MIT Sloan Students Meet Bay Area Innovators Tackling Huge Problems

1/17/14

I’d heard a lot about Silicon Valley, but had lived and worked in Europe and Asia until I came to MIT Sloan School of Management. Passionate about bringing new technologies to market, I wanted to do an MBA program in the U.S. because, more than anywhere else, this is where taking risk is valued as a driver of change. That seems to be especially true in Silicon Valley, and I was eager to see it for myself.

Organizing our Technology Club’s annual Tech Trek to Silicon Valley, I planned visits to a mixture of hardware and software companies. I also requested that we meet with people from different functions, including product management, which is an area many MIT Sloan students are interested in these days.

First up was eBay Inc., which was eye opening for us because it’s so much more than just the site that everybody knows. From PayPal to eBay Now, the company has done an impressive job growing its different businesses. Its innovation group discussed the exciting work it’s doing in major cities, such as interactive “window shopping” with top fashion and consumer electronics brands. With eBay Now, you can order anything from your mobile phone and someone will immediately buy it and deliver it to you. There are plenty of opportunities for MBAs to innovate and make a real impact there.

Next we went to Apple where we met with MIT alumni in operations positions. It was great to hear about their day-to-day work. An alum in charge of work production for iPhone accessories discussed managing the production of massive numbers of units in factories across the world so that Apple can meet its huge demand. You could literally hear his phone constantly ticking, which was an audible signal for the flow of products being made.

He explained how any problem, technical or operational, would require their teams to fly over, assess the problem, and find counter-measures to ensure that consumer demand is met in time while respecting the company’s ethics. The size of these challenges is mind-blowing, but that’s why we’re at MIT. We want to tackle these types of huge problems.

Our third visit was to Cisco where we met with people in corporate strategy. Cisco is a leader in more than 15 product categories related to wireless, networks, and infrastructure, and recently announced at CES that it’s moving forward on the Internet of Things. An all-connected world is like a playground for Cisco. Our panelists were very excited to talk about how they are designing those future strategies. We signed confidentiality agreements, so I can’t say too much about it, but it was cool to see how the company has a team of MBAs assigned to different challenges. A lot of Sloan MBA students also come from consulting backgrounds, so this was definitely appealing for the group.

We started the next day at LinkedIn. It was fascinating to learn about the company’s strategy and how it leverages technology and data to serve its mission of creating economic opportunities worldwide. On top of a robust business model, it constantly integrates new functions and leverages data to gain insights on how to connect opportunities. It is now possible for the company to anticipate when someone will start looking for a job and make sure everything is aligned to maximize the matching of talent and skills. LinkedIn’s expansion strategy worldwide also was very interesting, as there are big challenges in tackling the different cultural approaches to a job search. With its young, vibrant and energy-filled environment, LinkedIn is definitely worth considering further.

Then we visited SanDisk, where we met the most senior panel of the week, which included chief financial officer Judy Bruner. You might think the memory and storage company is mainly focused on R&D and production, but there is so much more involved at all levels, from sales and product marketing to international operations and strategic partnerships. The panelists explained how the company leverages some of the teachings that MBAs learned in school by applying those methodologies to transform the company. The impressive track record from 2008 ($1B loss) to now ($1.5B profit in 2011) speaks for itself. Hardware companies are definitely still in the game, and SanDisk is an extremely well managed one. SanDisk felt like a great discovery.

Afterward, we headed to Facebook. The famous campus didn’t disappoint with its shops and open work spaces. It felt very trendy and techie with a strong emphasis on engineers, who comprise about 90% of the staff. The alumni we spoke with discussed their role in delivering impact at the global scale. Weekly hackathons are held to stimulate ideas throughout campus. The company’s strategy is strongly focused on growth, but there is room to take the lead on new ideas. The attitude seems to be: Do it, show it to your peers, and see if you can move it forward. While the company is big and has gone through an IPO, there is still room for innovators to add value.

On our final day, we visited Google and heard from a large panel of alumni. In an inspiring speech, MIT alumnus Jim Miller, VP of Operations, talked about the vision of Google for the decades to come, his insights on what he saw at CES this year, and the Google initiative on genomics. From artificial Intelligence to telecommunication infrastructures to robotics, the company is preparing the future. That surely makes it an exciting environment with unique possibilities to evolve and learn.

We concluded our trek back in San Francisco at Quantcast. I was impressed by how deeply the company has thought about the transformations of the advertisement industry and the technical means it has put behind that thinking. Its work is heavily data intensive (petabytes of data are generated each day to be analyzed with machine learning algorithms), but quite attractive for quant-savvy Sloanies.

After our Trek, our group was more interested than ever in working in the Bay Area. Great opportunities exist within these larger tech companies and there’s never been a better time to come to Silicon Valley.

Thomas Iljic is a first-year MBA student at the MIT Sloan School of Management, where he is vice president of the Technology Club. Follow @

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  • Adam

    Why don’t you actually visit some pre-public startups? All the named companies are way past their startup stage.

    • Thomas

      Good comment: pre-public startups arel the subject of a second Trek end of march

  • Christopher Noble

    When I saw “huge problem” in the title, I thought climate-change, natural-habitat loss, the collapse of inner cities in the Rust Belt, overpopulation, the growing gulf between the Haves and the Have-Nots. All of which have a technology angle. The “huge problem” that these big companies are concerned about is earnings growth. Not to be a curmudgeon, but the topic is “great opportunities” for young people choosing where to spend their working years.