Rewind: UW’s Ed Lazowska on the engineering talent crunch

Ed Lazowska in the KIRO-FM studios

Our guest this past week on the GeekWire Podcast was Ed Lazowska, the longtime computer science professor who holds the Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington. We talked about tons of stuff, including the early days of the Internet, the latest projects at the UW, and his take on Paul Allen’s new book.

But perhaps no subject we talked about was more important than the demand for top engineers, and what it’s going to take for the supply to catch up in the form of increased capacity for computer science education in the state. He also talked about another outcome from the department, the transfer of technologies to startups and other tech companies in the region, and his general outlook on the Seattle tech community.

Continue reading for edited excerpts from the conversation.

What’s your take on the influx of Silicon Valley companies into Seattle? Why is that happening, and what sort of talent are they looking for here?

Lazowska: Well, the influx is amazing. And the rate of growth is amazing. …  Steve Ballmer, being very kind to us, said at some point, there’s only two reasons for tech companies to move to Seattle, and that’s UW and Microsoft. There’s a lot to that. There is certainly a lot of movement of people around. It does create more demand for people. That is, if I hire someone from you, you’ve got to hire somebody to do the job that person was doing. So fundamentally we’re growing like crazy here.

What about the supply side? Are there going to be enough engineers to meet the demand, not only of these companies, but of innovation in general long term?

Lazowska: Supply side is pretty terrible. Let’s look at it two different ways. One is, it makes sense that we’re an importer of talent, because we’ve got such a robust software industry. So we’re always going to be hiring people or else the poor kids who grew up in Kansas and are smart aren’t going to have any place to go. The question is whether every smart, motivated kid who grows up in the state of Washington has the opportunity to get prepared. And the answer is, absolutely not for that. You know the data. Our state ranks among the bottom states in the country in bachelor’s capacity per capita. Our program at the University of Washington, it’s oversubscribed by a factor of 4-to-1. That’s of existing UW students who simply try to choose the major. I view this as an issue not for the Microsoft and Googles and Amazons that recruit nationally. It’s a problem for the kids who grow up here who are by and large not going to have those jobs, and it’s a problem for the smaller companies who pretty much have to recruit from the indigenous work force. Despite Monster.com and things like that, fundamentally they’re looking around here for the people they’re going to hire.

What’s the solution?

Lazowska: I don’t want to defend my employer too much, but interestingly the UW’s revenue per student for 20-plus years has been constant at about $16,000. It used to be 70 percent state funding and 30 percent individual tuition, and that’s now flipped. That’s perhaps not inappropriate as long as you can provide financial aid. The role of public universities is socioeconomic upward mobility for the kids who grow up in the region, and that’s what we’ve got to do. But there just has to be more capacity, and I don’t think there’s a silver bullet. Yeah, you use educational technology, and yeah, people come in credentialed for a lot of other things. But the reason that we along with Stanford and Berkeley and MIT are top five suppliers to Microsoft and Amazon and Google is the intensive mentoring that these students get at these top, research-intensive universities where they’re undergrads. That doesn’t scale as well as you’d like. It costs money.

What about technology transfer out of the University of Washington? Is it getting better, and are we going to see more innovation coming out that gets commercialized in the Seattle area?

Lazowska: There are more than 200 companies that have spun out of UW over time, and there are tons of technologies that have spun out to existing companies. For example, Intel’s simultaneous multithreading is out of our department. There are tons of biomedical companies and biomedical innovations. … That said, it’s never perfect. I think we had a really good tech transfer office 10 years ago. It fell into a hole. Linden Rhoads is doing miraculous things getting it going again. One of the best things she’s done is to have the place crawling with entrepreneurs in residence. For example, we’ve had Ken Myer (former Washington Technology Industry Association leader) in our department. Independent of the Center for Commercialization we’ve got Jeremy Jaech spending time (co-founder Visio, Aldus) which is phenomenal. He left his most recent company and decided he wanted to hang around with students a few days a week. You just can’t imagine someone who knows more about the startup culture in technology than Jeremy. So I think things are tons better.


To hear our conversation on those and many other topics — plus our news roundup and a new Name that Tech Tune contest — listen to the full audio of the show below.

Subscribe in iTunes or Zune. Here’s the MP3 file. Check back this weekend for a new episode.

  • bill

    I totally agree about the duty to educate the students of Washington state. It’s a duty, but of course it’s also a massive boost to the private sector. I hope that the program can accept a higher ratio of applicants, and I also hope it can accept a higher ratio of Washingtonians.

  • http://jamie.thriceallamerican.com/ Jamie

    UW’s CS Dept. obviously has a great pedigree and Lazowska is right on in his comments that investment needs to happen in building talent amongst “the locals”. As we figure out ways to better develop our talent pool through local institutions, I hope we don’t put all of our eggs in one basket with the UW. Silicon Valley benefits from having numerous great schools nearby, and I think we have a number of great public and private institutions in the area that have respectable CS departments: SU, PLU, UWT come to mind without even crossing the mountains…

  • Mark

    Why does UCB and Cornell, among other top tier schools in engineering and computer science, only have 30-40% employment rates of their graduates? Sure doesn’t sound like a ‘talent crunch’ to me.