Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better. – Maya Angelou

Mr. Walker's Classroom Blog

Reprint: A Digital Boot Camp to Groom Talent for Agencies

By STEPHANIE CLIFFORD, Published: May 12, 2010

WHEN she founded the digital ad agency Exopolis nine years ago, Kat Egan wasn’t worried about finding good talent. Although the Internet was young, she figured trained technologists would soon be pelting her with résumés.

Ira Liss/University of Colorado

Students in the Boulder Digital Works program at the University of Colorado have the use of a two-story studio space for multimedia presentations and performances.

Nearly a decade later, she’s still waiting.

“It’s shocking: even now, in 2010, it’s very challenging to find great talent,” Ms. Egan said. You can find people, she said, but “you know that they’re going to need a lot of mentoring and a lot of hand-holding, and it’s an enormous investment.”

“Digital has been growing exponentially for 15 years now,” Ms. Egan said. “Where’s the education that supports that?”

One answer is in a new program at the University of Colorado, Boulder, called Boulder Digital Works, where Ms. Egan is a board member.

The university had had a strong undergraduate program in advertising, and it is one of the top majors, said David Slayden, executive director of Boulder Digital Works. When he thought about creating a graduate program, though, he wanted to take a technology-focused approach.

Many other graduate programs “were built on a platform of creative based on Bill Bernbach,” he said, referring to the founder of the agency DDB who paired copywriters with art directors and had the teams churn out portfolios of creative concepts. “It was very analog,” Mr. Slayden said.

He began asking ad agencies what they needed in new hires, and agencies like Exopolis, Crispin Porter & Bogusky, and Goodby, Silverstein & Partners had a near-unanimous response. “They weren’t getting what they needed to grow and develop,” Mr. Slayden said, especially in areas that combined creative approaches and technology.

Though new entrants to the work force had grown up with computers, “the big illusion is just because they know how to play on the audience side, they know how to play on the stage,” Mr. Slayden said. Still, when students enter the program, they are expected to be able to use Adobe software and build a basic Web site using tools like HTML, PHP and MySQL. Along with technology and creative skills, the program also emphasizes entrepreneurship.

The first class of Boulder Digital Works students began in October 2009. Mr. Slayden said that initially, he decided to make it a certificate program, which let him avoid many of the bureaucratic details of creating a degree program; in the future, though, he said it may grant a master’s degree.

Structurally, the curriculum is more flexible than in traditional schools. A few courses last a full semester, like motion design and interactive environments (which includes designing for the iPad or Android), but others are shorter — one on leading for the future lasts only a week.

“The problem with traditional educational programs trying to teach digital is they’re kind of strapped down to that old model,” said Chris Znerold, a 24-year-old student who had been an interactive designer at IAC before enrolling. “One of the things David’s done a great job of is untethering the curriculum. The classes change with the industry and with our particular interests.”

Mr. Slayden said that Boulder Digital Works had already revised the curriculum four times since October.

A “lead teacher” is in charge of each course. That is sometimes a professor, but may be someone from the ad industry like Kip Voytek, senior vice president for communications and experience planning at the agency Rapp Collins Worldwide, or Jon Kolko, an associate creative director at Frog Design.

Visiting lecturers from agencies and technology firms drop in. Industry people who don’t want to lecture can advise on technical projects or mentor the students.

The curriculum is heavy on projects, Mr. Slayden said: “You don’t get into shape by reading about exercise.”

In one project, Mr. Slayden asked students to design an interactive exhibit that would be installed in a series of arches in a popular Boulder walkway.

The students presented their ideas to a group of architects and city officials, and the feedback was tough. Although the students talked to pedestrians, Mr. Slayden said, they did not talk to the architect; the ideas weren’t tailored adequately for the space; and “they thought that it could run all the time, and it would get very boring.”

The students will soon revise their initial ideas.

One favorite project, said Denise Horton, a student, was for a class called Startup. In six weeks, she and her team were to come up with an idea for a Web-based company, pitch it to a venture capitalist and design a site. Her idea, an eco-friendly retailing site calledOneSeam, is currently up in basic form, and she hopes to turn it into an e-commerce site soon.

Ms. Horton, 49, had been advising cable companies on digital marketing strategies before enrolling at Boulder Digital Works, but, she said, learning the newest technologies on the job was difficult.

“This is practical, get-your-hands-dirty, roll-up-your-sleeves, and learn about how to code a Web site, about technology platforms, about the Android OS operating system, the impact of the iPad,” she said of the Boulder curriculum.

“The digital platform is ubiquitous,” she said. “It’s just a part of everyone’s way of thinking and communicating and sharing, connecting, buying, doing business. It’s probably the fastest-paced industry almost anybody could be in right now.”