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”. [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”?
Advertisements

2015 May 21

Limited Edition Kinetics have arrived!

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 22:55
Tags: , , , , ,

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.

2014 November 18

Question about high school workload for home schooling

On Thu, Oct 30, 2014 at 12:57 AM, a parent  wrote to a homeschooling e-mail list (I forget which one now):

I want to prepare my kids for college, but I also value them spending an hour drawing, or trying to get a fire by rubbing cottonwood sticks together, or making a ridiculous video for fun. Can’t we have it both ways? I’ve already written off UC for freshman year, but I don’t necessarily want community college to be the only option they have. I want his 16th year to be just as fun as his 6th, filled with math and writing, yes, but also with whatever his passions are. That seems like an exciting time to get real world experience, like interning at an environmental organization, helping with water quality research, becoming a park docent, going on amazing backpacking trips … as opposed to sitting studying biology with a textbook, for example. 

Am I in dreamland? Are my priorities right here? He is in 8th grade, so according to these presenters, 9th grade is around the corner and we should be figuring out this fast.

Thoughts???

I’m coming from a different place than many home schoolers, as we did public and private schools through 9th grade, only switching to home school for 10th, 11th, and 12th grades.  I understand that the reverse path (starting out in home school and switching to public or private for high school) is more common.

Having just sent my son off to college this fall (at UCSB in the College of Creative Studies) after three years of home schooling (with the aid of an umbrella school in the local school district), I can answer a few things with some confidence:

  • No matter what you do, entry into the super-selective schools is effectively a lottery.  Most people don’t win the lottery.  All the crazy-making prep changes the odds very little on the super-selective admissions lottery. Unless you donate millions to buy your way in to a private school, your odds are not much better than the ones you get from the Common Data Sets for each college.
  • High school can involve a lot of fun activity—my son took at least 22 different theater classes in his 4 years of high school, about 8 of them in his senior year (mostly through WEST).  There were at least 15 different performances in his last year (see his theater page) with four different shows four weekends running one month. He also started a tech start-up with other home-schooled teens (something that he is continuing in college—they’re expecting their 4th prototype back from China this week and hope to do first sales through Kickstarter in December).  He also was involved in a couple of the MATE underwater ROV competitions, did science fair (up to state level) every year except his senior year, kept up a full load of UC a–g courses, and still had time for his main recreations (reading and computer programming).
  • Some springs got a bit stressful, with the umbrella-school trip to Oregon Shakespeare Festival, State Science Fair, WEST performances, MATE robotics, and AP exams all piling up in the same few weeks.  Time management and priority setting required parental support (though my wife and I sometimes disagreed about how much parental support was needed).  Extra parental support was needed some years (like for flying from CA state science fair to Ashland, Oregon, when two events overlapped by a day, or finding a way to get AP exams offered in the make-up time slots, when AP exams conflicted with the Ashland trip, or even just finding a way to take AP exams for AP courses not offered in our county, like the AP Physics C exams).
  • Taking courses at Cabrillo College and at UCSC can be very good experience (my son had 2 at each: Spanish at Cabrillo and math at UCSC).  Cabrillo courses are much cheaper, but the hassle of biking 45 minutes each way for classes (or taking even longer on the bus) made scheduling them harder.  The practice of getting himself to classes on an irregular schedule was good prep for college, where he has a different schedule every day (from Wednesdays with classes from 8am to after 8pm to Fridays with one class at 1–1:50). Getting into lab classes at Cabrillo turned out to be very difficult, so we ended up doing all science at home (calculus-based physics for 2 years, then on-line AP chemistry for one year).

For students thinking of University of California (still a very good choice, even if the state legislators and state governor don’t put much money into UC any more), I’d recommend trying to make sure that the a–g courses are covered in spirit, even if the courses are at home or through other non-UC-approved sources.  It is not a perfect curriculum, but it represents a good compromise between many different views of what a high school education should include.​

The time-management skills my son learned from doing too many of the things he loved should help him get through college, where he is likely to set up the same sorts of stresses for himself—he took a fairly light load first quarter (4 courses: 2 math, 2 computer science), but is planning a heavier load for winter (6 courses: 2 math,  3 computer science, 1 theater, I think).  Luckily 2 or 3 of the courses are graded on a rather strange system, where the teachers decide at the end of the course how many units were earned, so if he slacks a bit on those courses his grades won’t suffer—he’ll just earn fewer units.

