Last Wednesday, Justin Turetsky and Jordan Schau sat in two cushy black chairs on the fourth floor of Lerner, talking about the upcoming launch of their website, CURallyBus.com. They’re commissioning a bus to take Columbia students to Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity in Washington, D.C. on Oct. 30. The website, which they launched Monday, is their portal for selling tickets and communicating with customers.
Turetsky, a senior in JTS/GS, excitedly talked about money: PayPal, the price of tickets ($50), and advertising.
“If we could get this on Bwog, it’ll explode.” Schau, a senior in SEAS, tinkered around with the site’s code on his laptop. They both spotted Akiva Bamberger, a master’s student in computer science and former president of Columbia’s biggest computer science club, the Association for Computing Machinery. Bamberger asked Schau which programming language he was using for the site, and they chatted about the specifics of the site’s backend.
While Columbia students have created service websites for other students for years, an operation like Turetsky’s and Schau’s is hard to imagine taking place five years ago. The agility and ease with which students can create websites is a product of the changing and democratic nature of the Internet. But the collaborative nature of Columbia startups is unrelated, and fairly new. The exchange of ideas between a hacker, a business manager, and a fellow programming friend is an organic process—one that unfolded naturally next to students reading Aristotle and retrieving their mail.
It wasn’t always this way.
In the film The Social Network, released last Friday, Jesse Eisenberg plays a 20-year-old Harvard undergrad in a hoodie with a great idea. Facebook’s success as depicted in the already hit movie has glamorized Mark Zuckerberg’s personal story as one of the most romantic, and widely-known, narratives for web startup companies: College student with brilliant mind and programming know-how creates company from dorm room. Has little business sense. Drops out of college, makes millions.
The story of Facebook is not a common one, but it is empowering to college hackers and entrepreneurs. This, along with the lower cost of building and maintaining websites over the past six years, has made it much easier to launch a startup while still living in a dorm.
Adam Goldberg, SEAS ’07, created a similarly-purposed social networking site called CUCommunity just months before Facebook launched. “People saw Facebook and people were like, ‘Oh my god, these guys are my age, they’re sophomores in college, and they created a $5 billion company in five years. I can do that too,’” Goldberg says. “It costs very little to rent a server, to pay for the bandwidth. The only real costs right now are time and knowledge of how to program a website.”
The logistical ease of developing a website coincided with a shift in energy from Silicon Valley to New York City for tech entrepreneurship—the tech industry here, which includes programmers, developers, designers, marketers, and business managers—is commonly referred to as “Silicon Alley.”
But how does Columbia either encourage or discourage aspiring programmers and tech enthusiasts? We have SEAS. We have the business school. All of the successful New York startups—bit.ly, Tumblr, Foursquare, and Gilt Groupe among them—are a 45-minute train ride away. It seems like we have a guaranteed recipe for greatness: the entrepreneurial and technical talent incubated at a premier institution, funneled directly into a city with a booming tech scene.
New York University has established a startup community that, whether by virtue of its downtown location or its undergraduate business school, is referenced almost unanimously as one step ahead of Columbia’s. (In fact, this week marks NYU Startup Week.) Columbia is not yet a powerhouse of hackers and web entrepreneurs like Massachusetts Institute of Technology or Stanford, despite all the factors it has going for it.
But there is what some are calling a critical momentum. Faculty, undergrads, grad students and alums are crossing borders, meeting up in real-time and in real life, talking about the web and how Columbia can fit in it. Startups are recruiting for talent uptown, and vice versa. A Columbia web community—or, more appropriately, network—is beginning to appear.
Columbia’s Web Presence: A Brief History
In 1997, the Columbia Undergraduate Listing of Professor Ability was launched from the dorm room of an undergrad. The bare-bones website was a simple collection of anonymous professor and class reviews. Since then, ownership of the site has been passed from programmer to programmer, often through unexpected channels. The current administrator and programmer for the site, who wishes to remain anonymous due to the nature of the site’s content, was discovered during his first year at Columbia when he emailed the then programmer about a bug on the website. He received a thank-you reply, and an invitation to work for CULPA.
When Goldberg came to Columbia in 2002, CULPA was the student-run website that most students used on a regular basis.
“That was really the only popular website, there weren’t many,” says Goldberg. “There was really no concept of social networking. There was no University-sponsored directory of students.”
