education's digital future

Stanford software engineering MOOC aims at future startup CEOs

Even at Stanford, according to Vijay Pande, professor of chemistry and, by courtesy, of structural biology and of computer science, students really don't know much about software engineering. They might know how to program a bit, but if writing a novel is a metaphor for launching a startup, he said, then all they know is grammar. And that's not enough.

So Pande and a colleague, Balaji Srinivasan, both with strong research and entrepreneurial backgrounds, taught a traditional classroom course in software engineering winter quarter aimed at future chief technology officers. It was so successful they're now going to go virtual, and starting June 17 they will begin teaching a 10-week massive open online course titled Startup Engineering. The idea is to reach thousands of people around the world who want to start their own companies but lack the requisite integration skills.

Srinivasan, who holds a doctorate in electrical engineering from Stanford, was a lecturer in statistics before he co-founded Counsyl, a genomics company that started up in a Stanford dorm room. The company, in which Pande also participates, develops genetic tests so potential parents can discover whether their future children are at risk for certain inherited diseases. The test analyzes DNA from saliva samples.

The trial run of their course, Computer Science 184/Computational and Mathematical Engineering 184, was aimed at bridging the gap between academic computer science, which Pande said is more theory than practice, and production software engineering.

"We see a lot of smart kids, both in companies and here at Stanford, who have to pick it up on the job by osmosis, and there's a huge cost in time," he said. "You acquire bad habits that can lead to inferior work products. But if you do software engineering well, you can move very quickly."

The fast-paced course for 150 undergraduates and graduate students featured frequent visits from senior engineers at leading technology firms. The class met once a week for 10 weeks, learning front-end and back-end HTML5 development. The second half of the class was largely hands-on as students created and scaled their future company or product.

Some of those projects involved digital currency, or bitcoin, which has been in the news lately, but back in January, when the class was taught on campus, Pande's students seemed to know about it way ahead of everyone else.

"Our students sensed it was a coming thing," Pande said, "and their interest in bitcoin was very intriguing." Among the bitcoin projects developed in the class was one that enabled people in India to use the digital currency to pay for things and another that allowed people to buy things on eBay and pay with bitcoin. "So our students have a head start," Pande said. In fact, a few have received venture funding to develop their projects this summer....

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