Ben Johnson, Entrepreneurship Lecturer

University of Chicago Masters Program in Computer Science professors are leaders in tech and among the foremost authorities in their respective fields. In addition to teaching and applying tech solutions to solve challenging problems, our faculty also run successful businesses, work for Fortune 500 companies and dedicate themselves to advancing the CS field, each day. MPCS faculty supply their students with the applied skills education and real-world projects they need to problem-solve, create, and build successful careers with top employers around the world.. Learn from the experiences and expertise of our distinguished MPCS faculty, get an insider’s look into their classrooms and discover how a CS education can prepare you for a cutting edge career in technology.

Ben Johnson University of Chicago

Ben Johnson is a veteran software engineer, serial entrepreneur and co-founder of the Edison award-winning cybersecurity company, Carbon Black. He also teaches Entrepreneurship in Technology at the University of Chicago’s Masters Program in Computer Science. Ben shares his personal background with UChicago, compares his teaching philosophy to being a tour guide and shares how he’d like students to remember his class.

How did you get your start in computer science?

I was always interested in computers. My dad, who wasn't in a technical field, helped teach me BASIC on a Commodore 64 when I was 3 and I guess it stuck.  By the time I was a first-year at UC for undergrad, I knew I was going to major in CS.  I've always enjoyed building, problem-solving, and engineering, so CS is great because it embodies all of those aspects.

What does a great day at MPCS look like for you?

The best part of MPCS is getting the students excited and then hearing them share their views on the material. The students' creativity and drive are very inspiring.

What do you enjoy most about teaching computer science?

My class is purposely meant to be less science and more real-world entrepreneurship and applied business, so it's a bit different than the majority of the classes in the MPCS.  I really enjoyed opening up the students' eyes to what's required to build a startup, whether it is raising investment, hiring, marketing, selling, or structuring the team. It's fun to teach smart, technical students non-technical material that they hadn't considered before.

Why the MPCS?

I love UC -- my alma mater -- and I really like what the MPCS is trying to do. There is a huge shortage of technical and engineering talent -- a huge shortage!  MPCS is great because it blends theory and concepts with real-world, applied science and material. The students come with a nice diversity of backgrounds, and the faculty are world-class. The better question might be why-not MPCS -- it's a great program that continues to iterate and challenge itself to be better year over year.

Describe your teaching philosophy.

My teaching philosophy is to be like a tour-guide -- I'm going to point out the interesting sights, give you some history and background information, and tell you which areas to watch out for.  Beyond that, I want to excite the students and get them driving themselves to find the material that will most make them successful.
I believe strongly in using quotes, video clips, and stories to drive home points. We all took many, many classes in undergrad and graduate school, and yet as you get older you don't remember most of them. I want the students to remember the class as being fun and then take a few key points that will make them more successful in their careers.  The students are there to grow, so you need to act more like a gardener who allows them to flourish versus a general or chess-master telling them exactly what to do or what to learn.

What is your favorite concept or topic to teach? Why?

I really enjoy teaching entrepreneurship. To me, it's really fun telling stories from the "trenches" about raising money, hiring, succeeding, failing, etc. Opening the eyes of the students who have mostly figured they would go work for a well-established company and then cultivating their inner entrepreneurial spirit is very rewarding. Hearing what the students think about today's big name entrepreneurs and startups is also enjoyable. And, hearing their ideas for new inventions or seeing how they pitch their idea are also very exciting and rewarding aspects for me.

If there were just three bits of knowledge you would like each student to walk away with, what would they be?

I think if you asked my students they would say I threw a ton at them -- with the hopes that some of it sticks.  Having said that, here are three aspects I hope to drive home in the Entrepreneurship course:

1) Bias to action -- you can collaborate, discuss, and contemplate, but in the end, especially in a startup, you need to act.  Action and execution are key, so sometimes you just need to quite simply "do it".

2) You are always selling. Most CS (or related technical) students hear the word selling and picture a sales-person who loves to talk and treat clients to dinners. In reality, however, we all are always selling -- selling our ideas, our brand, our team, even ourselves. We all must learn to sell in order to be successful, whether that is at a startup or a large organization.

3) Network, Network, Network. It's a cliche, but networking is utterly important.  Despite the globally-connected, digital world, face-to-face really matters. Finding a job, recruiting new employees for your business, signing partnerships, or closing a deal, those all are tied to networking. Get out there and shake some hands!

What about the future of the computer science industry most excites you?

There are a lot of fields that are aging, getting rusty, or simply going away. Computer Science is the opposite. CS is such a growing, and opportunity-rich field that it is truly exciting to be a part of it. Never before have so many so-called "non-technical" people started trying to code, or learn more about how apps and websites work, or learn more about the Internet of Things. This field truly has the potential to completely change the world for the better more than it already has.  It's extremely easy to build a website or mobile app now, and it's getting cheaper and cheaper to innovate. So how does CS accelerate humanity, improve quality of life and automate mundane or error-prone tasks, while still allowing us to have jobs and provide for our families? There are very interesting technical, political, sociological, and philosophical problems that are all related to computer science, and it will be very interesting to see how those play out.

What is a piece of advice you’d give someone considering applying to UChicago’s Masters Program in Computer Science?

When I hire people in the non-academic world, I look for three things -- passion, capacity, and humility. I believe those apply to applying to the UC MPCS program as well. Be passionate, show that you are capable or that you've accomplished something worthwhile, and be easy to get along with. Beyond that, you want to be interesting. Do some activities or pick up some hobbies that show you are driven, that you have creativity, that you like meeting people. In the end, it's all about people and our interactions with each other so we want to know that you're going to be a good student, a good steward of the brand, and that you will utilize what you learn at the MPCS to further your career and become more successful. I highly recommend applying to the MPCS even if you're on the fence -- remember, embrace that bias to action and go for it.