Creating a website to be used by their college peers is a popular path for programmers looking to get their feet wet and practice programming skills while balancing a courseload. The CULPA admin says running the website only requires a few hours of his time during peak periods in stark contrast to the 16-hour days that have become de rigueur for startups in New York.
“As long as we cover our baseline costs, we don’t need to spend a lot of time obsessing over ways to make the site more profitable,” the CULPA admin says. “This is never going to be a business, this is always going to be something we do as a service to Columbia.”
Since CULPA, a new Columbia-centric website has popped up every year or so: LoveAtCU, Bwog, and Carsplit to name a few prominent ones.
But the freedom to develop websites for Columbia students wasn’t always a given. Goldberg was president of Engineering Student Council, and felt the need to pitch his ideas to student government before launching SEASCommunity—a social networking site that later grew into CUCommunity and then a bigger iteration called CampusNetwork.
“It’s funny, because initially, there was a lot of ‘Oh, do we have to ask for permission to make a website like this? Let’s wait for administrative approval before we can launch a student website,’” he says. “Then in about 2003, I think a lot of students realized, ‘Wait a second, we don’t need that permission. We can just do it.’”
The popularity of CampusNetwork—at one point, Mark Zuckerberg asked Goldberg to shut down the website and move to Palo Alto to work on Facebook—briefly revealed Columbia as a place where successful web ideas can start to move. Slowly.
“It’s a very slow movement upwards,” Bamberger says, “And the people who are involved are very small in numbers. We’re trying to change that.”
For many of the web developers at Columbia, their interest in computers and coding began at the age of 11. They began tinkering around with interpreters that their parents bought for them, coding simple games and programs that few people played—until they learned to publish their work on the Internet.
“I was doing top down role-playing games, like Pokémon-style,” says Matt Ward, a senior in CC who has interned at CollegeHumor and YouTube, and freelances in web development and design. “And then I realized that no one was playing the stuff, because it didn’t get out anywhere. And there’s this Internet thing coming about. Everybody’s going to look at a website.”
Online tutorials for programming became more and more sophisticated as current Columbia students progressed through high school, and so for many, they used that time to practice hacking and developing as a solitary hobby. Nothing too serious.
But upon arriving at Columbia, they found that there wasn’t a set career or social path for web developers and hackers—people who solve interesting technological problems through programming. And the landscape of Columbia-centric web projects was pretty scarce.
“Nobody was really creating on the web that was really exciting at the time,” says Bamberger. “Though there was WikiCU and Bwog and other things of that nature, these weren’t really things that united people [interested in tech].”
If they decided to major in computer science, they wouldn’t find a hacker community there. Like many departments across the country, and congruous with Columbia’s liberal arts creed, Columbia’s CS department is theoretically-focused. There are a few application development courses here and there, but even fewer in web development. In 2007, a class on developing Facebook apps was cancelled when only a handful of people showed up.
No gathering space for hackers existed until last spring, when a few students created the Application Development Initiative (ADI). Bamberger and other members of the ACM wanted to get these people—who’d taught themselves and thus operated in completely separate spheres—together. Their first meeting was a bit chaotic: Now that they were together, what would they do?
“It was a bunch of people who had not really communicated in any way, coming together and just trying to get a feel for what was even going on on campus,” Ryan Bubinski, a senior in CC and a former Spectator online editor. “There wasn’t even a conversation going on about ‘What is the community that’s there? What resources are available to us? What can be done to further the effort to build a resource for future students?’”
When they tried to get the Activities Board to recognize them as a club, they were met with resistance.
“They have no idea what this thing is,” Bamberger says. “They have no idea what tech entrepreneurship is. They have no idea why that’s different from computer science, and honestly, they don’t care.”
Independently, ADI has held a few meetings since the spring.
“We’re not really concerned about creating the next big thing to come out of a dorm room,” Bubinski says. “We’re just focusing on furthering the development of that community, getting them to talk, and then letting them do their thing.”
On Sept. 21, Bubinski walked a small congregation of hackers in Mudd through a PowerPoint presentation called “Developer Resources at Columbia.” With co-founders Moses Nakamura and Hans Hyttinen piping in to help, he tried—valiantly—to overcome a deluge of acronyms needed to describe the resources for a hacker here: CUIT (Columbia University Information Technology), CCIT (Columbia College Information Technology), ACM, SEAS, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), CVC (Columbia Venture Community), CLIC (The Columbia Computer Science Lab and Interactive Classroom). Some members offered suggestions for quiet workplaces (the sixth floor of Mathematics) and enthusiasm for different programming philosophies (one fist-pumped and let out a “Yeah!” at Bubinski’s statement that he was open source).
