Ten Companies in Three Days: MIT Sloan’s Tech Trek Gives Students an Insider’s View of Silicon Valley
[Editor’s note: The Technology Club at MIT’s Sloan School of Management organizes an annual student trip to Silicon Valley to tour top technology companies. Xconomy traditionally invites one Sloan student each year to blog about the experience.]
I’ve always been interested in technology, but after working on reconstruction projects in Afghanistan, I decided to make a career out of it. Seeing the impact first-hand that technology can make on an entire country really sealed the deal.
Now that I’m a first-year MBA student at MIT Sloan, I’m getting closer to that goal, and was excited to participate in our Technology Club’s Silicon Valley Trek. I wanted to learn more about the different types of tech companies out there and see where I might fit in. Not having been to this area before, I was looking forward to seeing some of the behemoths like Apple and Google as well as some (relatively) smaller companies like Yammer and Palantir.
We began our trek at Yammer, which is creating social networks for companies. I was struck by how it seems to have retained its own vibe despite being acquired last summer by Microsoft. I was expecting a satellite of a larger corporation, but instead it had a hip, young startup feel. The employees were young and casually dressed, and our presentation took place in the company’s yoga room. Perhaps it’s because I’m from the East Coast, but I’ve never had a meeting in a yoga room before.
Next, we visited the video game company GREE in San Francisco. Given that the company is based in Japan, I expected a tiny office, but it was surprisingly large. Office activity buzzed around rows and rows of designers diligently drawing graphics for new games. The presentation at GREE focused on what is happening in the videogame space. They explained how the industry has moved from a sole focus on serious gamers to now include more casual gamers. They also were surprisingly data oriented in terms of how they figure out what works and what doesn’t. It’s an iterative process to design a videogame. While the company didn’t have a yoga room, it did have a quintessential tech company lunch, which seemed to be a daily event. Joining them for lunch, I literally had my first taste of SV eating.
After lunch, we headed over to Google. The campus is huge and “Googly.” We entered through a courtyard filled with busts of famous artists, scientists and philosophers. When asked what this was all about, our guide explained how the company is innovation-centric and celebrates these types of people. Listening to the presenters, I couldn’t help but notice how excited employees seemed to be about Google. I knew my wife loved her job at Google, but it became clear to me that just about everyone loves their job at Google. And this level of enthusiasm wasn’t isolated to Google, as we saw it at many of the tech companies we visited. Is there something in the water that makes people in SV love their jobs or are these just cool places to work?
Our final stop of the day was Palantir, which also was the only privately held company on our trek. Palantir’s software makes organizations’ private data —much of which is unstructured and disorganized to the point of uselessness —accessible and useful. The security of the office indicated how seriously they take their clients’ information, as we had to show ID just to get in the front door and did not get to see much of the office beyond, but it seemed like a very interesting company. It’s been named one of the top startups to watch, and it does a lot of work for the U.S. government, which seems like a potential match for my background so I’ll definitely be watching them.
The next day, we started out at Intel. This was one of the older companies we visited and had a more traditional “corporate” feel. They gave a great presentation about the industry’s adaptation to mobile devices, but what also captured my attention was the information about Intel’s rotational program. MBA’s are particularly interested in these kinds of programs, which offer us a chance to gain valuable experience in multiple functions and are more typical of established companies than even the larger tech companies.
After Intel, we visited Facebook, which felt and looked like a college campus fit for tech’s youngest titan. There was more than one graffiti-filled wall, and the company provides bikes so employees can get around its very own boulevard. Given how significant the company is, I was somewhat taken aback when our presenter reminded us that Facebook has only 4,800 employees (compared to Google’s 37,000, not counting Motorola). Facebook seemed like a hip, fun place to work. Part of me hoped that we’d catch a glimpse of Mark Zuckerberg during the visit, but no such luck.
That afternoon, we visited Apple’s beautifully manicured campus. It was the corporate campus version of an Apple product: beautifully minimalist and pleasant. In comparison to Facebook, where everyone appeared to be right out of college, the employees at Apple seemed more like mid-career professionals. And they all seemed to live and breathe Apple products, expressing great commitment to the company. Like Intel, it seemed more like a traditional company.
We began our final day at Intuit. I hadn’t realized how much of people’s finances run through Intuit until our presentation, but the numbers were impressive. Since it was founded in the 1980s, it has grown well beyond a startup and feels more like a traditional company. In fact, the culture seemed quite similar to Intel.
We concluded our day at LinkedIn, which has an awesome music studio for employees, and eBay. We happened to visit LinkedIn on the day it reached its 200 millionth user so it was neat to see how excited everyone was by that milestone. It was also cool to see behind the scenes of a site that is known for its robust method of making money. It was clear that the employees are very confident in the company and its future.
The last stop was eBay, which has really turned around in the last few years and is doing interesting things in retail. I was very impressed by their vision of merging brick-and-mortar and e-commerce in ways that allow consumers and merchants to find each other better. Unlike other e-commerce websites, eBay sees its relationship with brick-and-mortars as a partnership rather than a competition, and that is shaping some of the exciting things they are doing in mobile.
Our three-day trek was a great introduction to technology firms in Silicon Valley and the Bay area. When else could I ever see 10 companies from the inside and get a sense of their innovation cultures? I’m still in my first year and have time to continue exploring options, but this trek confirmed my goal of pursuing a career in this industry.