Interview: Professor Volker Markl Talks About Berlin As Startup Hub & TU Berlin Partnerships With IBM, SAP & Others

Brandenburg Gate in Berlin Werner Kunz via Compfight

By Paul Glader

BERLIN – Professor Volker Markl at Berlin’s Technische Universitat (Technical University) represents the modern professor as gatekeeper on the bridge between academia and industry.

Dr. Markl worked at IBM Co.’s research center for nearly a decade before returning to his native Germany to serve as a computer science professor specializing in complex data analysis, heading up TU’s Database Systems and Information Management Group.

“I always liked teaching,” Markl explains. “At IBM, one of the things I enjoyed most was helping interns acquire and understand the skill set.” After working in the Silicon Valley cosmos, he wanted to bring his knowledge to Berlin, which is quickly becoming a hub for startups in Europe, including music sharing company SoundCloud, casual games giant Wooga, education tech startup ResearchGate and massive open online course provider iVersity. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other politicians are increasingly talking about and encouraging funding mechansism for startups. Posters advertising startup clubs and contest litter the hallways of universities such as TU Berlin and Free University.

He notes that Berlin is a much cheaper place to live than London or Paris, a factor that is bringing many artists and creative to the city, overshadowing even the myriad political and diplomatic classes in the nation’s capital. The Berlin city government realizes it needs to foster innovation and economic development as many of the big companies once located in Berlin moved to other parts of Germany after World War II split the city, literally, in two pieces. For example, the conglomerate Siemens left Berlin and relocated headquarters to Munich during the Cold War.

For Berlin, “the best hope is to capitalize on the hip reputation and to develop new companies,” Markl says. Part of that strategy involves boosting investment in Berlin’s top universities such as Humbolt University, Frei (Free) University, Technische Universitat and the University of Potsdam. That means more government money flowing to these universities as well as more private sector money.

Partnering With Big Blue & Other Big Business

That’s where Markl and IBM come into the picture. Universities such as TU are offering many entrepreneurial prizes, incubators and startup funding for student work.  Big companies in the atmosphere help lend heavy computing help and top-notch training for young entrepreneurs.

German business processing software giant SAP has, similarly, made big inroads into universities worldwide. It offers universities free training in its software to help students get ahead in the career market. As a result, it also then keeps future generations using its software as a standard in corporate computing. SAP founder Hasso Plattner and his Hasso Plattner Institute has donated money for centers at the University of Potsdam near Berlin and in Palo Alto, Calif., such as the famous d.school at Stanford University. SAP was founded near Heidelberg in southern Germany’s Baden-Württemberg state. But Plattner likes Berlin and SAP has focused energies there because of the more diverse and talented workforce.

Companies like SAP and IBM also benefit from partnerships at universities as professors and students find new uses and applications for the software and hardware and share ideas and research with the companies. For example, his former employer, IBM, has given Dr. Markl and his school a license for DB2, which is worth thousands of dollars. The students get to learn DB programming, maintenance and training. They learn database warehousing and data mining and analysis. It involves dealing with huge data sets one could not handle on a laptop. It requires the special equipment from IBM.

Markl says the school will receive a cluster in the next week as a gift from IBM – terebytes of disc memory to support the big analytics his group is working on. Normally, it costs tens of thousands of dollars. His school was planning an event to celebrate the gift with student presentations and a speaker from the research lab at IBM. In Germany, there has always been a strong tradition of companies working with universities. In fact, the idea of dual workforce training has gained a lot of attention in the US. “If I want to tell war stories (which students like a lot), these will be from IBM,” he says. He can’t help it. He once worked there.

I ask if it is ever difficult dealing with corporations who want to get on campus, embed their software as a way to get a competitive advantage over their rivals. How does he manage these relationships?  ”The important thing is to balance,” he says. “It’s important to be fair with all of them.” That means Oracle, IBM, SAP and smaller software companies from Germany’s famed Mittelstand (mid-sized companies). “The idea is to expose students to all the opportunities.”

