A Candid Conversation with Pito Salas

Editor’s note: This is the full-length version of the interview; the printed version was shortened to fit the space. Scroll down if you wish to read the condensed version.
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Pito Salas had only been at Olin for two and a half weeks when I gave this interview, so his office was blank and bare. The only adornments were a “Lean Startup” concept board on top of a shelf and the “E=mc¬2” he scrawled on the board for the sake of the interview pictures.

Pito is new to Olin, but he is almost as new to teaching; his experience is primarily hands-on knowledge gained by working in (and founding) computer science-based start-ups. However, through a long-term determined effort, he has also branched out into the world of undergraduate education- first at his alma mater Brandeis University, and now here. He is currently teaching The Entrepreneurial Initiative (FBE) and the Entrepreneurship (E!) Capstone.

Pito_Salas

FRANKLY: Can you tell me about your past entrepreneurship and teaching experience?

SALAS: I’ve done a lot of entrepreneurship, and I’ve taught. I’m a new teacher; while I’ve been in the computer industry forever, I have not been teaching forever. What I taught at Brandeis, where I first taught, was software engineering, but I brought a lot of entrepreneurship content and experiences to the course.
The course that I created for Olin is based on that, but the content is much less around building a product as around figuring out whether the project should be built.

On the first day of class, I told the students more than once, don’t go running off to the shop and start making holes in steel, because success is not going to be based on whether or not you build a cool piece of technology. Success is going to be based on whether you figure out whether the product ought to be built, what it should look like, what it should be priced at, who should buy it. Then you’ll probably build a mock-up or a prototype. And if you have time left, if you want to build the product, okay, but that’s not the point of the course.

FRANKLY: How will students come to know what products should be built?

SALAS: I’m using as a framework- not that I’m following it religiously- this thing that’s called “lean startup”, which has a series of concepts around how to formulate hypotheses around what you want to build, how to test hypotheses, how to keep track of the metrics you get, so you have more of a scientific approach to knowing whether the product’s going to succeed or not. Focus on learning, iterating quickly, getting results fast, and not building something that perhaps gains information that you could have gained in a much simpler way. It applies to anything: What’s the cheapest way that I can get information that will help me decide what my next step is? Don’t go build a product if you can just ask someone.

FRANKLY: Are there any project ideas you’re particularly excited about?

SALAS: I can’t pick! There’s several that I’m excited about. Sometimes you have an intuition that a product will be a good business or will not be a good business, but that’s not the point of the exercise. The point of the exercise is to understand the process to get to that information. And as I told the students just today, my intuition could be totally wrong. The point of entrepreneurship is to try, fail, and try again.

A big part of the decision of what project a student works on has to be that they’re excited about the subject matter, that it’s something that they care about. I also told them, it’s a class; it’s not the real world. It’s a little bit artificial to come up with a project idea in two weeks and then go build it.

It’s artificial, but still, there are projects that will inspire you, will turn you on, and there are projects where you’re just going through the motions. I really want them to have something they’re excited about, something that makes them want to call their families up and say, guess what I’m building!

FRANKLY: Do you foresee any issues with teaching students who are not software-oriented?

SALAS: I hope not “issues”, but it’s different from what I did at Brandeis. I admitted to them on the first day that I’m a software person, so the examples that I use are going to tend to be software oriented. But on the entrepreneurship side, the principles I’m teaching apply equally well if you’re building something mechanical or robotic. It’s all consistent.

The high level goal for the course, I think, is to really have students internalize the idea that success is not just building a great widget; success is building a great widget that serves the need that you’re trying to satisfy.

This trap- everybody falls into it. I’ve fallen into it, everybody falls into it over and over again, falling in love with the gadgets, because they are really cool, and spending a year or two of your life building something that, when you’re done, nobody wants: it’s very, very common. It happens to everybody. The high level goal of this course, in a way, is to protect you from that kind of situation.

FRANKLY: Can you give me an example of a time when you were in that situation making those kind of mistakes?

SALAS: Numerous! And I would make the same mistake again, probably. I worked on a really important project when I was at Lotus, which led to a new kind of spreadsheet. Lotus was a well-known software company- it was bought by IBM about 12 years ago. Before Excel was king, there was a product called 1-2-3 that was king of the PC software market. And then Excel came along and killed 1-2-3. I worked there on a project that came up with a whole new paradigm for spreadsheets. We invented it, this thing which we now call Pivot Tables. At the time, it was a capability of spreadsheets that nobody had. We came up with it; we built it as a product.

