Why Isn't There an Executive Master's Program in Computer Science?

Two executive MBA students just came by the house to interview me for a class on entrepreneurship. Answering questions about the #1 quality of an entrepreneur, my #1 weakness, my #1 advice, I found myself translating true stories about what has worked for me into aphorisms that felt made up.

We have begun to think of entrepreneurialism as this discipline, this science, this profession, as if startups succeed via a formula, when the whole point of a startup is to do things differently not the same. We can teach people to paint the Mona Lisa by numbers, but it won’t be art the second time around. And we can dissect entrepreneurialism like a frog, but the frog usually dies in the process.

This is probably why the students’ questions made me feel like the disappointingly ordinary Oracle in The Matrix. When Neo asks if he’s The One, The Oracle says, “But you already know what I’m going to tell you?”Matrix

“I’m not The One?” Neo says.

“Sorry kid,” The Oracle says. “You got the gift, but it looks like you’re waiting for something.”

What these very intelligent, eminently fundable MBAs were waiting for was an idea, and the belief in themselves to follow it through. I wanted to tell them that the whole reason to start a company is to be yourself, not to imitate someone else, especially not me. Their program won’t help with that.

The world would be a much better place if all the folks in an executive MBA program would master a creative skill instead. Why isn’t there an executive master’s program in computer science, design or materials science? I’d enroll today.

We need to educate people who have already begun a career because too many miss their chance in college. The number of students studying business has steadily increased over the past decade, to more than one in five undergraduates, at the expense of the creative arts and sciences.

For life after college, a whole new genre has emerged of self-help for entrepreneurs. By Amazon’s count, more than 12,000 books on entrepreneurship have been published in the past decade, at a rate of three per day, every day.

Many of those books and programs are inspiring and useful; I have organized a few, contributed to some, and benefited from more. But if I had to say what needs more emphasis, it would be the product, not the process.

Outside of Paul Graham and Eric Ries, many entro-pundits have little interest in actual products. The worst purveyor of gimmicks is Malcolm Gladwell, who argued in last week’s New Yorker that entrepreneurs are predators who succeed because of their business acumen at driving hard bargains. Gladwell based this theory on two unlikely boots-trappers: a silver-spooner who inherited a massive media empire and a Wall Street trader who bet more than $100 million that the housing bubble would burst.

Both of Gladwell’s role models are very good business people, but that doesn’t make them entrepreneurs – even if one of them, Ted Turner, later developed into one — creating a news network he loved so much that he compared its eventual acquisition to female circumcision. But Turner started his business career the old-fashioned way: getting the better of somebody on a deal. It’s a zero-sum game that doesn’t create anything or delight anyone. And creating something is what entrepreneurs do that the MBAs sometimes don’t always seem to get.

This isn’t to say that entrepreneurs are better than MBAs. In fact, the problem I have these days is that what makes you successful as an entrepreneur may limit you later on as a business person, a topic we’ll have to take up next week. In the meantime, if you know of any good executive masters programs in computer science, or any boot-camps with that emphasis, leave a comment and let us know.

Discussion

  • Vengroff

    Glenn,

    These programs are normally called professional programs, as opposed to executive programs. There is an excellent one right in your backyard: http://pmp.cs.washington.edu/proginfo.shtml

    The only problem is that these programs normally expect you to have a BS in CS or a related field before entering. It’s possible what is missing is an executive bachelor’s degree in CS. That might better fit the need you are describing.

  • http://blog.redfin.com/blog/author/glenn%20kelman Glenn Kelman

    Great comment.

    @McGarty had the same comment, but I do think that program preaches to the choir. I meet plenty of folks who want nothing more than to start a company, and spend years learning business skills that might be less useful than technical skills.

  • http://www.twitter.com/honam Ho Nam

    I loved your line: “I wanted to tell them that the whole reason to start a company is to be yourself, not to imitate someone else, especially not me.”

    It’s amazing to me that so many people want to become entrepreneurs. 12,000+ books on entrepreneurship? No amount of VC funding or classes or books will turn ordinary people into extraordinary entrepreneurs. The whole point is to not become an entrepreneur. It’s to be yourself. Pursue your own dreams. Great entrepreneurs are just different. They follow their own path. This is a blog post I wrote about the difference between Entrepreneurs and Sheep: http://altos.typepad.com/vc/2007/03/raising_sheep.html

  • Glenn Kelman

    Good to hear from you Ho! Just read that post and loved it. What did Yeats lament about Irish politics? “The best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity”

  • http://www.dura-foam.com/ Foam Roofing

    As an entrepreneur, there isn't just 'one thing' that will make you successful. That's the problem. If you had to pick one single thing, I would say Vision backed by drive. You need a vision, one you believe in so firmly that you have the will-power to keep going, against all odds. This assumes your vision is possible. Now, what is possible? Can you start a business in a saturated market, and rise to the top with a relatively small initial investment? How about Sam Walton. He built the Walmart legacy, started with just one single store, where he let nothing come in the way of his vision for excellence. While I think there are more opportunities in emerging markets based on technology (think google, yahoo, AOL, microsoft, IBM, and many others), I still think there is always room out there for improvement. The only problem with being an entrepreneur is that vision alone, is simply not enough. You either need partners (which is difficult), or you need exceptional skills in multiple areas, and exceptional judgement. Otherwise, expect to fail, maybe even more than once. A friend of mine started a business with literally nothing and earned six figures for a few years. However, due to some bad luck, and perhaps some bad HR judgement, his business was destroyed over the course of just a few months. What am I saying? You need luck. A lot of luck. Although there are some who would say, the harder I work, the luckier I get. The point is, if you become (or already are) a true expert in the business you're attempting to start, and if you're willing to put in the work, you can become an entrepreneur. Just be ready to make big sacrifices. Another friend of mine was running a successful business that took all of his time, but eventually his wife left him due to the crazy hours he was working to keep his business alive. Do you want the real truth? Nothing great comes without great sacrifice. If you're willing to get the education, whether its a degree from a respected institution, a certification, or just reading the right books, and if you're willing to work hard, I think almost anything is possible. If your idea is truly brilliant, you'll probably be able to create a good business plan, find investors, and perhaps find some talented partners to get your idea off the ground. Anyway, I hope this helps.