Tuesday, May 29, 2012

More Entrepreneurial Harvard?

One thing I noticed talking to CS graduates from Harvard this year is -- entirely anecdotally -- more seem to be going to small start-ups.  This has been an increasing trend the last few years, and strikes me as a big change.  When I was a student, most CS grads went one of the safe and successful routes of going to Microsoft, Wall Street, or one of the name brand consulting firms.  (Some losers went to grad school.)  When I started as faculty, this basic framework still seemed pretty much in place -- the most notable change was that over the years Google took up a good chunk of Microsoft's previous mind-space. 

Assuming it's true (and I think it is), there are many things that could be bringing about the change.  Harvard in many ways is trying to promote it -- in CS our classes are much more "project-based", there's a student Hack Harvard group arranging sponsored Hack Nights, and there are institutional developments like the Harvard Innovation Lab to help promote an innovation culture.  Part of it has to be attributed to the "Facebook Effect" -- we're bringing in more CS-interested people as students, and more of them are interested in startups, probably because some want to change the world, and because "a million dollars isn't cool."

One other thing that I think might be helping?  Harvard's financial aid policies, which changed significantly around 2006, making Harvard much more affordable for lower and middle class attendees.  I imagine it's a lot easier to take a risk right out of school when you're not deep in a debt hole.  At the very least, it's easier to justify to your parents why you're not (immediately) taking that high-paying job after they've paid for four years of private college.

Overall I think this is all to the good.  While startups aren't for everyone, I think Harvard grads as a group have historically been too "conservative" in choosing career paths;  it's exciting to see what may be a change in worldview.  A downside?  We've been sending noticeably fewer of our best and brightest to grad school, as they're seeking other opportunities. 

I'd be eager to hear from recent (and not-so-recent) grads their thoughts on the current startup culture...


Harry Lewis said...

Could it be relevant that until the year 2000 it was an actionable offense to start a business in your Harvard room, in the freshman dorms or the Houses? Whether this actually stopped anyone from doing so, the fact that the rule existed surely signaled what Harvard thought of student entrepreneurship.

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

Undoubtedly that's one more piece of the puzzle (though I'm not clear how many students knew of the rule). But certainly at a higher level Harvard has become much more open to and in fact encouraging of student entrepreneurship in the last 10-15 years, in many visible ways.

Anonymous said...

"We've been sending noticeably fewer of our best and brightest to grad school, as they're seeking other opportunities."

This seems like a plus to me. The computer science grad school pipeline overfilled and burst a long time ago.

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

Anon #3: I should have caveat'ed my "downside" by saying it's not clear that sending fewer students to grad school is really a downside; indeed, it may be better for many students in the long run, as you point out. (I meant to put that in, but somehow forgot, so thank you for bringing it back up.)

Still, as an academic, it tugs at your heart sometimes to see potentially great research minds go off on another direction -- even though you know they'll undoubtedly be greatly successful in whatever else it is they choose to do.

Anonymous said...

the 2nd paragraph of the above comment was truly touching.

Anonymous said...

At this point, startup salaries can often competitive with "big company" salaries, at least for entry-level "new college grad" hires. Having a healthy paycheck every month helps to mitigate the feeling of risk, and really the feeling of sacrifice, that goes into working at a small startup instead of a bigger company.

Also, right now, the climate is such that it seems that if the worst happens and your company goes bust, your hard skills will still be valuable and you will be able to be re-hired by another company that is staffing up.

So, I guess the long and short of it is: the funding climate is great right now, there are a lot of startups, and this year's crop of fresh grads has never experienced a downturn in their professional lives (freshman year doesn't count).

Finally, there are other arguments centering around how the tools have improved so that small teams really can accomplish great things (or, framed a different: too many people start startups that work on "features," when they could instead provide more value to society at big companies).

But the biggest thing, I think, is just a matter of perception. I get the sense that 10 years ago, a cushy Microsoft job was expected of a smart Harvard grad. That couldn't be further from the truth now, for any company (Microsoft, Google, Facebook). If anything, the cool thing to do is to drop out and start your own company. So, perhaps the social network is indeed at fault.