Journey back to Oz: Why I left higher ed to launch a startup

Until a June 2013, I was a college professor. I left the coveted post because my new startup business (Skuid) needed my full-time focus. But I also left because of a palpable disconnect in the higher education environment. How do I describe this disconnect?

Toto, I think we’re in Kansas.

I entered education after more than two decades in technology. During my career, I’ve experienced massive technology shifts: from mainframes to client-server to cloud to the social-mobile revolution. After all those years of constant, massively disruptive changes, I landed in an environment designed for stability, security and adherence to tradition. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.

Please stop smirking (or laughing).

Seriously, after what I’d been through, I figured I could make just about any transition. But I was dumbstruck by the differences between my earlier career and campus life. It felt like I had gone from the “valley of the type As” to the “mountain top of the type Cs.” Don’t get me wrong. It was beautiful (actually ranked most beautiful campus in the US). I loved working with the students, and there is a whole lot of goodness on that mountain top with those type C folks.

Still, for my part, I was worse than a square peg. I felt more like a pointy tetrahedron floating in spherical bubble about to burst. Seriously, I had more personally embarrassing, head-wagging, mouth-dropping episodes in faculty meetings than I care to recall. Completely unprepared for what I experienced in the higher ed culture, I didn’t quite know how to communicate or participate. My previous career prepared me for invention, reinvention, and thriving on chaos, pivots and restructuring. Honestly, it felt like I had left a technicolor Oz and landed in a monochrome Kansas.

Perhaps my experience is atypical, especially since it is already rare for someone to leave the tech sector and enter the higher ed fray. Regardless, my relatively short stint as a professor left me asking some bigger questions about the role higher education does or doesn’t play in preparing students for the 21st century. I (and many of my fellow faculty) had concerns. So do others outside of education.

In an interview for the New York Times, Laszlo Bock, Google’s senior vice president for people operations said, “After two or three years, your ability to perform at Google is completely unrelated to how you performed when you were in school, because the skills…are very different.”

Bock went on to describe how Google is changing its recruiting processes to address the disconnect between most education institutions and the Google environment:

“I think academic environments are artificial environments.…People who succeed there are sort of finely trained, they’re conditioned to succeed in that environment. One of my own frustrations when I was in college and grad school is that you knew the professor was looking for a specific answer. You could figure that out, but it’s much more interesting to solve problems where there isn’t an obvious answer. You want people who like figuring out stuff where there is no obvious answer.”

Define “real.”

Perhaps Bock’s issue—that of not gaining adequate problem solving skills—holds true within many higher education institutions, but not for mine. In fact, at the college where I taught, the opposite was true. Students learned to think for themselves. Professors refused to offer easy answers. The faculty worked hard to graduate students who could connect the dots between different disciplines and solve complex human problems. If you analyze the entrepreneurial activity around my city, you will see graduates of my college leading the way. So at least in my particular case, I cannot describe the disconnect between higher education and business as simply as Bock. At my school, we loved solving problems with no obvious answer, at least theoretically.

As for Bock’s comment on “artificial environments,” I wonder if he should look in the mirror. Is Google a “real” environment to which education should be compared? Employees enjoy unlimited food, dry cleaning, game rooms, bean-bag chairs, in-house day care, garage band sessions, working at home and a day every week to work on…whatever. That sounds more like a seriously awesome athletic scholarship (outside of the NCAA, of course). But wait, maybe that’s the point?

Colleges and universities often embrace the idea of creating a unique community for learning. The students do not (and perhaps should not) care about whether the institution profits by its efforts. By definition, many say, an education environment should be different than a business environment, because education and business have (at least in recent history) very different agendas. Education should focus on human potential and theory. Business should focus on maximizing profits and execution. Or so I’ve heard.

Re-skinning education is not enough.

Despite some of Bock’s conclusions, it is his statement about the need for “figuring out stuff where there is no obvious answer” that rings most true for me. I think he is alluding to a real gap that many don’t yet fully grasp. Not much has changed in education over the last century, but a tremendous amount has changed in our society. These changes are too fundamental to be placated by adding online or alternative degrees. The truth is, students and parents are waking up to a new reality: the degree may be irrelevant.

Here are just a few local examples:

  • A family friend has allowed her 14-year-old son to skip both high school and college and move to Silicon Valley where he is employed as a rock-star developer.
  • Local high school students are launching successful retail and tech businesses before they graduate.
  • Elementary students are exporting their MineCraft creations and printing them on free 3D printers in a local maker space housed in our public library, while their parents look on in astonishment.
  • A local student has designed a 3D immersive education experience using Gigabit Internet which recently won national honors.

What is happening here in Chattanooga is happening in cities all over the world. Others may not have 10-gigabit Internet, but it doesn’t seem to stop them from ignoring the “degree = success” mantra of earlier generations.

Let’s reconsider Bock’s comments about Google’s hiring practices. Google has decided to almost completely disregard GPAs, degrees and test scores in its hiring, because they are a terrible predictor of success at Google. Bock and his company are not concerned about historical definitions of anything, or about pitting business against education. Google, by anyone’s analysis, is making history by changing the definition of both business and education. Google is redefining reality, and leaving educators and businesses in the dust. That’s the message that higher education needs to hear, loud and clear.

