Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Entrepreneurship and the Curriculum

At the Andreessen Horowitz academic round table (see last post), the issue of how to promote student entrepreneurship through the curriculum arose.  The VCs at AH (which I'll use for short hereon) want there to be more tech-based CEOs.  As they put it, it's easier to teach a tech person what they need to learn about business than to teach a business person what they need to learn about the tech.  Somehow, in most universities and I believe in the world at large, the culture has developed that the business people think they're the powerful ones, not the tech people who build the things that consumers love.  The business people think they're the ones delivering the value, and then divide the value accordingly.

Don't believe me?  Go see http://whartoniteseekscodemonkey.tumblr.com/ , a site (that came up in the discussions) devoted to the e-mails sent by Wharton business school people looking to hire (undergraduate) programming and engineering talent.  As a faculty member I get bunches of these sorts of e-mails a month, and I'm sure the computer science students do as well.  The underlying message is that the tech people are commodity cogs to be plugged in as needed.  That's not the message we want our students to get, and not how things really work in most successful startups.  

So AH says they believe in and support the tech CEO, and want to encourage that.  What does that, and entrepreneurship generally, mean for our curriculum?  Should CS departments have courses on entrepreneurship (or give credit for classes in other departments on the subject)?  Should we teach computer languages that are the latest on the start-up scene (in preference to those that, arguably, provide a larger conceptual framework or encourage certain ways of thinking)?  Should we have an "entrepreneur track", like we might have a theory track or AI track or computer science and engineering track?  What is the school's role at the department's role in encouraging entrepreneurship?  Some people thought CS departments perceive themselves as professors in the business to make more professors, and thereby ignore the potential CS has to change the world via business.

These are tough questions.  One issue that makes it even more problematic for CS is that these problems are not faced by many other parts of the university -- literature, history, and even most of the social sciences don't have a significant start-up scene -- which means in some ways, we're on our own.  Indeed, significant parts of the university might actively resent an emphasis on entrepreneurship, which they might argue does not always fit so well with the university's educational mission.  (Or,  perhaps, it just represents self-interest on their part.)

Aged fuddy-duddy that I am, I'm somewhat sympathetic to this view.  Computer science is science.  I want to educate students about the great questions (and answers) of computer science, and I am thrilled to be educating the next generation of scientists, especially computer science.  But yes, computer science is also engineering (in the practical sense of the word), providing the ability to solve immediate problems, yielding economic benefits to the users and of course the developers of the solutions.  I see striking the right balance as a challenge;  greedily, I do somehow want both.

At Harvard, I feel we've been pushed and pushed ourselves to make the requirements for the major quite minimal (in terms of the number of classes), so I want those required classes to be on the "science" side.  I want computer science graduates to have both breadth and depth in computer science.  Much of the entrepreneurship can naturally fall outside the curriculum -- there are now a number of student organizations, and university-level initiatives, to promote entrepreneurship.  (Harvard, I think, has been finding a way to expand the concept of entrepreneurship beyond just "business" -- into the larger concept of innovation -- to make it more appealing throughout the university.  For example, check out the i-lab.)  At the same time, I'm clear that having all the entrepreneurship activities fall outside the traditional curriculum potentially pushes a set of students away.  Again, we're left with finding the right balance, for us.

Sadly, the meeting's discussion on this only lasted a short while, and I felt left with more questions than answers.  Feel free to discuss your thoughts here.  


Anonymous said...

Et tu, brute?

vzn said...

wow, great topic. I went to engr school and there was a little more awareness & influence of the commercial realm aka "industry". CS is increasingly a world changing & cross disciplinary science. you can crank out more professor candidates but students are highly attuned to what majors make money, and your enrollment will go up or down accordingly. there is large chgs in CS enrollment over time & this clearly correlates with student perception of how lucrative the field is. seems like you ask all the right questions, how to integrate entrepreneurship, and then come up with pushback/negative view on the overall idea. not sure but think stanford is much more startup-friendly culture, and its not a coincidence that google/yahoo arose out of it.... multibilliondollar corps. someone should write a book analyzing the backgrounds of *founders* [not nec ceos]. but of course lets not forget bill gates & marc zuckerberg are both college dropouts. there is something fundamentally incompatible about the cultures of academia and genius. also the MOOC rise aka udacity seems to be supporting much more the entrepreneurial bent.... lots of chgs on the horizon. lead/follow/get out of the way as the expression goes, wink

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

Anon #1: I get that you're making a reference, but I'm not sure what to. I don't think I've killed anyone with this post.

vzn : "there is something fundamentally incompatible about the cultures of academia and genius". Um, I don't think this is what you meant. Lots of geniuses I know are quite happy in academia.

"and then come up with pushback/negative view on the overall idea" Well, I certainly have some concerns. But I view it as a topic worthy of discussion.

vzn said...

"real genius" is contrarian, paradigm shifting. it doesnt always fit into existing organizational structures & sometimes is based on fundamentally defying them & reinventing them. yeah, admittedly there are lots of academic geniuses. maybe should have qualified that... "entrepreneurial genius". not used to being held accountable for my blog comment, will have to choose my words more carefully :p there are many kinds of genius too, thanks to howard gardner of *harvard* for that insight