1. Resigning from a tenured position likely means taking a one-way street. The exception is a well-known scientist that can easily switch tenure to 2-3 other school today. In many fields competition for tenure is brutal and once you leave you may have some disadvantages in re-entry against a bunch of post-docs. "Only losers leave academia" is still a widely held mindset. All this does not mean not to resign; just be aware.
2. Do you still need money? The fact that the company is not ramen profitable in 7 years (including last 3 years of dedicated effort) means it may not be a source of income for a while. If you are not set for life, how long can you afford to not work? Will you be OK in industry (some professors thrive there some are completely miserable with a manager who tells them what to do and imposes deadlines)?
Unless you are set for life I would seriously consider your 50% option -- you get another year to fully dedicate to your startup without teaching a single day and still maintain tenure. In a year, re-evaluate. My 2c.
> 2. Do you still need money?
Yes. In fact, I didn't save enough as a college math professor to retire while living in Seattle (an expensive place)!
> The fact that the company is not ramen profitable in 7 years
The company is not profitable, but it is "ramen profitable" according to http://www.paulgraham.com/ramenprofitable.html. Without getting into details, the bank balance goes down a little each month since we pay hosting and for four fulltime employees (we have about 2 years of runway). However, we're close to profitable. If we instead had only three employees (or paid ourselves less), then we would be profitable. If we had just one employee (me), then I would be making a LOT more money than I made working at UW, though I would likely be much less happy (the other three people working on CoCalc are fantastic!).
It was mentioned at times in your article that you used your network to seek advice on the next steps for the business.
Have you used the UW network to seek business advice from people not in academia and not in the math field?
If you are supporting four people, not all of whom are developers, that's an amazing place to be, imho. If you are supporting four developers, it's even more admirable AND probably time to involve someone who can think exclusively about how to grow the business and does not think about engineering tasks. There is a huge network of former UW people involved in the software industry in Seattle who would help if you are at that moment to consider it.
Maybe you've already done this, your article makes it sound like you have been very thorough in investigating how to take this to the next level, but it wasn't mentioned explicitly.
I know some people like this, reach out to me if you want connections to them.
Here's to your future success!
Having a few million dollars in the bank is comparable to being a tenured professor, at least in terms of guaranteed income. (Of course, I don't have millions of dollars in the bank.) Maybe that's what you meant by "winning the lottery", e.g., that phrase is sometimes used to refer to startup founders who sell their company.
Do Not Leave Your Professorship.
You will regret it.
Putting up with poor working conditions is mostly poor decision making, especially in tech.
Decreasing job creation numbers
Recent Fed decisions to raise rates and more recently leave them unchanged.
Investment choices, “beta”, should reflect a heightened risk aversion for people later in their careers. That’s just standard financial planning.
I could even make a case for stagnant wages suddenly increasing indicating irregularities necessitating caution in financial and career decisions.
That said, I would personally still take your "one more year" option as it gives you an extra year to get your startup to profit without officially resigning. This seems to be a very valuable freebie. Did I misread your web post about this option or are you reluctant to take this for other reasons?
And finally, on your startup -- I would steer it to become profitable ASAP; for example if and when you are deciding between hiring a fifth employee (to grow faster) or getting profitable sooner I would take the second path. My 2c. And good luck whichever option you choose!
Are you drawing a salary out of this?
Yes, though it is currently significantly less than UW paid me.
I don't think there's a right or wrong decision in situations such as yours.
Are you spending anything on marketing?
This is always a flag for me for something that needs to be investigated. Personally I think the idea the guy took to stick with CoCalc was interesting but at the same time he should really really consider hiring a CFO, someone who really understands where the money comes in and how it goes out.
Such a person could tell him exactly how much "lifetime value" is needed from each customer in order to make the company a going concern. Sometimes that number is "impossible" in that it is way more than one believes they could get for the product. When that happens, you have to take a serious look at whether or not you're looking at a hobby or a business.
It is always difficult to see these sorts of discussions after they have been had, especially when there was information that could have been developed earlier on that would have informed the decision, but it is not uncommon.
Edit-I don’t see any of the above in your product/write up. Further, I used the high end of the coverage range as professor positions usually have good benefits. Stuff is expensive individually.
