Role of Education in Keeping US Tech Industry Competitive

Here’s a must-read post on Techcrunch, “Craig Barrett Takes On Vivek Wadhwa In The Tech Education Debate“ , where two experts debate the role of education in ensuring US tech competitiveness in this era of globalization.

Here’s the premise for this highly insightful debate,

The most valuable employees of any technology company are the engineers and scientists, which is why everyone in Silicon Valley does whatever they can to ensure the continuous supply to this talent pool. The size of the talent pool is ultimately determined by the number of people who graduate from colleges and universities with science, technology, engineering, or mathematics degrees. The U.S. is graduating fewer and fewer scientists and engineers, causing concern in many quarters. While many people agree this is a problem, not everyone agrees on what should be done about it.

In this highly insightful debate between Dr.Vivek Wadhwa , Harvard Law School fellow and Dr. Craig Barrett, former Intel CEO take on an important topic, which is the role of education in ensuring the future global competitiveness of US in technology.

It’s interesting that Dr. Wadhwa points out that the real issue at heart of this debate is NOT that “The U.S. is graduating fewer and fewer scientists and engineers.” The real problem is “that the majority of these graduates are foreign nationals (who are now increasingly returning home).”

So Dr.Wadhwa suggests,

“…while we fix the incentives for Americans, let’s do all we can to keep the best foreign students who come to the U.S. to study, here, so they are competing on our side.”

Although, retention of talented foreign students may help US competitiveness in the short-term, there is a definite need to grow the US Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) talent pool as Dr. Barrett has pointed out. He goes on to say,

“If the US is really serious about competing in the 21st Century economy we will have to decide to compete. This simply means that you have to create the work force (smart people), invest in R&D (smart ideas) and make sure the environment is attractive to investment in innovation (do something about tax rates, make it easier to form corporations, provide incentives to invest in R&D and make capital investments, etc).”

This is an issue that requires a comprehensive solution and there is no quick fix. Both agree that it is imperative to foster children’s interest and excitement in STEM early on in the education system, but the onus is on both public and private sectors to create an ecosystem with the right incentives for deserving talent, regardless of whether it’s US or foreign-bred. Creating an ecosystem without fostering the talent pool or having an abundant talent base with few opportunities is meaningless.

One point that especially resonates with me is Dr.Barrett’s contention that “it’s not just a financial compensation issue”. I completely agree that without genuine passion, pride, and excitement, all you’re left with is a culture of dollar-chasing sociopaths.

Why We Care about Twitter revenue model

If it’s one thing folks in the valley and elsewhere in the blogosphere like to pick on, it’s Twitter’s revenue model or lack thereof. Techcrunch enlightened everyone today on the hoax by BBspot about Twitter’s purported premium accounts,

The author of the post mocks Twitter’s lack of an apparent business model after 3 years in operation, and writes that the startup’s CEO Evan Williams today finally announced plans to introduce a paid premium account scheme. Never mind that the news would have gotten broken on an obscure blog when the U.S. is mostly asleep, but other things should have given away that this concerns a hoax. 

Twitter revenue is no doubt a sensitive issue for the VCs who are coy on the subject. Last month, it was Readwriteweb who reported on a conversation with Todd Dagres, one of the investors in Twitter. Dagres laughed off questions on Twitter’s business model or lack thereof,

“We think it’s kind of funny…We know how we’re going to do it, and we’re very confident about how we’re going to do it, and it’s not necessarily in our interest to tell people how we’re going to do it.”

I can see his point of view, the VCs are probably thinking that here are a bunch of free-loaders (aka Twitter users) questioning our judgement. As if we would invest in something that didn’t have potential or didn’t have a plan to monetize it.

Note: Even if these VCs decided to flush a truckload of money down the toilet, it’s really their business and their stakeholders’ problem because they’ve invested money in the company, not the average user.

So why do we care so much about Twitter revenue and go into a frenzy every time someone mentions “Twitter” and “revenue” in the same sentence?

Twitter-envy:  Let’s start with the most obvious reason and that’s the good ol’ fashioned green. Many rational people with entrepreneurial aspirations are probably wondering – how on earth did Twitter get all that dough and other much-deserving startups didn’t? What makes Twitter so special? Also, Twitter’s growing popularity can’t be making folks on competing social sites, too happy either.

Curiosity is only human: While newly minted entreprenuers are looking for clues in the Twitter story, for what will get them funded, others are just …curious. Afterall, Twitter is the greatest phenomenon in recent history and everyone seems to be talking about. It’s shocking to the common Joe/Jane who aren’t as well-versed in the ways of the Silicon Valley as to why this “phenomenon” doesn’t make any money yet and has to be propped up through private funding.

