Philip Greenspun just launched ArsDigita University -- a free, one-year crash course in computing taught by some of the finest instructors. The author of the wildly successful "Philip and Alex's Guide to Web Publishing" chatted with digitalMASS visitors about what he knows best -- the Net, open-source software, and training the next generation of digital leaders.
The following is a (slightly edited) transcript of the chat.
Hi everyone, and welcome to the chat with Philip Greenspun. He's an expert on too many things to list, frankly. An MIT instructor, author of the wildly successful "Philip & Alex's Guide to Web Publishing," entrepreneur. And he recently started ArsDigita University, which has been generating a lot of buzz. First off, Philip, why don't you talk a little about the motivation behind AU?
The motivation comes from
http://www.arsdigita.com/asj/professionalism (where we say that to be a great software engineer it is not enough to merely practice, one must also innovate and then teach).
Really the university is for the teachers as much as the
students! Also, we're nerds and we think that everyone should have the benefit of a first-rate CS education.
How do you see the B2B side of e-commerce developing? Do you
see real advantages to the smaller business community in
terms of tangible value-added services enough to warrant a
departure from ingrained/traditional means of conducting
Perseus, B2B is pretty straightforward from a programming point of view (we've done a bunch). I haven't spent too much time thinking about the wider implications. The small business
community doesn't really have much choice. Everyone will have to use B2B sites just to get their work done!
I'm interested in applying to ArsDigita University starting
this fall and I meet the qualifications. What is your
projected number of applicants, acceptance rate and yield?
Also, since admissions is on a rolling basis, would you
recommend applying earlier or later in the cycle? Thank
We've had about 200 apply so far. We'll probably accept 60
in hopes that 45 show up and 30 stay for most of the year
(we figure some people won't like sitting in front of a
terminal, much as they are now passionate about CS).
Anyway, some of the folks who've applied are obvious admits.
They have 1500 SAT scores, good college backgrounds, a
continuous record of achievement. We will be privileged to
teach them. (Assuming the state of Massachusetts doesn't
shut us down; they sent us a threatening letter today for
using the name "university," which I figured was okay
because of Hamburger University (where I don't think they have a Ph. D. faculty like ours). So we might have to move the school to Illinois.
Let's hope Philip's Ferrari didn't break down!
The Ferrari is fine, flyfisher. I drove it out to the Cape the other day to get a beach house for ArsDigita programmers.
Is there still time for me to apply? What in a nutshell
could I learn from your course?
Of course there is still time, Tim. http://arsdigita.org/university/ lays out the curriculum in some detail. In a nutshell? You'd learn to be a nerd.
flyfisher: btw, since you asked about the Ferrari, I've
learned that there is no better way to feel stupid than
sitting in a $150,000 sports car going 3 mph on the SE
Is there anything else a prospective applicant can do to
show interest in ArsDigita University? I'd love to come in
to Cambridge to meet the staff and vice versa.
I think we will be doing telephone interviews (at least) of
prospective admits. And we're pretty casual so if you're in
Central Square just drop by. I don't think it will be ALL
that hard to get in. We envision that the average Harvard
liberal arts grad will be able to get in and make it
through. We're not trying to be super elite.
Why are you limiting your classrooms to specific SAT scores?
I myself would meet all the requirements, but I have friends
who would very much be interested in this type of class and may be
We're too lazy and stupid to figure out how to find
well-qualified people. So we do the same thing that other
good colleges do: make the SAT/GRE tests do the hard work
for us. Harvard and MIT are successful partly because the
teachers are good, but mostly because they have great
students to start with. Since we're not as well-organized,
well-funded or well-established as Harvard or MIT, we
certainly can't afford to take risks on the students. If we
admit someone unqualified and they don't learn our material,
people will say "Hey, those ADU guys are incompetent." If
Harvard were to do the same, people would say "Their
admissions offices made a mistake."
It looks like the news about the VA Linux, Andover.Net deal
might signify that open source companies have lost their
market luster. Do you agree?
I once saw Larry Ellison speak at Harvard. Someone asked
him how he felt about a recent 30% drop in Oracle stock. He
leaned back thoughtfully and said "I can live on $5 billion.
