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2016 November 11

Overvaluing innovation

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 10:43
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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”. [http://docplayer.net/2732929-Startups-by-recent-university-graduates-versus-their-faculty-implications-for-university-entrepreneurship-policy.html]
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”?

2015 May 21

Limited Edition Kinetics have arrived!

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 22:55
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I received my order of Limited Edition Kinetic lights from Futuristic Lights today! I suspect that others who ordered Limited Edition sets will be getting theirs in the mail very soon also (the company started shipping on Tuesday—I got mine fast because I’m in the same county as they shipped from).

Here is what comes in the set: 2 gloves, 10 lights with cases, diffusers, and batteries, a folded instruction card, and a black drawstring bag with the company logo printed subtly on it.

Here is what comes in the set: 2 gloves, 10 lights with cases, diffusers, and batteries, a folded instruction card, and a black drawstring bag with the company logo printed subtly on it.

Note that there are 64 items that need to be assembled for each set: 2 gloves, 10 Kinetic boards, 10 cases, 10 diffusers, 20 batteries, 10 battery tabs, a drawstring bag, and an instruction card.  Even working very efficiently, it is probably going to take them a couple of weeks to get all the preorders shipped.  There’s no way that they could have afforded a standard “fulfillment” service for doing the shipping, as those generally set their prices based in large part on how many items need to be assembled for each order.

Component sourcing, manufacturing, packaging, and shipping have all been much more difficult than they anticipated, and they are shipping at the end of their estimated delivery time (even though they thought that they had allowed lots and lots of extra time—I thought that they would be able to ship in March, which shows how little help I was in anticipating what might go wrong for them). As it is, they are shipping without the boxes they had ordered, because the box printer was taking far longer to print the boxes than they had allowed for (and they hadn’t put a penalty clause in the order for late delivery). I suspect that they won’t be ordering from that box manufacturer again.

The amount that the founders of Futuristic Lights have learned from their first commercial product is amazing (way more than most engineering and business students get in four years of college), and they haven’t lost their enthusiasm for the process—they have already started work on the next 2 or 3 products. For those products, they’ll apply the lessons they learned on the Kinetics—they’ll have more realistic manufacturing lead times and will (probably) be able to reduce the manufacturing costs through better part procurement and different manufacturing partners.

Perhaps even more amazingly, my son has managed to maintain his part in the manufacturing and engineering effort while excelling on a full load of computer science and math courses at UCSB (in Winter quarter he had 24 units, instead of the standard 16, but he decided that the load was too much on top of all the engineering work he was doing for Futuristic Lights and dropped back to a saner load for Spring quarter). So far, most of his courses have been extensions of stuff he has learned partially on his own, and not all-new material. I suspect that courses may be a little more difficult next year as he tackles parts of computer science that he hasn’t already nearly mastered.

For this summer, he’ll be working on new products for Futuristic Lights, except for two weeks of summer Shakespeare with WEST Performing Arts, one week of which will be watching plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, the other week of which will be a conservatory with WEST and Santa Cruz Shakespeare.  He’s done both before, and is looking forward to it again this summer.

2013 August 5

Santa Cruz startup culture

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 14:30
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Wade Roush, in his xconomy newsletter, has just finished a 3-part series on startup culture in Santa Cruz: Santa Cruz, the City Over the Hill, Builds Its Own Startup Culture

While it’s close enough to exist in Silicon Valley’s shadow—serving as a bedroom community for thousands of people who commute to the Valley for work—it also has a unique and fiercely defended identity, and aspirations to stand alone as a business and technology hub. The dilemma for entrepreneurs and city leaders in Santa Cruz is that they would like to emulate Silicon Valley’s growth and success without giving up what’s special about their community—things like its culture of outdoor recreation and lefty individualism.

The 3 articles mention several of the historical successes of Santa Cruz (Seagate, Borland, SCO, Odwalla, Plantronics, …), many of which moved out of the County for either cheaper places (Odwalla) or more connected places (mainly to Silicon Valley).  Plantronics is the only biggie he mentions that has remained loyal to its roots.

He does talk about UCSC as a driver for technology and a highly educated workforce, but only mentions one UCSC spinoff (FiveThree Genomics, started by grad students from my department). I thought that several small game companies had been started by UCSC grads, but perhaps they are staying quiet (or have already run out of funds).

He focuses more on the co-working spaces (NextSpace and CruzioWorks) downtown, which are serving as incubators for several small startups.  He does mention Makers Factory, which is pushing 3D printing to jumpstart local teach innovation, though I believe that Makers Factory has been more successful with their children’s classes than in signing up adult members.

Personally, I think that Santa Cruz is an excellent place to start an information-based business (like a computer game publisher, software publisher, or electronics design company), but a lousy place to start a company involved in the large-scale movement of physical goods (manufacturing or shipping), because of the rather limited access for trucks.  The agricultural shipping from the county is already saturating the available freight capacity. Of course, a lot of businesses nowadays rely on outsourcing their manufacturing (often to China) and their distribution (often to Amazon), so the limited physical shipping capability should not be a major limitation for a Santa-Cruz-based company.

2011 November 21

USA not the home of startups

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 00:37
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It has long been a staple of American beliefs that the USA is the home of the entrepreneur—that we create more new businesses than anyone else, thanks to our tradition of rugged individualism.

I recently saw a short table in the post  Start-ups and Safety Nets of Sociological Images that thoroughly debunks this notion.

Note that in 2007 (before the banks had crashed the world economy), the United States was 23rd in startups per capita. Sure we had a lot, but only because we’re a big country.

The explanation by Jay Livingston (which he attributes to James Wimberly) is appealing in its simplicity, though not necessarily correct.  Basically, they point out that Americans are locked into corporate jobs by things like health insurance (either unavailable in US start-ups or crushingly expensive), college debt (other nations subsidize education much more effectively), childcare costs, and other expenses that are routinely covered by governments in developed countries. In the USA, it is no longer feasible for many people to take the high risks associated with starting a business.  The personal risks are much lower in other countries, so people are more willing to try out ideas they have.

There are other possible explanations (like differences in the availability of credit), but the suggestion that businesses are fostered not by minimizing taxes, but by using taxes to create safety nets that encourage people to take the risk of starting their own businesses is an intriguing one.

Of course, this idea will never fly with the 1% of the population that controls the wealth (and the politicians) in the USA, since they don’t want ordinary people starting new businesses that will compete with their huge corporations.  Their goal is for everyone else to be enslaved to their corporations by debt and fear, so they will do everything in their power to dismantle any safety nets or public education that would allow independence.

 

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