This isn’t an evolution. It’s a revolution.  Google encourages its people to grow through hands-on experimentation and collaboration for the benefit of humanity. The personal growth among their employees is astonishing. It’s nearly normative for a Google employee to leave, start her own company, and then be bought out by Google a few years later. But most don’t leave. They stick around and grow like weeds.

While the press bemoans the number of products Google has canceled, reporters miss the main point. Google thrives on innovation — the kind that has historically been the forte of graduate research institutions. Innovation requires prototypes, which in the world of agile development, means Google delivers working software and lets actual users do the testing. Sometimes the experiments don’t work out. But when they do, we all benefit, as does Google’s bottom line. It’s like the best kind of education combined with a social-good mission combined with insane profits. To most traditional business folks and educators, it just doesn’t make sense. This lack of understanding often leads to mistrust, fear, anger, denial and even hatred of Google. I find all of these responses to be rather… weird.

Get to the roots.

In a Inside Higher Ed  blog post, Dan Currell, executive director with the Legal, Risk and Compliance Practice at the Corporate Executive Board, described the critical question all education institutions should be asking, “Is the college creating enough value to justify its position as an intermediary between professors and students?”

Consider Google’s model. It is rather straightforward. Google wants to function as the intermediary between those who have knowledge and those who do not, without being evil. Whether it’s a search engine or a flotilla of balloons bringing the Internet to the poorest in our world, Google wants to intermediate knowledge. They have built an institution that is serious about accomplishing this goal. How do they do it?

Google is about design thinking and hands-on craftsmanship using the latest technologies. They are committed to an intense education experience for all of their initiates, combined with adequate time and space for personal exploration. They want every member of their community to ultimately deliver tangible social benefits to the society around them, based on the intermediation of knowledge in wildly creative new ways. Google has a global mission to share all knowledge freely, even in the remotest parts of the earth. And they aren’t stopping there.

In the process of pursuing their mission, Google is training their people to spawn similar communities outside of Google. If you haven’t caught on yet, let me make it painfully obvious: Google is not interested in just reskinning education; they are creating the education model for the next century. Google functions as a hybrid entity that functions as creative mentor, educator and social benefactor. What really blows my mind is how similar this all sounds to the institutions from which higher education claims to be descended: the Christian monastic communities of the Middle Ages. Whaaat??

Copying the ideal of the monastic community is not a new idea. Over the past several hundred years, at least three cultural reform movements have taken their queues from aspects or artifacts of the monastic movements of old. From William Blake to William Morris to Walter Gropius, modern visionaries have all derived inspiration from the phenomenal creative and inventive output of these faith-based communities. When I observe Google (and Apple and many other inspiring companies) I see the old principles at work, merging heart, head and hand to produce stunning works of enduring greatness that meet human needs. I don’t often see these same principles at work in the higher ed institutions of our time, which tend to emphasize theory over praxis, giving the mind preeminence over the iterative, intuitive works of hand and heart.  There are notable exceptions, such as Stanford’s, but such hand-heart-head integration is all too rare in higher education.

Don’t be evil.

Google is creating value, justifying its position as an intermediary of knowledge. The company is at the center of the “Internet of everything” revolution where all devices will be connected and smart, from your phone to your fridge. The monastic communities of the Middle Ages were also at the center of everything, from food production to education to the arts. Towns and cities grew up around them, under their considerable influence. For their time, monasteries were profoundly effective intermediaries of knowledge. Sure they had their faults, but they weren’t trying to be evil, any more than Google.

Meanwhile in post-modern higher education, professors are asked to attend seminars on whether Powerpoint can be useful in the classroom. Clinging to their syllabi instead of the principles of their more radical monastic forebears, they debate whether to enter the online fray, as if that is still a relevant question to ask. As students would say, “That is so, like, last century.” Most educators are unaware that their antiquated methods of pushing content and testing memory will be useless before they retire, as students will be able to surf the Internet for answers with contact lenses and neural implants. The strategy of too many educators could be described with, “Can we just hold off on that until I retire?” This is evil in its most insipid form: apathy.

I wonder what it would take for higher education institutions to wake up to their radical roots of more than a millennia ago. While colleges continue to boldly stake a claim to being the most effective builders of learning communities, I find less of a disconnect between heart, hand and head on the campuses of Google, Apple, LinkedIn and Salesforce than I do on higher education campuses. The environment at Google may be just as “artificial” as college life, but I’m far more productive and at home within their definition of reality.

Does this mean college campuses should look and act more like Google? Which valuable education traditions should be kept and which should be left behind? Will there be room for new and old education models in the future? What would be the post-modern equivalent of the illuminated manuscript or cathedral or community farm? Such questions are why we need people “figuring out stuff where there is no obvious answer,” as Laszlo Bock said. These are the kinds of problems that are much more interesting to solve.

Google’s reality is doing a decent job of providing a context for integration of the whole person in the broader context of human activity. I think all educators should feel challenged by this. The disconnect I felt as a professor was related to my own need for integration, to my desire for my students to experience more integration, and to my ongoing search for a better way to remain an active participant in this crazy techno-culture. So I find myself launching yet another startup company, attempting to follow in the footsteps of Apple, Google and so many others who are effectively unlocking the potential of people.

I also wonder, should I start calling my developers “code monks” instead of code monkeys?