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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Carolina helps keep Triangle on the map as national tech hub

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Kevin Jeffay, left, and Michael Fern talk with graduate student Chris Bowen, seated, in the robotics lab in the Department of Computer Science.

In his State of the State address last week, Gov. Pat McCrory laid out his vision of making North Carolina the third vertex of a “national innovation triangle.”

That vision, which McCrory also outlined a few months ago during his University Day speech at Memorial Hall, calls for connecting the state’s economy with Silicon Valley and the Boston area to create a national triangle driven by technology and innovation.

Kevin Jeffay, chair of Carolina’s computer science department, said the governor’s vision is not as far from reality as it might seem.

“When people go to iTunes to download a song, they know that’s Apple – and think California. But do you know where the content on iTunes comes from? It may come from Apple’s huge data center in North Carolina,” he explained.

“When people do a search on Google or send a message on Gmail, they think Mountain View, California, right? But the content you get from Google can come from Google’s data center in North Carolina.”

In fact, much of what people associate with Silicon Valley actually gets to them through North Carolina, Jeffay said. Similarly, many people don’t know that Google has an office on Franklin Street or that Microsoft has a development office in RTP.

These are among the factors that led Google to select the Triangle – and Charlotte – to receive its high-speed Google Fiber Service.

The service may still be years away, but the fact that the super high-speed service is coming further illustrates how North Carolina is becoming an ever-bigger dot as a technology leader on the national map. (The Triangle and Charlotte were picked along with Nashville and Atlanta from a pool of 21 metropolitan areas).

Carolina’s computer science department, which is celebrating its 50th year, is a big reason for that.

“Given that there is no engineering now on this campus and the place is largely known as a liberal arts university, it’s really interesting to think about the bold experiment that they took in ’64 to get out in front of every other university in the country and say, ‘This is something that we should do,’” Jeffay said.

Technically, Carolina’s is the second oldest computer science department in the country – Purdue University was first by a few months – but the leadership of its founder, Fred Brooks, was second to none, Jeffay said.

“Fred coming here from IBM spurred N.C. State and Duke to launch their own computer science departments, and these programs played a big role in the rise of Research Triangle Park,” Jeffay said.

“The presence of these three departments, which its founding leaders built to complement and collaborate with each other rather than directly compete with each other, helped to nurture and encourage the development of high-tech companies throughout the Triangle area.”

Jeffay thinks North Carolina has one other important thing in its favor, which he explained by recalling a conversation he had years ago with a man in Montana who worked for Cisco.

“Why are you working for Cisco and living in Montana?” Jeffay remembers asking him.

“Because I like Montana,” he replied.

Well, Jeffay explained, many of the talented computer science students who graduate every year from Carolina, Duke and N.C. State like North Carolina enough that they do not want to go anywhere else to find a job – or start their own company. That is not only good for the people, he said; it is also good for the state and McCrory’s vision for it.

“We have a 94 percent placement rate – one of the highest in the country – and the average starting salary for our graduates is around $75,000,” Jeffay said. “That’s one-and-a-half times the median income for a family in North Carolina.”

Michael Fern said the entrepreneurial climate has changed on campus since he was a graduate student in business here from 2000 to 2005.

That heightened emphasis is one reason he agreed to leave California two years ago to serve as the department’s associate chair for administration, finance and entrepreneurship.

The three Triangle universities have spurred the rise of technology companies here in the same way that Stanford University and Berkeley helped spur Silicon Valley, Fern said. But now they must do more.

Toward that end, Fern teaches “How to Build a Software Startup,” a course designed to help undergraduates understand all that is required to turn their software ideas into viable businesses.

Now, you don’t have to be a new software company to need to develop new software, Fern said. “Software is eating the world,” he said, echoing a phrase coined by technology investor, Marc Andreessen. Companies such as Uber and Airbnb have transformed old industries through the use of online-based software platforms.

“The fact is, software and automation are becoming more and more fundamental to so many new avenues of business,” Fern said. “That is why our department must play a role, not only in spinning startups out of the department, but also in enabling other ventures across campus tied to medicine or journalism.”

Chancellor Carol L. Folt has said the commercialization of the University’s intellectual property is one of her top priorities and demonstrated that commitment last month when she named Judith Cone to become the new interim vice chancellor of commercialization and economic development.

There is no lack of vision or leadership, Jeffay said. What’s missing is money to hire the faculty needed to meet these growing demands.

“We are required to have an external review of our department every 10 years, and our last one made the case, which was already obvious to us, that we are too small to be able to compete nationally,” Jeffay said.

“We are having a heck of a time trying to meet that student demand, and at the same time, as the field branches out exponentially into other areas, we are not able to apply our skills to these other areas because of our heavy teaching commitments.”

Meanwhile, the department is aging.

“Retirements are now outpacing hires so, in a sense, the department is shrinking,” he said.

“Rather than sit back and say, ‘Hey, give us money,’ we need to make the case that a bigger investment in computer science will benefit all,” Jeffay said.

“The governor’s vision, we believe, makes that case even stronger.”