September 25, 2018
The big shift: Why Academia is losing its people to Industry
By: Roozbeh Derakhshan

I thought I would spend my life in Academia.

I hold a Bachelor, Masters and PHD in computer engineering, with my PHD focused on Big Data. Choosing between Academia and Industry was my biggest challenge.

To me industry was somewhere where they do boring stuff, the don’t pay attention to new cutting edge things and they keep repeating the same things over and over because that’s what their clients want. To a certain extent that’s true but it’s not the whole picture. The picture of industry is a lot more exciting than I thought when I started my career.

Before joined Accenture 3 years ago I never worked anywhere except in University, which is where I had hoped to stay.

But my experience in Switzerland while doing my PHD changed all that.

The turning point – the guys who made a huge impact on my life

During my time in Switzerland I realised in the IT industry if you don’t have connection in business and industry you are not actually very relevant.

I worked closely with people at a very high level in SAP and IBM. I was directly reporting to the Vice President of Database in SAP. It was a super exciting time for me to be working next to these people. I realised they are not just business people. These are business people who have extensive academic and technical background. And they had a huge impact on me. They made me realise that industry is not actually a bad place and that you can do your own thing and still make an impact. They all encouraged me to to switch to industry at some point. It was a turning point in my career.

Looking and working with those guys, at that level, changed my whole perception of the world of industry and that in fact it’s a very interesting place to be right now. We are going through major transformation in IT and computer science. Computer Science is playing a major role in our lives and in the years to come that impact will not be done by Universities any longer unfortunately. Industry is leading that.

To me it’s also sad news, that Universities have lost their leadership position. ETH Zurich, which is in the top 5 technology Universities in the world and where I worked as a research assistant, have lost top Professors to industry. If these type of people are leaving it’s a signal that University is not as progressive as it’s supposed to be. And we’ve seen a trend of big shot academics moving to industry when they could have stayed in academia for the rest of their lives because they were so well respected and there was a big need for them.

Why Academia is losing its top people

There’s a combination of reasons why this is happening. Universities are struggling because there is a changing paradigm in our society that people are demanding short-sighted success and outcome. Universities naturally don’t work like that. You often have to spend 10 years of huge money to get something out of it and that kind of mentality doesn’t exist anymore.

People want to put in money and get an outcome immediately. It’s a shift in society that’s evident everywhere. We’ve lost patience – we don’t read long books anymore. I read books these days and I’m looking for “CTRL F”. This is a societal shift and unfortunately Universities are not prepared for it. The sad story is that Universities, rather than try and fight for the right way, are trying to become industry and because they are not as good as industry they are kind of a bad business right now

They can’t beat Google or Amazon because they don’t have the amount of funding and money and level of qualified people. The best qualified people go to these companies because the salaries offered can’t be matched at Universities.

So the big organisations get better talent, they have better organisation to mobilise their people, they’re focused on an outcome and they have the marketing budgets so they can advertise. So it’s impossible for Universities to compete at the same level.

So should people move from Academia to Industry?

I never regret that I’ve done a PHD and it was a fantastic journey and I’ve learned a lot.

You get the luxury of spending 4 years of your life to get deep into something, which in industry you don’t have. You have freedom to do what you want whereas in industry you do what the organisation wants you to do. So there are pros and cons.

But I would absolutely encourage anyone in Academia specifically computer science to move to industry – at least for a period of your career. Spend 4 or 5 years of your life here so you can see how industry performs and works. Then at least you know what they’re talking about. The problem is sometimes Unis are out of touch and talking about stuff that nobody cares about. And that’s a very dangerous thing.

What I love about my new career at Accenture

Accenture is a place where you have to shape your own career. It’s a global network and the infrastructure is there to do it. If you want to do something you’ve never done before, you can find someone in another country who has done it before. And within half a day you’ve had a meeting with them and you know a lot. Accenture is agile and ready to change based on what society and industry is asking from them. It’s a dynamic and agile environment and in that type of environment, if you are talented and motivated to do things you can find a way to do it, people don’t stop you.

I won’t join Academia full time again but the thing that I miss most is once in a while publishing a paper. Something the community can read and learn from. And I hope to do that again.

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