Gas station without pumps

2016 November 11

Overvaluing innovation

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 10:43
Tags: , , , ,

Mark Guzdial, in We overvalue innovation and entrepreneurship: Shifting the focus to Maintenance over Fads, points out

We increasingly teach computer science to prepare students to be innovators and create new things (e.g., join startups), when the reality is that most computer science graduates are going to spend the majority of their time maintaining existing systems. (See the papers by Beth Simon and Andy Begel tracking new hires at Microsoft.)  Few who do enter the startup world will create successful software and successful companies, so it’s unlikely that those students who aim to create startups will have a lifelong career in startups. In terms of impact and importance, keeping large, legacy systems running is a much greater social contribution than creating yet another app or game, when so few of those startup efforts are successful.

His post was triggered by a Freakonomics podcast In Praise of Maintenance, which includes Lee Vinsel (of Stevens Institute of Technology) saying

VINSEL: The value of engineering is much, much more than just innovation and new things.  Focusing on taking care of the world rather than just creating the new nifty thing that’s going to solve all of our problems.  If you look at what engineers do, out in the world, like 70–80 percent of them spend most of their time just keeping things going. And so, this comes down to engineering education too, when we’re forcing entrepreneurship and innovation as the message, is that we’re just kind of skewing reality for young people and we’re not giving them a real picture and we’re also not valuing the work that they’re probably going to do in their life. That just seems to me to be kind of a bad idea.

It also includes Martin Casado, a general partner with the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, saying

CASADO: Large public companies in mature markets tend to invest primarily on maintenance. And often they don’t have the additional capital you need to do large innovation. So for example between say 2011 and 2015 growth companies, companies that are in fast-growing areas, spent two times more than legacy companies on research and development. So as companies mature , the majority of their investment and their spend is kind of maintaining existing technologies and so forth. And this is largely because of the pressure from the public markets.

The idea is that well-established companies don’t innovate—they maintain.  When they need innovation, they buy a startup company that looks promising.  Venture capitalists invest in highly speculative innovations, while the stock market invests in stable companies that mainly do maintenance rather than innovation.

Steven Dubner, the podcast author, says

Not often, but once in awhile, I take the time to marvel at the fact that so many people do so much work behind the scenes to keep the world humming. Whether it’s the internet, the roads, the electricity grid, you name it. Of course it’s easy to point out the failures—they’re visible, whereas the bulk of maintenance is practically invisible. But, in praise of maintenance, let me just say this: it’s necessary work; it’s hard work; and for people like me, who are always in a hurry to make the next new thing, it can be really unappealing work.

Although the podcast was talking mainly about infrastructure maintenance (both civil engineering and cyber infrastructure), I like Mark Guzdial’s approach of looking at engineering education, which has started stressing entrepreneurship.

Two decades ago, entrepreneurship was a minor add-on to engineering education.  A few engineers were expected to form startups, but they were mostly on their own—it was a path only for highly motivated individuals, not seen as a dominant form of employment. Now every engineering school seems to push entrepreneurship at its students, as if working for someone else is some sort of failure.

For faculty, this push is often a “do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do” admonition:

The fraction of start-up owners among recent graduates is 6.4% for all universities and colleges and 5.2% for top-rated schools. These fractions are several times higher than the fraction of start-up owners among faculty, which is 1.3% for all schools and 1.6% for top-rated schools. Indeed, start-ups by recent graduates outnumber start-ups by faculty by a factor of 24.3 among all colleges and universities and by a factor of 11.7 when looking only at “top-rated schools”. []
Now 6.4% of graduates owning start-ups is a pretty large number of students, so there is reason to make entrepreneurship instruction widely available, but apparently 94.6% of students are not going to be owners of start-ups, so there needs to be more emphasis on the sort of maintenance work that is the bread-and-butter of any industry.
(Before someone calls me on it, I’m aware that my 94.6% figure is bogus—the 6.4% figure was based on current owners of start-ups, not eventual owners of start-ups.  I suspect that the number of eventual entrepreneurs may be double or even triple the reported figure, which still leaves over 80% of the students never owning start-ups.)
So the traditional engineering education, which prepared students about equally for new design and for maintenance of existing systems, is still much needed.  How should we be shaping our curricula to meet both sets of needs? How do we get the message to students that innovation is only a small part of the real job, particularly when the media is putting so much emphasis on “innovation” and “disruption”?

1 Comment »

  1. […] a Maker: resources for a hobbyist engineer in which I talked a bit about becoming a maker and Overvaluing innovation in which I talked a little about the importance of maintenance. What I’m showing today is […]

    Pingback by Big patch mending | Gas station without pumps — 2016 November 12 @ 12:44 | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: