Director of Student Innovation and VeloCity at the University of Waterloo

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It is now official, I can drop the “interim” part of my job and take on a new and exciting title of Director of Student Innovation at the University of Waterloo. I am really excited about all the positive change that is happening at the University of Waterloo and especially the Student Success Office lead by Sean Van Koughnett. Sean started VeloCity with just a crazy idea and a mandate to do something good for students. In only a year it had it first residents and less than three years later a 23-year-old donated $1 Million back to the program. That is success.

Now under the Student Success office with the mandate of “Student Innovation” I feel like the bar just got raised some more. There is a lot to do in regards to first identifying current innovation (which includes VeloCity) and doing the right (or best guess) things to help interesting things happen more often. We will start this fall, it will be a lot of fun.

I am really excited by the team Sean has put together and double excited to work again with Virginia Young who was once an Associate Director with me at VeloCity. She is taking over the Communications and Research role under Student Success. Pam Charbonneau is going to lead Student Experience and Heather Westmorland is leading Learning Services. It won’t be a quiet summer. More in the Daily Bulletin.

The “Dormcubator” and the entrepreneur by-products of higher education

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Having had a great opportunity over the last year and a half to work at VeloCity I am convinced that the “Dormcubator” (The Globe and Mail made it up, not me, but have you Google’d it?) model in higher education is a hugely important effort as part of an overall student success strategy in higher education. This, in my opinion, is because it leverages a by-product of higher education and therefore is actually easy (with regards to the relative cost of new investment) to make relatively successful but it also essential to consciously enhance the experience for those students that enter University for other reasons than academic development.

The business take of by-products is pretty well explained in this Think Vitamin article, here is my take in the context of what I am doing at VeloCity in Higher Education.

Why are entrepreneurs a ‘by-product’ of Higher Education?

Higher Education is tooled to create more academics, not employees (and yes, the government talks about direct influence on job growth and training but the economic impact of higher education is itself arguably by-product). The process of undergraduate to graduate student to post-doc to finally a prof (with a few steps in-between) is a long held process to find the best of the best academics. It attracts the some of the smartest people in society to push themselves and give it a try. Pretty close to all of those that try don’t go all they way to a PhD but that doesn’t mean they aren’t hugely intelligent and capable people, they just aren’t academics.

This talent that ‘falls off’ after their undergraduate or even graduate experience is what fuels the job market with highly skilled and knowledgeable work force. Those that go on to do research fuel development of new technologies, develop greater understanding of how technology or others influence us and our world, and educate the next generation of talent. Those that don’t go on to become academics and do research and/or teach are a by-product because the primary product that higher education focuses on is the academic or researcher.

At the University of Waterloo it is a bit different. The University recognized early on that Engineers aren’t going into Engineering to be PhD’s — they go to be Engineers. Consciously or not, the University was focused on creating professionals as well as academics and researchers which crosses all Faculties. Developing the worlds largest co-operative education program made perfect sense. The University’s second core product was born, a highly skilled and educated professional worker. The University of Waterloo produces amazing Engineers, Actuaries, Optometrists, Accountants, Pharmacists, etc. All roles that could get PhD’s but it isn’t the primary focus of the program.

Enter the Entrepreneur as a professional product of higher ed

The Entrepreneur is a different professional and much harder one for a University to create a program for. An Entrepreneur tends to not fit in any one program, likely aren’t attracted to or perform well in the lecture style environment, and they come from just about anywhere without a set academic career goal. They likely go to University because it is an interesting and a challenge, not because they want to conform to a system. Waterloo has the coders that are entrepreneurial but we also have the business or medical or physics or math or recreation and leisure entrepreneurs. Even the Co-op program isn’t ideal as it is focused on getting  the student a job and a great experience as an employee. However, my theory is that the Co-op program along with new leading edge academic programs attract some of the most talented and entrepreneurial students in Canada.

