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Fostering Students as IT Entrepreneurs: An Example from Stanford University

A Q&A with Tim Flood

Tim Flood

Stanford University has several formal programs and informal networking efforts aimed at connecting innovative students with real-world opportunities, in numerous fields from engineering, to medicine, to economics. Faculty and administrators have a selection of avenues to give an assist to a bright student seeking a chance to become an entrepreneur. Here, CT learns from a former IT leader in the Stanford Student Affairs division (who is now a technology consultant whose clients include Stanford) about the support many students have received for their entrepreneurial IT projects.

Mary Grush: How did you originally get started thinking about engaging students in projects that would become opportunities for them to develop as entrepreneurs?

Tim Flood: Here's the back story: It began in 2007, when I was an IT leader in the Stanford Student Affairs division. Our campus had self-service access to the delivered ERP solution that we had--Peoplesoft Student Administration. And while it was a very good solution for capturing transactions and records, we received complaints from students and faculty about the user interface--they wondered why we couldn't do better.

We were thinking about how to enhance Peoplesoft with some new user interface add-ons, and coincidentally, at the same time Tom Black, the Associate Vice Provost for Student Affairs and University Registrar, and I got iPhones. One day we posed the question: Could we use the iPhone to connect to our ERP system? We knew it was probably technologically possible, but we didn't know how to do it. This led us to one of our greatest resources: Some Stanford students who were interested in developing this capability for us, and in doing that kind of work as an ongoing business--they would become our vendor and we would become their first customer. And that's how iStanford was born.

We made an agreement that they would help us institutionalize this, and formally contracted with them to do it. For them, it eventually led to additional clients, and, ultimately their small startup company was acquired by Blackboard and became the core of Blackboard's mobile division. Now, the group has somewhere in the neighborhood of 250 institutions using that same user interface for the iPhone, Androids, and Blackberry with interfaces that were developed here on campus.

Grush: But when I hear that story, the obvious question that occurs to me is, what was in it for Stanford? What did the university take back from this, other than the immediate interface development?

Flood: What I think is the most important thing here, is not that a university "takes back" the research and development of an effort like this, but that the university becomes relevant to the entrepreneurial interests of its students as one of a variety of ways of engaging today's students and meeting their needs. Stanford was relevant before; it's even more relevant when it supports student efforts like this.

Speaking generally, I believe that colleges and universities have, to some extent, lost their relevance. What colleges and universities really need to "take back" is their own commitment to being relevant to students in the age they live in. How do you do that? You make your courses more relevant--for example, when the courses involve social technologies, and how to be an entrepreneur, and offer students practical learning experiences. Courses should introduce students to each other and create activities that truly support students as entrepreneurs within the disciplines. One of the things I admire about Stanford is that it is one place where this is really happening.

Grush: Are there any technology areas that you find are particularly suited for this type of project?

Flood: Stanford has supported student entrepreneurial projects for both mobile and Web technologies. Basically, what we are trying to do within these technology areas, is to find better ways of engaging and serving our community--students, faculty, researchers, staff, alumni, visitors--the gamut of all the possible university technology users.

Most of our endeavors based on these technologies are low cost/easy entry for Stanford--which is a nice selling point to the university entities involved. They are not committing a lot of institutional funds to these efforts. By comparison to the old ERP days, these investments are miniscule--really miniscule. But they are highly relevant, and the work is appealing to the student developers. This is a net win for the institution as well as all the constituencies it serves. Web and mobile are technology areas where you can reap a lot of benefits with small investments; plus there is often a social aspect with these applications that lends a kind of accessibility and appeal.

Grush: When you manage an entrepreneurial project like this with students, would you be more likely to take on a project that's a "sure thing," or one that's a little more risky--venturing more into the unknown?

Flood: They are all risky! There is no "sure thing." And that includes mainstream technologies as well as emerging technologies. Companies are here today, and gone five years from now, or they've been bought out or they've merged with another company. So there is always the element of risk-taking in any technology project you do. The important thing is to have a fall back plan, a contract, and to formalize the engagement so that everybody knows there is something serious at stake. But for anyone to think that they are entering into this type of project as a "sure thing" would be simply foolhardy.

Grush: Then how do you manage this type of student project--including the selection of students you'd deem up to the challenge?

Flood: Students have to come up with the idea--partially that's a measure of their initiative. Then, we go through a four-step process: Vet (acceptance of the project); Define and Plan; Manage and Monitor; and finally, Engage (i.e., going live). [See a description of the four-step process.] This is both a comprehensive and very involved process. And from acceptance through "go live," there is a contractual agreement, periodic reviews, and the students are in fact real-world vendors to the institution.

Grush: Do you ever have a concern that you might lose the academic aspects of a particular student's program--or perhaps that you might lose the student altogether to industry? What keeps students' entrepreneurial tendencies tied to the university and their academic lives at least until they graduate?

Flood: It's important to know that Stanford has many programs that support and nurture entrepreneurial growth. I think all of the schools within the institution have formal programs that support entrepreneurialism and innovation. Plus students organize themselves. A very interesting one is FounderSoup (http://www.foundersoup.com/) started by recent Stanford grads to help introduce entrepreneurs to those interested in joining them.

Stanford has great students, most of whom step up to the challenge they set for themselves. When the University Registrar meets with them in the initial vetting process I mentioned earlier, he wants to make sure that they are going to continue to pursue their academic work. We know that there are students who have lost large amounts of sleep, trying to be "regular" students and entrepreneurs at the same time. But, it's almost guaranteed that they are going to work hard anyway--that's who they are. Why not incorporate it in a more formal way with the institution and support them in their natural inclination to be entrepreneurs? And we always inquire into how they are doing in school.

Most students today are very entrepreneurial. They want to begin working their way into the world so that they can make a difference. We are there to help them. But we are also saying--while we don't control their lives--"Also go to class!"

[Editor’s note: Tim Flood is a technology consultant specializing in higher education, working primarily at Stanford University, where he led the breakthrough development of iStanford, the first mobile app serving higher education administration. Flood will join a "Mobile on Campus" panel in the CT Virtual 2012 leadership event on October 25.]

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