A few years later, richer than academia could ever provide (I left academia and did not regret it)
Since CoCalc doesn't have any VC investment, and does have a solid and diverse base of customers, it's basically designed so that it is unlikely to fail unless I do something really risky. An example of something very risky would be raising venture capital or getting acquired -- we won't do that, since we have explicitly stated we won't to our customers and on our website, because some customers have been reluctant to consider using cocalc if we do take VC. In the worst case, CoCalc would be what some people call a "zombie startup" or "lifestyle business"... i.e., not growing much, and just marching on. However, I love working on CoCalc, and our customers love using it, so even that situation wouldn't be failure...
FAANG in general are also pretty good about work-life balance which is good for us older people :-)
[many expletives later]
But he phrased it as the OP being "too old for a FAANG", which centers the fault on the OP.
Besides which, in whichever sense it was meant, the comment was almost certainly factually incorrect. A math PhD with significant software engineering and engineering management experience isn't someone that gets turned away that easily.
More importantly, joining a FAANG company would mean completely giving up on my longterm goal to massively fund Sage development, and that would be very hard for me to do.
While most other employees at any tech company would be younger than you, is having lunch at AmaFaceGoogSoft really so different from having lunch in a university campus cafeteria?
I am not trying to change your decision, BTW. Your long-term goal is an admirable one and I think achievable, whether CoCalc remains a private company, goes public, or is acquired.
The tech industry has been growing rapidly, so a low median age isn't evidence of age discrimination (I'm not claiming there isn't any - just pointing out that a low median age is what you'd expect to see even in the absence of discrimination).
But the average age hired is lower than 30. The whiteboard /stanford/group hire filters helps ensure only the best past a certain age has a chance.
Google's own research shows no correlation between "elite school" or "grade average" filters and job performance. Their hiring comittees (from which the hiring manager is excluded) also make decisions while blinded to factors such as age, race, and gender.
Why so? There are so many people who would like to study but can't get into an university. There (as you say) are so many professors who would like to teach but also get into brutal competition. Why not just build more universities? Also why not start a private education company that probably wouldn't be eligible to issue government-accredited degrees (who but medical doctors and lawyers needs them anyway?) yet would provide university-level education quality and compete the free-market way?
Degrees from non-name brand institutions (eg: all the community colleges/2nd tier colleges like Western Washington University) are for checking off the requirement of having a degree. Its a serious put down, but the name brands thrive on being "selective" yet bribe-able.
There is quite a bit more value to be had at the latter group of institutions, tuition is ~$500 a class or ~$1500 a quarter at community colleges and of a similar caliber in quality, much more reasonable than the $1500+ charged per 5 credits at name brand colleges.
> Why not just build more universities?
Because enrollment and the numbers of students who can pay are dwindling .
> Also why not start a private education company that probably wouldn't be eligible to issue government-accredited degrees (who but medical doctors and lawyers needs them anyway?)
The main reason anyone in the US goes to college these days is to get a degree, not to receive education related to any specific job. They want to get a degree because most employers still require a degree either for consideration or for promotion. The employers require this because they see it (fairly or unfairly) as an easy way to weed out those who would be unqualified. Any employer that would accept a non-accredited degree from a private education company that could easily just be selling certificates (which already happens anyway) probably wouldn't even care if you had a degree in the first place.
> yet would provide university-level education quality and compete the free-market way
I just don't see there being a significant market of people willing to pay full tuition for a non-accredited institution, to the extent that it could afford to hire good professors away from existing universities and be a better option for them than pursuing tenured positions elsewhere.
Compounded with the unlikelihood that students would be able to get reasonable loans to attend a school that could very well be a scam, this seems completely untenable. Students get into enough debt as it is going to accredited institutions with government loans.
Because the academic job market is so tight, many of the professors at obscure poorly ranked universities are amazing teachers who do solid (but perhaps not famous or well promoted) research.
You should probably replace “good” in your sentence with “prestigious” or the like.
If I were choosing who is going to teach me I wouldn't really care about what research do they do, I would care about how good they are at teaching.
The university gets a cut of the grant money and gains a bunch of reputation points for putting out cutting edge research. High teacher ratings are great, but the big universities care less about these and more about the number of Science and Nature papers a professor produces.
