Why UT Austin is second-rate at producing startup founders

The author is a fourth-year student doing a Bachelor’s and Master’s in CS at the University of Texas at Austin. This essay refers to UT’s computer science undergraduate program.

Paul Graham argues In his essay How to Be Silicon Valley that you need two types of people to produce a high-tech community: rich people and nerds. Nerds come from universities with good computer science programs.

The University of Texas at Austin Computer Science department (UTCS) is a top-10 computer science program. So why aren’t more startups coming out of UTCS? There are several reasons.

First, our professors think that getting a job at a big, stable company is a good thing. Is it? Bruce Porter, Michael Walfish, and William Cook are the only professors that ever mentioned the word “startup” to me. This is unfortunate. Companies love to harass CS departments. Teach them less theory and more Java! No, wait, teach them machine learning and complexity theory! Instead of wilting under the pressure of companies starved of good CS graduates, UTCS needs to push their students away from boring, monolingual (Java, of course) programmers and into true hackers. I’ve had many friends that graduate from UTCS with only Java and Haskell on their resume because that’s what UT teaches. And they don’t really know Haskell, I promise you.

But the point is not to teach them more languages. Java is fine. Haskell is fine. We need to fundamentally change the way UT computer science students look at our industry. This can be done by a mandatory one-hour seminar on technology companies, old and new. Make them read Paul Graham’s essays. Make them learn how companies get angels and VCs to invest. And start them young, right from their first semester of freshmen year. This course will help UT identify and nurture future startup founders.

Second, UT’s computer science undergraduate curriculum has little emphasis on building real-world product. Yes, UT is very good at getting undergraduates to do research, but research is not the same thing as building a startup. Make students build a startup. Create a course that is cross-listed with business and marketing students with a 3:1 CS to business/marketing student ratio. The students should then split up into groups of four consisting of three programmers and one business/marketing student. Within the span of the semester, each group must build something sellable and pitch it to investors, professors, and entrepreneurs. At least they’ll learn version control. (I’ve met seniors that have never used version control!)

Graduate students like Joel Hestness and Thomas Finsterbusch have petitioned for such a course, but from what I’ve seen, there is little hope of this becoming a reality anytime soon, mostly due to lack of support from professors.

Third, UTCS has a “good enough” attitude when it comes to competing with other top schools such as MIT and Stanford. It seems that UT computer science is satisfied with a high post-graduation job-placement rate among their 1,000 (and growing [is this a good thing?]) undergraduates. What UT needs is a more competitive attitude. Yes, MIT and Stanford get smarter students than UT. And yes, the best companies, old (e.g. Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft) and new (e.g. Yelp, Zynga), descend upon the best UT graduates. But why is UT letting Silicon Valley lure the best and brightest away from Austin? Because they believe that Austin cannot match the experiences and opportunities of Silicon Valley. It is up to UT (and Austin companies) to prove that Austin can match with Silicon Valley.

And finally, there is no startup “buzz” around UTCS. None at all. Compare that to Stanford’s CS program, where students can take classes like Web Applications and iPhone and iPad Application Programming and Cloud Computing (look at that list of top-notch guest lecturers!). Oh, but UTCS isn’t a trade school! How dare we teach our students iPhone programming! But Stanford’s campus is teeming with students passionate about starting awesome companies. What about our campus? At UT, I just hear people complain about the difficulty of using version control.

One reason for this embarrassing lack of buzz is that Austin startups differ from Silicon Valley startups. Successful Austin startups, it seems, are usually B2B, and thus unknown to the common student, and use not-so-sexy technologies like Java, which drives passionate students away.

I have met some students passionate about startups, but their numbers are few.

We can fix this by building partnerships with Austin’s great entrepreneurs. There was a great invite-only entrepreneurship seminar last semester (but not this semester) headed by Andy Maag, CTO of Bazaarvoice. It’s sad, really, that UTCS depends on others outside of UTCS to get things like this started. UTCS, get some money, get a guy to run it (Andy has other things to worry about, like running a company), make this seminar public, give out free food, and make it a party! That $300 spent on the Chipotle catering (pizza is lame) is worth so much more than $300.

People like Bruce Porter, the current chairman of the CS department, and programs like 3 Day Startup are working hard to improve entrepreneurship at UT. But we can’t fix this problem with just more programs and seminars. We need a fundamental change in the way we think about and raise our undergraduates. Only then can UT begin to produce startup founders.

Thanks to Michael Fairley, Paul Roberts and Jason Bradshaw for reviewing this essay.

Post-script: I am not advocating a software engineering degree; I prefer a computer science degree. I am not advocating a Silicon Valley in Austin. I know the resources are out there. The problem is that UTCS students don’t understand what startups are and thus do not take advantage of Austin’s great resources.

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13599 views and 46 responses

Dec 23 2010, 5:07 AM

BDCTweets responded:

While I cannot comment on the factual accuracy of the analysis, the issues you cite plague many universities. One solution is to make it easier for students to take courses in other departments such as the business school. Also, cross disciplinary courses can be a solution where students from several departments participate.

Dec 23 2010, 8:10 AM

Thomas Finsterbusch responded:

Elben, this is good stuff. Two thoughts:

Other UTCS professors that I would consider startup-friendly: Dan Miranker (has done startups), Greg Lavender (lecturer with tons of industry experience), and J Moore (previous chair who is very supportive of entrepreneurship endeavors).

The best counter argument I can come up with when people throw the “we’re not a trade school” argument: would you consider Stanford a trade school? They’ve got these courses and their students love them.

Would love to read more of your insights!


