Today Stanford is launching "Startup Engineering," a free online course through Coursera.

According to the professors, you need to commit just two to 20 hours per week for 10 weeks to complete the class. And if you pass, you'll receive a nifty little certificate.

It's not surprising that Stanford would offer a class geared towards future entrepreneurs. It's a school known for entrepreneurship, and it already offers several free online courses meant to help would-be entrepreneurs. Startup Engineering was also offered on its real-world campus this spring.

But what's notable about Startup Engineering is how the course's professors--a biophysicist and an entrepreneur--focus on the technical side of starting and scaling a company far more than anything else. 

They write, in the website course description:  

The first part of the course will cover modern software engineering principles with a focus on mobile HTML5 development, taught via 5-minute to 10-minute video lectures with in-video quizzes, programming assignments, and multiple-choice questions. Guest lecturers from top Silicon Valley start-ups will bring these concepts to life with real engineering problems from their work. 

In the second part, you will apply these concepts to develop a simple command line application, expose it as a webservice, and then integrate other students' command line apps and webservices together with yours to create an open-source mobile HTML5 app as a final project. Lectures will continue in the second part, but will be focused on the design, marketing, and logistical aspects of creating and scaling a start-up.

Of course, there's not much in there about the "soft" side of entrepreneurship--hiring the right people, marketing, and company culture, for instance--but that's not really the point of an engineering class. 

But it does indicate just how essential the "software" layer of businesses are becoming for Silicon Valley start-ups.

In response to criticism about the course's narrow technical focus, Balaji S. Srinivasan, one of the course's professors, wrote on HackerNews:

It's a good strategy these days to build one's business on top of a software core, with APIs for all major business functions and physical interface layers only when absolutely necessary. That's really the overall principle that I'm trying to communicate, along with examples in practice. 

In other words, entrepreneurs should be thinking about the technical layer of their business from Day 1, and founders that build their businesses with the right technical architecture are best-positioned in the long-run. 

As one former student of the class writes:

Being able to automate huge parts of your business, regardless of what industry you're in, is a huge advantage. Think about an energy company building APIs to monitor consumption and efficiency at client sites and adjusting their work accordingly--that's huge. This class does a lot more than teach you how to build webapps; it teaches you to think in an automation mindset and happens to teach you a lot of useful skills along the way.

Published on: Jun 17, 2013