More UW computer science grads staying in Wisconsin

As recently as a decade ago, most computer science graduates from UW-Madison headed for places like California, Seattle or Austin, Texas to find work.

But that’s changed in the past five years or so, says Mark Hill, chairman of the university’s computer science department. Now, nearly 25 percent of those grads stay in the Badger State to work for companies like Epic, Google and even small startups, he said at a Wisconsin Innovation Network luncheon in Madison. California now comes in a distant second place at around 14 percent.

It’s a much different world on campus than when Hill arrived in 1988, when it was “almost ridiculous” to think of a top computer science grad staying in Madison. They were “perhaps overly excited” to go off to top IT firms elsewhere.

“Now, students are much more interested in staying here, so we are doing our part to fight the brain drain,” he quipped. “In addition, in the past decade, the idea of being an entrepreneur has become a significantly greater option. When I graduated from college, you wanted to work for a large company or go to grad school. Being an entrepreneur didn’t even register. That’s really changed.”

Hill, who said his computer science department is now “so 21st Century,” lamented that the university has been hurt by state budget cuts. But he said he has worked to bring in financial backing from the private sector to his area.

In the past 50-plus years of its existence, he said the department has produced 8,000 graduates — including Epic Systems founder Judy Faulkner. (Epic now has nearly 10,000 employees.) The CS department is ranked as one of the top dozen in the nation, and he said research done by faculty and scientists helped find the Higgs boson particle and recently discovered gravitational waves.

“Some of our innovations have gone into microprocessors, so we’ve come a long way from punch cards,” he said. “In fact, there are now more computers on earth than there are people.”

Hill, who was also on a panel of Madison IT experts at the WIN luncheon, said forward-thinking companies of all stripes are now gathering “wholly different kinds of information” to get ahead.

Jim Loudon, head of the local Google office, got his undergraduate CS degree from UW-Madison and did graduate work at Stanford before working for several California companies. He opened the Google branch here in 2007 with former UW professor Jim Smith, something he said “would not have been possible without the university.”

“In building up the office, we’ve relied heavily not only on UW-Madison, but the whole UW system,” he said. “Right now, about 75 percent of our people have degrees from Madison or other UW schools. For graduates who want to stay in Wisconsin, there are now a lot of great opportunities.”

Mike Epley, who leads a patients’ mobile application development team at Epic, said his company has roughly 200 UW-Madison CS graduates who make up 12 percent of the Epic software department.

“We’re admittedly biased because our founder and CEO are both alumni, so they know the quality of graduates coming out of the computer science department,” he said. “And we have a very high bar for the people we hire.”

James Crawford, a principal with the 4490 Ventures fund, said he looks for UW-Madison CS talent for growing companies.

“We think of ourselves as the support team for entrepreneurs to help them find success in their markets,” he said. “We’d like to keep students and graduates in town to give them great experiences so they can take this incredible degree, gain some experience and then start their own great company.”

Crawford also praised UW grads for having a “down-home work ethic… something you might not see with Stanford or a Caltech grads who have an idea they think is worth $500 million even though it is still just an idea. The flip side of that is that sometimes (we have to) encourage students to reach more and go after not just a simple problem but a huge market that we at 4490 are interested in.”

— By Brian E. Clark,