Dec 23 2010, 8:28 AM

David Giesberg responded:

Wow, fantastic essay! As a recent BS EE grad from UT, I can tell you that the situation is not much better over there. NI, AMD, Intel, and defense contractors are the big employers that seem to generate most of the “excitement”.

The biggest missed opportunity I can think of from the EE side of things is our Senior Design Project (EE364 and EE464) - students spend almost a year building something (often cool and innovative), but there is little to no support or thought put into product-izing your work. I am sure that many of these projects could be incubated into real companies or at least purchased by larger companies, but the department does not have a lot of interest in producing “products” - after you finish, it’s like “What now?”. Shame to waste that momentum/knowledge/talent.

(That aside, the Software Engineering program has some potential - I had several good classes including Requirements and an Intro to Software Engineering class where we read a lot of good material like Mythical Man Month)

[Disclaimer: I work as Product Manager for a small web development consultancy for startups]

Dec 23 2010, 8:35 AM

Robert Banh responded:

I agree with some points, but I also see the benefit of learning real programming from Java/Haskell.

I graduated from UTCS and I see too many web programmers just load up RoR Gems to perform something that takes 10 lines of code. Same thing with jQuery libraries… young programmers are not learning how to program, and if you tell them there is this shortcut they will take it. Foundation is needed, that’s the hidden secret. After you master foundation, then you can hack any code no matter the language.

Dec 23 2010, 8:47 AM

Andrew Hunter responded:

As a graduate of UT’s computer engineering program, I couldn’t agree with this more. UT-ECE isn’t any better than UT-CS in terms of its entrepreneur mindset. We need more super successful startups in Austin (are you listening HomeAway, Gowalla, BazaarVoice) to influence UT’s thinking, but those companies have to care first. The problem is that it’s a feedback loop. The only ones who can really influence UT are the grads themselves, because no one else cares as much. And UT grads typically don’t break out of the mold and start a company. So we have very few successful entrepreneurs that came from UT to help guide the university’s thinking. Since the thinking never changes, the university keeps producing students that are great employees. Rinse and repeat.

We have to help influence their thinking from the outside because I don’t think it’s going to happen from the inside.

Dec 23 2010, 9:09 AM

Gerry responded:

This article is garbage.

Dec 23 2010, 9:21 AM

Thomas Finsterbusch responded:

@David: I agree 100% on the senior design projects - there’s a fantastic opportunity to wrap them into a business down the road. There are some folks in EE who are happy to talk shop on this - three that immediately come to mind are Sriram Vishwanath, Jeff Andrews, and Ted Rappaport. But ultimately it has to be driven bottoms-up by the students themselves. @Robert: Absolutely, every tech student has to master the fundamental language-agnostic concepts. But we believe that learning these and doing more applied startup-focused projects are not mutually exclusive during a student’s academic career.

@Andrew: Successful role models are key. I personally know that Brett Hurt (BazaarVoice CEO), Josh Baer (Capital Factory director), and Rony Kahan (Indeed CTO) care a ton about nurturing eship at UTCS and UTEE, and there are many others like them.

Here are a few other startups created by our UT peers who graduated within the last two years:

Famigo Games Hurricane Party Digital Proctor Qcue Moodfish Adtuitive

I’m positive that once these companies exit successfully, they will give back to the community where they grew up in. In fact, they’re already doing it - at programs such as 3 Day Startup, for instance.

Dec 23 2010, 9:21 AM

ankey responded:

As another recent graduate of UT’s ECE undergraduate program, I definitely agree with your post and the comments from other ECE graduates. There are a few professors who try to build entrepreneurs but most are mired in the research mindset. I would love to see the ECE mandatory senior design project include a business aspect to it, especially since the first course of the two is pretty much worthless at its current state. Of course as you say, we should start pushing this way before senior year to get students to think creatively and venture outside the box. It is a pretty deep problem around UT that I’m afraid will take a long time to change.

Dec 23 2010, 9:30 AM

BaldMan responded:

While I don’t have the first-hand experience with UTCS, your descriptions sadden me on a number of levels. As someone who has worked at large environments like NI and a number of startups at different phases and to varying degrees of success, I’ve seen the importance of a holistic understanding of development. Schools need to teach both in-depth language-specific programming and theory. But, just as importantly, and to reinforce your point above, they need to tackle the business-side of things as well. I think the skills taught should go beyond how to found a company - it needs to cover how to be a part of a larger organization, whether that’s 9 or 90 or 9,000 people. Some people aren’t jazzed about the idea of forming their own startup, but they still need to know how to interact with the business side of the house and how to digest those requirements to produce a better product.Those who do want to start their own companies will benefit from these lessons as well.

On a side note, Austin’s tech community addresses these gaps in many cases. While UT should handle this, the entrepreneurial student should reach out to one of the many groups that cover their interest. There’s a wealth of resources, whether your’s seeking startup-focused groups like Austin Lean Startup Circle and Bootstrap Austin or language-specific events like Austin on Rails or Austin JavaScript or an umbrella that tries to unite the many facets between business, creative and technical like Refresh Austin.

Don’t rely on the University to teach you everything you need to know. If you want to be a great startup founder, you need to branch out. If UT wants to be known as a resource for great startups, they need to reach out as well.

You’re obviously passionate about the subject - what’s your next step? How are you going to fix this?

Dec 23 2010, 9:45 AM

Michael Fairley responded:

I think the problem is that the feedback loop between UTCS and the Austin startup community hasn’t hit a critical level. I can’t name a single product made by an Austin startup that I’ve used, while I can think of dozens within a few miles of Stanford. Additionally, plenty of SV startups are within walking distance of Stanford, whereas most Austin startups are at least 10 minutes (by car) from the UT campus and are located in office parks, rather than the open pedestrian environments of University Ave and Castro.

