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Friday, April 26, 2013

Developing science and engineering majors

Last month I participated in the San Diego Festival of Science & Engineering, which touched more than 50,000 K-12 students interested in technical careers. In some ways, it was like a personal homecoming since the key event was the annual Greater San Diego Science & Engineering Fair, where I got my start as a pre-teen computer scientist and served for 12 years as a judge.

The supply of science and engineering college graduates is crucial on multiple levels. These are the students who grow up to be founders of high-tech startups — whether young entrepreneurs before or during college (as in Gates, Zuckerberg, Wozniak) or those that start a company after a few years of industry experience (as I did). You also need the engineers and scientists that work for these startups.

To follow up on one of the talks, I found an excellent resource for preparing K-12 students for science careers. But sending children to STEM college majors is not enough, as two articles demonstrated. One, in the New York Times, was entitled “Why Science Majors Change Their Minds”. A sequel, “Why Engineering Majors Change Their Minds,” was published at the Forbes website.

The upshot of these recommendations? Engineering is hard, the grades are lower than for easy majors, and the competition is particularly ruthless at the top school. (Berkeley comes to mind as a place that particularly likes to wash out engineering majors). They also note the deferred gratification: several years of lower division prep followed by the interesting stuff as a junior or senior.

To address this, Berkeley had my niece take a freshman engineering seminar to give her the big picture of what she was studying. I recall that my favorite (STEM) course freshman year — when I was still intending to be a EE — was taking the sophomore intro circuits class my first semester at MIT from a great teacher who later went on to be a IEEE Fellow.

A friend's son is hoping to join a top engineering program in 16 months, and so I’ve been giving his parents suggestions of how to think about picking a college and a career. One is to consider the top engineering teaching schools, like Harvey Mudd, Cal Poly, Olin or the military academies. (Or, if he goes to a top engineering research school, to join a professor’s lab as soon as possible). Other ideas include getting a summer job that involves working alongside engineers. Or, to do as my daughter is doing, attend a summer engineering program for high school students such as UC’s Cosmos.

Certainly what top students (and would-be entrepreneurs) need is an understanding of the technology and a curiosity to think about what that technology can do. For example, some Harvey Mudd students used their understanding of 3D printing to create a startup that makes custom iPhone cases (that can be self-printed or shipped).

Still, even with well-laid plans, there are plenty of opportunities to go astray, for the reasons identified by the NYT and Forbes. My friends who succeeded in engineering found a good job out of college (or as a summer job during college) that validated their choice and allowed them to reap the rewards of their long hard work.

In this era where the “new normal” is 8+% unemployment overall and 12+% for recent graduates, it seems more important than ever to find schools that find high demand for their graduates in the marketplace. Yes, some of this is a self-fulfilling prophecy — top schools attract top students who place well — but as a parent (or student) we want the best path to success. It’s great for students to take a direct path into entrepreneurship, but no one’s ROI on college investment should assume that lightning will strike during a four year window.

Finally, I advise every engineering student to do a business or econ minor (or even double major) — which will pay dividends in companies both big and small. I was blissfully unaware of business as an undergraduate, and had to do remedial education in night school to have a clue as to how to run my company. For business, I would recommend marketing, accounting, finance and general management. For econ, I'd recommend micro, if possible skip macro, and take managerial topics such as industrial/organizational econ, decision theory, law and economics or even econometrics or game theory.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Will high growth bring a failed marriage?

Everyone knows being an entrepreneur is stressful, particularly for a high-growth startup. Often entrepreneurs pay a high personal price — whether or not their firm is successful.

Still, last week I was surprised to read a New York Times blog posting that suggested that the outcome is predetermined. The article was written by a former entrepreneur who runs an entrepreneurial training program in suburban Atlanta:
Balance? Don’t Believe the Hype
By Cliff Oxford

“How can fast-growth entrepreneurs lead a more balanced life?” is one of those agonizing questions that I am often asked. The good news is that there is a rather simple answer: “You can’t.” Save your money, and don’t waste your time on the books and coaches who want to sell you advice. Here is why.

Fast growth is a 24/7 proposition. It is not just the hours you put in at work; it’s that it owns your head. You think about work in the shower and on vacation, and you get lost in all of the ideas while you are sitting at dinner. It is exciting and dangerous. Of course, the collateral damage on the big three — family, health, and faith — can be disastrous.

Now I work with hundreds of fast-growth entrepreneurs who struggle to find the balance they read about in airplane magazines as they zip off to see the next customer, and I see these tragedies happen over and over. I tell fast-growth entrepreneurs not to get married while they are in fast-growth mode. They always do.

I thought I could help entrepreneurs understand that balance is a fantasy — a good fantasy but still fantasy. … I have been told that this is about the same success rate for heroin users in rehab.

Here is the deal: Fast growth means all-in, 24/7 for the mission and success of the company. Balance is snake-oil that says it can all be pretty and nice. It can’t. But I think setting boundaries can help.

Boundaries are trade-offs, and entrepreneurs are good at negotiating trade-offs. Balance is propaganda that sells well but is a cruel hoax that will continue to write tragedies.
The author’s viewpoint seems to be strongly colored by his own divorce and regrets over his loss of time with his (now adult) daughter. I have my own regrets over poor work-life tradeoffs, but (perhaps with more distance) am less inclined to generalize.

