Home > Harvard, Technology > Why Harvard Did Not Get Schooled: Defense Against BetaBeat’s article, and Ramifications

Why Harvard Did Not Get Schooled: Defense Against BetaBeat’s article, and Ramifications

On July 10th, Kelly Faircloth wrote an article entitled “Harvard Gets Schooled: As Techies Flock to Stanford, MIT, Even Penn, Crimson Goes Green With Envy.” She argues that Harvard does not prepare its students to spearhead any sort of entrepreneurial venture. Faircloth continues that your typical Harvard student–who, according to Kelly, has never had to live a “disruptive” life–is ill-prepared for the vicissitudes of start-up life.

Faircloth argues that Harvard will continue to lag behind MIT, Penn, and Stanford in preparing students for start-up life. She concedes Harvard will not be ousted as a beacon of excellence any time of soon. Indeed, the exit opportunities for the graduating class of 2012 reflects that the Crimson keeps sending its graduates to the top consulting and I-banking institutions; many more enroll in top PhD programs and law schools. Yet Faircloth argues that Harvard students aren’t suited for start-ups. So to speak, they’ve been taught to color within the lines, not outside of them. The creativity and willingness to break the established norms of technology and society are traits common to start-up visionaries. These qualities are not usually associated with the over-achieving, type-A, extra-credit-on-homework-seeking Harvard students. Certainly, the institution has redeeming qualities, but Faircloth wonders whether a cultural shift  in the university’ framework can foster entrepeneurial spirits that seem to have sprouted more easily at Stanford. But while Faircloth mentions that computer science is becoming more popular in the College, and that working for start-ups post graduation is becoming sexier, her tone remains skeptical. Can Harvard really keep up with Stanford, MIT, and Penn in the quest to prepare students to become the next entrepreneurial visionaries?

While this argument is trivial, almost inconsequential in the larger scheme of themes (scroll down to my second last paragraph if you don’t want to hear about another trivial Ivy League vs Stanford argument), it still merits discussion for the sake of argument.Having joined a start-up immediately post graduation, and knowing a fair number of other grads who have done so, and others who have started their own companies, I believe that Faircloth’s argument needs to be qualified and refined.

I disagree first and foremost with her implication that Harvard kids are not ready for start-up life. Harvard teaches you how to compete with some of the hungriest, most ambitious young adults. You have to adapt quickly, and work in groups to improve your chances to score better on that problem set or exam. In the end the material you learn may not be the most useful–my focus field was intellectual history, and I built a background in microeconomics and game theory–but the methods by which you learn impact you later during your career. Four years at school taught me how to be resourceful and scrappy. This means that I have no problems doing anything and everything. And I am not the only one who has this mentality–conversations with some of my graduating friends agree that to succeed you have to do anything (within moral guidelines of course). This mentality, or this desire to do everything you can to put yourself in a position of success, transfers directly to start-up life. If you’re on the technical side, you will be willing to code all day, every day. If you’re on the business side, you will help your director of bd and do your own competitive research to locate potential partners, or you’ll hit the pavement and source your own deals. In either case, Harvard grads will be creative enough to adapt their analytical skills to the grind of start-up life. In essence, Harvard kids are ready for start-up life because they already have this inner motivation that drives them to go the extra mile.

Faircloth also argued that Harvard does not have the same types of connections to Silicon Valley that are available to Stanford students; therefore, in a couple of years it will be difficult to locate Harvard grads in the up and coming companies of the Valley. I believe Faircloth’s comment should be qualified. From my experience, it was a bit more difficult to connect with entrepreneurs on the west coast; I had to use my own network to find out which start-ups were hiring. As someone with a background in business, not engineering, it was even more difficult to find smaller companies looking to expand their bd or strategic partnerships departments. Harvard’s network is a great resource, do not get me wrong. When you’re in Silicon Valley competing against Stanford and Berkeley kids, you can raise an eyebrow or two with Harvard written on your resume. Nonetheless, drawing from my experience, I would agree with Faircloth’s argument that Stanford is at an advantage because it is so close proximity to Silicon Valley’s human capital–that tight-nit community is hard to come by unless you are within at the epicenter of it all. Harvard just doesn’t have that.

Let’s address one of Faircloth’s more salient points–can Harvard adequately prepare their students to understand technical concepts and prepare them to build software products? Certainly, MIT and Stanford are consistently ranked higher than Harvard in engineering school rankings. However, Harvard still has all the resources in place to train the new generation of engineers and product managers. There is no question about that. I want to qualify Faircloth’s argument because from my inside perspective, I realized that Harvard does a great job training generalists. The beauty at Harvard lies in the way a student can major in a liberal art and get a secondary field in a technical field, thus balancing a broad analytical skill set with a technical know-how. The counter-argument might edict that any of Havard’s rivals could do the same. To a certain extent, yes, but I think that this concentration-secondary field combination is more popular at Harvard than at the other schools. Product managers in particular need to have a fine business acumen all while being versed in a technical training–the dual study that Harvard enables is a formidable preparation for that. (again this train of thought comes from my own personal experience…if you have any statistics saying differently I’d love to see them).

At the end of the day, this discussion is trivial. Does anyone really care if Harvard is better than Stanford or vice versa? And let’s not forget that they’re not the only schools that send qualified talent to Silicon Valley. Let’s stop pretending that these institutions are the jewels for preparing businessmen and women and engineers to enter the real world. I wanted to qualify Faircloth’s argument. Things are never as black and white as they seem, and Faircloth does a great job in nuancing her points. I’ve tried taking that a step further. But at the end of our discussions, we have to realize–and by we, I mean you, the reader, and me, the writer–that there is more to life than the institution that prepared you. These types of meta arguments are trivial, and make us roll our eyes.

But I hope that this discussion shows us that Silicon Valley highlights that we should look past the brand on the resume, as in the end, it doesn’t matter where you went to school, but whether you can deliver. Whether you’re a startup or an established software company in the valley, you’re only as good as the product or services you deliver. My argument might be inconsequential, but its ramifications are not.

Categories: Harvard, Technology
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