Dec 23 2010, 9:53 AM

Joe McCann responded:

+1 To what Baldman said. Entrepreneurial spirit is abundant in Austin and sure as hell don’t need to find it at ANY university much less UT specifically.

There are loads of “stealth” startups in Austin right now and more on the way. Fairly certain none has to do with UTCS or CS in general.

Dec 23 2010, 9:58 AM

TWAndrews responded:

What’s wrong with B2B startups?

Dec 23 2010, 10:37 AM

Elben Shira responded:

@Bladman, @Joe McCann: First, I’m trying to point out the lack of entrepreneurial spirit in UTCS, not Austin. And I know that there is a wealth of resources available. But no one at UTCS takes advantage of these resources because no one knows “startups.” Second, I am not relying on UT to teach me everything. That would be ridiculous.

Dec 23 2010, 10:38 AM

Tianji Li responded:

Is this good news then? Bob Metcalfe on his next job: Teaching innovation at the University of Texas-Austin


Dec 23 2010, 10:40 AM

Philip (Flip) Kromer responded:

I’m the CTO of Infochimps.com, a local venture-backed startup I founded with another Physics grad student and a UT B-school dropout. I can confirm from the outside that the CS department is falling short in two remediable ways: First, it does nothing to make it easy for small innovative firms to contribute resources or recruit students. When we’ve reached out to the department we get routed to the career center same as everyone, yet we’re quite ready to contribute to the kind of seminars or small classes you described, and can provide students the most exciting innovative internship they can find. (We’ve hired several CS undergrads, and all will confirm that they learn more each month at infochimps than they do per semester of school.) As you point out, UT also falls well short in instructing its students in agile methodology, cloud computing, big data tools, next-generation databases, high-level languages, modern web toolkits, dev-ops, or collaborative programming. Yet Austin is home to Riptano (progenitors of the Cassandra DB), infochimps (leading big-data startup), Rackspace (leaders in cloud computing), the IBM group that leads its Hadoop distribution, not to mention Pervasive, Indeed, OneSpot, OtherInbox, Locus, and outposts of Opscode and Heroku.

It’s beyond embarrassing that every student we onboard has to be taught git. I’ve found that there’s a 1:1 mapping between “UT CS students who know ruby or python” and “people who are successful hires” – since I know UT didn’t teach it to them, it means every one of them a) realized on their own it was important, and b) taught it to themselves – indelible signals of quality.

I’m ready to put resources behind my desire to improve the quality of education UT’s CS and ECE departments graduate. First of all, there’s an open offer for internships and employment to any student who can demonstrate possession of the get-shit-done gene and has some experience with the technologies I listed above. Second, I’m willing to provide engineers and such limited funds as necessary to teach those technologies, and have in mind at least three other local tech companies that will join us on day one. If you can help get the department in line we can make this happen.

By the way, please add Jason Baldridge (Computational Linguistics) to the list of Professors Who Get It. His research group has (with some help from us) assembled a samizdat Hadoop cluster to do massive-scale corpora analysis, and together with Matt Lease from the Information School and Weijia Xu from TACC, have persuaded TACC to convert one of their supercomputer clusters to run Hadoop.

Dec 23 2010, 10:40 AM

D Wilikers responded:

I would agree with Joe’s comment. I’m not in Austin, but I am at the CS department at UTSA, and sadly it sounds like the two depts are no different. We will learn mostly Java and C, and will have only one class devoted to “everything else.” There’s an occasional class or two on game (XNA) development or web (Wordpress) development, but they’re not teaching Python, Ruby, sed, perl, PHP, etc. and they do so unapologetically. They’ll never even think about that in our CS department–you’d have to go to a business department like IS to get any inspiration/assistance.

Of those I know, most have taken Joe’s attitude and said there’s enough entrepreneurial spirit without depending on a university. Possibly, but there might not be enough developer experience without outside recruiting.

Dec 23 2010, 10:45 AM

Michael Fairley responded:

@Philip (Flip) Kromer:

Jason Baldridge is actually a professor in the Linguistics department, so most CS students will never interact with him. That being said, he definitely “gets it”, and encourages students to think behind classwork, academia, and the corporate world.

Dec 23 2010, 10:50 AM

BaldMan responded:

That’s great to hear Elben. Please note, I wasn’t saying you were relying purely on the University - this post alone shows that you’re thinking much larger. But I have seen far too many students who match the descriptions you posted initially - great coursework, no real-world knowledge. But, here’s the thing, you are in the unique position to inject that entrepreneurial spirit into UTCS. You don’t have to do it alone, but if it’s going to happen, you seem like a great candidate for the job. ;)

As with any large organization, whether it be employer, school or government, the most effective revolution starts from the ground up. There’s been a wealth of resources named in the comments, both individuals and groups. Why not set up an initial introduction to teach your fellow students about these resources and the value of startups? If you need help meeting the right people, you’ll get it. I will gladly introduce you to some amazing people and I’m sure others who are already participate, like Josh Baer and Brett Hurt, would love to see and support a program like this.

Create the startup legacy within UT, or if nothing else, use this as a personal lesson on startup culture and use it to meet the people who will help you once you leave UT.

Dec 23 2010, 11:12 AM

Chadwick Wood responded:

I got my degree in CS from UT back in 2003, so I can’t comment on how things are these days, but I’d say that a lot of what you write was true back then, as well. But I think a lot of what you’re lamenting boils down to differing perspectives on where the line exists between academic (natural science) topics and the “real world”. Topics like understanding how startups work, team programming/project management techniques, or how to use version control don’t necessarily strike me as part of a bachelor’s degree in computer science. They are undoubtedly very useful topics, but I don’t know that it is the responsibility of a university to include those in an undergraduate science course of study.