I think. Yeah, I'm pretty sure." Anyway, Slashdot is
great but $300 million is pretty good compensation for the
efforts of a handful of people over a handful of years.
What's your opinion on the talk of a Microsoft break-up.
Would it work? If not, what would you do to Microsoft if you
were the AG?
I've already said what I would do to Microsoft if I were the
feds! I'd fund Linux development and leave Microsoft alone.
I'd switch the government over to Linux/Unix. Microsoft is
annoying but we have a duty to free ourselves from their
products rather than use Word to write complaints about
What's the average age of ArsDigita U. applicants? Also,
where's the store where people can buy ADU decals for the
rear window of their SUVs?
We've had applicants ranging all over the map from about 19
years old (no college degree sadly) to 62. I expected a lot
of 24-year-olds but it hasn't happened. Barbara Link (email@example.com) will sell you a decal for $2,000!
Do you expect (or at least hope) that students will work at
ArsDigita? Are there long term plans (e.g. how will you be
able to keep it free of charge)?
After you've taught someone for a year, you don't always
want them at the next desk for the rest of your life! I
guess some of them can work at aD if it makes sense. Most
of them seem to have their own personal mission. How will we
keep it free of charge? We're rich! A lot of my CS nerd
friends are rich, too. One of our instructors, for example,
sold his company to Microsoft. It only costs $1 million/year anyway.
Philip, what makes your CS program differ from traditional
ones? The topics look similar. If it is similar, what does
a person with a bachelor's in CS have to gain from your
A bachelor's in CS from a good school would not have
anything to gain from our program! That person should go on
to grad school in CS or to work at HP or whatever. Our
program is designed for people who were poetry majors in
Where in Central Square are you guys located? I'd love to
stop by and check out your setup. Also, I got the
impression from the article that your school was already
filled ... When is the hard application date?
We're at 80 Prospect. There is no hard application
deadline. If a brilliant student shows up on September 1, we
would probably take him or her.
How do you plan to keep AU ongoing if it is free? Do you
expect students (graduates or otherwise) to work at
We are rich. You guys aren't getting it. The $1
million/year that it will cost is like a rounding error in
our business (enterprise software). We're not altruistic,
mind you, but we aren't so greedy that we have to take the
last pitiful million. A lot of the applicants have M.D.s and
Ph.D.s, and we wouldn't expect them to come work here as
programmer monsters. They will work at a hospital or
whatever building something that suits their mission, e.g.,
What types of technology services to you see being the most
popular throughout the next few years (i.e. load balancing,
The big shift will be from browsers on PCs to browsers on
PDAs and cell phones. Load balancing and caching and so
forth are all minor details that nobody will notice. But
wireless forces a lot of new thinking because the keyboard
and display are so different. (Our toolkit now has some WAP
features, by the way, check http://arsdigita.com/doc/wap.html)
What do you think will be the biggest change us nerds will
face over the next few years?
Continuing desperation by companies to recruit. I read a
good book recently by Maistler (former Harvard b-school
prof) called "Managing the Professional Services Firm"
(finished just in time to get fired as ArsDigita CEO :-) ).
He published it in 1993 and predicted that the end of the
Baby Boom would lead companies into an all-out war for
personnel by the year 2000. And now guess what?
I checked out the site -- Scorecard is a really cool
application. Did you develop it entirely for Scorecard
or did they acquire your tools and develop on their own?
We built on top of our suite of open-source software. I
built the text-only version of Scorecard by myself in about
three weeks. Jin added the graphics. We launched and have
cooperatively refined the service with the EDF guys. The
hard part was getting the data from 150 data sources, which
Dave Abercrombie did (he is at ArsDigita Berkeley).
In your opinion, what technical skills and Internet skills should the average, not-necessarily-technical worker begin to acquire in order to thrive in the "workplace of the future"?
Well, the only Internet skill that matters is
http://www.google.com (more evidence that Stanford grads are smarter than MIT grads :-( ). The most important skill for the non-tech worker is to recognize when an information system could support their work and to design it at a
conceptual level (and then to get the funding to build it!)
