NH News
7:00 am
Wed October 9, 2013

How N.H. Higher Ed Is Adapting To The Mobile App Economy

Rima Murthy was trained in advanced smartphone applications at Dartmouth College, but she's not planning on staying in N.H.
Rima Murthy was trained in advanced smartphone applications at Dartmouth College, but she's not planning on staying in N.H.
Credit Amanda Loder / NHPR

This week we’re looking at New Hampshire’s developing mobile app economy.  Although it’s nowhere on the scale of manufacturing or tourism, it’s gaining in popularity—and importance.  But how do we educate this new workforce?  Today, we talk with professors and students about how they see themselves fitting into the mobile app economy.

When you walk into Professor Andrew Campbell’s office at Dartmouth College, there’s a lot to grab your attention.  A shag rug, overstuffed ottoman-like chairs, and funky lamps.  But what really stands out in the computer science professor’s office is the tiny tower of cellphones sitting on the glass coffee table.

“And these are the phones that I’ve been using in research over the past two years.   So you can see there’s like...one, two, three four, five six, seven eight nine ten," Campbell says, counting quietly under his breath.

Then he continues,  "And because technology’s changing so quickly, and we want to keep up with things, you know, we keep getting the next new thing, and this is my little pile of technology that I’ve used over the past couple of years.”

Campbell teaches Dartmouth’s only undergraduate course devoted to developing apps for smartphones.

“Interesting enough, we’re in 2013, right, and the iPhone came out on the market in 2007," Campbell says.  "So smartphones have been around for some time now.  But if you look around at the universities, you will see undergraduates programming classes, phone programming classes.  But they’re not prevalent yet.”

“If you have big, successful IPOs, you know, we have students. Seriously! It is as simple as that!”--Prof. Radim Bartos, UNH

  But the demand is there—not just in smartphone programming, but across the department.  Class sizes in Dartmouth’s Computer Science program have doubled in recent years.  That squares with national trends.  The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the app development field—including mobile apps--will grow more than 25 percent by 2020.  Campbell says it’s true that most people still teach themselves how to program smartphones.  But he says smartphone-specific training needs to be more formalized for this new labor force.

“I think that this home-grown culture has basically happened because, clearly, the high schools aren’t teaching smartphone programming, and it’s just beginning to be introduced in the universities," Campbell says.  "So there hasn’t been an established way to get educated in this field until now, I think.”

And that’s what recent Master’s student Rima Murthy was looking for.

“Because I was serious about this as a career option, I want to make sure I have that formal training to go that extra mile," she says.  "This is not about just throwing a few apps up on the market and seeing where it goes for me.  It’s a little more long-term than that.”

Her specialty: marrying mobile apps to a smartphone’s built-in sensors.  Murthy says there’s a growing market in developing countries for apps that use these sensors to gather health data.

“My research interests recently have been to just focus on getting simple data, like blood pressure data, for a remotely located rural population," Murthy says.  "And how would you do that accurately, how would you do that with operators that are not clinically trained?”

Around the state, other New Hampshire schools are starting to respond to demand.  For example, Lakes Region Community College offers a course in mobile app development.  So does UNH Manchester.  In fact, the university even offers training for high school teachers to train a younger crowd.  But it’s not necessarily the rise of smartphones that’s creating this demand.

“The big driver for enrollment in computer science is gaming,”  says UNH Computer Science Department Chair Radim Bartos.  Like Dartmouth, UNH has seen a dramatic uptick in computer science enrollment.  

But unlike Dartmouth’s Andrew Campbell, Bartos doesn’t give a lot of credit to the rise of the smart phone.  He did offer a smartphone programming course as part of the short January term.  It didn’t get a lot of interest.  Bartos admits part of it was students not wanting to work over the winter break.  But part of it was that he insisted on some key prerequisites—which runs counter to a lot of app development culture.

“Something that I see in some of the other offerings is that they sort of try to avoid all the complexities, the backgrounds, the concepts, and they want to just jump right into the subject," Bartos says.  "And I don’t think it simply works.  It’s like, you know, trying to be a brain surgeon and not take biology and not take anatomy.”

So with that in mind, he decided to build smartphone programming into a required course.  Although he’s skeptical of the usefulness of dedicated mobile programming courses, Bartos says he encourages students—especially incoming freshmen--to be entrepreneurial.  And it helps that news reports make computer science look like a safe bet.

“If you have big, successful IPOs, you know, we have students," he says with a big laugh.  "Seriously!  It is as simple as that!  So we have, you know, Facebook going public, and we are doing well.  And it’s not just us: New Hampshire, UNH.  It’s essentially everybody else.”

While Bartos even gives pep talks to freshmen about starting any kind of high-tech company…he still points out that being a mobile app entrepreneur doesn’t always pay off.

“I’ve seen projects that were done for someone, by an external company," he says.  "And then I learned how much the company got paid for that…and it was just so little!  I would never have done this!  And so the straight out work, you know, I don’t think that pays very well.”

Despite formal training and an internship focusing on smartphone app development, Dartmouth student Jon Guinther went with the more stable job at Amazon.
Despite formal training and an internship focusing on smartphone app development, Dartmouth student Jon Guinther went with the more stable job at Amazon.
Credit Amanda Loder / NHPR

Back at Dartmouth, graduating senior Jon Guinther felt the same way.  He dabbled—briefly--in the mobile app startup world. “For a while, I was really excited about working with smartphones,"  he says.  "I had an internship with a smartphone app company, and it’s a crazy experience.  Like, they’re working almost non-stop.  It’s really exciting and dynamic.”

But for Guinther, the economy played a big role in his decision to go for a more stable job—and paycheck—at Amazon

But his classmate Terrence Bei decided to go in a riskier direction.  He co-founded the game company Puddleworks with some of his friends sophomore year.  While smartphone games are known for being simple—and addictive—Bei thinks there’s a huge hole in the market.  Mobile games for hardcore gamers, on the scale of World of Warcraft and Call of Duty.  It looks promising so far.  He’s even had a six-figure venture capital offer.  But even if Puddleworks succeeds…Bei’s not going to build the company here.

“New Hampshire..." he begins with a sigh.  "The thing is, there’s definitely a growing community here.  But the thing is, in terms of what we want to do, which is inevitably, get acquired so we can work with a larger capital base and build the large-scale games we really want to do in the long run, it would be more convenient to be, you know, right next door to EA or Activision Blizzard.”

That’s in L.A.  And Bei’s not alone in his thinking.  Rima Murthy, the smartphone sensor expert, is looking at either California or returning to India, where smartphone use is exploding.  Jon Guinther’s Amazon job will take him to Seattle.  

And that’s the challenge for New Hampshire educators.  Even if colleges and universities can draw young people here for training, adding them to the mobile app workforce is tough. 

But as we’ll look at tomorrow, it’s even tougher to find women to work in this growing field.