Maryann Feldman is faced with the challenge of teaching students about technology that may not have even been invented yet.
Recently hired by the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, Prof. Feldman will
begin teaching when the school starts again in September. The first course on her agenda is an introduction to venture capital — possibly a means through which students can fund their own inventions a few years down the line.
Feldman has taught economics and technology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Ma., and has served as a consultant for both the public and private sectors in the U.S. As well as teaching at the Rotman School, she will also assume the Jeffrey S. Skoll Chair in Technical Innovation and Entrepreneurship. “”The Skoll program is a collaborative agreement between the Rotman school and the engineering school. It is taking people with a technical background and giving them an MBA,”” explains Feldman.
Rotman just graduated its first class of students with this formidable combination of experience. Feldman spoke with Computing Canada recently about the importance of balancing technology and business in education and how teaching has to change to reflect that.
Computing Canada: What are the roots of the Skoll chair?
Maryann Feldman: People call this the eBay chair. (eBay chief executive) Jeff Skoll was a University of Toronto undergraduate. He started a couple of companies, but then he went on to be a co-founder of eBay. He’s now living in Silicon Valley, but has Canadian roots. He recognized that while he had a superb technical training, he thought the combination of an MBA with an engineering degree really provided people a fast track to productive careers. He has endowed a program.
CC: Business savvy is certainly a growing part of a technology professional’s job description. Also, the industry is far more litigious than it used to be. Do you have to incorporate those elements early on in education?
MF: If someone is simply trained in the technology but doesn’t understand the context . . . To me, the legal environment provides the context in which people work. You can design a technically superb solution, but if it’s not going to be usable within existing standards or if you don’t understand how customers would be using it, then it’s really not very good. Having a business model and having a focus to understand who your customers are, what their needs are, is fundamental. Rather than being a linear process, it’s much more interactive. Any technological solution is embedded in this larger social and institutional context. Businesses make money by understanding the interaction.
CC: How do you teach a class in technology when technology evolves so rapidly?
MF: One of the things that we realize is that in education, as we think of ourselves moving into a knowledge-based economy, the ability to work with abstract, complex concepts becomes more important. The challenge is, then, how to educate people so they have productive, fulfilling and interesting careers.
One of the things I’ve been involved with has been engineering education — how we train engineers to see beyond the blueprints and to see also see beyond their specific bent and field of interest. Really, someone starting a career now is probably going to be working with technologies that are just being invented now. It’s a matter of how you train people to be flexible and adaptable. One of the things that’s so interesting when I look at my career is the two big platform technologies, biotechnology and information technology that comes out of the Internet and all of the new platforms that build off of technology were in their infancy when I was in college. Now we can’t imagine living without the Internet and without a cell phone.
CC: Do students looking to enter the world of technology have to be as adaptive as the technology itself then?
MF: We learn a lot by looking at historical examples. Going back to the industrial revolution was so incredibly profound because it changed the way that society was organized. We currently believe we’re in the middle of the electronic revolution and information technology revolution that is going to have the same kinds of profound impacts. History is replete with examples of this kind of change and the entrepreneurs who led the last industrial revolution. Also, what strategies worked and didn’t work. It calls for understanding this and then applying (these concepts) and being creative with what’s going on now.