Professor tells how he spent his summer: As an intern

  • Article by: MAURA LERNER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 24, 2013 - 9:42 PM
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Nic McPhee: “I was interested in just seeing new stuff, seeing what the cool kids were using and having a chance to work with that.”

As a computer science professor, Nic McPhee admits it’s been a long time since he worked in the “real world.”

His last job — before he started teaching at the University of Minnesota, Morris, in 1991 — was before the World Wide Web. In other words, the computer Stone Age.

So this summer, when he turned 50, McPhee decided to find out what he was missing. He became a summer intern for two of his former students — the founders of Kidblog, a Minneapolis start-up.

McPhee’s “summer job” — which included crashing in a spare bedroom and writing code in coffee shops — was eye-opening and humbling. “It was a useful reminder of what it’s like to be very confused,” he said. “And that’s a valuable thing for a teacher.”

For McPhee, who won the university’s 2013 Alumni Association teaching award and co-authored a book on computer science, the idea of competing with undergrads for a summer internship did seem “slightly weird.”

But last spring, he started sending out feelers to former students.

“I had to keep myself from laughing,” said Dan Flies, a 2004 graduate who once served as McPhee’s teaching assistant.

When he realized that McPhee was serious, Flies texted his business partner, Matt Hardy, a 2001 graduate of the Morris campus, and asked: “Do you think we should hire Nic?”

Hardy remembered McPhee as “a colorful, engaging, smart, fun, accessible professor,” he said this week. “I took 10 seconds and thought, heck yes, we want Nic.”

The two college friends had started a business in 2010, running a website called Kidblog for schoolkids and teachers. Hardy, who taught elementary school in Eden Prairie, had designed the program for his own students to help them create online journals, or blogs.

The tricky part, he said, is that blogs are public, and he wanted a way to safeguard them. So he designed a system that gives teachers the power to control the whole process and decide what, if anything, goes public.

When other teachers started asking about it, he joined up with Flies to create kidblog.org. Last year, Hardy quit his teaching job to devote himself full time to the business, with the infusion of $600,000 in start-up funds from investors.

Today, Kidblog has 3.9 million users from around the world, Hardy says.

Like hiring your dad

The entrepreneurs knew exactly how to put McPhee to use: helping build a new software system to handle the growing volume more quickly and efficiently.

One of the first hurdles: What do you pay a 50-year-old intern with a Ph.D.?

“We’re still a start-up, we have to be really lean,” said Hardy, one of only three full time employees.

McPhee, too, wasn’t sure. After all, he said, he wasn’t coming in as a high-priced consultant. “I was interested in just seeing new stuff, seeing what the cool kids were using and having a chance to work with that.”

They settled on a rate somewhere between “hiring a full professor … and a college junior,” as Hardy put it. And McPhee, who is married and has a college-age son, moved to Minneapolis for the summer, staying in Flies’ guest room for several weeks to save the company a little money.

His thirty-something bosses got a kick out of introducing their newest employee, with the salt-and-pepper beard, as “the intern.”

“It’s like having your dad as an employee,” said Flies, 35. “He was in charge for all those years. Now you get to be in charge.”

McPhee said he got a chance to work with state-of-the-art technology, just as he’d hoped. “It was certainly a challenge,” he said. “They were really patient and helpful with somebody who was asking a lot of questions at the beginning.”

Flies said McPhee caught on so fast that sometimes he had to remind him that this wasn’t an academic exercise. “I’d have to really tell Nic … stop doing extra work, there’s no A in here,” he said.

Hardy said he worried that McPhee would be bored. But he turned out to be “a perfect fit,” he said.

When his internship ended in August, the project wasn’t quite finished. But McPhee said he learned “a ton.”

“It was interesting working in a start-up where there was no office and there were no hours to speak of, but we were working 60-hour weeks.” he said. “It was very cool.” At the same time, he said, “I think I was able to make a useful contribution.” And yet, he added, “we have some very strong undergrads who I think could have given me a run for my money.”

Jacqueline Johnson, chancellor of the Morris campus, said she thought the internship idea was a bit “wild” but also inspired — the sign of a professor who is “intellectually curious” and willing to take risks. “Honestly, I think there’s something very refreshing about the example that Nic McPhee presents,” she said. “[It] really allows him to come back into the classroom and bring that much more to the students that he’s teaching.”

McPhee said he has no interest in giving up his day job. But would he do another summer internship? “Totally,” said McPhee.

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