Undergrad at UT taught me the fundamentals of computer science. I learned them well, and when it came time to start applying them, it was really easy to pick up new languages and frameworks. Today I program mainly in Objective-C, Ruby, and PHP… none of which were taught to me at UT. But I don’t wish they had been, because what UT did teach me allowed me to pick those languages up with ease later on.

Keep in mind that CS undergrads are going to go on to do myriad things: some will get PhDs and be professors, some will go to work for big software companies, some will work at startups, some will work in totally separate fields where their CS knowledge helps but isn’t a core part of their jobs. In other words, I think most CS undergrads might not give two shits about startups and their culture, and it’s not the university’s role to get them jazzed on it. In fact, a lot of what you write about seems more apt for an MIS degree (do they still have those?).

And viewed from another angle: you really don’t need a CS degree to be a programmer at a startup. I’d say a BS in CS teaches you way more than you need to know to be a successful developer. But that’s not a problem with the CS curriculum, that just means that maybe you shoudn’t be getting a degree in CS, or maybe you’re looking for your university studies to be more than what they are meant to be.

Boy, I didn’t mean to sound so negative. I’m all for providing resources to the people who want to go the startup route! I just don’t know that the computer science department is the place for it.

Dec 23 2010, 11:14 AM

Ben Standefer responded: The title of this article is kind of BS. I went to UT’s business school and studied Management Information Systems (I call it watered-down computer science), and I founded a successful startup with another UT grad. The courses at UT, even in the business school, do not prepare you perfectly for startup world. But an important thing to realize is that being a startup founder is about desire and taking risks. It’s about eclipsing the limitations of your formal education. There are plenty of successful entrepreneurs from even just my class at UT. The real founders pick up and go to San Francisco or New York to get shit done.

I agree with your general sentiment that the CS department should integrate with real world projects more. I don’t think UT in general is a haven for future startup founders. But since when is it the role of a university to produce startup founders? That’s a personal duty. Saying UT Austin is second rate at producing startup founders just doesn’t make sense. The good ones, whatever school they happened to go to, go to Silicon Valley or their industry equivalent, so you aren’t around them anymore to see.

This is more of a comparison of Austin tech to Silicon Valley tech, which, for the foreseeable future, Silicon Valley will win definitively. That’s why the tech entrepreneurs that you’re missing are out here. =)

Dec 23 2010, 11:19 AM

codypo responded: I don’t think this is a problem that’s necessarily limited to UT’s CS department. I’ve bounced around a couple of good CS programs, and I saw this same issue across them all. Sure, Stanford is different, but it’s in the heart of Palo Alto, where the janitor at Starbucks probably has a startup. Austin is startup friendly, but you can’t equate it with Silicon Valley. I actually don’t think it’s a big problem that UT doesn’t prepare students for an entrepreneurial route. It doesn’t quite make sense to expect a giant institution to provide you with the skills you need to create a business which (hopefully) will then unseat giant institutions. Again, Stanford is the exception and not the rule here.

Want to be involved in a startup in Austin? The tools you need are readily available. Download a Linux distro, pick some interesting technologies, and create something great. You can then use this work to either launch your own business, or to get your foot in the door of a compelling Austin startup. If you build something neat, it’s easier than you think to get the attention of these startups. A friendly email with a URL is sufficient for starting these conversations. Our startup community here is incredibly friendly, and is full of people who’d like to help you. There’s no need to get a huge, lumbering bureaucracy like UT involved.

TL;DR If you want to be an entrepeur, the work you push yourself to do and the lessons gleaned from it will be far more valuable than your undergrad curriculum.

Dec 23 2010, 11:43 AM

joshuabaer responded:

I know what you mean. UT should be a leading source of startups but it just isn’t happening on its own. Thanks for writing this post! I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot over the past year.

I want to help. I’ve been invited to UT a few times over the past few years and am just starting to get a feel for things. Besides myself, I have access to many other successful entrepreneurs who are both nerds AND “rich people” who would want to help (using your terminology).

I’m impressed with all of the student organization doing great things, such as: - 3 Day Startup - McCombs Business School - Technology Entrepreneurship Society - Idea to Product - Austin Technology Incubator - Texas Venture Labs - what else am I missing?

Yet somehow they all seem disconnected and

I agree with Cody’s comment that this problem is not specific to UT. I was in the Carnegie Mellon CS program, and it was very similar. I was back in November meeting with students and faculty and I think that if we replaced UT with CMU in your post they would all think it was written about them.

You say that we need a change in how we think about our undergraduates. I’d tweak that to say we need to change how undergraduates think about themselves.

One thing I’ll commit to is doing regular “office hours” on campus from now on. We have been doing them at bars downtown and at coffee shops, but I realize now they aren’t very accessible to UT students. I always manage to bring some other special guests such as other Capital Factory mentors, venture capitalists, or other entrepreneurs. I hope that you can help me spread the word to students who would benefit from it.

I’m very excited about Bob Metcalfe coming to UT. I had a chance to meet with him a few months ago and was very impressed. With his deep startup experience and vast network, I can’t imagine how he doesn’t create a noticeable boost for entrepreneurship at UT. You can follow him on Twitter at @BobMetcalfe

What else can we do? I’m willing to commit time, money and my network to pushing this forward.

Joshua Baer - @joshuabaer Founder of OtherInbox Managing Director of Capital Factory

Dec 23 2010, 12:04 PM

stephengoodwin responded:

Two quick things: 1. I know Bruce Porter has some big plans for helping UTCS become more entrepreneurial, so stay tuned. 2. I never understood why the class Software Engineering isn’t required.

