Startup engineering course challenges students with real world problems

July 31, 2013, 12:10 a.m.

CS 184: Startup Engineering, a course first offered in winter quarter 2012, has moved online this summer as a free offering on Coursera, with enrolled students challenged to apply academic theories to the real world through the creation of a bitcoin crowd-funding system.

Balaji Srinivasan ‘00 M.S. ‘04 M.S. ‘05 Ph.D. ’06, professor of electrical engineering and computer science and one of the course’s instructors, framed the course’s origins as reflecting some of his own experiences. Having left Stanford to found a genetic testing company called Counsyl, Srinivasan recalled encountering the gap between the academic and professional worlds.

“I learned that despite having years and years of experience in math and computer science and so on, I didn’t really know how to code until I formed a company,” Srinivasan said.

According to Srinivasan, university coursework’s focus on theory over application precludes students from effectively deploying their skills before they gain practical experience and training. He framed CS 184 as a means of correcting that deficit.

“A lot of the computer science that is taught at universities is very basic,” noted Professor of Chemistry Vijay Pande, the course’s other instructor. “Students learn the fundamental algorithms but not how to use them in a particular setting.”

The class will cover the necessary principles for building a startup — such as the history and future of technology, the nature of regulation and methods of assessing capital needs – while calling on students to create a bitcoin crowd-funding website through which they will market a product.

“This teaches you to find out from your market whether they actually want what you’re building rather than spending six months building something, putting it out there and crossing your fingers that a bunch of people will adopt it,” said Alain Meier ’16.

According to Srinivasan, successful students will effectively budget resources between technology development, product marketing and conducting actual sales.

“Business courses are training students to be CEOs, and we are training them to be CTOs,” Pande said.

Enrolled students will also hear from prominent Silicon Valley guest lecturers in an effort to furnish them with a new perspective on implementing startup theories.

“Balaji and Vijay have all worked on real things, but all these guys who are giving a talk are going to go back in a couple of hours and work on code that’s going to be deployed,” Meier said.

Meier singled out the course’s value in instilling an appropriate perspective in enrolled students.

“The most important thing I’ve learned is to focus on making things that matter instead of the next social network,” he said. “Something that will actually hit up against the boundary of what you’re allowed to do, both in terms of technology and in terms of law.”

“My hope is that in the future we’ll get to see startups coming out of this course and Stanford students who have been enabled in a way that they have the tools they need [ahead of time],” Pande concluded.

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