The product itself totally died. It won awards, we got patents, all the right trappings of a successful project, the only thing is it didn’t have revenue. So the product was cancelled within a couple of years, never having made money.

Anybody who’s been in business, who’s been an entrepreneur, can point to examples such as this. It’s not always falling in love with the gadget over worrying about the market, but often it is.

As an engineer, which I think of myself as, I’m very fond of the cool technology. But I’ve learned along the way that engineering is the easy part. Getting a product to be successful is the hard part.

FRANKLY: You founded two startups; can you tell me about one of them?

SALAS: When I left Lotus, I partnered with a colleague of mine, Jeffrey Bier. We wanted to start a company. We had a lot of ideas: various ones that we thought were really great, but when we tried to get investment we discovered they were terrible. Then we got one that led to the creation of this company called eRoom technology. It was one of the early collaboration software products for the web. This was in 1996.

That was the product: allowing groups people who worked in different companies or different organizations to cooperate on a project. It was the two of us: he was the chief executive officer; I was the chief technology officer. We were able to get Venture Capital, and we started the company, built a product.

It took about a year and a half to get the product on the market, which nowadays is a long time, but in those days was extremely fast; it took about three and a half million dollars, which nowadays would be a lot of money to do that, but it was extremely efficient because the technology has changed so much. We released the project; first it did badly, then it did better, then it did very well. At the peak we had about 150 employees.

We almost had an IPO [initial public stock offering], when the market crashed, and our IPO was stopped at the last minute. And then Documentum, a major software company, approached us and we sold to them.

FRANKLY: Do you continue to work with either of your startups?

SALAS: No. I have my own consulting company, and that’s what I work for normally. I work with startups, with their software development teams, engineering methodology, team issues, that kind of stuff, I do consulting for startups. Now I work for Olin!

FRANKLY: Why did you decide to begin teaching?

SALAS: I didn’t decide. I had this feeling that I wanted to do it, and it took a long time to land a position, to be honest.

I always enjoyed teaching from the point of view of what I would get to do in a normal job. I enjoy sharing ideas, or helping people that are new at something to learn; I always thought it was pretty fun, and I thought I was pretty good at it. I had this idea, since I was consulting, I had all this expertise, it would be kind of fun to teach a course. But it turns out if you’re not in academia, if you don’t have a PhD, it’s really hard to get the opportunity to teach undergraduates.

It took me five years of cajoling, of throwing myself at universities- writing sample curricula, anything I could do to convince them. Finally, Brandeis said that they had this particular course in mind that would fit me perfectly, and that’s how I started.

But getting to that point took a while. And I never knew it was going to work. You can say I “decided to”- you can decide, but it can take a while until you’re able to get some traction- it’s not something I would work on every day, but every few months I would say, I need to send another email. Maybe I’ll go have coffee with the head of the department. Maybe I’ll talk to my friend who’s teaching at Northeastern. Maybe they’ll have a connection.

And that’s how I got to Olin. I went through a friend of mine who teaches at Babson, who introduced me to Mark Chang. This is two and a half years ago. I gave my whole story, what I wanted to do. He said that’s wonderful, that’s exactly what Olin is all about, but you know, we have no openings. But I kept talking to him on and off, every three, four, five, six months, saying, here’s what I’m doing. Just doing a lot of networking, and one day I got the call.

That’s how life goes, that’s how a career goes; it’s all very serendipitous. You throw a lot of seeds out there, and now and then something pops out of nowhere. That’s exactly how it happened here too.

FRANKLY: Where are you from originally?

SALAS: I was born and grew up on the island of Curacao, in the Carribbean, right off the coast of South America. Right in the middle of the tropics. It’s hot, dry, all beaches. I grew up there until I was 18, so I’m from there. I have a lot of relatives there, I go back there all the time. I came to Boston to go to college.

English is actually my third language, although it’s my best language. My first language is called Papiamento, which is spoken by a total of maybe 300,000 people in the world, which when I was growing up did not have an official spelling, so everybody spelled the words the way that sounded best to them.

The islands are Dutch, so I have a Dutch passport in addition to my US Passport. My second language is Dutch. And then English- it was before I came here. The TV was in English, I read a lot of books in English. I spoke English, but then I’ve been living here ever since. Even with my relatives, I will switch to English to discuss something complicated or nuanced.

FRANKLY: Why did you come to the United States?

SALAS: I wanted to go to college, my parents wanted me to go to college, and my choices were basically go to Holland or to the U.S., and a lot of my friends went to the U.S.