Campus culture in Canada and Waterloo is weak

Where the University of Waterloo has fallen short overall is on building a campus culture and experience. The challenge of the co-op grind every 4-8 months (month 1 is apply to jobs, month 2 is interviews and midterms, month 3 is midterms, assignments, and maybe interviews, month 4 is exams, repeat), the constant moving, the lack of real community connection and culture in the City of Waterloo, along with a bunch of other things means the positive experience and culture is difficult to create. A lot is changing though.

Enter the frat house for entrepreneurs that make stuff

Certainly by no means an Animal House, VeloCity is a fraternity of entrepreneurs that share a common goal in life but come from all sorts of different programs and/or streams on campus. The living environment allows Waterloo students to establish solid friendships with future co-founders, expand their network, and find some of the best co-op jobs at startups that are out there. This has been called a “dormcubator” as it mixes a dormitory setting with an incubator like program.

The advantages to students are numerous but I think there are a few core things:

  • Broader base to build relationships with fellow students: connections across educational streams means students meet people they likely would have never met, Computer Science and Software Engineering students rarely go to class together and then we through a Business student in there.
  • A common experience: the experience in the environment gives those that live there a common but exclusive connection even if they weren’t living there at the same time. These connections are stronger than simply the ‘you went to Waterloo?’ connections — which are also fairly strong given the grind all of Waterloo Alumni have experienced.
  • Leveraging connections the University has already: Startups based in Silicon Valley, Montreal, Toronto, Boston, etc have a self selecting group of entrepreneurs to aim for at the start of every term they are looking to hire. This gives the students easier access to learn from other startups and still keep their debt loads down.

The residence, in my mind, is one part of an important shift to improve the student experience outside of the academic streams recognizing that students go to university not only for the lectures and assignments. This is something that is easier for Waterloo to do given the Co-op program is something it is already deeply committed to and it certainly is not an academic process. I would challenge other schools to look at similar ideas.

The Ryerson DMZ is another take on this model in Canada that is really exciting, lets see some more.

There is a likely a PhD in waiting on this topic so yes I oversimplified this but it is a blog post after all ;)

The VeloCity workspace

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Yesterday on the VeloCity blog I announced the VeloCity workspace at the Communitech Hub. It is, to me, a piece that has missing at VeloCity as we have tried to do an awful lot in what is a residential building but what you can’t do is work as part of the startup community locally. The University of Waterloo campus is just too isolated with the way parking is and its size to try and have a space that is open to the community for various events and collaboration. When you add the cost of living in residence and housing rules that require you to be a current full time student (all understandable and reasonable) there was a clear need to have a ‘next step’ space for students that have other living arrangements and recent grads of the University.

Currently there is no better place to be than in the new Communitech Hub in Kitchener. With bigger companies like Desire2Learn (founded by a uwaterloo grad) and Google as well as smaller companies like DossierView in Tannery space along with the partner organizations within the Hub itself, it is a good opportunity to be in the middle of the best that the Waterloo Region has to offer. Plus I get to work with the Accelerator Centre and Communitech, something I love doing as they are both organizations that have climbed a big learning curve and are now really influencing the services offered to companies across Canada.

This is a fluid experiment and I am assuming certain details of how we run the space will change but it is really exciting to try. What I do know is that a similar space at Ryerson (the Digital Media Zone) is a success with a load of startups working away in a gorgeous space in downtown Toronto. VeloCity and the DMZ are working closely together to develop this new model for an incubator type service inside higher education which is also something I am excited about. My hope is that we can get more Universities and Colleges working with us but time will tell.