There was a sense of us against bureaucracy—hackers uniting to forge a pathway where there is none, currently. But despite their efforts, Columbia’s byzantine division of schools, technical resources, and communities makes it inherently difficult for a hacker to find his place—especially if he wants to create his own product.
There’s an alternative path for college hackers, though, and one whose narrative has dominated New York for the past 20 years: Wall Street. Computer science and applied math majors at Columbia have long been recruited by banks at engineering career fairs and through advising portals like LionSHARE. It’s a path that’s well set, and tempting for someone desiring a stable job after graduation.
Chris Wiggins wants to change that.
In the early 1930s, a professor at Stanford named Fred Terman met two promising engineering students and took him under his wing. After some convincing, he kept the two from moving to New York City to work in finance after graduation. He told them that their talent would be better suited in the San Francisco Bay Area, so they stayed and started a company in their garage.
These students were named William Hewlett and David Packard.
Thirty years later, Stanford is a powerhouse of engineering, and the area has another name: Silicon Valley. A few years ago, Chris Wiggins, an associate professor in the applied physics and mathematics departments, read a biography of Terman. He was inspired.
“He convinced many students that the best usage of their talent was not to be small cogs in big machines,” Wiggins says. “When you think about how Silicon Valley got that way, it didn’t start with venture capitalists. It started with educators.”
Wiggins is trying to create a similar pipe of technical talent from Columbia to the burgeoning startups downtown, and away from Wall Street—the default career path for many students in mathematics or computer science. Hackers talk about Chris Wiggins with fanatical reverence.
“That is an awesome guy,” Ward said when I mentioned his name.
“Before Chris Wiggins got involved, people were kind of pulling at straws in terms of faculty help,” says Bamberger. “Chris Wiggins was the most powerful mentor that I found here.”
As an undergrad at the College in the early 1990s, Wiggins always knew he was going to grad school. Just before graduation, he started asking friends in math and computer science which grad school they were attending. They responded in two ways, in phrases he’d never heard before: investment banking and management consulting. He says the atmosphere is largely the same now.
“I have no doubt that some of my students have personalities that are well suited to pricing exotic derivatives,” he says. “But many of the alumni that I’ve talked to have come back to me saying that they really didn’t enjoy their time on Wall Street, and that they wish they’d known that there are other things going on.”
And there is a lot going on—particularly in New York. But hackers looking for employment often don’t know that startups need their skills in data processing and web development.
“Founders are starting companies without hackers,” wrote Matt Mireles, GS ’08, in a column for Business Insider in May. “Technology companies exist without technologists. It’s fucking crazy.”
Wiggins brings founders of startups to Columbia to give lectures on the data-based problems they need hackers to help them with. Mireles recently came to campus to talk about SpeakerText, his startup that transcribes web videos. His lecture was a turning point for the community.
“There were a bunch of things that started to help this idea that people were excited about getting involved with tech entrepreneurship,” Bamberger says. “One of them was just the presence of Matt at this one lecture he gave. He was just nervous, and he had a mohawk, and it was obvious that this guy didn’t know what he was doing perfectly. But he just had this excitement.”
Wiggins is connecting Columbia hackers with the startups who want them—but this process also takes place downtown. Wiggins, along with an NYU professor and a scientist at bit.ly, founded hackNY, an organization that matches New York students with internships at startups.
hackNY also organizes a monthly student “hackathon,” a 24-hour event in which teams from New York schools compete to solve programming problems that are pitched by startups. The teams file into a room, talk for a while about their idea, and then code—hopped up on Red Bull and pizza—until the project is seen to completion.
“It’s not like a homework assignment where the answer’s known, and once it’s done, you put it in a desk drawer and it dies,” says Wiggins. “It’s very different to create something in a collaboration, and then to share with your peers.”
Bubinski, Bamberger, and Ward placed first at the first hackathon for their project, Dropioke.com. It was a bonding event for the three. “They bring in case upon case of your favorite energy drink of choice, and within 15 minutes they’re all gone,” says Bubinski. “A lot of people either hoard their stash, or they just start guzzling them.”