I was young; I just applied to these colleges because those were the catalogues that my parents put in front of me. I applied to four colleges, I think around here. I got into a couple, didn’t get into a couple, and I went to Brandeis.

When I went to Brandeis, I had never been in cold weather, I had never seen snow, I had never seen fall leaves. But it was no big deal. It was not a challenge. I just fell into it; I never was homesick. And that’s what happens: wherever you go to college, often, that’s where you end up.

FRANKLY: Why did you transition here from Brandeis?

SALAS: It has to do with what I think I’m good at, what I like to do. At Brandeis I taught for three years, and it was really great. I have to say I’m very proud of the work we did there. I think the students got a lot out of it. It was very different from other offerings available to them.

It was a really cool course, but the fact is that it was always kind of in a corner of the department. It was in the summer, the funding was always questionable until it happened. I really wanted to have a more permanent assignment. I told Brandeis that I wanted to have a more permanent assignment, but it wasn’t in the cards because of budgetary reasons.

In parallel with that, I sent the word out to all my networks: I’m looking for something more permanent. What do you think? And that’s how I came here.

FRANKLY: How long are you here for?

SALAS: It’s a six month assignment; I’m teaching for this semester. I’m hoping to extend it!

FRANKLY: Are you bringing in venture capital into your curriculum?

SALAS: Yes, in several ways. First of all, each of my speakers- one of them is going to be an actual, live VC who’s working right now, but each of them have dealt a lot with venture capital, so they’ll be bringing that in in terms of their talks. Then there will be multiple lectures or discussions about how a startup works from the point of view of the business side, what financing means, how much money to raise, how to talk to venture capitalists, what their issues are.

It’s a world that I’ll definitely get students to become familiar with. There’s nothing that’ll teach you as much as actually dealing with them directly, but definitely it will come into it, because it’s part of entrepreneurship.

I’m not a finance guy, but I do have one lecture called Finance for Geeks, because it’s really very simple, basic arithmetic once you understand it. Although of course everything that I plan for the curriculum is going to change as I go through the weeks, but there will be a chance, along the way, that I’ll be spending some significant amount of time on that.

Actually, one of the ideas is to have the students produce as their final work a Kickstarter campaign for their project. Now, I will let them decide if they want to submit it, because they may not want to, but I’m going to use that format, and all the associated content that you have to do as part of that framework.

If a student feels strongly about their project, they may actually push the button and try to get money for their project. So that’s another part of financing. I think that will be really fun.

FRANKLY: So then, your course is intended to get students to the point where they are ready to launch, and they just need money?

SALAS: Yes. It’s not just what they want to make, but if you think about convincing a VC, or Kickstarter, or your parents to give you $10,000, you have to answer some questions. Not just, this is what I’m going to make, but here’s why I think that this will sell, and here’s why I think it can be built, here’s what you need to know about my team, that persuade you that you’re not just throwing your money away.

It’s more than just, here’s what I want to do, but really make the case. If you look at a Kickstarter campaign, you don’t just say, give me money. You have to really make the case. So that’s what I want to get to, is this idea of, we haven’t built it yet, but we have enough information that makes you comfortable giving us money. That’s kind of the punch line of the course.

FRANKLY: Are there other points of real-world tie-ins in your course?

SALAS: There’s definitely going to be plenty of “get real data out in the world”. Don’t sit around the table with each other discussing whether the pressure sensor inside my shoe to analyze running mechanics is a good idea or a bad idea because you’re a jogger and I’m some other kind of athlete. No. Go talk to some people, some coaches, some athletes. This is a little bit different than discovering if there’s a need out there. It is that, but it’s also to discover if (a) people realize they have a problem, (b) if it’s a problem they would pay money to have solved, (c) if they believe that you know how to build something that will solve that problem. It’s more than simply discovering the latent needs. For a product that you actually have to get funded, you have to discover not only what the need is, but you have to discover about other details of the business.

FRANKLY: Can you tell me about Bootup Academy?

SALAS: That’s my own thing. Bootup Academy is a glint in my eyes right now, another startup. I was working on it quite intensively until I got hooked into Olin; now it’s slowed down.

The vision there is that there are lots of people who either don’t go to college, can’t go to college, or are attending a liberal arts college that doesn’t really have a computer engineering curriculum. What we’re interested in at Bootup Academy is to create courses that are either very cheap or free, as a nonprofit, to offer to either seniors, or recent grads, or the people that are looking for a career change to bring them up to speed on the new technologies for building software- mobile software, game software, web software- all the things that are in the news these days that are good careers.

