There’s a joke doing the rounds in Uruguay that only rich people can afford to study at the country’s free public university while middle-class students attend the fee-paying ORT University.
“At the state university you have classes during the day so you don’t have time to work; but at ORT the schedule is more flexible so you have time to work and support yourself,” said Federico Brubacher, a Computer Science Master’s student who has just been selected for Google’s Summer of Code program.
“It’s true!” confirmed Krikor Attarian, an ORT graduate in Information Systems Analysis.
For Krikor and his friend Estefano Zammarelli the joke could see them laughing all the way to the bank. While still undergraduates at ORT they founded Kizanaro, a high-tech start-up whose big innovation is a program which provides soccer coaches with real-time match analysis.
K-Real Time’s ability to give coaches the statistical breakdown to help them in half-time huddles with their teams has been picked up by the national teams of Uruguay, Colombia and Venezuela as well as a host of professional sides in these and other Latin American countries. Uruguay’s revered coach, Oscar Tabarez, used the system to help him steer his side to the World Cup semi-finals in 2010 and a record 15th Copa America title.
“Football is a passion for us and has been since childhood,” said Krikor. “Here in Uruguay football is practically everything. We love working in football and we’re combining it with technology which we also love. And ORT is the key to our professional success. I know ORT gave me all the skills for the reality of working in the I.T. industry.”
But having acquired technical prowess at ORT, Krikor found that his business skills needed honing. So he has returned to ORT to do an MGET, a technology-related MBA-style post-grad course.
“Our goal is to export to Europe in a couple of years but we’re now building up the business by focusing on Latin America,” said Krikor, who currently employs 12 people.
No-one is happier about their achievement than Julio Fernandez, ORT University’s Dean of Academic Development, who was one of Estefano’s and Krikor’s lecturers in their final undergraduate year.
“What makes me very proud is that they tried to do it at all: it’s not easy in a small country like ours with not so many opportunities,” Professor Fernandez said. “But it also shows the relevance of what we’re doing at ORT, that a group of undergraduates were able to conceive a project and design it and eventually take it to market... it shows a lot about these young people but it also shows that they had the tools to do it.”
Federico Brubacher, who has been computer programming since the tender age of six, is all set to become another success story. Like Krikor and Estefano, he completed undergraduate studies at ORT – in Telecommunications Engineering. The Google Summer of Code mentoring program will see him work at Twitter on an open source project, “building scalable, on-line machine learning algorithms on top of Storm”.
In layman’s terms, he will develop the system which Twitter uses to gather and process data, called Storm, so that it can make predictions on incomplete information.
“At the moment data is collected, say for a particular year, and then models, or predictions, are made on that complete set of information,” Federico explained. “With the new system, the models continually evolve as new data flows in. This could help with revenue because if you know what issues are trending you can sell advertising accordingly. I’ve had many open source projects over the years but this one will let me focus on it for a solid three of four months. That’ll be awesome.”
Studying at ORT has meant using its flexibility to work during the day and attend classes in the evening but he has no regrets. “ORT is one of the best,” he said.
And not just in Uruguay. For several years the university has been placed among the top 500 tertiary institutions in the world by the Times Higher Education Supplement, one of only a handful of Latin America’s 700-plus eligible institutions to make the grade – a sign not only of ORT’s prowess but also of the region’s need to develop its educational infrastructure.
The co-author of a recent report by the World Economic Forum and the INSEAD business school, Benat Bilbao, told the Miami Herald: “One of Latin America’s great weaknesses are its educational systems that are not producing young people with the skills that companies are requiring.”
The Rector of ORT Uruguay University, Dr Jorge Grunberg, agrees but adds that his institution is like an educational incubator which is spearheading much needed change.
“ORT has always been about translating know-how into a career but that no longer means just being a highly paid employee; in the 21st century that means above all being able to launch new entrepreneurial ventures. So we instil into our students not only the right know-how but also, with courses like the MGET which Krikor is doing, the can-do attitudes geared to setting up these ventures. We show how you can train people in the right way and state institutions have been adopting many of the educational innovations we have developed.”