How to make D.C. the next Sil­i­con Val­ley

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - The writer is chief ex­ec­u­tive of Capterra.

Wash­ing­ton is said to be pop­ping onto the tech radar as a Sil­i­con Val­ley al­ter­na­tive. While the area has made ma­jor strides in the past 15 years, th­ese “next Sil­i­con Val­ley” pro­nounce­ments are highly pre­ma­ture. D.C. is in­deed a dis­pro­por­tion­ately ed­u­cated city, of­fer­ing more in­tel­lec­tual cap­i­tal than just about any­where else. It also of­fers incredible di­ver­sity — peo­ple with var­ied so­cioe­co­nomic back­grounds, world­views and up­bring­ings — which serves as a dis­tinct as­set in the in­no­va­tion process.

And there are al­ready a lot of suc­cess­ful tech com­pa­nies in the re­gion, many of which were spawned from telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions pioneers such as U-Unet, AOL and Nex­tel. While the Dis­trict has tremen­dous op­por­tu­nity to turn into a strong tech hub, one re­al­ity con­tin­ues to hold it back: It lacks an elite, univer­sity-level en­gi­neer­ing or com­puter sci­ence pro­gram in place to re­cruit, train and re­tain top tal­ent.

Ac­cord­ing to U.S. News & World Re­port, the best com­puter sci­ence un­der­grad­u­ate pro­grams are in Mas­sachusetts (MIT is No.1, and Har­vard No. 3) and Cal­i­for­nia (Stan­ford, No. 2, the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Berke­ley, No. 4). To find a Wash­ing­ton-area col­lege, you have to burn through the list to No. 28 to reach the Univer­sity of Mary­land in Col­lege Park.

The Dis­trict clearly has a long way to go.

Why does this mat­ter? Bos­ton and San Fran­cisco-based com­pa­nies have an in­her­ent ad­van­tage over those in the na­tion’s cap­i­tal. New grad­u­ates are shep­herded to lo­cal well-known com­pa­nies, whereas busi­nesses in the Wash­ing­ton area have to pe­suade new grad­u­ates to up­root and move here.

The real tragedy is that there are sys­tems in place that en­cour­age area stu­dents to pur­sue en­gi­neer­ing be­fore they en­ter col­lege. For ex­am­ple, Alexandria’s Thomas Jefferson High School grad­u­ates some of the top stu­dents in sci­ence, tech­nol­ogy, en­gi­neer­ing and math­e­mat­ics (known as STEM) na­tion­ally. The First Ro­bot­ics pro­grams are in­cred­i­bly com­pet­i­tive in this area. Mary­land is home to the Great Ad­ven­ture Lab, which in­tro­duces and en­cour­ages chil­dren as early as prekinder­garten to en­joy sci­ence, pro­gram­ming and en­gi­neer­ing.

But high school grad­u­ates ready to ex­plore com­puter sci­ence have no com­pet­i­tive col­lege op­tions in this area. Once they’re done with col­lege, Wash­ing­ton doesn’t have the clout as a tech hub to lure them back. We’re los­ing our tal­ent to other ma­jor ci­ties.

I’ ll make two con­ces­sions. First, col­lege rank­ings don’t nec­es­sar­ily re­flect the qual­ity of ed­u­ca­tion. I called a com­puter sci­ence pro­fes­so­rat my alma mat er, Ge­orge­town Univer­sity, who in­formed me that his depart­ment doesn’t par­tic­i­pate in U.S. News’s rank­ings be­cause the scor­ing overem­pha­sizes resources af­forded to a depart­ment, alumni giv­ing and grad­u­a­tion rates. Ge­orge­town’s rel­a­tively new com­puter sci­ence pro­gram can­not com­pete na­tion­ally, de­spite its high-qual­ity ap­pli­cants, pro­fes­sors and stu­dents.

Sec­ond, fol­low­ing the early suc­cess of the afore­men­tioned tel­cos, there is at least one tech sec­tor that is al­ready vi­brant in this area: data an­a­lyt­ics. From Mi­croS­trat­egy to Logi An­a­lyt­ics to APT, the area has at­tracted busi­ness in­tel­li­gence in­no­va­tors that aim to help or­ga­ni­za­tions make bet­ter use of their data to make more in­formed de­ci­sions. Un­for­tu­nately, data an­a­lyt­ics alone can’t make up for what the area lacks to make it the “next Sil­i­con Val­ley.”

Stan­ford and MIT were able to build world-class en­gi­neer­ing and com­puter sci­ence pro­grams be­cause of their world­wide brands. Ge­orge­town is the only D.C.-area univer­sity that is sim­i­larly po­si­tioned — and the pro­fes­sor with whom I spoke said the univer­sity would be thrilled if it made the top 50 com­puter sci­ence schools within a decade.

But the Hoyas need to dream big­ger.

While Ge­orge­town sees the lib­eral arts as a key dif­fer­en­tia­tor, it has found away to blend that ideal with more prac­ti­cal en­deav­ors such as its busi­ness and for­eign pol­icy schools. A new fo­cus on en­gi­neer­ing and com­puter sci­ence would bet­ter po­si­tion stu­dents to in­no­vate and have a pos­i­tive im­pact on the world. It’s on Ge­orge­town to lead its stu­dents in that di­rec­tion.

Un­til it does — or we per­suade MIT to es­tab­lish a satel­lite cam­pus here — Wash­ing­ton has no hope of com­pet­ing with Bos­ton or San Fran­cisco for tal­ent and tech­ni­cal en­trepreneur­ship.

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