Aren't US tuition fees already bloated?
> afford to hire good professors away from existing universities
Why not hire the professors that are still good yet not perfect enough to get through the brutal competition mentioned above?
> The employers require this because they see it (fairly or unfairly) as an easy way to weed out those who would be unqualified.
Why is it not possible for a private non-accredited college to establish an industry-recognized degree of reputation?
You're absolutley right! This is very possible.
In practice, the process you describe is both more difficult than accreditation (because it's undefined) and less trusted by industry (because there's nobody trusted validating it).
It is absolutely possible. In fact, it doesn't even have to be a private institution. I have a CS degree from a public California university. The university itself is accredited, but my particular degree is not. There is no outside body that says that I learned anything at all about CS, just that I learned the bare minimum to get a bachelors degree from a UC school. The weight of the universities name is more than sufficient on its own to answer any question of whether my degree is worth anything.
Of course I suspect that it is in fact much easier to go down this path if you're already a globally recognized research university than if you're "Joe Schmoe's Computer Science Degree Emporium".
Because universities are fortresses designed to protect the weirdos who can't survive in the real world. We're passing through this awesome enlightenment phase where there's room for everyone. But you can't just throw one up on a thursday afternoon. Universities need a kind of social contract. (i realize the one true scotsman weakness here, but i think the point holds)
Universities are where you stick the rich kid that's not strong enough to run the family business. Sometimes, you don't even have to be rich.
The thing that's neat is sometimes an idea pops out of a university that's pretty good. Newtonian physics and evolution spring to mind. i'm obviously nuts.
i would encourage you to read . I'm not exactly making an appeal to authority, it's more of a here's a much better, less cynical interpretation of what i'm trying to say.
In fact I even believe that teaching and skill/knowledge-certifying companies should be separated entirely. A person should be able to acquire knowledge whatever way they find comfortable (e.g. choose a company that would teach them or study entirely on themselves if they are sufficiently resourceful) then go to a reputable institution that would test them and issue a diploma.
Measuring such a subject by thyself may seem like a fallacy as many people obviously don't think like I do but I believe there are many (a number sufficient to sustain a business) who do think the same way in such a big country.
It's a little aggravating though, since many good programs (e.g., Stanford) don't bother with the ABET stuff for computer science.
> I have decided to resign.
NO, WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT?
Another thing I've seen go down was UWave.fm got a LP-FM license from the FCC, had a tower site and was lined up to set up a radio station at UW's Bothell campus, and the board decided to sit on the FCC approval till the very last day before the FCC needed hard dates on tower build and frequency use timelines, only to tell this student group that UW was canning the whole thing (despite it not costing UW a dime).
Your average legal dept is overly conservative, not brain-dead.
UW is not kind to their employees: https://www.usatoday.com/story/college/2015/04/23/4000-uw-st...
UW has a ton of baggage and is quite inflexible compared to other institutions in the region and state, their lack of flexibility is enabled by having the highest tuition in the area ($11k vs $4k per year) and significantly higher state subsidies (UW, WSU, etc taking 60% of the state's college budget, yet only educating 40% of the students) than 2 year institutions.
This underfunding of 2 year institutions in favor of UW and ilk was what triggered the walkout yesterday and the ongoing protests: http://www.thestand.org/2019/04/join-aft-members-april-16-wa...
I only skimmed the article to try to determine if you were, in fact, asking the internet to help you decide. I got to the announcement that you had decisively decided and went "Meh, could use a better title."
Best of luck in your future endeavors, from an internet stranger who had never heard of you before today.
I look up to you because you are not just another random math professor producing papers that no one ever reads. Instead you take a risk and try to succeed at what you are most passionate about. In my opinion this is both more noble and more exciting than being a pure math professor. I sincerely hope CoCalc works out well for you, good luck!
Edit: here is the talk
If I had the resources I needed, I definitely would not have made the same choice. Though I enjoy somewhat working on sync protocols, databases, etc., it is only a means to an end. Mathematics software is much deeper and more interesting me. If I had sufficient resources a few years ago, I absolutely would have instead built a team to work fulltime on Sage, similar to how John Cannon successfully built an amazing team around Magma, partly leveraging that Magma is closed source and commercial -- https://magma.maths.usyd.edu.au/.
