Interview with Bruce Huang, UCLA Silicon Beach Innovation Lab

Story by Benjamin F. Kuo


Companies are always complaining about how hard it is to find the right employees, and how technical talent is hard to find. Yet, you have many students, graduating with technical skills, who just don't know how to make it into a company. How do you bridge the gap between students and employers? The UCLA Extension recently launched a program called the Silicon Beach Innovation Lab, aimed at that gap. We caught up with Founding Director Bruce Huang, to learn more about what the UCLA Extension is trying to do with its program.

What is the UCLA Silicon Beach Innovation Lab?

Bruce Huang: We are an educational, collaborative ecosystem, trying to bridge between the tech community and academics. We're trying to bring the tech community and the entrepreneurial community, including investors, VCs, and so forth, together with academics and students. At the same time, we're trying to help add women and diversity to technology and entrepreneurship. The idea came about, because we see a lot of people coming through our program at UCLA, who might have the desire to be an entrepreneur, and to get into the technology field, by studying data science or cybersecurity. However, it's very difficult. At the same time, companies are saying that in cybersecurity and data science, there are 1.5 million unfilled jobs. We wanted to see how we could be the bridge. I go to lots of events in Los Angeles, and there are many entrepreneurs who want to start companies, are bootstrapping, and everyone has a great idea and is figuring out how to launch their products and launch their startup. Our thought, is how can we be part of the ecosystem, and bring together the tech community, academics, and students together. What we are trying to do, is to host industry events, hosting mentoring sessions, and offer programs and internships that can help people get the knowledge and skills they need to be part of this, whether in software, entrepreneurship, data science, or cybersecurity.

Talk a little more about that gap?

Bruce Huang: If you look at the aspects of the UCLA Extension, we have a huge number of students who are professionals, or students who are currently employed in another industry and want to change careers. For example, we have people currently working in video and film production, who want to get into coding, who want to become a web developer, and who want to become cybersecurity professionals. They're seeking a career change. However, a lot of the time, when you go to those industries, the people who are looking at resumes are askingódo you have practical experience? They answer, no, because I have been a bartender for the last three years, and just have completed a program at UCLA or somewhere else. It's hard for them to break in. What we want to do, is bring the tech community in, and provide a more practical, relevant learning experience to our students. We want to give our companies first hand knowledge of what these students can do. At the same time, the students will benefit from access to the top companies and expertise, and access real world projects that they can showcase.

So students will be working on projects with these companies?

Bruce Huang: Correct. That's one of the major goals of the Silicon Beach Innovation Lab.

What do you envision those projects looking like?

Bruce Huang: For example, let's say you are in data science. Data science is a very hot area. Every industry needs data scientists and data analytics for business intelligence and other work. What we want to do, is have the Silicon Beach Innovation Lab enable paracticum internships. For students who have previously taken a data science course and earned a certificate or degree, now, they can look at and join a practicum internship for 12 weeks. During those 12 weeks, instead of lectures, students are placed into a project team, and the instructor serves as the project manager, and they work on a real world project, which is provided, defined, and sponsored by one of those tech companies.

You mention that there are many students who have a hard time finding their way into the industry, how can tech companies better reach those employees?

Bruce Huang: One of the challenges companies have, with data science, cybersecurity, or web programming, is although there are millions of jobs, how do you get access to talent? What you want to do, is go to the source of that talent. That means working closer with institutions and schools, where you have first-hand access to that talent, where that talent is being generated and produced. There are sometimes complaints from the industry and from tech companies, that students going through educational programs don't have practical experience. They say, we want them to be effective from day one. If those companies work closely with an institution like usólike what the Silicon Beach Innovation Lab is supposed to beóthey can bring in their expertise. We've assembled a team of CTOs, CIOs, and tech companies who can come in, share their experiences, and help us to define what kind of experience they need from employees. The company can help define the curriculum and define the projects, so that students taking those courses, and working on projects, are learning what the companies want them to learn.

Finally, what advice would you give students hoping to break into the industry?

Bruce Huang: Equip yourself with knowledge. That's what the school programs are about. Second, be smart about networking. Don't just network for the sake of networking, smart networking means joining meaning ful events, and participate in meaningful initiatives. That's what we are trying to provide with the Silicon Beach Innovation Lab,. For example, we have a one day conference coming up on September 20th, at the Nanotechnology Center at UCLA. We will have companies and professionals sharing their knowledge and needs, and sharing trends in cybersecurity. That will be open to our students. Equip yourself with knowledge, and work on smart and meaningful networking. Don't be shy, and don't just isolate yourself. Join the networking events, and join initiatives like what we are trying to create.