engineer. I wish that it had come earlier in my studies because by then my mind was set on either going corporate (AI research with a big company like Ford or Price Waterhouse) or going academic. There is certainly some value in incorporating this kind of material into our curricula and maybe even offering stand-alone courses with an entrepreneurial bent. But this transition in how the world works is more about attitude and awareness than the classroom. Students have to think of starting a company in the same they think of going to work for IBM or going to grad school, as a natural option open to everyone. Universities will serve students better by making starting their own companies a standard part of how we talk about their futures and of the futures we expose them to. There are some particular skills that universities need to help students develop, beyond what we teach now. First and foremost is the ability to identify problems with economic potential. We are pretty good at helping students learn to identify cool problems with academic potential, because that's what we do when we do our own research. But a problem of basic academic interest rarely results in a program or service that someone would pay for, at least not enough someones to make it reasonable as the basis for a commercial venture. Graham gives some advice in his various essays on this topic, and the key almost always comes down to "Know users." Only by observing carefully people who are doing real work are we likely to stumble upon those inefficiencies that they would be willing to pay to make go away. Eric Sink has also written some articles useful to folks who are thinking about starting their own software house. The other things we teach students are still important, too. A start-up company needs programmers, people who know how to develop software well and who have strong analytic skills. "The basics" such as data structures, algorithms, and programming languages are still the basics. Students just need to have a mindset in which they look for ways to use these skills to solve real problems that real users have -- problems that no one else is solving for them yet. Hiring is Obsolete has more to say than just that students should consider being entrepreneurs. In particular, Graham talks about the opportunities available to large companies in an ecosphere in which start-ups do initial R&D and identify the most capable software developers. But I think that these big companies will take care of themselves. My interest is more in what we can do better in the university, including what we can do to get folks to see what a wonderful time this is to study computer science. I think I should take my next sabbatical working for one of my former students... -----