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

July 14, 2012 Leave a comment

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.

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Categories: Harvard, Technology

Impending Mayhem in Asia, and Starting Work for Quixey

June 5, 2012 1 comment

The last couple of weeks have been surreal. After four years, I graduated from Harvard University. I was able to share this unbelievable experience with my grandparents, who flew all the way from Southern France to Cambridge for the week. And the future couldn’t be more exciting: in June I will be traveling around Asia (Hong Kong, Saigon, Singapore, Bangkok, Shanghai) with three close buddies. In July, I will be joining Quixey, a start-up that has built a functional search engine for apps. I couldn’t be more excited to be moving back to San Francisco and working with a team composed of brilliant engineers, driven and effective BD guys, and type A senior leadership. I’ll be reporting to David Hytha, CSO, for a bit as I learn (hopefully quickly) my way around the company before being transferred to either the business development or product team.

This entry is more of a stream of consciousness-esque post. The last semester has been an incredible ride, full of late nights–some spent out with friends, and others burning the midnight oil in Widener finishing up my thesis, and others yet spent in my corner in Currier House bugging my roommate. Now that I’ve finally had some time to internalize everything, I’d like to share some of the thoughts that have been tumbling around in my head.

Graduation: Commencement of a New Chapter

Harvard is often treated as the pinnacle of success. I was one of two people in my high school graduating class to be accepted into Harvard. In my hometown, people’s perception instantly changed: I was no longer the class clown who sat in the back of class, the joke who participated the in the sophomoric stand-up comedy club, or the water polo jock who always smelled of chlorine from morning practice. I was now a Harvard undergrad, one expected to succeed at everything, to change the world.

Arrogantly, I welcomed the change–I was a cocky high school senior who strutted around, confident that I could waltz into Harvard and have everything fall into my lap. Four years later, I can only laugh at how naive I was. I remember my high school European history teacher, Mr. Florio, telling me that I never worked that hard in his classes. I balked, telling him that I had actually spent a lot of time preparing for APs, SATs, and the rest of that alphabetized soup of tests. He told me that I would have to step it up in college if I ever were to succeed.

I’m glad I went to college at Harvard, because I slowly and painfully learned to rise to the next level, all while getting a taste of failure. In four years, I was challenged academically. I learned how to learn. I taught myself how to be meticulous in learning class material rather than simply cram; how to prepare for tests by anticipating hypotheticals; and how to understand ideas frontwards and backwards. In four years, I lost many times. I lost big, and I lost often. Freshman year I received the worst grades I had ever received in my life. I lost more water polo games in one year than I did in four years in high school. My freshmen and sophomore year I played in as many water polo games as I did as a freshman starter on the JV team at Menlo Atherton High. My senior year I flew around the country–NYC, D.C, SF, LA–interviewing for consulting and corporate strategy firms, all to be rejected time and time again. To say my ego was bruised is to say the French were a little bit embarrassed by their national team debacle in the 2010 World Cup. I’m glad I went to Harvard because things I took for granted–success being one of them–no longer came on a silver plate.

In the grand scheme of things, my failures were not a big deal. In fact, they were infantile, pitiful compared to greater pitfalls that I have personally seen plague other people. I had the privilege of traveling in Beijing with a close family friend who was born and raised there, and who showed me how poverty really affects the average citizens. I’ve seen family members in France deal with kids dropping out of school and erasing their potential simply because they had not pursued their education. Trying to support your family, trying to get from one day to the other–those are real struggles. The common trivialities that I faced at Harvard were in the grand scheme of things miniscule and insignificant, and I cringe at the thought that I blew them out of proportion while at school. I should’ve have looked on the positive side, seen what I had going for myself (or as they say in French, I should’ve realized ce que j’avais dans le creux de ma main, or what I had in the small of my hand), and not complain.

Harvard kids are often seen as molded and motivated by the successes that seem to follow them around. But it’s the failures, albeit as small as they may be, that shape us the most. You learn more from when you make a mistake because you want to be damned sure you don’t repeat it.

But you also learn how to take joy from small things. When I was walking around in Beijing with my family friend in the areas tourists are made to avoid, I talked to a retired Chinese colonel. He proudly showed me his little apartment, where he proudly showed his one heirloom: the sword that he had been in his ownership since the first day he had become an officer. He looked on the positive side of his life, and drew happiness from that in a place where happiness was tough to come by. That lesson wouldn’t fully dawn on me until last week.

Real World: “Passion Rules Obligation”

One of the more memorable undergrad speeches delivered during senior week discussed the value of enthusiasm. People fall into the depths of cynicism and pessimism and lose sight of the innocence and happiness often accompanying youthfulness. We should not lose sight of that enthusiasm, because it is contagious and fulfilling–it allows for one to fully enjoy what one is doing.