What I see as our big challenges going into this are:

  • Cost of the space and covering the costs of the services — current guestimates place this kind of service for very early stage startups at around $1000 a month per startup. Our costs aren’t that but I will need to keep an eye on it. Certainly we do not have anywhere close to the same staffing level as Ryerson and I am not sure we need to but we do need more help to keep things moving. That will increase our cost.
  • What does success look like? With the residence I am still not sure what success is. I know it isn’t having a startup launch out of the residence into the real world and it is more important to build a strong bond between future co-founders but I will need to work on that. With the workspace it could very well be measured by the number of startups that find some revenue.
  • What are we missing? I try not to let this drive me nuts but I am constantly trying to find the gaps in what we are doing and ensure we stay focused on what are core mission is. That means saying no sometimes but a lot of the time the ‘no’ is because we just don’t have the staff to work with certain groups. Need to tackle point one above.

In a few months I will find new challenges and see if what I think are important problems really are. This is pretty exciting! Any questions, just ask. I aim to be as open as I possibly can about this whole thing ;)

How to screw up the higher education system in Ontario

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The Ontario Premier made his speech the other day that gave a big nod to the need for a stronger education system (no mention of the money to do it btw) but along with nod came some silly goals that demonstrate a clear misunderstanding with the state of higher education in Ontario. The globecampus.ca blog outlines some issues but I think it misses the point, we need revolution in education not just more bums in seats.

Here’s my view of the world (simplified/generalize for effect):

  • Universities are tooled to create more academics, other outcomes besides professional accreditation are unintentional.
  • The government has given money to build buildings over the last 10 years – not lecture halls but buildings – and no money to maintain the buildings.
  • Budget cuts have peeled away operating budget of departments over 10 years but the pressure to deliver more has seen staff being hired without the flexibility or ability to look at how things fit within the larger organization.
  • Staff are better educated than in the past and in many cases more skilled than the academics yet are seen as second class citizens within the organization.
  • Most academics want to teach, do research, and focus on their vocation – they do not want to recruit, do marketing or communications, manage staff outside of their research group, or be a department chair, associate dean, or dean.
  • Research funds rarely contribute to the well being of the institution or teaching. Heck they likely don’t pay for the power consumption of the toys they buy.
  • Academic time and process rewards mediocracy and we all know mediocre products are crap (I say this while looking at my UW degree).
  • Students are paying way too much in tuition and have earned the right to view higher education as a service not an earned place that expects, requires, and rewards hard work (not with a job but with that little warm feeling you get, currently most students think only about jobs).
  • Like all of the publicly funded jobs, the leaders are gone or in the process of being chased out. As we head out of the recession a new exodus of the employable from public service will most certainly occur.

To tackle these things takes breaking out of the mediocre and into some pretty crazy thinking. We need to take risks, experiment, and challenge the establishment that is almost dysfunctional outside a few pockets of brilliance. What the Ontario government is offering is more of the same—rhetoric, promises, and likely funds earmarked and the established system not a revolution.

Of course that isn’t for the government to dictate. We need to figure this out and we need the leaders within higher education that are willing to do so. I see glimpses of it but I fear we won’t really go for it as there is little appetite or motivation to break out of the crisis management culture and throw away status quo. However, if I was king of higher education this is what I would try:

  • Remove administrative or managerial positions that are just appointments of academics—make them apply against other professionals
  • Create a product management office, force them on the world with a mandate to train people to think about their products and projects.
  • Put post-docs in the classroom, formalize a new class of research focused academics which they are associated with and require them to ship a new product or service every 2-3 years
  • Create a hybrid of distance education and intense campus education along with co-op
  • Move staff from the silos of departments to special team pools that can charge out for services and rotate throughout campus (modern take on secretarial pools)—that way you can rally on time sensitive pushes and build expertise along with campus wide perspective
  • Service Level Agreements
  • More programs and services to students that are not related directly to academics but tied more to the local community (build more VeloCities).

Could be all crazy ideas but I would like to try at least one or two of them ;) We need to think differently about higher education and how we function institutionally. If we continue down the cut backs, hand outs, and status quo we will surely self destruct within a generation.

Disclaimer: I would say this openly on campus and I am pretty sure it may offend some but these are thoughts being thrown out there. We need to start thinking and trying things.