One problem is that open source software can't really handle grants. Government grants require accounting to
handle receipts, and follow all of the rules. We need a couple "open source accounting" people who can handle
managing grants (just like a school's bursar's office).
I have tried to find a funding stream for nearly 20 years, without success.
I am currently doing computer algebra research as a visiting scholar. That is an unpaid position.
Perhaps you can remain connected to the department as a visiting scholar.
If there is some way I can help, please let me know.
P.S. What do you think about moving the site to GitHub Pages instead (and overall modernization of it).
I will, though as an "adjunct". It's of course unpaid, but makes it technically possible to do some things with the university (e.g., be on a Ph.D. thesis committee).
First, Axiom is a research platform (currently working on proving the algorithms correct). It is no longer a commercial competitor to Mathematica and Maple (as it was in the 90s).
Second, Axiom is based on Group Theory, giving it a reasonably sound mathematical superstructure. Mathematica is based on rewrite semantics. You can rewrite anything to anything. Maple is based on tree semantics. You can re-arrange a tree in any way. Obviously, their computational mathematicians are well-versed and clever enough to avoid most obvious failures. It is just easier in Axiom.
Third, Axiom is open source. Consider what happens to computational mathematics when the companies supporting closed source disappear. (Companies die, on average, after 15 years). Macsyma (Symbolics) is gone. Derive (Soft Warehouse) is gone. I am deeply concerned about the impact on computational mathematics when this happens. Axiom, as open source, won't disappear as there is no company behind it. It will, of course, probably stall once the key developers stop maintaining it.
Mathematica and Maple are amazing systems. If you need what they provide I strongly recommend buying a license. I know some of the developers from these systems and they are extremely clever people.
If you're looking for competitive software, I'd look at Sage and CoCalc. This is an open source alternative to Mathematica, Maple, Magma, etc. It is open source and (mostly) free. I can strongly recommend it.
As for "feature gaps", there are many. If what you want are "features", Axiom isn't for you. But if you want answers that are proven correct, stay tuned. Computational mathematics IS mathematics. You can rightly demand that the results are proven correct. That seems to me to be a required "feature".
I am 100% in support of software like this being open-source. Not just because companies go out of business and disappear, but for scientific-computing software, it's important to be able to extend these systems. When I talk about features, I often mean can I rewrite this integral into something more computationally tractable? Or is there some reparameterization of this function into something differentiable?
I know this are very much how someone might pose a problem coming from Mathematica or Maple, but really I hope it's clear the end goal is still the same. Discover an equivalent mathematical representation of my problem that's more amendable for further work.
I can certainly understand why Prof. Stein doesn't want to trash his colleagues, but I'll come out and say it: if academia wasn't completely dysfunctional, it would find a way to support this work.
For my own work (which is nowhere nearly as academically relevant as CoCalc and Sage) I'm planning on doing it myself without worrying too much about funding. I can use a combination of savings, random consulting gigs, Patreon, etc. I can imagine doing more "company" kinds of things, but only to the extent it supports the work. This is not an easy problem, and again I wish Prof. Stein well.
As a comparison https://observablehq.com seems like a genuine novel take on the notebook pattern and is unsurprisingly a commercial effort with some open source components.
It's - if I'm being honest here - painfully clear you are much more interested in your side project (from the prospective of UW) than your ostensible job.
I think for your sake and theirs' you should resign and try to commercialize this, or you will fail at both. Either that or completely hand off or abandon the project.
The first thing I see is a NINE minute long video. As a first time visitor who doesn't know anything about this service, that's too much time to invest.
The second thing I see is that it supports a lot of stuff. Cool, but why is it better than what I have now? I see that I can share things privately. I can already do that. I can "time travel". Yes, version control is a thing. I can publish it online. Great, I already do that. These are the only thing I read because they are the only thing that's bold. To be honest, this is where I would have clicked away.
It also doesn't help that the navigation is unusable at half-laptop screen width, let alone on mobile.
Only after scouring your website do I realize that it's basically Google Docs but for math, which is cool! But this was not clear at all when first visiting your site.