Of the generic advice from the Khan Academy about what all high school students should be doing:

  • Take college-prep courses. Yes, definitely.  The a–g courses are a good guide.
  • ​Focus on your grades. Not really—we kept him focused on learning, not on grades. Most of his courses were ungraded, though we had very high standards for what we expected him to do.  Those courses from outside providers that were graded got high grades, but that was a natural consequence of focusing on the learning and doing all the work to high standards, not from paying any particular attention to grades.
  • Explore and commit to extracurricular and leadership activities. We considered his theater work and his start-up company as curricular activities, but someone with a more conventional view of education would have considered them extracurricular. I don’t know whether his odds at super-selective schools would have been different if we had spun the work as extra-curricular rather than curricular.​
  • Find summer volunteer opportunities/jobs/internships. Nope, he spent his summers doing more theater, more on the start-up company, and relaxing. He worked very hard at the theater and on the start-up, but it wasn’t a “job” where he was reporting to a boss—it was more like professional work, where he had to manage his own time, sometimes with externally imposed deadlines.
  • Begin an ongoing dialogue with your parents about how to pay for college. Start saving for college. High school is rather late to be thinking about paying for college.  We saved 10% of my salary each year in a 529 plan from the day he was born. As it turns out, because he ended up at a state school, we saved more than we needed to, so unless some of it gets used for graduate school expenses, we are likely to end up paying a tax penalty in 4 years for the previously untaxed earnings in the 529 plan.
  • Search and apply for non-traditional scholarships (those available before you are a senior in high school). Other than the National Merit Scholarship (he was a Finalist, but no one offered him money except desperate schools that had nothing of academic value to offer), he did not apply for any scholarships. Most of the scholarship applications are a lot of work (comparable to another college application), with very little expected return. He decided to put his time into his startup company instead, which has given him very valuable learning and experience, even if it never breaks even. Because he ended up at a public university, and we had been saving enough to be able to pay for his going to a private school, he did not need a scholarship to go to college. So the investment of his time in learning how to design electronics widgets and get them manufactured was probably a wise one—it will pay off later much more than a $1000 scholarship would.

2014 May 2

TechRaising 2014

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 20:31
Tags: , , , ,

Last weekend (2014 April 25–27), 2/3 of the current Futuristic Lights team attended TechRaising, an annual event in Santa Cruz that attempts to jump-start tech companies. I believe the theory is that the community is best of creating new start-ups, rather than trying to lure established companies to move here. If a company is easily moved to come here, then they are easily lured away again as soon as any sweeteners run out.  To get a long-term tech base, we need to build it out of people who already want to stay here.

I’ve never been to a TechRaising, but as I understand it, the format consists of a bunch of short pitches by entrepreneurs looking for help with their new projects, then an intensive weekend of work on those projects that manage to attract the attention of others. Futuristic Lights went looking for some short-term help and advice on their projects—some projects were looking for more long-term connections. As I understand it, two or three software people helped out on the light gloves project  during TechRaising.

The press coverage of TechRaising did mention Futuristic Lights, perhaps because it was one of the few hardware projects there (Santa Cruz tends to have more software than hardware start-ups).

From The Sentinel, the daily newspaper, an article about TechRaising included this mention:

Ideas swiftly summarized Sunday after being sculpted and fine-tuned in 48 hours included panelists’ favorites caffeine.com, which drew 20 teammates to help create an online marketplace designed to instill confidence in buyers and sellers, Infinity Gloves, taking the next step in gloves with programmable LED lights in the fingertips, and LuxePods, luxury efficiency room rentals targeting “mega” long-distance commuters.

A more focused online news source, Santa Cruz Tech Beat, had a more detailed article including this mention:

In the case of Suzanne and Zohar Wouk, a mother-and-son pair, TechRaising is also an event to bring people together within an even smaller community. Suzanne is creating SnapPost.com, a mobile app which facilitates the posting process on eBay. Zohar is working with a team to create the “Infinity Gloves,” a set of cotton gloves with LED lights used in the rising art form of “light gloving.”

“We’re kind of in the same world,” said Suzanne. “It’s interesting because I’m not the wiser —he’s wiser in terms of tech, so we’re both really helping each other as equals. We’re both going to school at the same time.”

There was  a photographer there from Odden Creative Media taking pictures of some of the presentations and some of the groups working. The photos from Tech Raising are available on their website (and are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License). Higher-quality copies can be purchased from them also.

I include a couple here from the Sunday presentation—note the glowing fingers in the first one:
Odden Creative Media: TechRaising 2014-Apr Darren's Top Pics &emdash; TechRaising-2014-April-207
Odden Creative Media: TechRaising 2014-Apr &emdash; TechRaising-2014-April-228
(click the images for bigger versions or to order copies—I have no connection to Odden Creative Media other than the links on this page)

2011 November 21

USA not the home of startups

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 00:37
Tags: , ,

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.

 

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: