Future of Work: Maria Klawe, President of Harvey Mudd College

Interview originally conducted on April 20, 2012,

As I surfed the web and prepared for my interview with Maria Klawe, President of Harvey Mudd College and Microsoft Board Member, I found several photographs of her skateboarding around her college campus.  I asked her about this and as I listened to her speak about her skateboarding hobby, I realized it was a good metaphor for several trends we would discuss:

  1. Second Careers: She took up Skateboarding when she turned 55, indicating the importance of adapting one’s skill sets later in life in order to evolve with this ever changing world.
  2. Reverse Mentoring: She saw it as a great ‘reverse mentoring’ opportunity, where her students could sit down and teach her how to board.
  3. Desire for (self) Improvement: She has always challenged herself as illustrated with her unique blend of academia and business experience: Working in management at IBM Research, connecting with key business leaders in her role as Chair of the Computer Science department at University of British Columbia, being the dean of engineering at Princeton University, being on the Microsoft Board, and being the President of Harvey Mudd college.

A great deal of our discussion focused on education. (I think we both believe that you can’t really talk about the Future of Work without taking our current educational system into consideration).

When asked about what needs to be reformed in this country—the United States—and more broadly in the world, Klawe replied, “It’s really more about science and engineering education than it is about science and engineering research.”  “We’re (USA) still very strong in science and engineering research, but I think there really is a need for change in the way we do science and engineering education, both in K – 12 as well as at the undergraduate level.”

She continued, “Traditionally, the way we educate people in both K-12 and then in University, is that we tend to expose them (first) to the basic building blocks of Math and Science before we actually let them see applications, which means students will not get to the application courses like artificial intelligence, computer graphics, human-computer interaction, databases, etc. until their junior year.” “So, it’s important to get students to what I would call hands-on technology as soon as possible.”

“Another key change is creating interactive learning environments, especially for those who do not have access to such great campuses such as Harvey Mudd.”

So, Maria seems to be on a mission to change the way technology is taught in K-12 and in college. She believes society is at a real inflexion point. Thanks to improved broadband access, which has made the web more accessible, there is a real opportunity in education and technology as well as in machine learning and other data techniques. This improved access allows educators to better understand on how to design data analysis techniques, which can improve the overall design of learning activities.

We also discussed another trend or need in corporations, which is diversity training whether it is dealing with minorities and women in the United States or business partners and customer overseas.

In several of my discussions with corporate executives, there seems to be a big gap here.  Klawe mentioned how she thought IBM was still a leader in this area – in helping integrate women and minorities into their organization, as well as help its employees participate on an international level. (IBM is one of 60 Fortune 500 companies to have a female CEO. A survey of 60 major companies by McKinsey shows women occupying 53% of entry-level positions, 40% of manager positions, and only 19% of C-suite jobs).

Some reasons for this cited by Klawe were that women have more interests, so there’s more to life than their work. Another reason is that it’s a challenge to be a women working in a group that consists mainly of men. Finally, women tend to focus less on building their network of “who they know” to get ahead.

We also examined how men and women might use technology differently. Maria said, “One of the things we know about young males and young females is that young males, whether they are young men or boys, are much more likely to get totally immersed in a particular game, and learn every single thing about the intricacies of that game.”

“So, whether it’s World of Warcraft, or StarCraft, or, you know, Final Fantasy – some type of thing – Assassin’s Creed, and so on – you know, they tend to get completely – they get immersed in the culture and knowledge of that game, an extent that is rare for females.”

“You know, there are lots females who are counterexamples to this, but on average that’s true.” “ So, females are more likely to play games socially.”  “They’re more likely to play games on mobile – on phones or on iPads than on, you know, game platforms like Xbox or PlayStation, and so on.”

“In terms of the amount of time that they spend on them, I think we’re – we don’t actually know a lot about that yet, because, you know, the fact that so many women are playing games on their phones and on iPads—my sense is, they often do it, you know, while they’re waiting for something to happen or, you know – and so on and so forth.”  “They’re less likely probably to go and spend three hours playing nonstop, but they may be playing three hours over a day.”

Maria is known as one of the more dynamic leaders and personalities in her field. After talking to her for forty-five minutes, I could see why that’s the case. In fact, after our talk, I wanted to jump in my car and drive from San Francisco down to the Harvey Mudd campus in Claremont, California, and sign up to join her in the cause to improve technology in education. After all, Harvey Mudd’s mission is to educate scientists, engineers, and mathematicians and to be well versed in the social sciences and humanities so that they better understand the impact of their work on society.

Final note: PBS did an interview with Maria Klawe on “Bridging the Gender Gap; Why more Women are not scientists or engineers” the same week of our interview.