For example, in some of his classes, he has guest speakers from several companies but he tries to organize these speeches in a panel format so students can hear from several companies at the same time. “As a university, it’s very important to maintain independence. That’s how we do the students a service,” he says. His field is booming PhD students are sought after. His program draws tech talent from the US, Greece, Egypt, Bulgaria and other places.

Markl oversees 3 post-doctoral students in data management, 30 PhD students, 20 Masters students and many bachelor’s students from the school’s computer science, computer engineering and business informatics programs.

There are 9 technical universities in Germany, similar to the ITT’s in India or like Cal-Tech, MIT and Carnegie Mellon in the US. The difference, though, is that many German students tend to chose their university in proximity to their hometown Markl says. School reputation and rankings are not as important in Germany as in the US or the UK. He notes that regional universities are also strong in certain niches in the US as well. “In my area of databases, UW Madison is one of the leading universities for database management,” Markl says, sitting in his spacious office with windows overlooking Berlin’s Spree River. The professor, wearing wire-frame glasses, a striped grey shirt and a red pullover.

In Germany, there has always been a strong tradition of companies working with universities. In fact, the idea of dual workforce training has gained a lot of attention in the US. “If I want to tell war stories (which students like a lot), these will be from IBM,” he says. He can’t help it. He once worked there.

Privacy Concerns Affect Research & Videotaping Lectures in Germany

Dr. Markl says privacy concerns over data in Germany make it more difficult to work on public records as many people do in the US. But he and his students are working on a project to ID what politicians said and how they voted, looking for contradictions based on web data. PHD students are working on a project calculating the average age of CEOs geographically.

Q — What is he doing with online learning and innovation?

A — He started video-taping courses nearly 2 years ago as a service for students in case they miss a lecture. Markl says he is recording the lectures only for internal use because privacy concerns hamper video-taping from the classroom of German lecture halls. “Things are a bit more complicated here than in the US,” he says. “I’m one of the early adapters” here, he says.

For now, his school has no commercial motivation for the recordings. He’s not sure where it is leading now but says his format may have to change if he starts putting the videos on YouTube. “If I was a student, I wouldn’t want to hear myself in a 90-minute lecture,” he says. “I’d rather see pre-produced and smaller videos.”

Q – What does he think of the MOOC phenomenon?

A – “It’s a tool. We have to use it wisely to improve the learning outcomes,” he says. “Is your goal to educate the masses? Then courses on YouTube are the way to go.”

“No professor can know everything. There is no way,” he says. “Our job is to create order to it and lead students through the knowledge path.” But he thinks the MOOC phenomenon is a powerful and positive driver of technical education to possibly send more students into degree programs like the ones he oversees. McKinsey, he says, estimates a 140,000 person shortage of data analysis workers in the US. “So having pre-recorded courses and MOOCS helps fill that gap,” he says.

He notes that Stanford is leading the MOOC bandwagon parrtly as a way “to attract top talent.” Universities like his are competing for the best students in data analytics. His work with 20-some companies such as IBM, SAP and Microsoft helps him stay competitive in recruiting.

Q – What does he predict or hope for in higher ed technology down the road?

A – “I’m hoping a repository will come out on a specific part of lectures. A Wikipedia of lectures. This would be a great thing to have,” he says. “The professor is there to answer questions with students and talk about themes.” He thinks that Udacity courses “created the biggest impact and popularity.” He notes that people were recording lectures for a long time before the Internet. But in an isolated way. He personally wouldn’t mind taking students in his class who proved they had learned the entry-level material on their own.

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One thought on “Interview: Professor Volker Markl Talks About Berlin As Startup Hub & TU Berlin Partnerships With IBM, SAP & Others”

  1. Why don’t more companies such as IBM sponsor psuedo-public institutions where graduates would immediately be offered jobs.

    Graduate a 2-year intensive IBM program and your immediately implemented as a software engineer. Would cut down on much of the bloat of the current university system.

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