Pursuing computer science for marketing at Harvard

It never ceases to amaze me how much there is to learn out there. Okay, there’s obviously an infinite amount of stuff to learn. But even if you carve out just the choicest subset of what’s most interesting and relevant to your passions in work and life, there’s still many lifetimes worth of potential learning in front of each of us.

Some people may get depressed or bored with that. I actually get turned on.

To me, learning new things is the way I fuel my own internal innovation engine. It motivates me in the morning to think about what discoveries the day ahead might bring. The exploration of possibilities is fun, a kind of treasure hunt of ideas and experiences.

Some days, a discovery may be as simple as a great restaurant (Emma’s Pizza in Cambridge, yum). Other days, it just might be the idea behind the next Google or a Nobel Prize. Not that I’ve had either of those, but hey, every day is a fresh opportunity.

Marketing and computer science studies

I’ve written before that I think the intersection of marketing and computer science is one of the great frontiers of discovery for the years ahead. My New Year’s post covered some of my open questions about marketing technology research. And I was thrilled to hear about Google and WPP sponsoring research in this budding, multi-disciplinary field.


Well, putting my money where my mouth is, I’ve decided to dip back into the academic world, on a part-time basis, to beef up the computer science half of my brain — particularly in the area of artificial intelligence and multi-agent systems. I’ve been accepted into a part-time program at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, where I’ll slowly be working on a master of science in computer science at the rate of one or two courses per semester for the next several years.

To be frank, the degree itself isn’t that important to me — as an entrepreneur, hardly anyone cares about academic credentials. Instead, I’m simply excited to spend a little time studying the cutting-edge of computer science research on the topics that I think will be most influential in the next wave of marketing software innovation. Some of the subjects that I’m planning to study include:

  • biologically-inspired and distributed algorithms
  • multi-agent systems
  • algorithmic game theory
  • the intersection of economic theory and computer science
  • probabilistic reasoning and analysis

For me, these topics all converge around my interest in novel ways to deal with the exponential scale and complexity of digital marketing in the 21st century.

Thoughts on part-time graduate education

As part of the re-thinking of education and the economy here in the U.S., I’d like to suggest that it should be easier and more common for full-time professionals to also engage in part-time graduate studies. I’m not just saying this to justify my own decision — well, at least not entirely. Hear my rationale and decide for yourself:

Much of our society’s current attitude towards higher education is built around a bright line between school and industry, like a separation between church and state. People go to college. Then go to work. Then (maybe) go to grad school. Then go back to work. There’s nothing wrong with that, but on the other hand, I see a lot of benefits to an alternative that mixes the latter stages.

When someone is working full-time, and is also able to pursue graduate studies in the field related to their profession, say at the modest rate of one course per semester, there are a number of advantages:

  • you keep a groove of continuous learning, exploration, and discovery — inspiring the innovation that is the lifeblood of business and our economy;
  • you can collaborate and cross-pollinate ideas with a broader set of people, which helps avoid being trapped in an insular strategy or worldview;
  • you can immediately apply the academic concepts in your work, which makes them much more concrete and able to be usefully absorbed into your career;
  • a couple hours out of the office each week, gives you some fresh perspective;
  • because you’re earning a living and can/should pay-as-you-go, you don’t have to take on the debt of student loans — I think we’d be better with less debt in our society;
  • the influx of tuition and talent into these graduate programs would further strengthen the universities themselves — and enable undergraduates to interact with practitioners in their field more frequently;

For businesses who make it easy for their employees to participate in such programs — from a little flex-time on one end of the spectrum up to full sponsorship on the other — they reap the benefits of that innovation and increase their intellectual capital. Having happy, healthy, balanced employees who are plugged into the community is great too.

For universities, this is a largely untapped market. They’ve had a taste of it with “continuing education” programs — which are fine for what they provide, but are often cut off from the primary classes, professors, and research that’s happening in core departments.

When I started thinking about pursing graduate computer science studies, I was surprised at how few universities here in the Boston area offered such part-time options. The part-time program I was accepted in at Harvard is so small that when I recently met faculty and administrators at a reception, and I was asked “what will you be doing?”, my reply of “a part-time master’s in computer science”, was repeatedly met with the puzzled response, “Really? I didn’t know we had a part-time program? How unusual!” By about the 5th time someone said that to me, I was beginning to wonder if I’d dreamed the whole thing up.

This program does actually exist.

And I think it’s a wonderful thing. For what I want do — cross-pollinate some of the latest theoretical research in computer science into the pragmatic field of digital marketing, in a “real-time” basis in my work — this is perfect.

Maybe it is unusual. But I don’t think it should be.

Comments

  1. Congratulations Scott!

  2. I just stumbled across this post and found it refreshing. I am currently enrolled in a Phd program in Information Systems. Although, I didn’t go into the program with this research area in mind, I have become fascinated with social networking and it’s implications. I see a bright future for it in terms of marketing (we haven’t even scratched the surface).
    As you alluded to in a previous post, it’s not only viable in marketing, but also health care, finance, etc. Please keep us updated as to how you are doing.

  3. The remarks made about the part-time program were pretty hilarious. Although I don’t really think the existence of the program is funny at all. It’s a great idea and I wish more colleges would follow. I myself am considering the same program in the future. Of course, that isn’t for another 1 1/2 years.
    Good luck!!

  4. Part-time postgraduate study is extremely common here in Australia as most pg courses offer off-campus and evening classes. All the points you made are very valid and certainly add value and substance to the course. The other advantage is that they’re the same courses available full-time, alleviating any fear one might have of having to take a “continuing education” course to increase skills and qualifications. Over the past 10 years I’ve found up to half of the teams I’ve worked in are completing postgraduate study part-time whilst working full-time!

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