There are a lot of people that either they never got that, or their college education did not cover that, so we want to offer courses- either short, very intensive ones or longer ones, six-week ones, to that audience, in a nonprofit model. It’s a way to do some innovation in education, to see if we can scale that in a way that allows us to bring that not just to the people who can pay for a Brandeis or an Olin, but the people who can’t.
That’s the basic idea, combining the world of computing with the world of hands-on learning, and bringing it to an audience who otherwise wouldn’t get to.

FRANKLY: What did you like about Olin that made you come here?

I think the truth is, I didn’t know Olin very well. I used to tell people, I’m preparing for this course, but I’ve never met a single Olin student. I was very much working in a vacuum.

I think my attraction to Olin was based on my contacts with people here, the faculty here- the philosophy matched my way of thinking very well. It had that appeal to me. It wasn’t that it was a small place. I had a chance to visit during a SCOPE event two years ago, right at the beginning, and I sat in on some of the talks, and I thought, this is what I do. This is exactly what I do.

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Published version:

Pito Salas had only been at Olin for two and a half weeks when I gave this interview, so his office was bare. The only adornments were a “Lean Startup” concept board and an “E=mc2” he scrawled on the board for the sake of the interview pictures.

Pito is new to Olin, but almost as new to teaching; his experience is primarily hands-on knowledge gained by working in and founding computer science-based start-ups. Through determined effort, he has become an undergraduate educator– first at his alma mater Brandeis, and now here. He teaches The Entrepreneurial Initiative (FBE) and Entrepreneurship (E!) Capstone.

FRANKLY: Can you tell me about your past entrepreneurship and teaching experience?

SALAS: I’ve done a lot of entrepreneurship, and I’ve taught. I’m a new teacher; while I’ve been in the computer industry forever, I have not been teaching forever. What I taught at Brandeis, where I first taught, was software engineering, but I brought a lot of entrepreneurship content and experiences to the course.

The course that I created for Olin is based on that, but the content is much less around building a product as around figuring out whether the project should be built.

FRANKLY: How will students come to know what products should be built?

SALAS: I’m using as a framework- not that I’m following it religiously- this thing that’s called “lean startup”, which has a series of concepts around how to formulate hypotheses around what you want to build, how to test hypotheses, how to keep track of the metrics you get, so you have more of a scientific approach to knowing whether the product’s going to succeed or not. It applies to anything: What’s the cheapest way that I can get information that will help me decide what my next step is?

FRANKLY: Do you foresee any issues with teaching students who are not software-oriented?

SALAS: I hope not “issues”. I admitted to them on the first day that I’m a software person, so the examples that I use are going to tend to be software oriented. But on the entrepreneurship side, the principles I’m teaching apply equally well if you’re building something mechanical or robotic. It’s all consistent.

The high level goal for the course, I think, is to really have students internalize the idea that success is not just building a great widget; success is building a great widget that serves the need that you’re trying to satisfy.

FRANKLY: Can you give me an example of a time when you were in that situation making those kind of mistakes?

SALAS: Numerous! And I would make the same mistake again, probably. I worked on a really important project when I was at Lotus, which led to a new kind of spreadsheet. Lotus was a well-known software company– it was bought by IBM about 12 years ago. Before Excel was king, there was a product called 1-2-3 that was king of the PC software market. I worked there on a project that came up with a whole new paradigm for spreadsheets. We invented it, this thing which we now call Pivot Tables. At the time, it was a capability of spreadsheets that nobody had. We came up with it; we built it as a product.

It won awards, we got patents, all the right trappings of a successful project, the only thing is it didn’t have revenue. So the product was cancelled within a couple of years, never having made money.

Anybody who’s been in business, who’s been an entrepreneur, can point to examples such as this. As an engineer, which I think of myself as, I’m very fond of the cool technology. But I’ve learned along the way that engineering is the easy part. Getting a product to be successful is the hard part.

FRANKLY: Why did you decide to begin teaching?

SALAS: I didn’t decide. I had this feeling that I wanted to do it, and it took a long time to land a position, to be honest.

I always enjoyed teaching from the point of view of what I would get to do in a normal job. I enjoy sharing ideas, or helping people that are new at something to learn; I always thought it was pretty fun, and I thought I was pretty good at it. But it turns out if you’re not in academia, if you don’t have a PhD, it’s really hard to get the opportunity to teach undergraduates.

It took me five years of cajoling, of throwing myself at universities– writing sample curricula, anything I could do to convince them. Finally, Brandeis said that they had this particular course in mind that would fit me perfectly, and that’s how I started.

