The Art of Inviting Industry Speakers to Class

Over the last 10 years, I have consistently invited industry speakers to class, to talk about their experiences, to change the pace, and to lighten up the teaching. We recently passed the 100 external speaker mark! (Also includes some academic speakers.) Time to reflect on what makes a good industry talk that enriches student learning.

There are three main categories that I see. Industry speakers can talk about

  • A general topic (as a drop-in replacement for yourself),
  • A specific topic that really only they can cover, or
  • To provide examples supporting your general lectures

The first type is the hardest: If you don’t have time but industry partners are willing to fill in for you, they can take your slides or bring their own. A surprisingly large number of industry friends and partners of mine are interested in testing their teaching chops this way. If they bring their own slides, however, the challenge is that they aren’t wholly in tune with academic teaching: They need to abstract well, go over text books, get out the concepts to teach etc. all while applying didactic principles to reach students. Hence, a lot of work, and no or little industry slang.

The second type is much easier. Many classes utilize concepts or tools where there is a natural industry expert who can do a better job than the professor. For example, I had Linda Rising teach about retrospectives and Michael C. Jaeger teach about open source license compliance tools. Both are recognized experts in their field, so on that specific topic, they might at least be as good as me and probably better. In addition, the change of pace makes for nicer more engaging teaching.

The third type is the hardest one, and you need to support your industry partners in preparation of their talk. I often add topics to class that are relevant, and even have strong conceptual underpinning. For example, I might want to have a VC explain to students how commercial open source startups are funded. A good talk would then have a VC go over what funding means for startups, their different phases, term sheets and contracts, dynamics of it, etc. However, it would be equally important for students to understand capital structures and requirements, its embedding in the legal system, compliance, etc. which are business topics unlikely to be covered by the VC. Not because they don’t know, but because it is a more general topica, see variant 1 above. They would therefore have to go over textbooks etc. to extract and present relevant concepts, which is work few have time for.

Hence, if (a) you don’t have a drop-in replacement, or (b) have them cover a niche topic, you can only invite industry speakers if you’ve laid the groundwork for their talk. The industry talk then (c) provides examples of more general concepts that you previously taught or had students review. You have to brief the industry speaker in advance on what you hope they will talk about and explain how their talk fits into the curriculum. Not everyone will take the time, but if they do, it will be worth your students’ time even more so. If they don’t, even then colorful examples will serve their purpose in future class discussions, so it remains a win.

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