How many of those 200 applicants so far have you decided on?
We haven't admitted anyone yet. We're going to try to get
together with Shai this weekend to admit at least the
obvious ones (after an interview).
ArsDigita looks like a great place to make a difference as
well as build a business that is long-lasting and
sustainable. What do you look for in someone when you hire
them to be part of the business side of the company?
I don't hire anyone for the business side! I hired Allen
Shaheen, one of the founders of Cambridge Technology
Partners, and he hires business people now. I guess we do
like to see a tech background, someone who can get through
our boot camp, and then articulate how our software can be
applied. We also look for people who can write, write,
write. A clear explanation is worth 1,000 sales visits.
Other than wireless e-mail and sports scores, stock-alerts,
news, weather, what might be some novel applications that
users would benefit from via the PDA/cell phone/WAP devices? This sure looks like a rapidly developing hot area.
Personal organization, obviously, the same stuff that people
are using their Palms for now. I'm not really an expert on
this. I don't even have a Palm, and I was one of the last to
get a cell phone. We rely on our customers (and students)
to think up the new ideas.
How are you providing the backend technology infrastructure
to support the on-line university? Growth plans? etc.
The online portion of ADU will be a natural outgrowth of our
on-site physical classroom students. We're going to
videostream all the lectures and, therefore, by June 2001
we'll have a complete set of stuff online. For the
backend, we already have a lot of software in our toolkit
for keeping track of classes, courses, students,
assignments, TAs, grading, etc. We'll use that to run the
regular school and eventually the online stuff (which will
be much looser and depend a lot on server-mediated
My wife would like to know what your prima persona is:
photographer or geek?
What a choice ... I guess geek (since photographers always have to beg for jobs, money, recognition, etc.)
What is the best way to get good ideas out of your customers
Launch, launch, launch. Almost all the really good ideas
come from actually running a service with real users.
Why don't you talk about "Travels with Samantha," the story
on your site. Did you ever try to publish that? (Or your
photography, for that matter)
details just how much fun it is to work with commercial
publishers. It is funny that you should ask about
http://photo.net/samantha/ because we've just started ArsDigita Press (to publish a bunch of Web nerd books) and
the first thing that we do will be an illustrated version of
TWS. Commercial publishers would never have done a good job
with the book because there is no way to recover
high-quality printing costs.
I'm a huge fan of yours (actually assign your book as
reading material to the people in my department here at
work). I would drop what I am doing now and do everything I
could to do ADU in the fall, but I have a mortgage. Will it
continue to start in September? Once per year?
We'll do it every year! Mortgages suck. See
http://photo.net/materialism/for my condo purchase experience. Anyway, it will probably be better next year. We are being pretty aggressive in trying to get it all done
by September (August for calculus).
Hi Philip! I'm looking forward to your summer schedule of
lectures -- are some scheduled for during the week rather
than the weekend?
During the week? June 23 is a Friday. Are you retreating
to your Wellfleet mansion on weekends? Is that why the
weekend courses don't work? Anyway, we generally do weekend
courses because we like university lecture halls and they
are often booked during the weekdays.
How many hours a week do you expect students will spend on
their class work, on average?
6 days/week, 12 hours/day (2 or 3 of which are lecture and
the rest is solving homework problems (what we call "problem
sets" at MIT)).
Hi Phil: I would like to know if Eve still falls asleep anywhere and everywhere??
Eve does tend to sleep under her desk (we have futons at
ArsDigita). Not as bad as Jin; he sleeps on Alex's dog bed!
Wait a minute. I wouldn't consider "Travels with Samantha" a
Web nerd book. What's the deal with ArsDigita Press?
It isn't a Web nerd book but it is our heritage, after all,
and the manuscript is done so it gives us a chance to make
sure that all the wheels are oiled before doing things like
I am a humanities grad who dropped calculus like a bad habit
my first semester in college, who can hack out some pretty
functional database stuff in ASP. I have some exposure to
TCL here at work (we run our site on you-know-what). Is that
a decent background for this?