But getting to that point took a while. And I never knew it was going to work. You can say I “decided to”– you can decide, but it can take a while until you’re able to get some traction– it’s not something I would work on every day, but every few months I would say, I need to send another email. Maybe I’ll go have coffee with the head of the department. Maybe I’ll talk to my friend who’s teaching at Northeastern. Maybe they’ll have a connection.

And that’s how I got to Olin. I went through a friend of mine who teaches at Babson, who introduced me to Mark Chang. I gave my whole story, what I wanted to do. He said that’s wonderful, that’s exactly what Olin is all about, but you know, we have no openings. But I kept talking to him every three, four, five, six months, saying, here’s what I’m doing. Just doing a lot of networking, and one day I got the call.

FRANKLY: Where are you from originally?

SALAS: I was born and grew up on the island of Curacao, in the Carribbean, right off the coast of South America.

English is actually my third language, although it’s my best language. My first language is called Papiamento, which is spoken by a total of maybe 300,000 people in the world.

The islands are Dutch. My second language is Dutch. And then English– it was before I came here. The TV was in English, I read a lot of books in English.

FRANKLY: Why did you transition to Olin from Brandeis?

SALAS: It has to do with what I think I’m good at, what I like to do. At Brandeis I taught for three years, and it was really great. I have to say I’m very proud of the work we did there. I think the students got a lot out of it. It was very different from other offerings available to them.

It was a really cool course, but the fact is that it was always kind of in a corner of the department. It was in the summer, the funding was always questionable until it happened. I really wanted to have a more permanent assignment. I told Brandeis that I wanted to have a more permanent assignment, but it wasn’t in the cards because of budgetary reasons.

In parallel with that, I sent the word out to all my networks: I’m looking for something more permanent. What do you think? And that’s how I came here.

FRANKLY: How long are you here for?

SALAS: It’s a six month assignment; I’m teaching for this semester. I’m hoping to extend it!

FRANKLY: Are you bringing in venture capital into your curriculum?

SALAS: Yes, in several ways. First of all, each of my speakers– one of them is going to be an actual, live VC who’s working right now, but each of them have dealt a lot with venture capital, so they’ll be bringing that in in terms of their talks. Then there will be multiple lectures or discussions about how a startup works from the point of view of the business side, what financing means, how much money to raise, how to talk to venture capitalists, what their issues are.

Actually, one of the ideas is to have the students produce as their final work a Kickstarter campaign for their project.

FRANKLY: So then, your course is intended to get students to the point where they are ready to launch, and they just need money?

SALAS: Yes. It’s not just what they want to make, but if you think about convincing a VC, or Kickstarter, or your parents to give you $10,000, you have to answer some questions. Not just, this is what I’m going to make, but here’s why I think that this will sell, and here’s why I think it can be built, here’s what you need to know about my team, that persuades you that you’re not just throwing your money away.

If you look at a Kickstarter campaign, you don’t just say, give me money. You have to really make the case. So that’s what I want to get to, is this idea of, we haven’t built it yet, but we have enough information that makes you comfortable giving us money. That’s kind of the punch line of the course.

FRANKLY: Are there other points of real-world tie-ins in your course?

SALAS: There’s definitely going to be plenty of “get real data out in the world”. This is a little bit different than discovering if there’s a need out there. It is that, but it’s also to discover if (a) people realize they have a problem, (b) if it’s a problem they would pay money to have solved, (c) if they believe that you know how to build something that will solve that problem. It’s more than simply discovering the latent needs. For a product that you actually have to get funded, you have to discover not only what the need is, but you have to discover about other details of the business.

FRANKLY: Can you tell me about Bootup Academy?

SALAS: Bootup Academy is a glint in my eyes right now, another startup.

What we’re interested in at Bootup Academy is to create courses that are either very cheap or free, as a nonprofit, to offer to either seniors, or recent grads, or the people that are looking for a career change to bring them up to speed on the new technologies for building software. We want to offer courses– either short, very intensive ones or longer ones, six-week ones, to that audience, in a nonprofit model.

FRANKLY: What did you like about Olin that made you come here?

SALAS: I didn’t know Olin very well. I used to tell people, I’m preparing for this course, but I’ve never met a single Olin student. I was very much working in a vacuum.

I think my attraction to Olin was based on my contacts with people here, the faculty here- the philosophy matched my way of thinking very well. I had a chance to visit during a SCOPE event two years ago, right at the beginning, and I sat in on some of the talks, and I thought, this is what I do. This is exactly what I do.

This interview was shortened to fit the space. View the full interview online at franklyspeakingnews.com.