Dec 23 2010, 12:11 PM

Ricardo Sanchez responded:

Very intriguing post, thank you for sharing. I have to disagree with one of your first statements about “Nerds come from universities with good computer science programs.”. This might be the reason why you are expecting a university such as UT to do more to promote entrepreneurship. While it is true that there are nerds/geeks that come out of CS programs, it is also true that this is not the only place… there are many geeks that start companies and they didn’t come from a CS program… a lot of startup founders are geeks who self taught programming and the like and ended up building companies. I do support the idea of UT helping by doing more to promote entrepreneurship and to support startups as much as possible. However, there are many other resources for students to look at if they are really interested in starting a startup, these resources are out there, trust me. For example, here in Austin we have many organizations such as Capital Factory, TechRanch, the Co-Founders Meetup (sorry for the shameless plug) and many others. There are also many Angel investors in town who would gladly talk to you if you demonstrate a viable idea/product and the passion to make it happen.

In short, while school is very important, it is not always the ideal place to learn about starting a company. My suggestion is, get out there, talk to people, get out of your comfort zone, get involved (yourself) with the startup community in Austin and don’t wait for UT to bring the startup community to you.

All the best!

Ricardo D Sanchez. Austin Tech Geeks http://austintechgeeks.com

Dec 23 2010, 1:54 PM

bscode responded:

I think there are a few misconceptions in this thread about what makes Stanford so friendly to startups. As someone who went there, majored in CS, and started a company while I was an undergrad, I’ve got a slightly different take. First of all, the CS department itself doesn’t do much to encourage startups. The biggest advocate for entrepreneurship on campus (at least while I was there) was a student-run group called BASES. They organize a regular series of events that bring entrepreneurs on campus, sponsor business plan competitions, and in general bring people together to learn and talk about startups. The single biggest thing you can do make UT more Stanford-like is to start a group like that (and you don’t need any professors to help you do it).

Second, I think that the practical courses you called out are the least important part of the Stanford CS education, and if I remember correctly, you’re only allowed to count one of them towards your major. The reason why people like to hire Stanford students (and why they make good startup founders) is that they have a very solid theoretical grounding that allows them to easily pick up the latest and greatest languages and tools. From what you say, it sounds like that is the focus of the UT department too, which I see as a very good thing. As for software engineering skills, I made it through Stanford without ever even hearing of version control or unit testing. But that stuff is easy to pick up on your own. Complexity theory, not as much.

As for business oriented senior projects, we didn’t have those either. I happened to turn my senior project into a successful startup (as did other people I know), but that was due to the inspiration I received from speakers at BASES events and in general being in the middle of Silicon Valley.

In short, it sounds to me like the UT CS department is doing just fine. You just need to get up off your butt and a) start a student group like BASES to foster entrepreneurship on campus, and b) just build something and release it. It’s so much easier to do that now than it was when I was in college that you really have no excuse.

Dec 23 2010, 2:02 PM

Elben Shira responded:

@bscode, thank you for the insight, especially for mentioning BASES. I only have an outsider’s point of view since I’m not a Stanford student, but from what I’ve heard BASES does an amazing job. I know they host YC’s startup school. I love the fact that UT is very theoretical (who doesn’t love complexity theory?), and I want that type of education to continue. I suppose I’m envious of Stanford’s close-knit connection with the startup community. Like @MichaelFairley stated, the fact that they’re within walking distance from campus makes the students/startups loop very tight.

Dec 23 2010, 2:51 PM

Andy Mills responded:

To any CS or statistics person that is reading this and wants to learn about startups first hand: I’ll hire you. Find me on the web and email me. I’ve got lots of exciting work, and you can use what you learn to eventually start a company of your own (if that’s what you want).

Dec 23 2010, 7:14 PM

Kevin Koym responded:

Good article- and there’s definitely a serious point to be made here. In my experience as a student at UT (graduated years ago- in ’90 with an EE degree) I took a few classes in entrepreneurship (specifically Engineering Entrepreneurship I and II as well as Engineering Economics I and II) which were very helpful…. but truth be told, nothing made a difference in my understanding of startup companies like the job that I took while still working on my degree at NeXT- Steve Jobs’ company (before he returned to Apple). What I find it hard to do now, though, as an entrepreneur and as Founder of the Tech Ranch Austin is to be able to find the places inside of UT to connect with students… most of the programs that UT (not the student orgs, but the formal connections into the University) are focused on placement at really large organizations. It was by chance as a student that I found the little card that opened up the opportunity for me at NeXT. Its not clear to me these days, especially being connected to so many startups (23 around Tech Ranch these days) where to go. UT needs a clearing house for startups, not just for large organizations for making these connections. We’ve had success in connecting through student organizations, but the difficulty is that usually the leaders of student organizations are moving on as they graduate. Moreover, there is a need (constantly) to teach startup skills… and startup skills are not the same as corporate skills. Too many programs, UT’s as well, prepare students for large corporations, not for startups.

Given my past at UT in the engineering school, and my experience now, it would be great to support these types of classes (I’d be happy to use Tech Ranch materials to do so). The key thing is knowing who to open those doors with. If you have suggestions, please let me know. I am @kkoym on twitter. I’d really like to see UT produce many many many more startups…. and many more students that are ready to take the startup adventure. It seems that more now than back when I was a student are aware of the startup career path (which is great!). I’d like to see how we can accelerate this, with or without UT’s participation. Know that we at the Tech Ranch are ready to work side by side to create this opportunity. And as an alumni, I am happy to carry a torch to see that this happens.