For Wiggins, part of creating a pipeline for hackers to New York startups is emphasizing how fun it is to work on a small team toward a common goal. An atmosphere of collaboration is just one step towards becoming the next Stanford: an awareness that other programmers exist at Columbia.
“I hope that in another five years, people will think of Columbia as a safe place for people who are interested in realizing their computational talents,” Wiggins says.
A safe place? “Oh, yes. Don’t be ashamed to come here and nerd out. Don’t be ashamed to code.”
The New York tech boom surprised Anna Lindow. As a CC senior in 2008, she acknowledged, like many others, that print media was on its way out. She never seriously considered a career in tech, but when she was interviewed for a marketing job at the news site RealClearPolitics, it turned out that her work was to be in digital audience development: using tools like social media to increase the site’s readership. She now is an audience developer at the New York Observer, but also freelances for a startup. She met the CEO of the startup at a meetup put on by the Columbia Venture Community, a group of techies affiliated with Columbia. Now, she feels like a part of the tech community—despite not having technical or business training.
“What I always say about Silicon Alley is that it’s a meritocracy in a way other places aren’t,” she says. “There’s a lot of points of entry because tech meetups are open to everybody. Can you imagine an event for finance where they say: ‘We’re just going to work on finance projects this weekend’?”
For a few current students, this inclusiveness is an entrepreneurial opportunity they can’t miss—but being at Columbia makes it a bit harder to latch on.
Zach Sims, a junior in CC and a political science major, who was formerly a deputy for online business at Spectator, first found himself enamored of the tech community in high school, when he found he could consult iPod case manufacturers without facing judgment for being a teenager. After interviewing Silicon Valley CEOs for a tech blog, he was hooked.
“Everyone I talked to in the industry always thought they could change the world,” he says.
But at Columbia, Sims occupies a smaller subset of the startup community: those who want to participate in the New York tech boom, but on the business or marketing side. Networking, the primary tool of startup business, can’t be done in a dorm room. And in New York, most of it takes place downtown. For internships, tech meetups and launch parties, they have to go downtown—or further. Last weekend, Sims flew to Kansas City to speak at a startup conference.
“Most of the time you have to go outside [Columbia],” he says. “People don’t really go out and openly talk about their interest in this type of thing. You’re talking to someone who’s pre-med or pre-law, or someone who has the rest of their life planned out, and you’re working at a company that has 20 people.”
Libby Brittain, a senior in BC and a former Spectator associate copy editor, lives a similar uptown-downtown lifestyle: interning in the digital marketing division at The New York Times, attending technology-media meetups on the Lower East Side, and balancing a full courseload and extracurriculars. She and Sims talk often about living a double life.
“The fact that so much is happening right now makes it really easy to want to dive in,” she says. “That raises questions: Am I a student first? An employee? A founder? What community am I primarily in, the Columbia community or the startup community? Am I student or am I techie? Often times, the answer is both.”
Working with Wiggins and business school student Dennis Kwon, Sims teamed up with The StartupDigest to create the local, Columbia version of The StartupDigest: a weekly email detailing events happening in the Columbia startup community. But even inside the Columbia community, there are still gaps.
Lost in translation: when the two groups meet
At a recent Business School happy hour, one student didn’t have the credentials to get in. He approached a group of B-school students, asking politely if they’d sign him in to the event.
“I don’t know, we don’t really know who you are...” They asked him what department he was in—he was an engineer in the computer science department. One of the B-school students pointed to another in their group, Dennis Kwon.
“This guy’s a former engineer.”
“No, you’re a business school guy. You’re not an engineer.”
Kwon and the computer science major chatted for a bit, and exchanged email addresses. When Kwon shot him an email a few days later, the engineer responded in shock: “I didn’t think you were going to reach out to me. I checked your background. You worked at a lot of companies I’m considering working at.”
“When I was back in college, I never would have pictured an engineer at business school,” says Kwon. “It would kind of feel like I have nothing in common [with them].”
Kwon is the web, grown up. After getting his undergraduate degree from MIT and working in the Valley at sites like Yahoo!, he came to Columbia to get his MBA. The New York tech boom was an added bonus, and he hoped that the Columbia startup scene would be just as thriving.
But out of his cluster of about 70 students, only two were engineers. When he suggested creating a cluster blog to post pictures and updates about events, he was met with hesitance. Why build a blog when they already receive email updates in Outlook all the time?
