By Josh Ephraim
Through the process of building berkeleystartupcentral.com I’ve been able to meet many of the stakeholders in the Berkeley startup ecosystem. A big challenge has been connecting with the College of Engineering and computer scientists. I’ve learned that there is a very serious concern amongst “coders” that they will be taken advantage of by “business people.” I think this is a valid concern. These creatives – coders, computer scientists, engineers, developers, and programmers are in incredibly high demand by startups and tech giants. But the exchange of diverse ideas and perspectives is really important in order to tackle big and meaningful problems and this should be happening in Berkeley. Reticence to step outside one’s comfort zone stymies those opportunities. There is likely a smaller difference between how a business student and a public policy student think compared to how an engineer and a business student think. As a result, being thoughtful about how we build bridges from the College of Engineering elsewhere is essential.
As a joint-degree student I have the opportunity to interact with people at Haas and the law school on a regular basis. In addition, I’ve had the opportunity to meet people from many other schools, but the big hole in my network has been engineers. Recently, I reached out to some CS students and got a range of responses that highlighted how they approach this question.
Learn to code
Certainly it would help to speak the language in order to best converse with people who are making this their profession. If you really want to start your own technology company there is a minimum level of understanding one needs to build a technology product. But coding isn’t for everyone, and studying different subjects shouldn’t necessarily limit interaction. It would be pretty strange if a physicist told a historian to first learn some physics before they met. It would be equally weird the other way around. Personally, I’ve taken a “programming for non-programmers” class through General Assembly, and I plan to take another course through Haas.
Come to an engineering building and say “Hi”
This strategy helped me to understand that while walking up to a stranger is incredibly hard, engineering students are interested in connecting with people from other backgrounds when they have something interesting to say and are sincere about it. I also think this strategy would result in some interruptions for CS students studying for midterms! A more structured approach to connecting probably makes more sense.
What do you want from us? What do you have to offer me?
Many people approach engineers hoping to get them to work on their startup for equity and without pay. There’s an entire blog documenting this phenomenon called Wartonite Seeks Code Monkey. This is a real problem. People outside of engineering should be careful about approaching others to help with their startups. Berkeley engineers (the best engineers in the world) don’t need to be code monkeys. If you are really looking for a partner and not an employee, you might be more fruitful in a search for a programmer. It’s important to remember that just like the other top schools at Berkeley, the engineers here have the opportunity to work at the best companies in their field. Many 21 or 22 year olds have six figure offers from Facebook and Apple and Google and the potential to build billion dollar companies that can change the world.
I think the best attitude to have in the startup world is to first thing “how can I help” rather than “what do you want” or “what can you give me.” Especially in a university setting, students should be open with meeting with people from various backgrounds with different skills and talents. This didn’t seem to be top of mind for some people that responded to my post.
Join a club or a Hackathon
This is an interesting idea but I’m not sure if this is the best way to build meaningful relationships. I think a club would probably be a good place to start, whereas I worry that a hackathon might not be the perfect place to add value as a non-technical person. There may also be some age disparity if a graduate student like an MBA came to an undergrad club, but we’re building bridges here so that’s okay!
So what is the solution? The way one frames the question is incredibly important. Whether you’re simply interested in connecting with people who think differently, it is important to be upfront about your goals and interests. If you are a non-technical cofounder looking for a technical cofounder then be clear about that as well.
The burden to build these bridges should fall largely on those outside of engineering. These students have so many inbound requests, it’s on those making the requests to ensure that they are thoughtful, sincere, and focused. On top of this, professors teach students in a way that sets them up well for graduate school rather than industry roles (many of the professors themselves have turned down lucrative engineering positions to teach) so many students might not have “become a startup’s technical cofounder” as top of mind.
I’m most comfortable meeting people through mutual acquaintances (i.e. through a warm intro). That seems to be the most prevalent way people do it in the startup world, and I think I may have to stick to that methodology for now. I think it is really important to break down these boundaries and I truly believe it will lead to great things, unmatched innovation, and maybe even some new friends. I’d love to hear the perspectives of others as I pursue this further.