Not All Tech Companies Are Alike

1/18/12

From cloudy Seattle to the vast suburbs of Silicon Valley, we covered a lot of ground on MIT Sloan’s recent technology trek, which concluded with a leg in Boston.

The first stop was Seattle where it was predictably raining. Visiting Amazon, Microsoft, and Adobe, we came away with an appreciation for how much tech activity is actually going on in that city.

At Microsoft, we got to talk to alumni about what it’s like to work there. Yes, it’s a large company and therefore bureaucratic, they confessed. But, the huge plus is that they have the resources to work on some very innovative projects. Amazon also was big, but the theme there was its quirkiness. In addition to all of the desks being made out of doors, they also have whiteboards everywhere, even in the elevators. I made sure to leave an “MIT Sloan was here” tag in one of the elevators!

Adobe seemed like a more typical office where they provide a pleasant work environment with lots of exposed brick and wood. Overall, I could really see myself enjoying working in Seattle.

Moving on to Silicon Valley, it was noticeably sunnier and warmer. It was also a lot bigger. In Seattle, you could probably get by with just a bike and public transit, but good luck to anyone who tries that in Silicon Valley. Here, you definitely need a car. Being settled with a family might help too, as the area is comprised of endless suburbs punctuated by large office parks where the tech companies are located.

If you want to live where the action is, you’d need to get a job in San Francisco or do the 40-minute commute each way and hope for no traffic. I guess I should point out that Palo Alto does have a downtown, but it’s just two or three streets and most people would still have to drive there.

As for the tech companies, most of the ones we visited were in Silicon Valley and all offered quite a lot of amenities compared to what we saw in Seattle. Free food, gyms, yoga classes, dry cleaners, and acupuncture were just some of the perks you get at most of these companies. I guess they need these things to entice people not only to live away from the city, but also to work some pretty long hours.

For example, the employees at Facebook—who all seemed to be in their 20s—joked that working at some firms in the Valley is like working in a sweatshop. Employees are expected to work extremely hard, but they also provide an endless amount of food that includes a rotating candy of the week. Facebook keeps its employees well fed, caffeinated, and hydrated with the largest cafeteria of all the tech companies we visited.

Google had a similar environment with lots of free food and people under 30 in tee-shirts and jeans everywhere. They had a saying there that you are never more than 100 steps away from food.

It was clear that employees at both companies spend so much time at work that their cubicles are like second homes. I’ve never seen so many collections of Transformers toys, Pez dispensers, and bobbleheads in the workplace.

The Google campus was also remarkable for its size. Employees actually need bikes to get around, which explains the multiple bike stations located on its grounds where workers can borrow company bikes to take them to their next location.

In contrast to Google and Facebook, some of the other companies we visited seemed much more mature. In other words, I saw people over 30 working there.

VMware was one of those more grownup companies without any huge chalkboards (like at Facebook) or whiteboards (like Amazon). But while that may sound like a drawback, it was actually a very impressive company. It was cool to see how excited the employees are about working at such a fast growing and innovative company. After that visit, it’s on my list of places I might like to work.

We also stopped at Symantec, which also felt kind of grownup. They have a reflecting pool. Enough said. But kidding aside, it’s probably a great place for working parents because of its decent work-life balance. There were no sweatshop jokes here.

As for sightseeing, there isn’t much to see in Silicon Valley except for maybe the tech companies’ campuses. There were some neat Android statues at Google as well as a huge T-rex dinosaur model that came from a museum.

So that brought us full circle back to Boston where we visited several startups located throughout the city and saw that the tech industry is alive and well here.

Jumptap had a lot of cubicles, but was pretty normal compared to some of the quirky tech companies we had just visited on the West Coast. Skyhook was surprisingly intriguing in that it offers GPS without using actual GPS and is probably in your smartphone right now. They had pictures of their business as it has grown from its location in the founder’s house to the current posh office on Boston’s waterfront. I didn’t think I’d be all that interested in Skyhook, but left thinking that I might want to apply for a job there.

We also visited Google in Boston, which was the zaniest of all the Boston companies on our trek with dogs in many employees’ offices. At HubSpot, which was founded by two MIT alumni, we didn’t see rolling food carts everywhere, but they did have Slurpee (non-alcohol and alcohol versions available) and espresso machines as well as a refrigerator packed with beer for Friday night happy hours.

As a tech geek who is excited about this industry, the trek showed me the choices I have in terms of geography, but also the types of companies and cultures out there. There were places we visited where I don’t want to work, others where I would want to work—and I discovered some new companies that seem really interesting.

And with a background in finance, it was exciting to see that tech companies don’t necessarily care what field you come from. If you are intelligent and really want to work there, then these places have the opportunities. The hard part is picking the right one for you!

Kousha Bautista-Saeyan is a first-year MBA student at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Follow @

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