Originally published at digitalMASS.com, a tech oriented publication of boston.com (The Boston Globe).

Chat with Philip Greenspun
CEO of ArsDigita

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.

Moderator
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?

Philip Greenspun
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.

perseus
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 business?

Philip Greenspun
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!

Applicant
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 you.

Philip Greenspun
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.

flyfisher
Let's hope Philip's Ferrari didn't break down!

Philip Greenspun
The Ferrari is fine, flyfisher. I drove it out to the Cape the other day to get a beach house for ArsDigita programmers.

Tim
Is there still time for me to apply? What in a nutshell could I learn from your course?

Philip Greenspun
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 Expressway

Applicant
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.

Philip Greenspun
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.

question
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 shut out.

Philip Greenspun
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."

Tim
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?

Philip Greenspun
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.

perseus
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?

Philip Greenspun
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 them.

Jeff
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?

Philip Greenspun
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 (blink@arsdigita.org) will sell you a decal for $2,000!

curious
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)?

Philip Greenspun
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.

Marc
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 program?

Philip Greenspun
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 college.

breezy
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?

Philip Greenspun
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.

curious
How do you plan to keep AU ongoing if it is free? Do you expect students (graduates or otherwise) to work at ArsDigita?

Philip Greenspun
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., http://www.scorecard.org.

New Question
What types of technology services to you see being the most popular throughout the next few years (i.e. load balancing, cache, PDA)?

Philip Greenspun
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)

Nix
What do you think will be the biggest change us nerds will face over the next few years?

Philip Greenspun
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?

BizDevGuy
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?

Philip Greenspun
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).

OldManYoungNeil
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"?

Philip Greenspun
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!)

Applicant
How many of those 200 applicants so far have you decided on?

Philip Greenspun
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).

BizDevGuy
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?

Philip Greenspun
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.

BizDevGuy
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.

Philip Greenspun
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.

JP
How are you providing the backend technology infrastructure to support the on-line university? Growth plans? etc.

Philip Greenspun
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 mentoring).

flyfisher
My wife would like to know what your prima persona is: photographer or geek?

Philip Greenspun
What a choice ... I guess geek (since photographers always have to beg for jobs, money, recognition, etc.)

Nix
What is the best way to get good ideas out of your customers and students?

Philip Greenspun
Launch, launch, launch. Almost all the really good ideas come from actually running a service with real users.

Moderator
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)

Philip Greenspun
http://photo.net/wtr/dead-trees/story.html 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.

RalphWiggum
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?

Philip Greenspun
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).

webdiva
Hi Philip! I'm looking forward to your summer schedule of lectures -- are some scheduled for during the week rather than the weekend?

Philip Greenspun
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.

Tim
How many hours a week do you expect students will spend on their class work, on average?

Philip Greenspun
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)).

UC Berkeley1996
Hi Phil: I would like to know if Eve still falls asleep anywhere and everywhere??

Philip Greenspun
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!

Moderator
Wait a minute. I wouldn't consider "Travels with Samantha" a Web nerd book. What's the deal with ArsDigita Press?

Philip Greenspun
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 http://photo.net/sql/.

RalphWiggum
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?

Philip Greenspun
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).

flyfisher
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?

Philip Greenspun
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).

BizDevGuy
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 first.

Wren
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?

Philip Greenspun
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.

perseus
You went to MIT as a 15-year-old? What's the story there?

Philip Greenspun
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?

Applicant
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?

Philip Greenspun
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.

yaya
Could you explain your boot camps?

Philip Greenspun
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).

slyguy
Do you see monitoring and statistical analysis of networks and Web sites (i.e. response time) becoming big?

Philip Greenspun
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.

JP
Do you plan on hosting your own Web site infrastructure or outsourcing? And why?

Philip Greenspun
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.

slyguy
Would the boot camp be good for a Net admin type? What's the cost?

Philip Greenspun
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.

BizDevGuy
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.

Philip Greenspun
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.

Moderator
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.

Philip Greenspun
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 philg@mit.edu.