IT School to Watch: Stanford University

Close industry ties open doors to job opportunities.

When Neil Daswani began his dissertation on computer security at Stanford University, he was encouraged to focus on industry challenges rather than on an abstract issue. He chose Internet security as his topic, and in the process of completing his degree, he helped create an advanced security certification program that Stanford now offers. He later published a book on security foundations that is now standard issue for engineers at Google Inc., Daswani's current employer.

"Even though I was focusing on next-generation security for the Internet," he says, "they put me in a position where I could help companies solve security problems they have today." While at Google, Daswani has also focused on online advertising fraud and botnets such as Clickbot.A, a piece of malware written as a plug-in to Internet Explorer.

Indeed, while Stanford emphasizes the foundations of computer science in its coursework, it also aims to give students real-world experience, says Mehran Sahami, associate professor of computer science and director of educational affairs at the university. It does this through internships (for which he says students are aggressively recruited); events such as Yahoo's Hack Day and Google's coding competitions; organizations such as the Business Association of Stanford Engineering Students, which holds events like business-plan competitions; and the Mayfield Fellows Program, which is a work-study program aimed at developing entrepreneurial skills.

"We push more of that practical model, and what we require in the curriculum is foundational computer science skills," Sahami says.

"There's a lot more to school than courses and academics," Daswani adds.

Students are also exposed to the industry through seminars that host IT leaders and experts such as a founder of VMware Inc. Outside speakers are plentiful, given the school's numerous accomplished alumni. Many Stanford professors have also worked for the major players in the computer industry. Sahami has worked at Google and says that in his course on discrete math, he brings esoteric problems down to earth by showing how they're being tackled in the industry.

The faculty's industry experience also feeds back into the university's curriculum. For instance, as the need arises, Stanford offers courses to help students develop practical skills, such as .Net and client-side development expertise. Next year, it will offer courses on iPhone development. Coursework that explores how technology can help the aging population is also being developed. focus beyond technology

Stanford also encourages active partnerships with other disciplines, including biology, genetics, linguistics and more. In the past few years, the computer science department has forged a joint graduate program with Stanford Law School, and a biomedical computation program with the medical school, and it has collaborated with the Stanford Institute of Design.

For Justin Manus, that interdisciplinary focus has paid off. While obtaining a graduate degree with a focus in artificial intelligence, he took two law-related electives, including one on intellectual property law and one on cyberlaw. After graduating in 2005, he went to work for Palm Inc., in driver development. He now serves as a director overseeing project management, development and quality assurance for one of Palm's smart-phone products.

The legal coursework has been valuable for writing vendor and outsourcing contracts, Manus says. "When I talk to the lawyers here, they understand some of the technology implications, and I understand enough about the legal implications, so together we can construct legal documents," he says. "It comes back to being a well-rounded person versus taking as many technology courses as I could."

Brandel is a Computerworld contributing writer. You can contact her at marybrandel@verizon.net.

This version of the story originally appeared in Computerworld's print edition.

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