Thanks, Kevin Koym kevin@techranchaustin.com Founder, Tech Ranch Austin (technology venture accelerator)

Dec 23 2010, 8:51 PM

Doug responded:

Universities are not technical training entities. What you do with your education is your business. Get your angst off the ground and find your own opportunities.

Dec 24 2010, 10:06 AM

Thomas Finsterbusch responded:

Doug, would you consider Stanford and MIT “technical training entities”? They do all this and more, and their economic impact speaks for itself. Here’s a recent Kauffman study about wealth created for society by MIT alone:

The overall MIT entrepreneurial environment, consisting of multiple education, research and social network institutions, contributes to this outstanding and growing entrepreneurial output. Highlights of the findings include:

An estimated 6,900 MIT alumni companies with worldwide sales of approximately $164 billion are located in Massachusetts alone and represent 26 percent of the sales of all Massachusetts companies. 4,100 MIT alumni-founded firms are based in California, and generate an estimated $134 billion in worldwide sales. States currently benefiting most from jobs created by MIT alumni companies are Massachusetts (estimated at just under one million jobs worldwide), California (estimated at 526,000 jobs), New York (estimated at 231,000 jobs), Texas (estimated at 184,000) and Virginia (estimated at 136,000).


Dec 24 2010, 11:08 AM

Brian responded:

Lower the barriers of entry for joining this movement. End the application process – you no longer need permission to contribute to this culture. How can we foster a start-up mentality when you have to submit an application just to join something like 3DS?

Dec 24 2010, 11:10 AM


Famigo Games? Moodfish? Those are terrible examples.

Dec 24 2010, 11:12 AM

Elben Shira responded:

@Brian: I don’t run 3DS, but I think there are very valid reasons for an application. First, it is to foster quality over quantity. Second, it is to keep the ratio of engineers/designers/bizdev reasonable. Of course, an application process means that some qualified students that would greatly benefit won’t ever apply…

Dec 24 2010, 11:15 AM

Thomas Finsterbusch responded:

Brian: the 3DS application process is not designed to exclude anyone from the startup movement. It’s there simply because of limited resources: we can only support 40 participants every semester (food, office space, etc.), but we typically receive 200 applications. Think of it as an enrollment limit for the most popular university courses. Note that all of the 3DS information sessions and happy hours are open to all students, regardless of whether they get accepted to the weekend or not.

Dec 24 2010, 11:24 AM

Brian responded:

@Elben I’d love to hear how one can determine quality over quantity from an application. I’m being facetious and tongue-in-cheek, but the point i’m trying to make is that we can easily kill the very culture we are trying to foster. The success of a start-up isn’t based on its stats on paper. That is why we play the game.

Dec 24 2010, 11:30 AM

Brian responded:

@Elben I just reread my response and I think it came off a bit aggressive. My apologies, I’d like to be constructive not critical.

Dec 24 2010, 11:38 AM

Brian responded:

@Thomas I understand and the comment isn’t meant to be specific to 3DS; it is meant to encourage critical thinking about these organizations affecting the start-up mentality instead of being an effect of a growing movement.

I really like the participation and enthusiasm with 3DS, but I hope that others see that it will take more than just these type of events to define a movement.

Dec 25 2010, 10:23 AM

Doug responded:

Brian, RE: MIT as a technical training institute. Of course not. If Stanford, MIT, or UT want to get into the business of promoting business, that’s their business. It is not their primary mission. It shouldn’t be even their secondary mission. If you want your school to promote or encourage startups, you need to convince the university regents of the necessity. I would go with the increase in alumni funding as they start their own Facebook and donate millions.

Dec 25 2010, 10:55 AM

Thomas Finsterbusch responded:

@Brian: Why shouldn’t it be their secondary mission? I believe the regents are already convinced that entrepreneurship and furthering the economy are worthwhile goals. From UT’s Mission, Core Purpose, and Honor Code:

The university preserves and promotes the arts, benefits the state’s economy, serves the citizens through public programs and provides other public service.


Core Purpose: To transform lives for the benefit of society.

Why shouldn’t entrepreneurship be on par with research and education?

Dec 26 2010, 4:43 AM

kreilly liked this post.

Dec 27 2010, 12:13 PM

Josh Jones-Dilworth responded:

A few things to add here – first, at the two most recent UT “Ready To Commercialize” events, which I attended out of curiosity more than anything else, the clear consensus from most of the people “in power” was that, if innovation is a pyramid and only the tech at the top of the pyramid is strong enough to engender a stand-alone company, then most innovation at UT falls into the mid or low-tier of the innovation scale. Meaning – that UT produces a lot of commercializeable ideas and breakthroughs, but that these technologies are by their nature more appropriate for licensing – that they’re not enough to warrant a new company. I think the above addresses both sides of the coin as to whether there is enough real innovation at UT, whether it is findable and marketed properly, and what we (you) could do to increase the level of non-trivial innovation, regardless. I’ll leave that for discussion. But I wanted to report to the group what the predominant mentality is as far as I could discern – its a telling bias, whether correct or incorrect.

Second, as I’m a marketer, I tend to think of marketing as a solution. Often it’s not merely about what is in fact going on (good or bad) – it’s about people knowing what is going on, it’s about visibility and awareness and perception. Sometimes it is just a matter of magnetic documentation like this post that is needed to shake people out of their stupor and remember why they’re here. Storytelling is an important part of the entrepreneurship process, and I hope that doesn’t come off as pedantic – it really is undervalued, especially in Austin, which has terrible (human) documentation.

