C-Level View | Feature
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
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
Grush: Are there any technology areas that you find are particularly suited for this type
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?
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
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
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.]