It’s like crack: Let’s face it, Twitter is an addiction. Once you get going, it’s hard to stop. It’s not as if users were born with it or even grew up with it, we had to change our behavior around Twitter. This time, 5years back, how many people were thinking, “Hmm..I think I’ll send out a 140char message to (thousands of people whom I’ve never met ) about my imaginary cat.”  Twitter has changed the way we communicate and share information. So, naturally loyal users don’t want it to go down the tube, they want it to live long and prosper. In this day and age, how many brands can boast of such unconditional loyalty?!

Don’t forget the Twitter ecosystem: Let’s do a fun experiment. Google all the apps and sites out there that start with ‘Tweet’, ‘Twitter’, ‘Tw-something’. and count them. Thanks to the wonder that is an open API and thriving developer/entrepreneurial base, there are thousands of startups and related consulting businesses that are all based on one product and that’s Twitter. Can you imagine what would happen to these businesses if there was no Twitter? There’s an entire ecosystem built around one shining star and the possibility of that star failing is (and should be) making many folks nervous.

Lastly, nothing lasts for ever: ..and certainly not VC-funding. One doesn’t need to be a rocket scientist to know that if Twitter doesn’t make money soon or get acquired, there’s a good chance VCs will pull the plug . Of course, the assumption benig that VCs are rational businessmen and make these kinds of decisions based on a site’s revenue-generation potential. I mean, how many more years will the VCs continue to fund this non-revenue generating site? Afterall, this is serious business not a hobby, right?!

In any case, investors in Twitter should be grateful for the attention because it’s the buzz that’s going to keep this site alive and kicking. There is really no such thing as bad publicity and the last thing, any stakeholder in Twitter wants is the site to become irrelevant and out of the news.

Is downturn a good time to start a new venture?

Techcrunch recently posted VC funding figures for the third quarter that show VC funding for Internet startups is down 16percent since same time last year, while overall funding for startups is down by 7percent.

With all signs pointing to the world going to hell in a handbasket, starting your own business during the worst economic crisis could be considered a sign of sheer lunacy or…maybe not.

Paul Graham has an excellent essay on starting startups in the downturn, he says that the economy by itself shouldn’t dictate whether or not you should start your own gig.

If we’ve learned one thing from funding so many startups, it’s that they succeed or fail based on the qualities of the founders. The economy has some effect, certainly, but as a predictor of success it’s rounding error compared to the founders.Which means that what matters is who you are, not when you do it.
 
If you’re the right sort of person, you’ll win even in a bad economy. And if you’re not, a good economy won’t save you. Someone who thinks “I better not start a startup now, because the economy is so bad” is making the same mistake as the people who thought during the Bubble “all I have to do is start a startup, and I’ll be rich.”
While the going is good, even the most mediocre ventures will get funded but only the good ones can survive the downturn. If you have what it takes to build a business during the downturn, you’ll be in great shape to ride the wave during the good times as well.
Here are three reasons why current economic downturn is a great time to start your own venture:
1) Easier to find qualified people: Many companies are laying off talented people and their loss might just be your gain. It is easier to find qualified people during a downturn and when the stock market is down, rather than in a booming economy where you can’t even begin to compete with high-flying stock options.
2) Less competition is a good thing: The economic crunch has forced flight to quality for VC Funding. Now that the VCs are not throwing money with anything that has half a business plan, you may find that you have less competition. You also have more time on your side especially, if you’re planning to bootstrap your venture and scale slowly.

3) Diversify your risk: With the prospect of mass layoffs looming large, it’s a good time to re-evaluate your options and diversify your risk. The layoffs combined with hiring freezes has increased the scarcity of interesting jobs. If you’re looking for job satisfaction vs. just a paycheck, what could be more fulfilling than your own venture?

Now, it is your turn to tell us what you think.Vote below to let us know if right now is good time to start a new venture and as always, leave your comments in the comments section.

[polldaddy poll=1020674]

Moving on…

Starting next week, it will be the start of an exciting new phase in my professional life. As part of a ‘simplication’ process, I will be leaving my company. I don’t usually mention my real job or my (soon-to-be-ex-) employer because there an inherent conflict in writing about your employer on your personal blog.

I also think it’s a colossal waste of time, especially when you spend 60-80hrs working at your job and blogging about your employer on your own time isn’t a very smart use of anyone’s time. The only exception is when you’re the founder/owner of the company and/or have a significant influence on the company’s business and/or you are paid to blog about your company after-hours, then that’s a different story.