He was also met with institutional resistance from the B-school when, as president of the business school’s Technology Business Group, he tried to create cross-disciplinary events with SEAS. Startup entrepreneurship, unlike finance, does not have an established reputation, and he says administrators were nervous about funding something that could potentially take the B-school in a different direction.
And when the two groups do meet up, a lingering mistrust between the hackers and the entrepreneurs manages to seep out. Bamberger says that many tech events in New York—Columbia not excluded—are filled with “top-down” people: business-oriented people who have an idea for a startup, then hire a coder to do all the technical work.
“A lot of people here feel like they want to be managers of companies, which is obviously necessary and really great,” says Bamberger. “But the backbone of this tech entrepreneurship bubble is the ability for you to have great developers who create products. There are so many people who are MBAs who jump on a successful startup in a second, but there are so few people at least at Columbia who would just take that 10 hours to build something.”
Some of the work in building this new community, Kwon says, is in breaking down the barriers that are built naturally into the University’s structure—and the culture of New York tech.
“There’s a negative stigma that business people are trying to exploit the technology people, like they are going to run away with their ideas,” he says, “which I don’t think is the case. Some of the work we’re trying to do is break down that stigma.”
Symbiosis: forming teams outside of Columbia
During his freshman year in 2007, Matt Ward, the developer who worked with Bubinski and Bamberger at the hackathon and interned at YouTube last summer, responded to a job listing for a web developer for Inside New York, an undergraduate dining and culture guide. Jared Hecht, a junior in CC at the time, hired him right away.
Ward was excited about improving the site’s way of dealing with data: He planned on creating a micro-Yelp, where Columbia students could search through and comment on reviews of local haunts.
Four months later, the project was about 80 percent done. Ward had hundreds of restaurant data ready. But Hecht wanted the project to launch sooner, so he let Ward go.
“I was like ‘Fuck this, I’m never going to work with startup companies again, I’ve got to change my strategy’,” Ward said.
Ward and Hecht’s initial interactions as manager and developer—while both students—were a kind of mismatch that often takes place in the startup community. Hecht wanted a working prototype, and Ward wanted more time to develop. But this was in 2007.
Three years later, last May, they bumped into each other at a hackathon put on by the tech blog TechCrunch. They were in fundamentally different places: Hecht had graduated and worked in business management for Tumblr for a few years. Ward was a junior, had developed countless websites for Columbia organizations and others, had interned at CollegeHumor and interviewed at Google and Microsoft.
Hecht had an idea to build an application that would allow people to send messages between groups of people. Hecht told Ward to jump in to help with initial coding, and less than 24 hours later, fueled by pizza and beer, the team had finished an initial prototype. Hecht and Ward are now friends.
“Matt’s a very talented developer,” Hecht says. “He was there on Hack Day and he really helped out, pumped out a little bit of code that first day. Then he came back and expressed interest in being involved.”
The site, GroupMe, launched in August, and has generated buzz within the startup community. But it’s also a very Columbia-centric affair. Dennis Kwon also helped with the initial coding at the hackathon, and Zach Sims is currently employed at GroupMe. The Columbia startup community, Hecht says, is fusing rapidly.
“I never made an effort to reach out to people who would be involved in startups on campus, but I never ran into evangelists like Matt or Zach,” he says. “But now I can name at least four. You’ll definitely see a transition within the next couple of years.”
While Fred Terman at Stanford was transforming both the university and the area around it in the 1950s, something entirely different was happening at Columbia.
In his book The Great American University, Provost Emeritus Jonathan Cole writes about what Columbia’s provost Jacques Barzun was up to at the time: “Where Terman saw great opportunities, both for Stanford and a growing nation that had new needs, Barzun saw only threats to the integrity of the university he longed to maintain—the university as a sanctuary.”
Columbia may be, philosophically, 50 years late to the game. It may be hard to reverse the institutional mindset that solidified half a century ago, particularly when it comes to something as intangible—and perhaps temporary—as web entrepreneurship and development. But Mudd Hall, for the hackers, the entrepreneurs, and Chris Wiggins, should not be an impenetrable fortress on the hill.
It should be a petri dish.
“When anything good happens at Columbia, it’s because of the students,” Wiggins says. “Very rarely does it come from the top down.”
An earlier version of this story neglected to note past affiliations with Spectator held by Libby Brittain, Zach Sims, and Ryan Bubinski. The Eye regrets the omission.