The Xconversation: Software CEO Meets University Innovation Leader, Part II

Startups, technology giants, and mainstream companies of all shapes and sizes are clamoring for software expertise, but top-tier computer science programs are struggling to expand capacity to meet that demand.

Barry Crist, CEO of Seattle software company Chef, wants to see a dramatic increase in the number of well-trained programmers coming from places like the University of Washington. Vikram Jandhyala, the UW’s vice provost for innovation strategy, says constraints in computer science programs are one thing causing universities to re-think educational models. “We see complete alternatives to universities happening now,” he says. “There won’t be one size fits all. Not everyone should have, or needs, a four-year degree or a PhD or a Master’s.”

Crist and Jandhyala hash out these issues and more in today’s Xconversation, an occasional series that brings Xconomy readers along for lunch with a pair of leaders in the local innovation community.

In yesterday’s installment (Part I), the discussion focused on a broad definition of innovation—“inclusive innovation.” Crist and Jandhyala asserted that the worst thing to do would be to shy away from innovation, even if the term itself is over-used. They also shared their earliest memories of technology, discussed the UW’s role in the Seattle tech ecosystem, and sounded off on threats to the region’s innovation economy.

As the conversation continues, Crist and Jandhyala discuss new models for higher education, including the UW’s Global Innovation Exchange; the importance of failure—but the right kind of failure; how they avoid burn-out and stay balanced; Chef’s approach to an IPO; and more.

The following has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Barry Crist: To what extent is the higher-ed model under siege from disruptive innovation right now, and how do you see that evolving over the next 20 years?

Vikram Jandhyala: You can divide universities into the top third, the middle third, and the bottom third with whatever metric you want, but you’d probably get the same division. MIT or Stanford or UW is in pretty rarefied atmosphere, so in some sense they don’t really worry too much about disruption yet.

Online education—that was considered a big disruption. I think that’s settled down. You can almost think of a MOOC [massive open online course] as a 21st century textbook. It’s a social textbook.

Tuition costs are a big issue, and the whole student debt issue. Public universities are even more concerned, because we are funded by the government.

A reason we are doing [the Global Innovation Exchange] is to see what next models are permissible where we can work closely with industry, and bring those [models] back to the central campus.

The only caveat is I don’t think we should start thinking of universities as businesses, because otherwise, those metrics are just too narrow. We are educating. What education means will change, and we need to keep that relevant.

But technologies will disrupt us. Costs are going to disrupt us. Business models. We see that happening.

Vikram Jandhyala, left, vice provost of innovation at University of Washington, and Barry Crist, CEO of Chef. Photo by Benjamin Romano / Xconomy

Vikram Jandhyala, left, vice provost of innovation at University of Washington, and Barry Crist, CEO of Chef. Photo by Benjamin Romano / Xconomy

BC: How about capacity? One of our frustrations is, it’s not a matter of increasing your computer science degrees by 20 percent. We want a 20-times increase in what’s coming out of UW. How do we tackle that? There’s just not enough capacity at the top.

VJ: Absolutely. And I think that’s where the classic low-end disruption will happen. Do you really need everybody to have that amazing UW computer science degree, or is there something else which is a subset of that?

We see complete alternatives to universities happening now, like in the Bay Area you have Peter Thiel saying dropouts will do better. I think his first class didn’t really prove that, but there’s everything from totally dropping out to doing something which is like what Galvanize is doing right here.

I think all those models have a place. There won’t be one size fits all. Not everyone should have or needs a four-year degree or a PhD or a Master’s. So what are these other models?

Xconomy: We’ve seen a proliferation of code schools and programming boot camps to soak up demand from people who can’t or don’t want to get a university computer science degree, for various reasons. Barry, leading a company that’s hungry for talent, have you found a lot of applicants coming from those places? Are they up to snuff yet?

BC: We are super hungry for well-qualified coders. In fact, you picked up a news blurb that we did a little restructuring to free up headcount to hire more product, development, UX [user experience] folks. The news got a little twisted on us, but that’s what was behind that.

We have a broad spectrum. I think we just got our third intern from the Ada Developers Academy here, which does retraining of women as a second career in code, all the way to people that have advanced degrees in a variety of things, computer science, machine learning. We’ve found that there is enormous demand.

I look at our customers. We were born out of the big Web companies. Facebook, Yahoo, Amazon, Google. And now what’s happening is the mainstream enterprise—the Alaska Airlines and Weyerhaeuser and Nordstrom—they’re borrowing the same patterns. They’re embracing software. They are so hungry for people that are qualified in the world of code, there’s just a massive shortage worldwide now.

Back to where we started, software isn’t the only element of innovation, but is, especially in this time, a very important element of it. And we have a worldwide, global shortage.

X: Chef has been growing fast. Some numbers, correct me if I’m wrong: nearly 1,000 customers, more than 70,000 people in the open source community, annual recurring revenue growing at 94 percent. One of the things you pride yourselves on—how you’ve built your community—is a really personal interaction with customers. How does that scale with customer growth?

BC: One of the top challenges that I find as a leader is preserving our own culture as we grow. And we’re growing, as you noted, any key metric of the company is growing about 100 percent year over year, so how do we continue to preserve that?

What our customers buy from us is … Next Page »

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Benjamin Romano is editor of Xconomy Seattle. Email him at bromano [at] xconomy.com. Follow @bromano

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