Raj initially began his time at the University of Washington as a PhD student in their computer science department. He credits this environment as his first real encounter of the entrepreneurial or startup culture. This is also in the timeframe when the Internet began to pick up steam.
SM: What was that like, being a graduate student in a developing program? RV: At University of Washington, the environment lived up to all previous expectations, and well beyond. The department was willing to take calculated risks, was focused on good work rather than academic checkboxes such as the sheer number of papers published, emphasized and encouraged student-driven research as opposed to plugging students into existing large projects, and generally fostered a highly dynamic and creative environment. Students weren’t just cogs in the larger machine, but were active participants in building a great department. It’s only in retrospect that I realize that UW was in many ways my first taste of what one might call the “startup culture”.
SM: How long were you in the program at the University of Washington? RV: I spent 6 years in the Ph.D. program at UW, where the department gave me a tremendous amount of leeway in focusing more on research and publishing than on completing the various requirements towards my degree.
Along the way to that degree, in the early/mid 90’s came an earthquake — the creation and growth of the Web. What I remember about that time was the speed of industry, as opposed to academia, in terms of generating an explosion of ideas and technologies. Whereas previously academia had seemed the best place to work on “cutting edge” or “forward looking” ideas and technologies, the soup of new startups were creating a similar, and potentially faster moving, environment outside of academia.
For a time, it was possible for me to keep going with my existing research while also dipping a toe into the non-academic waters, doing some Web-related consulting. Over time I increasingly found that the latter, rather than the former, was what I wanted to do when I woke up in the morning. So, in late 1995, I left UW without completing my Ph.D. My “6 year Master’s” may be some kind of ignominious record.