Enough good stories make the odds against you seem exciting, and they can make failure a point of pride. Good stories can make people want to move to a new city, or stick around much longer. It sounds like startupping just needs more credibility and visibility at UT – better PR, essentially. I think you need to continue beating this drum – in fact, we’d love for you to do a follow-up post on AustinStartup if you’re game (email me at josh@jones-dilworth.com). If this is a once-a-year complain-a-thon and generous offers of advice and support and volunteerism like those above fall on deaf ears, few active entrepreneurs or almuni will care much about your plight. You have to have that entrepreneurial unreasonableness to change the culture in the ways you’re suggesting. The reason Paul Graham’s essays are so powerful is because they make for great stories. Austin needs better storytelling, public and private.

Which gets me to a last point. I recently had a terrible experience – I successfully convinced a non-entrepreneur to be an entrepreneur. It’s wasn’t a total disaster, but it is something I regret intensely. Bad idea. I’ll offer as a conclusion that so much of UT is plug-and-play and…let’s just say it. UT is comfy. Easy (not intellectually, but resource and opportunity-wise). Buffet-style. Catered. Entrepreneurship is quite the opposite – it is elusive. Contrary. Self-reliant.

I think in the end I’d argue that entrepreneurs always have to self-select. And the best entrepreneurs try to dissuade, not convince, prospective ones. The hurdles are the precisely the point. If engineers at UT aren’t aware and ambitious enough to go out and find out what startups are, as you say, and seize the day, then it’s possible that no amount of enablement or institutional support will help. I absolutely think that UT can provide a better launchpad, and a more risk-tolerant culture DNA-wise (even if just because intrapreneurship concepts at large companies like IBM are de rigeur these days).

But Flip is totally right above – he looks for Rubyists for the same reason – it shows that a student has self-selected for something bigger and more ambitious. True entrepreneurs always materialize out of the ether and, uncompromisingly, make themselves known.

Dec 29 2010, 2:39 PM

Jeremy Jenkins responded:

Excellent discussion! @Flip

I’m an officer of a small, local, organization (Austin Software Mentors[1]) who’s been, over the past year or so, promoting a lot of the values discussed in this blog posting and thread. Our main objective is to fill gaps in the formal curriculum with values that members have gained through their working career.

While the aim of our organization is not a recruiting platform, it is a way to get in close contact with passionate students. As an example, one of ASM’s regular attendees recently got an internship at Infochimps, and another at my organization(2) (I am still looking for motivated students to offer internships to as well, by the way).

I’d love to explore the possibility of having Infochimps augment what we’re already doing. That’s actually an open ended invitation for anyone here who’s interested in actively donating their time to help mentor students.

I’ll be sure to chat with you at the next big data meetup, if we don’t talk sooner.

[1] http://atxsm.org [2] http://www.potomacfusion.com/

Dec 29 2010, 3:08 PM

Richard Schneeman responded:

@Andrew Hunter: I work for Gowalla as a rails dev and you’d be pleased to know I gave a six week long hands on class (on Rails) to the fine students of UT that would have me. I care deeply about the entrepreneurial spirit of coding. Without it I wouldn’t be where I am today. I would invite and your (and others’) thoughts/comments on how we can actively impact students and encourage them to be more entrepreneurial on the Austin Software Mentors group (http://atxsm.org) and mailing list (http://code.google.com/p/atx-sw-mentors/).>

Dec 29 2010, 9:35 PM

Sukant Hajra responded:

Yes, MIT and Stanford get smarter students than UT. And yes, the best companies, old (e.g. Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft) and new (e.g. Yelp, Zynga), descend upon the best UT graduates. But why is UT letting Silicon Valley lure the best and brightest away from Austin? Where graduates go is not a primary concern of the UT CS faculty. Their focus is on novel and compelling research. Right now, I’m thinking of Tony Hoare’s recent talk at UT. His core arguments denied the computer scientist of any hint of pragmatism. Pragmatism is left to the engineers, trained by some other department. . . over there. . . in that other building.

Also, I think you might be understating the power of what I’ve heard coined as “education by sorting.” School systems of all varieties have been invested in this strategy for ages using titles like “gifted and talented,” “magnet,” “honors,” and “ivy league.” It sounds great to educate students by removing barriers. But the barriers removed generally aren’t poor curricula, but poor students. As a case in point, consider Donald Knuth’s Art of Computer Programming series. This is a vanguard educational resource, produced by a vanguard professor, from a vanguard university. But I’d propose that it’s only comprehensible by students that already have a deep affinity, if not prior knowledge, of the material being presenting. I’m just not impressed by this kind of education.

We can’t though deny the economy of sorting. Sorting produces results. If UTCS is only interested in research, they’re doing an amazing job pursuing that goal, and sorting is a key strategy. Even if laws like the “Top 10%” allow second-tier students into the college, arcane curricula quickly facilitate a hefty dropout rate. Furthermore, under 9% of all undergraduate students pursue a graduate education, and that’s where the /real/ sorting begins. All the while, students are paying high dollar for kind this treatment.

So I propose that the difference between students populations matriculating from UT and those matriculating from more prestigious universities really just correlates to educational sorting (the prestige). Does MIT really educate better than UT? Maybe. But I believe most of MIT’s value bootstraps on the perception of MIT’s brand.

This is not to say that educational sorting doesn’t lead to benefits to society. Austin wouldn’t be a shadow of what we have now if we didn’t have UT; I wouldn’t live here. But UT’s contribution is trickle-down intellectualism. The goals of academia are not the goals of industry or the city. They aren’t perfectly orthogonal, but there are a lot of differences, so the trickle of intellectualism is peculiarly inefficient.

I’d love to hold UT to a higher standard of social imperative. But I also deeply sympathize with the CS program’s commitment to research. Where I differ with UT faculty is in the notion that UT has to choose between being a research institution or a trade school. There’s absolutely no reason that UT can’t teach critical software development skills concurrently and in no detriment to their already stellar emphasis on theory. But the necessary changes involve some work and resources. And the payoff to the quality of UT’s research might be only tangential, so the faculty isn’t motivated to contribute.

