Engineer in Residence Roger Dickey Provides Insight on Startups
The CS @ ILLINOIS Engineer in Residence Program brings successful alumni back to campus to interact with current CS students and to help give them important real-world insights on careers as a CS graduate. In early April, Roger Dickey (BS CS ’05) served an Engineer in Residence.
Since graduating from Illinois, Dickey has experienced great success in his career. In 2007, Dickey launched a social gaming startup, building apps and games for the (then) newly launched Facebook. In 2008, Dickey and his company were bought by Zynga. He retooled an earlier game he created into Mafia Wars, which reached 45 million users by 2010. In three years at Zynga, Dickey also launched FishVille and five other titles. In addition, he served as an international product team advisor for Zynga, helping the company grow its games in India, Japan, and China.
Dickey is now a serial entrepreneur and active angel investor based in San Francisco. His latest venture is Gigster, a company that helps match companies with software developers.
During his time in the EIR program, Dickey participated in a question and answer session before a packed group of students in the Siebel Center. Throughout his answers, Dickey kept coming around to some major themes that he wanted to emphasize to the students.
One of Dickey’s emphases was the need to have a broad academic base. Dickey described his experiences taking classes in other engineering programs to expand his knowledge. “I took some electrical engineering. I did some mechanical engineer,” Dickey said. “My objective, I guess, was to learn a lot of patterns from other departments in engineering that I could apply back into computer science. I didn’t want to graduate just being a programmer. I wanted to be a true engineer—able to approach any problem and figure out how to create a solution to it. That proved to work out in my career.”
Dickey said that this approach was beneficial to his career. “It helped me be a more creative software engineer. I would highly recommend taking classes outside your discipline,” he said. “It’s a pretty unique opportunity to be going to school.”
A second emphasis was the importance of involvement in projects outside the classroom, particularly for people who have long-term goals of starting a company. “If you want a shot at being a founder after you graduate, you should have experience doing a lot of projects,” he said. “Doing projects with a few teammates, but on top of that you have people who care about your project.”
In addition to the learning experiences that can come with these projects, they can also develop lifelong connections to people who will remain close friends long after college. “Doing projects with people here is a fantastic way to build bonds with people that probably you’ll have the rest of your life,” he said. “Some of the strongest bonds I have are with the teammates I worked on freshman year EOH with, because we must have worked on that for two months on top classes. I’m friends with those people to this day.”
But Dickey was quick to point out that he was not saying that everyone should be a startup founder—in contrast to the prevailing feeling in Silicon Valley. Being the founder of a startup is not necessarily for everyone: “It’s as hard as it’s ever been to be a founder. Unless you think it’s your true purpose to be a founder, there’s nothing wrong with going on to be a software engineering at a great company. It’s fun. It’s a stable job. You’ll be able to support a family.”
For those who do decide to start their own companies, they need to realize that not every aspect of that is glamorous. “I have to do a lot of things I don’t like to at my job. I have to design, I have to coordinate PR, I have to go to parties I don’t necessarily want to go to.”
Of his return to campus, Dickey said that it was making him nostalgic, and he had some feeling that he wished he were still in school. “It’s such a privilege to go to classes, and go the lectures,” he said. “While you are here, you definitely want to make the most of it.”