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Featured on Jul 27, 2011

Sanford Dickert

"You know, the Greeks didn't write obituaries. They only asked one question after a man died: 'Did he have passion?'"


Born in South Florida, over-educated at Purdue and Stanford in robotics and dance, transitioned into product development and advisement for numerous startups during the dotcom era including PayPal, gigabeat (bought by Napster), and eGroups (now Yahoo! Groups) and moved to London.  Became CTO of an online European recruiting company, then VP of a large telco before becoming a product consultant for an number of European VCs.

After a chance encounter at a BBQ at the American Ambassador's residence, became the CTO of the John Kerry for President Campaign. After the campaign, started various social media ventures in podcasting and blog relations while becaming an Adjunct Professor of Engineering at Cooper Union and Poly. Continued advising NY startups and cofounded CooperBricolage and New Work City with Tony Bacigalupo.  Took a slight detour to Menlo Park, California to be Product Director for a new telepresence robot application (Texai) and returned to continue work with NY startups and other community efforts including NY Entrepreneur Week.    

Currently working on collabraCode to help developers learn to cooperatively train and grow better NY developers while leading technology ventures in NY and London (PeerIndex).

On your blog, The Social Engineer, you write a lot in support of the growth of New York’s tech scene, and recently, you have posted a (disappointed) review of the Road Map for the Digital City. You do a lot of work advising startups in the city, but would you ever consider running for a political position in order to help the New York tech scene from a government standpoint? What things can the general public do to help support and bring awareness to the New York tech scene?

Are you joking? I admire public service, but I’m not that much of a masochist. (I also love what I am doing now.)

I do think that we ought to encourage those with the means and inclination to jump into politics --there’s no question that we have the ideas and energy to both further our community’s objectives and the greater good.

And I do think that people from the tech community can do a lot to both advocate for our concerns and to help undo the morass of bureaucracy and cynicism that is government today.  
First and foremost is to get involved.  Not just donating to your favorite candidate – but getting involved in helping the City and the community with a bit of your time and know-how.  

Today, the City is running a deficit and cannot be seen funding technology projects without some form of return (as I mentioned in my follow-up article).   But, there are people within the NYC government who have projects they know are necessary and can help the community.  And once these projects are implemented and are successful, the press naturally follows and our efforts can then be seen by the greater community. I recommend reaching out to:

  • Rachel Sterne at the Mayor’s Office (@rachelsterne)
  • Reshma Saujani at the Office of the Public Advocate, (no twitter account)
  • Andrew Chen at the NYC Economic Development Corporation (@andrewfchen)

They all are incredibly receptive and want to take NY Tech to the next level.

As a community, I believe our successes are going to increase our visibility.  As Fred Wilson said, NYC is one of the best places to create a tech company – especially with our diversity of talent, our business marketplace and the diversity of skills that exists in NYC.  Our companies are built on (1) understanding the problems businesses face and (2) applying the better technology that makes it through the Silicon Valley crucible. With our marketing know-how and sales connections, we make businesses happen.

In another blog post, you mention that Silicon Valley’s success as a tech scene stemmed greatly from the colleges in the area, stating, “Stanford was the seed crystal that helped improve the fertile ground that became Silicon Valley. Coupled with Berkeley and CalTech - the West Coast has focused on technology building/enablement for over a century. Where has New York been in this area?” What suggestions do you have for New York colleges to start considering technology and entrepreneurship more seriously? Where are the current problems in New York undergraduate and graduate programs that prevent the kind of environment needed for New York to grow as an ICT hub?

Bingo -- you nailed one of my chief concerns. Simply put, the Alley is way behind the Valley when it comes to academic synergy.

In Silicon Valley, the culture of entrepreneurship has been baked into the culture.  As I mentioned in the blog post, President Terman saw the future of Stanford as a partnership with -- and developing talent for -- those growing companies.  Terman's Termites might be seen be a failure in Malcolm Gladwell's eyes, but they played a key role in the evolution of what became Silicon Valley.  Add this to California government efforts to grow the higher education system in the 1960s, and you had a formula virtually guaranteeing success.

In NYC, we have two universities that are highly rated in science/engineering and at least two more that are supportive of it.  I recognize that part of the schools’ remit is to provide talent for the primary industries of the area.  But my disappointment centers around the insane pull that happens as these students leave their program.  

During my three years of teaching engineering at Cooper Union, I watched as approximately one-third of the students in my program moved on to the finance industry, another third to a professional degree program (e.g., medicine or law) and the last third to positions that were in their program area -- but often just in supporting roles.   Only a very small percentage of the students ended up going into ventures of their own or to startups. That’s a pity and a squandered opportunity.

Why this pattern? Something is wrong with the schools themselves.  

Academia is a place where students should be able to experience things, stretch their minds and challenge the norm-- to experience their own creativity.  Sir Ken Robinson makes an argument that universities today are designed for creating professors, not for promoting creativity or preparing our students for success in the world beyond academia.  

I believe that everyone has a light within themselves to actualize beyond the standard frame of job title and corporate logo. But to stoke it, one needs to experiment and fail.  A university education is meant to provide that opportunity.  Unfortunately, the pressure of getting good grades and achievement at all costs creates the wrong kinds of pressures and priorities, and can rob people of the opportunity to become what they are meant to be.

At Stanford and at Purdue, I saw people take chances and fail at times-- and recover from those failures. Success did not come easy and it was usually not the next day, week or month-- but later in life, you would hear great things from those "failures" and be amazed at how adversity allowed for the creative spark and the personal drive to come through.  Academia must learn to work with government and local companies to help students not only develop knowledge, but also skills they can rely on long after they complete their exams. From my experience, this is currently not the foremost priority at many schools—including local ones.
Recently I helped create a collaborative training program called collabraCode, a program that came about through a combination of factors: my desire to help grow NY Tech’s technical bench through lessons I learned in academia; remembering lessons of apprenticeship; and  seeing the success of collaborative coworking spaces like New Work City.  collabraCode is about developers helping other developers become better at their work  though practice and cooperation.  It aims to help talented people come together  to better their skills in a framework that rewards sharing and support.  You can see more at  This past une, we successfully "graduated" twelve members and are getting ready for two more programs in the Fall.

You are a man who is consistently at the forefront of technology, involved in not only developing products, but also in the business and marketing of new technology. Not many before you have been able to call themselves “Innovative Technology Product Expeditors,” and it is clear that you have carved a very unique path in life. Who are your heroes and inspirations? Have you tried to follow in anyone's footsteps?

A while back, one of my seventh grade teachers asked me the same question about heroes.  I’m not the hero-worship type, but the question prompted me to ponder. As I began to read some biographies, I found three individuals that lived extraordinary lives that I drew inspiration from.

One is not too surprising: the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King. The other two may be: Harry Houdini and Louis Armstrong. What all have in common is they lived their lives being true to themselves and to their dreams.   

Houdini was always known for trying new and exciting tricks and even died in the midst of taking a great creative risk (attempting the ultimate magic “trick”); Dr. King saw he had a mission to improve the human condition and pursued it, even in the face of incredible adversity. And born from a life of poverty, Ambassador Satchmo changed the way people heard and created music by following his heart; having an artistic impact that lasts long beyond his lifetime.

We each do what we can with what we’re given. I was raised by a teacher and a salesperson.  I have long had an affinity for teaching and technology.

Striving, exploring ideas, and finding ways to make a difference -- that’s the mix in which I’m most comfortable.