This past Friday I took part in a panel at Penn’s computer science department designed to help students figure out what options are available to them career-wise post graduation. The panel was excellent and included representatives from big tech companies, big finance companies, graduate research programs, startups who had already grown and had a successful exit, and early stage founders such as myself. A lot of great advice was handed down through the Q&A session in particular, and I figured it would be good to summarize some of the best advice for college computer science students who are interested in entrepreneurship.
Build a web presence
This was echoed over and over again. One of the best parts about college is that you aren’t burdened by a nine to five job, and you actually have time to work on projects. In many cases, you can actually receive credit for such projects. Use your senior design project, your independent research projects, and even project based homework assignments to enhance your web presence. Spend a little extra time putting up a simple web site to collect and show off your work. If appropriate, open source your work on github and contribute to active open source projects. Start a blog to document your entrepreneurial endeavors and instincts.
Whether you’re looking for a job at a startup, or elsewhere, simply pointing to your web-based project repo or your github account will be 10x more effective than emailing over another one-page resume.
Learn systems – take the hard, project based classes
Operating Systems, Databases, and Networking should all be required for anyone looking to build applications. Why they are sometimes electives are beyond me. Take these classes, work through the projects, and what you gain in experience will pay off for your entire career.
Get comfortable with a scripting language
Many good CS programs eschew practicality in favor of teaching the fundamentals and core concepts. This is a good thing as the current popular languages will go out of style at some point, but the core concepts never will. But just because the CS departments may teach you Java or C++ doesn’t mean that you are stuck programming in them forever.
Many startups use scripting languages like Python, Ruby, and PHP, as well as the accompanying popular web frameworks that go with them. These languages, although not the most performant, contain great high level standard libraries allowing you to accomplish many useful tasks in just one or two lines of code that would otherwise take 30 in C++. You can easily and quickly write scripts to solve many of your problems, and you won’t have to worry about complicated compilation or deployment setups. Spend time learning and using one of these languages for your senior design or independent research projects if your program doesn’t use them in any of your classes.
If you start a company during college, it might fail. Most startups do. What you learn at college, in and out of the classroom, will benefit you your entire life. Most people don’t look back on college and regret staying the full four years.
Sub-matriculation can save years off of the immigration process for international students, which can be especially helpful in working towards entrepreneurship
This was a great practical piece of advice that apparently many undergrads aren’t aware of until after the fact. I’m not familiar with all of the immigration laws and processes, but the gist of the advice was as follows:
With a bachelor’s degree you need to be sponsored by an employee to remain in the US, and you likely have to stay with that employee or find another big company sponsor for a period of 7+ years while you work to earn your green card. It’s hard to make an entrepreneurial move in the US during this process. However if you sub-matriculate into a 1 year master’s program, then you cut the process from 7+ years to about 1.5 years. If you have the flexibility to spend one more year on campus, it can be worth it just in the immigration benefits alone.
Getting funding for your college startup can be difficult if you go the traditional VC route, but there are options
Programs like YCombinator, Techstars, and Dreamit are perfect for recent college grads. You have a smart and scrappy team, no overbearing life commitments or costs, and the ability to relocate to the best possible environment to launch your company. Big-time investors will look for proven leadership teams, past experience, and market intelligence and connections when making million dollar investment decisions, and this likely doesn’t describe the team comprised of your dormmates. But the accelerators mentioned above are looking for smart teams working on hard problems. This is right up your alley, and they’ll lead you to the connections you need later.