Oxford correctly notes that Bill Gates held off on the marriage and kids thing until he was starting to wind down his Microsoft role. Similarly, I would note that Steve Jobs didn’t get married (or have his last three kids) during his original Jobs I period, but in the NeXT interregnum before the Jobs II era. Both Larry Page and Sergey Brin got married in 2007, when Google was nine years old and worth billions.

Still, there’s a difference between an increased risk and a deterministic outcome. I asked one friend who works with Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, and he strongly disagreed because, as he said, “Have seen people able to do both.”

Instead, I think it’s the personality of those who become entrepreneurs — not just the single-mindedness, but the insurmountable ego. It’s not just (as Oxford suggest) the single-mindedness of pursuing The Next Big Thing, but also the know-it-all confidence (aka arrogance aka hubris) and need for control that inevitably leak over from business into one’s personal life.

So the lesson is not one just for entrepreneurs, but a broader lesson for driven, successful people who do need that sort of balance in their life. Perhaps as Oxford suggests, boundaries can provide a way out for those who’ve lost all sense of perspective.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The opportunity cost of entrepreneurial education

A friend tonight tweeted a column about why entrepreneurs shouldn’t get MBAs. The Wall Street Journal column last Monday says “I no longer advise startups to hire M.B.A.s and I discourage students who want to become entrepreneurs from doing an M.B.A.” and a follow up Friday on LinkedIn makes similar points.

The author, Vivek Wadhwa, is a former entrepreneur who’s made a point of being an iconoclast on trade, immigration, education and a variety of other topics since taking his first adjunct position in academia at Duke back in 2005. Having seen some strong opinions in areas where I have direct knowledge, I’ve always tended to take his postings with a grain (if not a kilo) of salt.

The LinkedIn column identifies some important risks for entrepreneurs. The first is the cost ($100+K) of getting an MBA, which tends to push MBA graduates towards corporate rather than entrepreneurial opportunities. (This problem has gotten more severe as state-subsidized MBAs have gone away: a Haas or UCLA MBA that 20 years ago cost $10K in tuition is now over $100K). Related to this is the opportunity cost, i.e. two years out of the workforce: if you have the next Facebook, you should be starting it rather than getting a degree.

Wadhwa also questions the relevance of MBA programs for new and small companies — a point I observed when taking MBA classes (during my PhD) back in 1994-1996. Still, this is a terribly broad brush, given the wide range of programs around the country, and the number of serious entrepreneurship faculty (such as Tom Eisenmann) trying to provide real entrepreneurial insights in the MBA classroom.

I’d agree with Wadhwa that a good one-year specialized master’s is a reasonable compromise. I don’t know much about his own program at Duke, but certainly could recommend the engineering management programs at Berkeley or Stanford’s highly influential part-time program.

However, I find some of Wadhwa’s advice more than a little contradictory:
I believe very much in the value and importance of education and consider the bachelors degree to be a basic requirement for success in business — whether you are working for someone else or starting your own. If you don’t have this, you are at a severe disadvantage because you have too many gaps in your knowledge and you have not had a chance to develop important social and learning skills.

My team at Harvard and Duke looked into the backgrounds of tech entrepreneurs found that, on average, MBAs start their companies 13 years after graduating. Subsequent research revealed that what makes entrepreneurs successful is their experience — including previous successes and failures; management teams; and luck. Next on the list are professional networks and education. 
Yes, it’s redundant for someone with a good undergraduate business degree to get an MBA — whether trying to be an entrepreneur or not. Those with undergraduate business degrees may be well-suited at starting a franchise or retail firm, or (after many years’ experience) of being the finance or marketing cofounder of a tech startup.

However, the advice to avoid an MBA is problematic for would-be tech entrepreneurs. How do you get a bachelor’s in business when you’re majoring in engineering or computer science (or molecular biology) at a top school? The normal route — the one I have long advised — is for would-be entrepreneurs to get an undergraduate tech degree and a graduate business degree.

And just because you got your degree 13 years before you start your company, doesn’t mean it wasn’t valuable. A good degree from a good school admits you into a good firm, good experience, and good professional and social networks. Without some sort of business training, 13 years later an engineer or scientist will still be (“just”) an engineer or scientist.

I never got a formal business education before starting my company, but I did have a few UCSD Extension courses that helped tremendously. I would have done much, much better if I’d understood VC, entrepreneurial exits and consumer marketing before co-founding a company in a burst of excess (and unjustified) optimism.

Overall, these columns show the problem with black-and-white, one-size-fits-all advice. On the one hand, getting an MBA has a cost, and sometimes the cost is too high. On the other hand, tech entrepreneurs have almost insurmountable disadvantages if they don’t understand the basics of business — which might be solved by an MBA, a dual major, a business minor, or a well-trusted relative who will look after their interests when they are starting their firm.

So if the point is to say that entrepreneurs should never get an MBA, that’s clearly an exaggeration to make a point. If the point is to caution would-be entrepreneurs to carefully assess the risk-benefit of an MBA before starting, I’d say Amen! — but that would also apply to anyone getting a graduate degree, whether an MBA, a Professional Science Masters’ or a PhD.