Today, I spoke to Vivek Wadhwa, who is a senior research associate with the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School and an executive in residence/adjunct professor at the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University. He’s also a columnist for BusinessWeek.com and a contributor TechCrunch, and has made many appearances on U.S. and international TV stations including CNN, ABC, NBC, CNBC and the BBC. In this interview, Vivek gives advice for students who are entering the real world, goes over the impact of globalization on the workforce, how people can have competitive advantages, tips for entrepreneurs, and more.
When helping students prepare for the real world, what advice do you generally give?
This afternoon, I spent some time with PhD students at the iSchool of Berkeley. They are worried about getting faculty positions when they graduate and wonder if they should focus on business opportunities instead of academia, for example. My advice was to keep their options open. Instead of doing meaningless research – which only leads to papers in academic publications that make no real world impact, to focus instead on solving important problems. When they solve these, they should put as much energy into communicating these as they did on the research. They can decide closer to graduation which path to pursue. This seems straight forward advice, but in the academic world, there is too much focus on irrelevant research – which is done just for the purpose of professors gaining tenure. There is very little focus on the real-world. I told these students that when their professors were doing their PhDs, the world was much different than it is now. There are no guarantees of faculty positions or research jobs for these students. They will need to learn to compete in the harsh, globalized economy.
I also gave these PhDs advice I give to my Duke Masters of Engineering Management students about networking: Start building your networks. Contact the people you want to eventually work for or learn from and start forming bonds with them. Don’t wait till graduation to connect with the world, do it now.
What do you think the impact of globalization will have on the workforce? Will it be harder to get a job or easier?
Globalization will cause entire industries to die (as we have most recently seen with the automobile industry), and new industries will be born. In the old days, the world changed very slowly and the skills you gained in school lasted a life-time. Now, skills and entire industries can become obsolete in as short as a decade. This means that learning has to be a life-long effort. Workers need to keep upgrading their skills and companies need to keep investing in educating their people to make them more productive. Our workers are no longer just competing with other workers in the next State – they are competing with workers in the remotest parts of the world.
How does someone create a competitive advantage when entering a new market?
You have to start off by understanding the market, learning about all of the problems of the market, analyzing solutions available, and then innovate. This means coming up with new ways of solving old problems – being more cost effective and improving processes and efficiency.
What are your tops tips for entrepreneurs who are just starting out?
The advice I give tech entrepreneurs is to forget about raising venture capital or even angel funding. They will need to bootstrap. They will need to start by understanding customer problems and work with potential customers in solving these. Once they develop a solution, they need to master the art of selling. If they can build a product that customer really need and that they are ready to pay money for, they are on the road to success. Investment will come to them when they least need it.
What got you interested in research, journalism, and teaching?
Dan, life is taking me where it wants to. I wish I could say that I had planned making a transition from a tech CEO to academic. But I didn’t. I had health issues which led me to take some time off from the tech world. I thought I would take a “sabbatical” in academia for a year. One year has become six years, and one university has become three (I now have appointments at UC-Berkeley, Harvard and Duke).
When I joined academia, I realized that national policy decisions were being made based on myth vs. up-to-date research. So I started researching topics I thought were important – engineering education and R&D globalization. After building an understanding of the U.S. problems, I started looking into solutions – how can the U.S. stay competitive and keep its global edge. That led me to research on entrepreneurship, immigration and university research – some of the things that make the U.S. what it is.
I found that I could combine research with teaching by getting my students to become researchers. They gained by learning about important topics and realizing that they could make a real impact with their work. And I gained by getting the best and most open minds to help me with research.
Journalism was an after-thought. I wanted to communicate what I had learned and started writing. I learn a lot from the feedback I get, so my writing has now become an extension of my research. I don’t hesitate to express my views and take strong positions – because the feedback is a way of gaining information and learning.
So my research, journalism and teaching have all come together in an unexpected manner.
Vivek Wadhwa is a senior research associate with the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School and an executive in residence/adjunct professor at the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University. He helps students prepare for the real world, lectures in class and leads groundbreaking research projects. He is also an advisor to several start-up companies, a columnist for BusinessWeek.com and a contributor TechCrunch, and to several international publications. Since joining Duke University in August 2005, he has researched globalization, its impact on the engineering profession and the sources of the U.S. competitive advantage. His work has been cited in over 1,000 national and international media outlets over a 30-month period. This has garnered the attention of top political leaders. Wadhwa has spoken at dozens of conferences including the National Governors Association and the National Academy of Sciences. Before joining Duke University, Wadhwa was a technology executive known for being a pioneer of change and innovation. He started his career as a software developer and gained a deep understanding of the challenges in building computer systems. His quest to help solve some of IT’s most daunting problems began at New York based investment banking powerhouse CS First Boston, where he was Vice President of Information Services. There he spearheaded the development of technology for creating computer systems which was so successful that CSFB decided to spin off this business unit into its own company, Seer Technologies. As Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer, Wadhwa helped grow the nascent startup into a $118 million publicly traded company. With the explosion of the Internet, Wadhwa saw an even greater opportunity to help businesses adapt to new and fast changing technologies, and started Relativity Technologies. As a result of his vision, Wadhwa was named a “Leader of Tomorrow” by Forbes.com. Relativity was named as one of the 25 “coolest” companies in the world by Fortune Magazine. He is founding president of the Carolinas chapter of The IndUS Entrepreneurs (TIE), a non-profit global network intended to foster entrepreneurship. He has been featured in thousands of articles in worldwide publications including The Wall Street Journal, and Forbes Magazine. He has also made many appearances on U.S. and international TV stations including CNN, ABC, NBC, CNBC and the BBC.