My good friend, Jason Kwok, explains this point the best in his blog. In an article called “Passion Rules Obligation,” Jason reflected on his experiences interning at JPMorgan and Google while at UCLA (he graduated in three and a half years #legend). For me, his most introspective point is as follows:

“At this time of my life, I need to grow. I need to push myself to become faster, smarter, and more efficient. I don’t know if obligation will accomplish this. I know that passion will. Passion Rules Obligation.”

I couldn’t agree more. At this point in my life, I also figure I should also take a risk and pursue my passion. (check out the rest of the post at http://jasonkwok.com/2011/08/passion-rules-obligation/)

I’ve always wanted to build something of value, and get a product in the hands of many. Maybe it’s because I was raised in the Bay Area, but I always felt that tech companies did an incredible job of solving people’s problems in creative ways. The problems start-ups tackle every day are intellectually challenging and rewarding. I love sitting down with engineers and bd guys in order to understand how a product works, and then thinking of different ways to get it in the hands of people.

That’s why I’m joining Quixey in July. The start-up is located smack in the middle of everything. In spite of what pundits say about the value of NYC and other tech hubs as the new beacons of technological innovation, I still think that Silicon Valley has the soft qualities that allow companies like Quixey to flourish. And I think Quixey is tackling a complex problem. Search is technologically fascinating, and Quixey is building a functional and platform agnostic search engine that draws on its unique database, one that took two years to put together before launching. The start-up defines apps as more than just the ones found in your iPhone and Android directories, but also as plug-ins and pieces of software associated with websites and APIs such as Flickr and Groupon. In a world where there are millions upon millions of apps, Quixey organizes all that date by gathering and collecting data published on blogs, Twitter feeds, review sites, and media outlets, and draws upon that data in order to allow users to search for the apps using natural language. The implications are indeed astounding.

I’m excited to be part of the team. I really believe in the people working at the company; I’m looking forward to learn about the product and expand my technical skills and business know-how; and ultimately, I’m thrilled to be helping grow a company I believe can make a lasting impact. This is the beauty of working for a start-up: on one hand you can crash and burn, or you can make a company that gets bought up and helps an already established firm improve their business. And if you’re legendary, you build a stand alone and (maybe?) public company. I love to compete, and this seems to be one the biggest competitions I could face. I’m relishing the challenge.

Onwards: Living in the Moment

This last thought–the realization that I have always had the unconditional support of friends and family-has made me reflect carefully for the last couple of weeks (not to say I haven’t thought about this for years, but the thought is particularly poignant now that I’m in the real world and I have to look to those closest for even more advice and support). I’ve made a ton of mistakes over the last four years, and particularily the last couple of months. I’ve taken people for granted. Yet I’ve been blessed to be surrounded by people who genuinely care about me and who have been patient with me.

To those that have seen me through everything, this post is for you. “Only stupid people don’t change,” Madame Popp has told me on multiple occasions while scolding me for making the same mistake over and over again (I think most of them had to do with me not taking the garbage or leaving the ketchup bottle on the table). Hopefully, if I’ve put enough will power into it, I can change (sorry for the corniness, it must be the French side of me flaring up…)

I have much to learn, and a long way to go. But in the meantime, the last four years have an incredible learning experience, and I am excited for the west/best coast, the nights in San Francisco, the days pursuing a dream, and the uncertainty of it all…stay tuned!


Categories: Harvard, Quixey

Blog posts moving to harvardcollegetechreview.com: check it out!

January 31, 2012 Leave a comment

Lebron James style (except maybe with less pomp and definitely a lot less skill relative to what I do), I’m taking my talents to the Harvard College Tech Review (check us out at harvardcollegetechreview.com). They’ve been kind enough to accept me as a blogger and, at the same time, indulge me; I also get to run their business development. Basically it’s up to me to grow their footprint at Harvard, partner with other organization to expand our reader base. Super pumped, as this is actually nitty-gritty, dirty work. Senior spring, am I right? (we’ll be hearing that a lot this semester…)

The team is awesome–check out Jason Black, Alex McLeese, Beau Feeny as the guys who put it all together. Super young organization–everyone here is really passionate about what they do. These guys want to write about everything including tech companies’ business strategies, artificial intelligence, web design, the legal ramifications of landmark Supreme Court cases, the impact of social media on lifestyle and business…the possibilites are endless.

If you want to JOIN up, please do! We’re looking for bloggers, web developers, web designers…if you can code, write long winded articles (or short winded, either one works fine, mine will be probably be short and sweet, like Madame Popp’s lemon cake), or if you want to help me grow the blog, email me at apopp [at] fas [dot] harvard [edu].

Sneak peak of what is to come…Alex is going to write a series on the implications of U.S. v. Jones,  as it relates to the future of GPS tracking. Beau is all over Google+ integration into social search and what that means for you…and I’m going to spearhead a lifestyle article this week, explaining how social media can be leveraged to grow brand recognition. From there, I’ll return to my series on location-based services, and the hope to is end up discussing the major trends in the SaaS industry (can we talk about content management?).

Stay tuned!Image

Categories: Harvard