As a compromise, and also because I’ve graduated and am now an outsider, I’m more deeply interested in what industry can do to help UT students. The problems with the quality of UT’s graduates more deeply affects industry, so we in industry are more likely candidates to proffer a meaningful solution. My participation in the Austin Software Mentorship program Jeremy and Richard mentioned above is my best attempt to work towards a solution, but I think we have a long way to go.

Finally, I’m interested in other metrics beyond the number of startup founders UT produces. Consider startups that “make it” but suffer from poor software software engineering and unsustainable growth years later. This for me is the real problem the software industry suffers from. Most software developers, even highly educated ones, code horribly. The compromises we make to meet financial pressures are generally horrendous. Flip expressed interest in the “get-shit-done” gene. And that’s essential for us all. But with just a little education beyond sorting, we can figure out how to “get-shit-done-well.” I know some of you harped on source control as a missing component in UT’s curriculum. I agree. But really, is source control really the biggest problem we face? Day-to-day source control workflows are largely simple branches, merges, with a long stream of commits in the middle. People pick up what they need to pretty quickly. What they don’t pick up on is how to consistently write code that’s not only correct, but also highly comprehensible, flexible, reusable, trustworthy, and easily maintainable. And some people that do figure this out often feel they figured it out at some great expense, over years of practice.

What about pedagogy? Isn’t that the proposition of a true education? When we go to classes on parallel programming, we don’t see nasty real-world code. We are presented (hopefully) with clean, small examples that illustrate a concept. Can we do better than just throw students into a fire of some industry-grade project? Isn’t that what our internships and co-ops do anyway? And are the results of these experiences making much of a dent in improving the quality of software our younger programmers make?

I’d like to see students work on smaller problems, more along the scope of what might be finished over a weekend, but then spend a lot more time refactoring their code. I’d then couple this practice with a strong dose of code review, both among peers and by experienced professionals. From my experience, this is in stark contrast to what students do normally with their university homework and projects (I remember hastily assembled implementations with tedious in-line comments to provide the illusion of professionalism). In this regard, I draw from an analogy between software development and writing English prose. I can imagine a writer that could write a great short poem or story, but is not yet prepared to write a giant epic or novel. However, surely anyone who has expertise in the long form also has a good deal of competence in the short form as well. Why then do we not take this attitude with software? We ask students fresh out of college to spin webs of hundreds of thousands of lines of code, when they barely have the skills to write a single file cleanly.

That’s what I’ve got. I hope it contributes to the discussion.

Jan 1 2011, 9:27 AM

sherrylowry responded:

What a truly interesting exchange! I’m in Austin and I work more nationally and internationally - so that means I don’t only “think” Austin.

What does that mean, realistically? When it comes to entrepreneurism….. - Weekly - religiously, I listen to (or watch/hear) the Stanford Entrepreneur’s podcasts and video-casts, for starters: Right here you can hear Jennifer Aaker (Stanford GSB) – who I believe also is a moving force within the BASES endeavors mentioned in this essay. - http://ecorner.stanford.edu/podcasts.html

I often have wondered why UT does not have something formally organized such as BASES out of Stanford – and that would take both student, professor as well as local entrepreneurial sponsorships, as I understand it. Here’s more about what Stanford’s is about: - http://bases.stanford.edu/about/

Because i do think well beyond Austin, I asked Eve Richter earlier in 2010 about the literal smaller business stat research here. She got the official info and reported back to me right at 80% of business here in Austin is done by companies with only 9 staff or fewer (i believe specifically at least 75% of companies have 5 or fewer employees.) Typically, most American cities i believe have 30-33% of businesses being smaller businesses like this. Austin is remarkable, and as such, may actually be the most prolific in the country at supporting such small business.

By the way, these are NOT the one being funded by Austin to locate here, NOR are the ones with surges in huge hiring #’s and $’s - because they don’t grow THAT fast NOR do they lay-off like the latter do.

So – if students actually plan to stay in Austin to live, the point here is maybe we are both educating for at least for some of the wrong purposes and under the wrong assumptions. This definitely makes a difference for the future.

Every piece of research i see says we are heading toward MORE and more small businesses driving our healthier economies - not growing already large companies larger and larger. We have recent evidence why that is problematic for our core economy.

Beyond this – every university needs to be constantly taking pulse as to how the culture, including their own has or needs to shift to keep current. Clearly, education is following trends, not typically setting them. This, possibly, is part of a needed conversation. What did Stanford do to help support what Silicon Valley was about?

Did it help lead in such a way the Silicon Valley culture became such, or did it follow?

What i see locally is more and more are moving HERE to Austin out of Silicon Valley, not the reverse. So - outside the university environments, what’s actually happening here to catalyze this?

I’m very glad to see commentary from Joshua B. @joshuabaer and Kevin Koym @kkoym and @techranch and Ricardo S. @ricardodsanchez – who are all daily involved in entrepreneurism that works – are contributing to the conversation.

We all ARE the village it takes - not just a university, not just larger or enterprise companies, not just start-ups. It is the community brew and innovation they all can together catalyze and create.

Sherry @sherrylowry The Lowry Group with the 5-generation team: GenAll

May 24 2011, 3:31 PM

Joleen responded:

There’s a lot of comments here, so if this has already been spoken of - oops. FYI - UT will have a brand new class Fall 2011 called 1 Semester Startup. It is being led by Bob Metcalfe, Joshua Baer and Johnny Butler. http://www.1semesterstartup.com/