Teaching Tech

  • Raul Chao - Teaching Tech
26 Jul 2016 By Katherine Bowers
  • Test your theories, get your hands dirty, try something radical, question everything. Those are the hallmarks of Darden’s tech courses, which prepare students for careers in entrepreneurship and innovation.

    “Frankly, these are not your typical MBA courses—it’s more of an engineering lab experience where you’re using the scientific method to create a hypothesis and test,” says Raul Chao, an associate professor at Darden, faculty member in residence at the Batten Institute, and an entrepreneur who has launched companies in the fashion, beverage and home improvement sectors. “In traditional MBA settings, you’re looking at case studies that the professor wrote or prepared, and discussing it.”

    But in the classes that Chao and colleagues Jeremy Hutchison-Krupat and Alex Cowan teach, students propose the business problems they want to explore. They pitch their ideas, recruit classmates to join their teams, and, guided by professors, grapple with challenges. Tech classes like these have gone from being “boutique offerings” attracting a handful of students, according to Chao, to being seen as foundational for entrepreneurs and anyone interested in product management. About two-thirds of Darden alumni will start a company within 15 years of acquiring their MBA.

    “We're right in the middle of a centennial change in American capitalism,” says Cowan, adjunct lecturer, who splits time between Darden and Silicon Valley. He is managing director of venture capital firm Synapse Partners and host of the podcast “The Interdisciplinarian.” “As individuals, as companies, we're making a change from a management and analyst driven form of doing business to a maker and doer driven form of doing business.

    This emphasis on “doer” is the common thread in Darden’s approach to teaching tech. Chao and Hutchison-Krupat teach Prototyping and Product Development I and II. These courses aim to teach students how to effectively test ideas and hypotheses through prototyping. Cowan teaches Applied Digital Innovation, Software Design, and Software Development, a course that is rare in an MBA program, says Cowan. To introduce themselves to coding, MBAs typically have to take a general undergraduate computer science course instead of a specialty course for managers. Cowan also created a class on Agile Development through online training platform Coursera.

    These tech courses generate an inspiring range of products—everything from an “Uber” service for independent trucking to fitness apps, tabletop flatware cleaners to field-based, handheld sonogram machines.

    In the first week of Prototyping and Product Development everyone writes and delivers a one-page pitch to the class. 

    “All 40 people in the class have to do it, then we have a free market,” Chao says. “We give one or two class sessions for people to talk to their classmates about their idea and recruit a team.” That “free market” winnows the 40 proposals down to the ten most promising, he says. “Listen, if you can’t convince three people to sign on to your team, that’s a red flag.” Chao sees his role as akin to a moderator, asking questions, getting students to consider new angles or hone their inquiry. “In a way, you’re a collaborative team member who just has a little more experience because you’ve seen hundreds of teams over the years,” says Chao. “You sit there and try to figure out the roadblocks they’re hitting.”

    Does it challenge him? “Big time,” he says. “I feel like I’ve learned more about business and product development and innovation teaching this class than anything else.”

    Ideally, what students develop, adds Hutchison-Krupat, is “a different way of thinking. …What we really push is how to think of your idea in abstract terms, and from there build your hypotheses.” In his two 90-minute class sessions each week, Hutchison-Krupat encourages students to “dig into the mess of things” and to seek out not just the “known unknowns” but to ferret out the “unknown unknowns.” “We want them to apply this process of thinking throughout their careers,” he says. “Increasingly, it doesn’t matter where you are going after graduation. There are few times in life where you’re not going to be solving problems like this.”

    For Cowan, it’s also about exposing students to thought leadership. In his software design course, students read The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman. Last fall, Norman was a guest lecturer in the class. “At age 80, he's still one of design’s most insightful critics and truth tellers,” Cowan notes.

    Cowan works to disabuse students of the notion that great technical innovation looks like it does in movies—a singular “Eureka!” moment. “Almost complete fiction,” he notes. “This is one of the areas I think coming from Silicon Valley helps me. I can tell them that, yes, this is really the way that healthy companies in the Valley operate.”

    In his software development course, for example, Cowan asks students to prototype at least two parallel versions of a web page. It’s a common practice at innovative firms like Google and others to mitigate their own biases as designers. Cowan also promotes field research: students who created the Uber-style service for independent truckers visited the nearest truck stop to conduct field research.

    Although they teach separate sections of Prototyping and Product Development, Chao and Hutchison-Krupat meet frequently to discuss what worked, what didn’t, and what they want to try next with students, Hutchison-Krupat says. Basically, they practice what they preach in tech courses—test often, work in an iterative fashion, and evaluate outcomes.

    It’s as it should be, says Cowan. “As a leading MBA program, we should be on the crest of this change and I think we're doing a great job of producing managers who will have great careers in this new world and create great outcomes for their companies.”

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