Forget MIT and Stanford: UW computer science department wins high praise in NYT piece

The Paul G. Allen Center for Computer Science & Engineering (Ed LaCasse photo)

A few weeks ago, I interviewed Madrona Venture Group’s Matt McIlwain and asked him pointedly to name one missing ingredient that’s holding back Seattle’s technology community. The veteran venture capitalist didn’t hesitate, suggesting that outsiders (and even Seattleites to some degree) don’t fully appreciate what’s being built around them.

“The Pacific Northwest culture of humility and understatement works a little bit against us,” he said.

In other words, it’s a perception problem more than anything, a topic I’ve tackled in the past in columns such as: “Hey, NYC: There’s a tech hub out here called Seattle.”

Well, at least some in New York City are paying attention. The New York Times published a fabulous piece today on The University of Washington’s computer science and engineering department, raising the profile on a department that often lurks in the shadows of MIT and Stanford.

Oren Etzioni. GeekWire photo via Annie Laurie Malarkey

Reporter Nick Wingfield, who is based in Seattle, writes that the computer science department — through the leadership of professors Oren Etzioni, Ed Lazowska, Hank Levy and others — has “quietly established itself as the other West Coast nexus of the information economy.”

That’s pretty high praise, and it comes at a time when the UW CSE department is gaining momentum. It recently hired a number of highly-regarded faculty members, including Carlos Guestrin from Carnegie Mellon University; Ben Taskar from The University of Pennsylvania; and Jeff Heer from Stanford University. Tech leaders, including Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen; Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos and many others, have stepped up to help with financial support. And newly-appointed UW president Michael Young has made it a top priority to spark more innovative leaders, pledging to double the number of startup companies coming out of the state’s largest research institution, including the computer science department.

Critics on GeekWire have pointed out that the UW CSE department is great, but it operates more as a machine for the big tech companies than cultivating entrepreneurial talent. I’ve certainly heard that criticism in the past, and Wingfield’s report touches on it as well.

However, it seems that the entrepreneurial energy will start to flow if the program expands (Lazowska tells the Times that 75 percent of UW students who apply for the major are currently denied because of a lack of faculty).

I tend to agree with Zillow CEO Spencer Rascoff’s assessment who notes in the piece that the real challenge is that “we need that program to be a lot bigger.” (One of the reasons I wrote this column a few months ago: “What Seattle really needs: A world-class private tech university”)

Nonetheless, it’s certainly good to see the UW CSE department getting some attention on a national scale. I encourage everyone who is interested in the future of the Seattle tech industry to give the story a read this weekend.

Previously on GeekWireMeet the future: These 21 UW computer science grads are ready to change the world

  • http://www.facebook.com/rwoan Ronald S Woan

    The key is really the higher rated programs can’t supply enough engineers to the market, entrepreneurial or otherwise… And it is hard for any non-early stage local startup to compete with Facebook in particular for high potential talent at those schools.

  • http://twitter.com/chrisamccoy Chris McCoy

    This piece opened up on my eyes to the “supply” problems in UW CSE.

    Supports the argument the Seattle-region could support a private, world-class institution for engineering.

    I’d really like to see that.

  • http://twitter.com/katemats kate matsudaira

    Way to go Oren and UW! It is exciting to see this kind of recognition.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=10733011 Avniel Dravid

    There is a bit too much navel-gazing in these stories about creating the next tech hub in any one city or region.

    In Pittsburgh, for instance, where we have Pitt and CMU, the same problem exists. The majors with highest demand (CS, EE, CE, IS, IT, MIS) all reject way more students than they can accept. Almost the same analogy applies to Philadelphia with Penn and Penn State. You are still left with a regions that are continually trying to mimic larger cousins in NYC and Boston. Now, I believe CMU has started to break out of that mold with some of its newer initiatives like distance learning and remote campuses. However, I highly doubt these initiatives will have much impact on Pittsburgh as a city/region.

    I think the real story here is about the divergence of research and education. We’ve already seen an inkling of it with companies like Coursera and Udacity.

    Unless the brick and mortar universities can start to compete with FREE high-quality education, they will be disrupted over the next few decades.

    Unfortunately, a new private university in Seattle, or even a larger CSE dept at UW, will do little to change this trend.

    • http://www.facebook.com/frydave Dave Fry

      I think the biggest problem with Pittsburgh is that it’s a net exporter of talent, whereas areas like Seattle and the Bay are net importers. (I should know – I left Pittsburgh within a week of graduating from CMU – and 4 of my closest friends out here are also from technical programs at CMU and Pitt). I can rattle off the names of 5 or 6 other CMU friends that ended up in the Bay, 3 or 4 that are in DC, a smattering in Boston and NYC, and the list goes on. Compare that to the only 2 or 3 that actually stayed in Pittsburgh, and the pattern becomes pretty apparent. Sure, Pittsburgh is a great place, but few people outside of Pittsburgh know that – so it’s tough to compete against lifestyle hubs like Seattle and the Bay. Unfortunately, I don’t see that changing, regardless of any changes that CMU and Pitt make to their programs.

      Seattle’s problem is different in that there are simply not enough UW graduates to fill the demand for them among tech companies, so our growth is limited by the rate that the big guys (Msft/amzn) can import talent from elsewhere.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=10733011 Avniel Dravid

        I’m one of the exported as well (Tepper ’00) but the whole point of funding a private university is too create the next Amazons, MSFTs, etc…

        Therefore in the case of Pgh, Philly, and even Baltimore/DC/NC to a certain extent — all of them have big Private+Public universities and generally cannot do what The Valley has done over the last 50 years.

        Clearly, there is something else, something more esoteric about Seattle that makes it a great place to start businesses.