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 UUnet, 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 professor at my alma mater, 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 a way 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.
The writer is chief executive of Capterra.
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