Yannis C. Yortsos has served as dean of USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering since 2005, a tenure that has seen the emergence of the Silicon Beach tech cluster and a resurgence of the aerospace industry in Los Angeles. Viterbi’s undergraduate and graduate students – numbering 2,700 and 5,600, respectively – as well as the $192 million the school spends annually on research, played a significant role in those growing industries and companies over the past decade, according to the dean. Yortsos predicts many waves of technological innovation will follow and expects engineering skills will be even more vital for professions and corporations of all types.

The Business Journal’s Garrett Reim recently sat down with Yannis C. Yortsos, veteran dean of USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering, for a talk about disruption, diversity and the role of educational institutions and other parts of the startup ecosystem when it comes to local innovation and industry. Edited excerpts of the conversation follow.

There is this famous phrase by venture capitalist Marc Andreessen of Andreessen Horowitz that states “software is eating the world.” How do executives without engineering backgrounds successfully lead businesses in such a world where all companies are becoming technology companies?

You have to surround yourself with people who have a very good understanding. Obviously, chief technology officers are key to any company. It’s not only all companies are becoming technology companies, many disciplines are becoming technology disciplines. You have to be very open to (mindset) growth in different ways.

What’s the most practical way to connect with USC or another university for a business owner or executive in Los Angeles who wants to keep a finger on the pulse of technology?

Of course, continuing education is a common way, in which people can take weekend courses to become up to speed. Many companies support research agendas of individual faculty. We have centers that companies can come in and support them. By supporting them one of the things they get in return is the ability to see what’s going on, what kind of research is conducted, as well as form relationships with the faculty and students. This is probably one of the most active research (hubs) in computer science in the country. We had the largest number of federal expenditures in this area a couple of years ago. When people talk about computer science they usually talk about Carnegie Mellon, but actually if you put together (our various schools) we are as good or better than CMU –that’s my competitive side.

You’ve put a heavy emphasis on expanding the percentage of women and historically underrepresented minorities within USC’s engineering school. Why is that such a focus?

I think the future will be won by people that have control of tech, understand tech, help it being shaped, as well as understand the impact technology has on society and interaction between society and technology. For economies to be very successful, you have to have a significant population involved in this area.

So, bringing underrepresented groups into engineering roles will expand the portion of the population capable of developing and working with tech?

Yes.

How do you get underrepresented groups more interested in engineering and then enrolled in engineering programs?

Changing the conversation about engineering is also important. Engineering essentially enables us to solve societal problems. That’s something that resonates very well with women or underrepresented minorities…. How do you use this for useful purposes?

How successful has USC been in increasing representation?

The freshman class here was 44 percent women. And, we do this while maintaining pretty much the same quality (of students and graduates) as we have in the past. Our women students graduate actually with a higher GPA than men.

Do they graduate at the same rate as their male colleagues?

Yes, they do. The narrative of, ‘Yes, you attract them and then they go and do something else’ is not accurate anymore.

Why are tech companies still struggling to be more representative in their technical ranks if universities are doing a better job at producing female and minority engineers?

I don’t know the answer to that. I think there is a culture that has been solidified to some degree from the way these companies have started. These companies are very recent; they’ve started in the last 10 years. I don’t think you have the same (problems) in established companies, let’s say Northrop, Boeing or defense companies.

USC’s student-run Rocket Propulsion Laboratory launched a small rocket from the Mojave Desert to an altitude of 144,000 feet in March, which your school is claiming a is a student record. How does the lab fit into the industry, which has a local presence with SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Aerojet Rocketdyne and a host of others

The Rocket Lab is about 50 or so students they are self-organized. Their goal is, let’s build rockets and try to put them into space. They build the rocket themselves, the whole thing – the instrumentation, the fuels, and materials, everything – and then they go and launch it. In this process they learn how to set a goal, how to organize themselves, leadership skills, technical skills, collaborative skills – how to put together a project.

And, local aerospace manufacturers appreciate this?

The local aerospace industry comes and recruits these kids. They grab them like crazy. SpaceX has a number of them. Blue Origin, Northrop, they all come in and appreciate the talent and the other skills that you get. So, it’s not the G.P.A. that matters alone, it’s all these other experiences and skills.

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