You don't need any background for ADU! It is the MIT CS
curriculum, basically, so you only need the qualifications
that MIT demands of its admits (high SAT scores + high
school education, though actually I was admitted to MIT
despite having dropped out of high school after one year).
I am building a collaborative Web site using ACS and have
been having a bit of trouble with the lack of documentation
-- especially release notes. Are there any plans to increase
the quality of the documentation?
I'm going to get a baseball bat and the Cape house to
encourage documentation. But basically the problem sets are
intended to give people enough of a tour that they can RTFS
if necessary. (Also, we're trying to hire three full-time
doc people immediately).
I originally saw TWS in 1994 when I first got my Internet
account and appreciated your notes to my many questions
about photography/scanning/travelogue writings, which you
were more than generous in providing me. So thanks. I am
glad that you have come a long way since those days with
your company -- makes one believe that nice guys CAN finish
ArsDigita Press ... hmmm, THAT'S interesting. By your
statements, it doesn't seem that you expect to even break even
with your publishing efforts. Or would that be only in
reference to TWS? Do you expect to recoup costs on the Web
nerd books? Or is it a totally philanthropic endeavor?
ArsDigita Press isn't philanthropic. I would call it
"marketing" or "documentation." And we won't expect it to
make money. OTOH, we'll try not to bleed more than $1
million/year on it. BizDevGuy: thanks for the good wishes.
I think we've established that one does not need to be
smart or lucky to succeed in the Internet industry.
You went to MIT as a 15-year-old? What's the story there?
Well, if you were a 15-year-old kid, would you rather live at home with your parents and spend 6 hours/day listening to a disaffected civil servant, or live in a dorm with college babes, drugs and smart people?
I remember staying up all night solving "problem sets" in my
engineering (not CS) classes in college. Are people going to work until they get the problems done and/or until a fixed time? That is, will there be all-nighters?
MIT kids pull all-nighters because they are disorganized and lack discipline. Our students should be able to easily finish their work in the 72 hours/week allocated.
Could you explain your boot camps?
Boot camp is a three-week course to turn a professional programmer into a good Web developer (you learn SQL, HTTP, HTML, our toolkit, etc.). The goal of ADU is to turn a poetry major into a programmer (or at least a CS nerd).
Do you see monitoring and statistical analysis of networks and Web sites (i.e. response time) becoming big?
Yes, quality of service checking will become a much larger business. Most Web sites today suck because they aren't built to any standard at all.
Do you plan on hosting your own Web site infrastructure or outsourcing? And why?
JP: we have a few hundred Unix servers right now; it would be rather embarrassing if we had to outsource the main coordination server for ADU. That said, we might let loudeye.com handle the video streaming.
Would the boot camp be good for a Net admin type? What's the cost?
Boot camp is free, like everything else that we do educationally. I don't think it would be very much fun for someone who had never programmed before.
I think the concept of doing a press is a fabulous idea --
because when I first discovered Phil's work on his MIT Web site homepage account, TWS was freshly published and it was the first real travelogue/photo journalistic effort that I had seen. It was cool that I could actually have a personal conversation with the photographer/author and get feedback. I could appreciate the photos on my monitor at the time -- but we did not have great photo-quality printers to be able to have a hard-copy experience on paper. As a booklover, and a photographer, I can say that I really enjoy the in-hand experience of turning pages and experiencing the image firsthand of high quality photographs. I think this is a business model that would make money -- not lose it if the right distribution partnerships could be structured.
Well, thanks for the advice, but after seeing my own publishers' pathetic attempts to squeeze a few thousand here or there out of production costs, I get the feeling that enterprise software is a better business than books. But you're right in that books are fun and books can affect people's minds.
Looks like we need to make room for another chat. Thanks for talking with us, Phil. Good to hear about all the work you're doing at ArsDigita. If anyone's interested in seeing more of Phil's "stuff," log on to http://photo.net for a treat.
Also, remember to tell any kids that you know to apply for http://arsdigita.org/prize/ (deadline is May 15). If you've got private questions, just email to firstname.lastname@example.org.