I am a recovering entrepreneur and that’s probably going to be the dominating theme of my blog going forward. Here are some great blog posts I noticed recently:

I loved this awesome post by one of my fav bloggers, Steve Hodson, who says that it’s fear (and fear-mongering) rather than economic reality that’s driving some of the layoffs in the tech industry. 

I found these great tips and suggestions from Robert Scoble on what to do if you get laid off in the 2008 recession.

Techcrunch has an interesting take on how to use the echo chamber in the lean times to build your brand.

Blogging metrics gone wild

There’s yet another Top (insert some blogging metric here) list out this week and this time it’s Techcrunch with its Top 100 tech bloggers list based on headlines in Techmeme, which Mathew Ingram has described as ‘trolling for links’ on a slow weekend. There are plenty of other top blogs lists out there and everyone has their own metrics on how to measure a blog and/or blogger’s popularity.

Some like Alexa use the same metrics to measure social media like page views and traffic rankings, which are used to measure the popularity of static websites. Rating Burner relies on number of RSS subscribers to compile its list of popular blogs, which isn’t all that different from traditional media, which uses viewership or circulation numbers to measure a network’s or print media popularity.

Technorati has its own set of metrics – ‘authority’ and ‘ranking’. Technorati Authority refers to the number of blogs linking to your website in the last six months, while Ranking is based on how far your blog is from the top. I think Technorati’s methodology stays true to the spirit of ‘fractured conversations’, which in essence is what blogging is all about.

The recent discussion on the loss of control (and revenue) to content creators, highlights the critical often-overlooked question which is – how can bloggers monetize their content across the gazillion new social aggegators that are cropping up everyday, especially ones like Friendfeed?  If blogging is all about ‘conversations’ and engaging the audience, how can a blogger track (and monetize) those ‘conversations’ when they are happening unbeknown to the blogger on a different platform?

This where I think the popularity metrics propogated by social media tools are sorely lacking. It’s still unclear how valuable are Stumbles or Diggs to a blogger’s revenue-generating potential. I mean, what impact do ‘Like’ or comments through Friendfeed have on a professional blogger’s ability to attract advertisers? There’s no easy aggregation of social ‘popularity’ metrics and that’s a huge gaping hole that the social sites and feed aggregators need to fix.

Blogging and social media in general, needs its own set of metrics and new social media tools should provide analytic support to capture those metrics within and across various platforms. I don’t think mega-blog sites like Techcrunch or GigaOM (which are eerily similar to traditional news media) have any cause to worry but the smaller professional bloggers could benefit from some much-needed changes. Especially, if the conversations they spark around the Internet are a true measure of their influence in the blogosphere.

Is Techcrunch the Rainmaker of the online world?

I found this hilarious – Techcrunch speculated and then later confirmed that the only technology behind TagCow’s photo-tagging service was NO technology, ie. humans. Even while they were being mocked, TagCow was gloating (why not?!) about being ‘Techcrunched’ on their site, apparently there is no thing as bad publicity, even in the online world.

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I am in awe of the tremendous influence that Techcrunch wields in the online world and the potential impact it can have on a fledgling site’s success. No amount of money can buy the kind of traffic that Techcrunch can drive to your site and if your site crashes because of the unexpected humongous spike in traffic – it seems to be a badge of honor (still don’t get how creating a bad customer experience can be a good thing). However, that’s huge publicity, it’s powerful, and most of all, it’s FREE.

What Michael Arrington, the founder and co-editor, says does matter but whether it means the ‘Techcrunched’ site will continue to be successful once the herd moves on to the next ‘big thing’ is anyone’s guess.

Photo tagging made simple

Michael Arrington of Techcrunch, offers a quick analysis of Tagcow, an image and photo tagging service where the revenue model and even the technology behind the service is highly suspect. Arrington (and some other techno-elites) speculate that it’s actually humans doing the tagging.

I note that the TagCow site is careful not to say anything about the tagging process, and never use the word “automated” or anything else that would suggests computers are doing the work.

In addition, questions marks around this technology (or lack thereof) behind this service, there are also questions about its revenue model, because currently this service is free.

There’s one more teensy weensy problem, once you’ve gotten past the technology, revenue model questions, I am not too impressed by the service itself. Call me crazy, but isn’t tagging supposed to help you get more organized? I am as lazy as the next person (probably lazier) when it comes to tagging my photos but when I do come around to doing it, I use relevancy tags such as name of person, location, date, etc. How can any third-party photo-tagging system, be it automated or monkey-operated, do this?  How helpful are tags like ‘yellow cup’ or ‘mountain’? 

I don’t get it. Based on everything that I’ve heard and read so far, apparently, I am not the only one.