Monday, April 23, 2012

The Howard-Apps-Dev Group -- A Progress Report, April 2012

A. Howard University's High-Tech Incubator for Students
In early March 2012 a few colleagues at Howard University joined me in starting a high-tech incubator for Howard's students, who are mostly black. Our initiative's full name is the Howard University Applications Developers' Group, or Howard-Apps-Dev for short. We are currently focused on encouraging black students to become founder/entrepreneurs in the market for mobile apps, i.e., consumer applications for smart phones and tablets.

This note presents a progress report on our first eight weeks of operation. It's posted on the public HBCU-Levers blog so that it can be used by other HBCUs, MSIs, and colleges & universities having substantial black enrollments in their efforts to establish similar incubators on their own campuses. Additional progress reports will be posted on this blog from time to time, perhaps quarterly.

B. Individual Characteristics
In previous notes, I emphasized what I believed to be the most important characteristics that black students need in order to become successful high-tech entrepreneurs:

(1) Success = Technical Skills + Courage + ???

The required IT skills can be learned in computer science/info tech courses that are offered everywhere and/or from the Web, where free tutorials can be found on just about every relevant topic. Howard-Apps-Dev focuses on the mobile apps market because it has rapidly become the hottest sector in the short history of information technology and because it requires minimal skills sets compared to older, less lucrative high-tech sectors. Relatively small investments in study time and development can yield outsized financial rewards.

As for courage, the conventional wisdom holds that courage is innate; you either have it or you don't because you were born with it or you weren't. But the clustering of recent alums from a few academic institutions, most notably Stanford University, who have gone on to become highly successful entrepreneurs, would suggest that a substantial chunk of the particular kind of courage required by high-tech entrepreneurs may be learned behavior, i.e., behavior that can be taught or at least encouraged by the right academic environment.

Indeed, our incubator's working hypothesis is that many qualified black students opt out of high-tech entrepreneurial careers (a) because they perceive the presence of prejudice in high tech companies, possibly where it doesn't exist or is not as extensive as they think it is; and/or (b) because they don't believe they have enough talent to succeed.

Creating a supportive academic environment should help students recognize that the extraordinary financial gains to be made from becoming successful high-tech entrepreneurs, even in the face of the most discouraging prejudice, is well worth their efforts. More importantly, a supportive academic environment should enable students to acquire the kinds of hands-one experience in developing their own apps and related high-tech services that will let them realize that they do, indeed, have sufficient technical aptitude to become successful.

C. Incubator Features
Equation (1) above is incomplete because it focuses on the characteristics of the student entrepreneurs, but omits the features of the incubator that will nurture their success. This point bears elaboration. Most of the recent reports of successful high-tech entrepreneurs, especially those who were either still in college or were recent grads, make it plain that their success was a product of the interactions of their talents and entrepreneurial courage with favorable environments. The "complete" recipe for success is therefore represented by equation (2) below, wherein the last three components are the features of a supportive environment, such as an incubator, like Howard-Apps-Dev.

(2) Success = Technical Skills + Courage + Other Resources + Support Roles + V.I.P.s Networks
  • Taking each of the last three (incubator) features in turn, the "Other Resources" includes hardware and software that an incubator's students use to develop and test their apps. Whereas the Integrated Development Environments (IDEs), Software Development Kits (SDKs), and other software tools may be free; the hardware is inexpensive, but not free. To be sure, many students might be able to afford a PC or a Mac, but not both. And many students may have an iPhone or some other kind of smartphone, but not an iPhone AND every kind of Android phone, AND every kind of Windows phone, AND every kind of Blackberry. But extensive arrays of smartphones and tablets would be affordable for an incubator based at a college or a university, especially if that incubator was able to engage the support of a V.I.P. network of successful developers, venture capitalists, foundations, government agencies, and other sources of external support.
  • Whereas instructors, mentors, and role models abound in academia for most of the high-tech skills a student seeks to master, very few faculty and staff at any university have developed mobile apps that have been market winners; so an incubator like Howard-Apps-Dev will have to supplement its faculty and staff with willing members of its V.I.P. networks
  • An incubator's V.I.P. networks include key players in the mobile apps markets who are willing to donate their time, IT resources, and funds to enable an incubator's students to become successful developers. Time and again the reports of the Internet's most successful start-ups disclose that the entrepreneurs' connections to a network of supportive V.I.P.s was crucial for their success -- high-tech gurus, private investors, venture capital firms, and other founder/entrepreneurs. Whereas a student would have difficulty getting any of these very important people to return his or her phone calls, initial contacts from representatives of an incubator within a respected university are likely to receive their most serious consideration.
D. Current Status of Howard-Apps-Dev -- April 20, 2012
As noted above, this initiative began shortly after it was conceived, about eight weeks ago in late March 2012. Howard University, like most colleges and universities, operates on a relatively inflexible semester schedule; so starting anything in late March quickly runs into the end of Spring semester crunch of final exams plus commencement preparations. Nevertheless, the group made significant progress:
  • Enrolled 21 charter members -- including 11 students from computer science, electrical engineering, business, and law; 3 tenured faculty members (including the Chair of the Computer Sciences Department); 7 members of the University's senior technical staff; and a vice president who had founded two software firms before he joined the University three years ago. Additional members will be recruited in the Fall 2012 semester.
  • Downloaded and installed the Eclipse IDE and the Android SDK on six PCs in one of the University's computer classrooms
  • Created a blog at whose posts summarized the weekly meetings and whose tabs provided links to useful resources on the Web; created a Google group; and created a group on LinkedIn (for communications with external V.I.P.s)
  • Held five weekly meetings that identified the members' individual and shared interests in the mobile apps market
  • Determined that the group's projects will cover all four major smartphone tablets -- Apple, Android, Windows Phone, and Blackberry; and would target Apple's iPad; no other tablets were specified yet.
  • Developed preliminary specs for "The Howard App" as the group's first collective project. Work on the initial beta will begin in August 2012 and will be completed two weeks before the semester ends in December.

    When the Howard App is fully developed it will provide the members of the Howard community with all of the information they want to know about any aspect of campus life at any time of day or night via their smartphones or tablets. Because of its comprehensive scope, the fully developed Howard App will need extensive real-time access to the University's enterprise data stores -- PeopleSoft, Banner, and Blackboard. Therefore  the  group will only develop some early betas; the complete app will be developed and managed by the University's central computing services.
E. Summer Activities
  • The group determined that its student members should spend the summer becoming familiar with the IDE and SDKs and using free tutorials on the Web to teach themselves how to use these tools. They should learn enough to begin coding modules for the Howard App when the Fall 2012 semester begins.
  • The group's non-student members should spend the summer establishing relationships with V.I.P.s networks in the mobile apps market, especially in the Washington, DC area, relationships that can be used to provide experienced adjunct instructors, mentors, and role models for the students.
  • The group's non-student members should also obtain essential "other resources" from the University and from the V.I.P. networks including: a permanent lab facility for the group equipped with networked developer workstations (PCs & Macs), an array of smartphones and tablets for demonstrating and testing the student apps, and access to market databases about sales and other demand indicators for existing mobile apps.
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