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.

Tips for Tech Entrepreneurs: Moving out of the Coffee Shop

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At the inaugural SF East Bay New Tech Meetup last week, Lawrence Coburn, the founder and CEO of Rate It All, gave aspiring entrepreneurs some valuable tips for “getting out of the coffee shop” and getting VC funding. Coburn’s venture – Rate It All, an online distributed consumer rating company, that allows users to find, share and solicit opinions on any topic, completed a $1.4M raise in September 2008.

Here are 4 key elements, according to Coburn, that a venture needs in order to get funding:

Solid Team: When Coburn initially kicked off his venture, he had meetings with many VCs who liked his business plan but weren’t ready to invest in his company because he was a one-person operation. The reality is that it’s risky for VCs to fund solo operations because if the entrepreneur got “hit by a truck” tomorrow, the venture and their investment would go down the drain. So Coburn made the point that VCs are most likely to fund a venture with a solid team and a clear game plan for succession to keep things going if anything goes wrong.

Product: A key point that Coburn brought to everyone’s attention was that VCs will no longer fund business plans  or concepts, so the venture needs to have a solid product or service that’s marketable. Given the competition for the VC funds, having a plan is just not enough as the funding will go to an existing product or service with a clear marketing strategy because that translates into lower risk for the VCs.

Traffic: Even when Coburn was working out of a coffee shop, Rate it All was revenue generating, making over $200K and yet, he couldn’t get funding right away. So, while revenue-generation is great, but it’s still not a guarantee that your venture will get funded. Having a revolutionary product or service is a good first step but to get funding, entrepreneurs need to make sure they’re focused on generating traffic right away (and revenue would be nice too).

Comfort level and Trustworthiness: Last but not the least, VCs want to fund someone they trust and are comfortable working with. This was a very insightful tip by Coburn and that was VCs need to have a certain level of comfort doing business with you - the entrepreneur. It also helps to be known in the industry and connecting with influencers who can help your cause. Some ways of making those connections and increasing your visibility is through speaking engagements and attending networking mixers where you have the opportunity to meet some of the influencers. He also said that inviting some of these influencers as advisors on your firm’s board will also add credibility to your new venture.

Overall, it was a brilliant talk by one of Silicon Valley’s best and brightest entrepreneurs. Coburn also went on to list several key technologies that are revolutionizing the online space including – Facebook Connect,Posterous, and the very well-known micro-blogging site - Twitter. Despite all the new technologies on the market today, Coburn reiterated that email still remains widely popular and is the primary way folks share online content today. He also pointed out that 90% of Rate It All’s 1.3million traffic comes from natural search so businesses shouldn’t underestimate the power of SEO either.

Here's how not to do email marketing

I started the week, raving about how TiE did a good job of leveraging WOM in email marketing. It’s ironic that I am ending the week with a stunning example of how NOT to do email marketing.

To say that I’ve never been a big fan of Sears is an understatement. In my haste to find the best bargain exercise equipment, I managed to get suckered into signing up for their credit card. They have a few good people in their stores, but their processes and (phone) customer service are terrible.  It takes hours to get anything resolved or even a basic question answered. If you sign up for their credit card, rest assured, you will be on a gazillion telemarketing and mailing lists. So when I got this email from them, needless to say, I was very ticked off. Sears  

Who the heck is Donna Robinson? I knew that it couldn’t be spoof, because even scamsters would have atleast gotten my name right. A few minutes later, I got an apology email claiming that this was indeed a legitimate email.

We apologize for the confusion this may have caused and want to assure you that the email is a legitimate Sears card email.

If you have any questions, please call the Customer Service number on the back of your card.

I don’t get it. It’s bad enough that they spammed with someone else’s name, but why not provide a #800 number in the follow up email for me to call them? I am already irate, why make it worse by making me hunt for their phone number? The email also had the last 4 digits of my card number, so that raises even more concerns about privacy and identity theft. But there were no reassurances forthcoming from the (obviously) hastily crafted email.

This highlights yet another reason why I don’t give two hoots about what technology or super-duper tool companies use to do their online marketing, there’s no substitute for good old-fashioned doing-it-right-the-first-time. And if you get it wrong, own it and fix it. And ‘fix it doesn’t mean a shoddy email.

In the Silicon Valley bubblesphere, we’re always evangelizing the latest and greatest technologies and tools. All of which are useless, if companies are still struggling with the basics – you know, like getting their customer’s name right.

Update:

I just read Seth Godin’s post on how someone from Forbes spammed him and didn’t even pretend it was a personal note. Here are his thoughts on spam,

The end result of spam (email spam, blog spam, Twitter spam, Squidoo spam, comment spam, phone spam, politician spam) is that it eats away at your brand. If you don’t have a brand, you might make some short term cash but it gets tiresome creating annoyance everywhere you go. If you do have a brand, a brand like Forbes, say, you don’t notice the brand erosion… until it’s too late.

RSS and mainstream adoption

Louis Gray shared this great commentary by Brian Clark on Google Reader (via Friendfeed) today. Brian is perplexed why RSS hasn’t gone mainstream yet.

Email still has its problems, and they’re not getting any better. But the public at large either doesn’t care about RSS, or doesn’t know they’re using it (a la My Yahoo, etc).

Many technology (product) evangelists get too hung up on the technology and miss the point, which is – technology is a means to an end, not the end unto itself. In this case, it’s the need for information that’s important and the underlying technology itself is irrelevant, unless you are the developer. Even if RSS goes ‘mainstream’ (if it hasn’t already), will folks know it as RSS? Does it really matter?

Brian goes on to say,

That’s why I’m happy to see projects like Guy Kawasaki’s Alltop. It’s completely powered by RSS feeds, but it’s all behind the curtain. People want access to information… they don’t care about the underlying technology.

I couldn’t agree more. I think the fundamental question here is – What drives adoption of any technology in the mainstream? Prominent technology bloggers, innovators, early adopters play a critical role in creating awareness for new technologies. They are akin to early explorers of uncharted territories, blazing trails to exciting new worlds.

However, not everyone is keen on swimming across crocodile-infested waters for thrills. The masses need a bridge. The ‘bridge-builders’ are folks like Guy Kawasaki who are developing easy-to-use applications/sites aimed at fulfilling a need.

And as long as the car can go 0-60mph in (insert desired number here) seconds, does the average Joe Schmoe really care what’s under the hood? I highly doubt it.