If you're interested in more feedback feel free to reach out.
(I'm a tenure-track first year prof.)
Plenty of lucrative and fulfilling options.
I got my PhD ~20 years ago and saw a few tenured professors (math and physics) leave academia. While I have no first hand experience I did hear through a grapevine that some explored options for coming back, but could not. This is a sensitive topic with little data and so my info is certainly suspect.
If they are successful at a top university and leave to try other things (usually startups), then they will have no problems going back to academia. Sometimes it is even viewed positively.
For example, right now Carnegie Mellon has been seeing a flock of their faculty leave to go to tech companies or to do their own startups. Other universities would fight over a successful ex-CMU (or UW!) prof to come to their institution.
Depending on their level of success, they may not get back to a top 5 university, but some other R1 university would gladly take them!
I would likely have a lot of trouble re-entering academia due to lack of recent academic publications; I've been on many hiring committees over the years in pure math, and we never considered hiring anybody who wasn't already in academia.
My reasons for asking... I've heard mathematics academia has its own version of ageism. (In dotcoms, at least, it's easy to go from being a star who everyone wants to hire, to most people not caring.) Plus I wonder how it would be perceived: a history of seeming to want to do a startup rather than be a professor. And a university that wanted to be the new home of a prestige research&eduction open source software project would have to see whether the prior university's involvement would complicate things.
Pretty sure this is false.
1. Do it -- You're ok with this failing and being locked out of academia -- then go for it! Maybe, if it fails, you'd be happy joining cloudera or another placing building notebooks!
2. Do it -- You're on track for paying living wages, both for yourself and future employees, say within 6mo organically, or with outside investment (from your post... you're still before then). Maybe live abroad for a year to further cut down!
3. Go back for a year -- Let it grow a bit more, and push any income you'd have taken to others who are earlier in their career
In both 'do it' scenarios, get ready to pivot/expand to areas that will do a better job of keeping food on the table for your employees families, and to keep failing at it until something works. If you can't stomache that, wait till you can hire someone who will, or keep it as a hobby.
I normally wouldn't offer to chat w/ someone over the internet, but I'm close-ish to this space, and a stage or so ahead wrt commercialization, so would be happy to do so
I would not leave until you've achieved escape velocity.
You sometimes see CS professors who have degrees in pure math just browsing different department's websites.
The rationale for my recommendation is largely captured in other comments so I'll be brief: Winter is coming (macroeconomically). And it sounds like cocalc lacks: a strong balance sheet, a scalable sales model, and a story that would interest outside investors. As such, I personally would view the company as lifestyle/earnings supplementation and not core sustenance. It is also synergistic with your day job.
It seems like he's a good enough programmer that he could always find a job at a big tech company, make a bunch of money and then quit once he has enough saved up. And that's assuming he doesn't find any paid users or get any source of funding which again is hard but not impossible or that unlikely given that he already has a product with users.
I think he'll be just fine and I wish him the best.
It seems like the options are
tenure: a path where you make incremental progress on narrow problems with the benefit of low stress and an excellent standard of living.
company: a path where you get to continue changing the world in a meaningful way. The cost is high stress and a less certain standard of living in your current city.
You provide a lot of details about your situation but I don't think they are relevant. The details would only matter if the worst case outcome of either path was a life that you could not bear to live. Given your many accomplishments this is not a problem.
I think people should try to minimize the regret in their lives rather than maximizing their average daily happiness. It sounds like you would regret not continuing to work on your company.
This is like the preflight "put on your own oxygen mask before you assist others with theirs" instruction. IMHO, you'll be far less able to contribute if you're scrambling to pay basic expenses.
Do you have a family? House/mortgage? Health insurance? You mentioned that CoCalc hires some engineers, some hat’s the burn rate? What do you need to keep working on it?
If you have got your baseline covered, William, i’d say go for it. Your heart is clearly on this path.
Only a spouse, who has an excellent job.
Yes, I bought a detached house 12 years ago in Seattle.
> Health insurance?
Yes, through my spouse.
> You mentioned that CoCalc hires some engineers, so that’s the burn rate?
Yes, we employ 4 people (including me). If we employed three instead, we would not be losing money...
No, I probably shouldn't.