Pearls of Wisdom from Red Burns, the 'Godmother of Silicon Alley'

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Red Burns, the "godmother of Silicon Alley," passed away last Friday leaving not only the legacy of NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program, which she founded in 1979 and has graduated over 3,000 students, but the wisdom of having worked at a technology incubator before most Silicon Alley executives could talk.

Unlike engineering programs — or coding classes —  the ITP program's "purpose was to produce people, rather than just technicians, who could use technology to perform interesting and helpful tasks," explains The New York Times's Douglas Martin in his obituary today. Despite the obsession with meritocracy — the idea that people in the tech world succeed based on their skills — success in Silicon Valley (and Alley) takes more than possessing coding skills. Burns knew that. 

An interactive tools creator — she turned the portable camera into a documentary filmmaking tool — Burns had some insightful words of wisdom for the future technology creators of America in a 1994 interview with The New York Times's J. Greg Phelan. (The Q&A was conducted in the context of her NYU program, asking why students should choose to attend ITP over other technical schools.) Here are some highlights aspiring tech leaders might want to live by almost 2 decades later:

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Succeeding in technology isn't understanding technology, but how to adapt, or, in the modern parlance, "innovate":

We're training people who have to learn to navigate in a world of change. If there's anything constant, it's change. It's not like you open somebody's head and pour in a skill.

Art is technology; technology is art:

In computer science, they might see the arts as frosting on the cake. We see the arts as absolutely essential in the mix that's going to create new form. 

Technology is for human beings:

They're really going to have to understand the fundamental nature of the technologies and the possibilities. And we look for ways for the technology to be applied in very human ways.

From a separate New York Times interview conducted in 2007: collaboration is better than competition:

Competitive people have energy, they’re interesting and so forth. But they’re so focused on the competition they fail to see what they’re doing. They just want ‘better, bigger, stronger, longer,’ and they miss the periphery. And that is where you find things you don’t even know are there.”

Knowing code will only get you so far:

To me, the computer is just another tool. It’s like a pen. You have to have a pen, and to know penmanship, but neither will write the book for you.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.