Leslie Ramey, MBA ’20, and Braden Zoet, MBA ’20, wrote this for the Olin Blog.
Curious minds and incredible opportunities: These were the two ingredients that made the Silicon Valley Tech Trek an exciting learning experience for 17 MBA students from Washington University’s Olin Business School in early November.
Through the planning of Olin Technology Club President Maitrayee Goswami and the Weston Career Center’s Allison Dietz and Gregory Hutchings, the group was able to visit seven companies over two days and have meaningful engagement with WashU alumni in the San Francisco Bay Area.
We began our first day of the trek with a visit to Cisco’s impressive headquarters in San Jose, where we were hosted by Olin alumnus Rick Butler, who is the senior director of sales compensation COE. Cisco, one of the original Silicon Valley companies, was founded in 1984 by two Stanford students. The company’s vision to help “change the way the world works, lives, plays, and learns” undoubtedly remains the guiding force behind its continued innovation.
While Cisco has historically been known for its hardware products, the company is increasingly moving toward software solutions. We had the privilege of walking through some fascinating real-world applications of Cisco solutions, like smart cities that use “internet of things” technology to monitor and manage common community issues like parking, law enforcement, and school safety.
Learning about the innovative ways that Cisco is using technology to connect and change the world was both instructive and inspiring.
Our next destination that morning was PayPal headquarters, where we spent time at PayPal’s Innovation Showcase center, an interactive way to experience its online payment solutions and learn about their business model. As a platform that facilitates transactions between merchants and consumers, PayPal focuses on acting as a security specialist for transactions.
Jim Van Over (marketing specialist) and Michael Champlin (manager innovation showcase) provided fascinating insights into the important value PayPal provides merchants and consumers through its risk, fraud, and security systems.
We also enjoyed an engaging session with a panel of PayPal employees—including Megan Harvey (university programs, program manager), Ben Cork (software engineer), Mike Todasco (director of innovation), and Tomer Schwartz (product manager)—discussing topics like the PayPal Innovation Lab, the role of product managers at the company, and employee development opportunities.
At Google’s corporate headquarters in Mountain View, we were hosted by recent WashU grad Omar Abdelaziz, an associate product manager in the Google Maps team. After being treated to an inviting group lunch on-site, the group participated in a Q&A session with Abdelaziz and colleagues Claudia Freeman (associate account analyst), Lola Idowu (program manager, Google Cloud), and Shane Carr (software engineer).
The conversation revealed Google’s culture of “defaulting to open” that promotes transparency and information sharing and also allows “Googlers” to bring their whole selves to work. It was fascinating to learn that while 80 percent of an employee’s time is spent on his or her job responsibilities, employees are encouraged to spend the remaining 20 percent on passion projects.
Many Google products have come from the “20 percent” initiatives. These projects are also fostered through Area 120, Google’s incubator, which provides resources and investment for employee startup ideas. Our engagement with Google highlighted the company’s continued commitment toward growth and development of talent internally, while always focusing on innovating for the future.
Our final company visit of the day was at HP headquarters in Palo Alto. Olin MBA alum MaryKate Mahoney, VR program lead in healthcare products, greeted our group and joined us as received a guided tour of the HP Customer Welcome Center and interacted with several HP employees.
The center provides an immersive way to experience HP’s latest technology, from modern office and home products to production-grade 3D printers. We also enjoyed a step back in time as MaryKate showed us the offices of founders Dave Packard and Bill Hewlett, completely preserved in their original decor.
After our tour, we were joined by other HP employees including alumna Lucy Yeung (senior manager) for a Q&A session to hear more about the culture, leadership and life at HP. We learned how HP’s vision to create technology that makes life better for everyone, everywhere, for every person, every organization, and every community worldwide, has shaped the company’s focus on its own reinvention.
We ended the day in great company with a WashU networking happy hour, held at The Patio in Palo Alto. Over the course of the evening, students and alumni shared food, drinks, and fun conversations that helped form new connections.
We began our second day in downtown San Francisco, where we had the distinct pleasure of waking up to beautiful weather that made our time spent downtown even more enjoyable.
Our first stop was Uber Technologies, where we were welcomed by WashU alumna Kirsten Miller, senior operations manager, compliance. This was a unique visit because Uber will soon be focusing on MBA-specific internships. We had the opportunity to engage with University Recruiter Matt Garcia, who asked our group about the factors that drive us as MBAs, and qualities we look for in our internship programs.
We found it exciting to share our personal insights and inspirations in an effort to help Uber establish a comprehensive and competitive MBA internship program.
Following that conversation, we were joined by WashU alumni Courtney Windler, head of US and Canada eater operations and David Dreyfus, strategy and planning at Uber Freight. Our group discussed Uber’s latest initiatives, its culture, and how success is measured on a regular basis.
The conversation reiterated a common theme across many firms we visited, i.e. the importance of learning how to thrive in ambiguity. Our discussion continued over a delicious lunch at Uber’s headquarters, which provides employees with a variety of freshly cooked meals and drinks.
After wrapping up our meal at Uber, we moved just a few floors up to Square’s headquarters. We began with a tour of Square’s expansive, minimal and aesthetically appealing offices, which included a discussion on Square’s early history. Did you know that it began as a startup in St. Louis?
At Square, we met with WashU alumna Sami Rosenthal, program manager, who spoke with us about the importance of “customer success” and shared how the company’s vision of economic empowerment constantly remains top-of-mind for all Square employees. Two university recruiters also discussed opportunities and challenges of working in fintech.
Our last visit was to Salesforce, where we had the opportunity to visit the Ohana Floor at the top of the city’s tallest tower. At an impressive 1,070 feet high, we enjoyed 360-degree panoramic views of the city and bay. To add even more excitement to the occasion, Marc Benioff, founder, chairman, and co-CEO of Salesforce visited the floor during our time there. While we didn’t quite have the opportunity to network with him, it was still fun to get a passing glimpse of one of the world’s most successful tech entrepreneurs.
After descending 61 stories to reach the ground floor, we had the chance to go out and explore San Francisco. Because many of us had never been to the city before, it was our opportunity to visit a few of the city’s highlights before returning home to St. Louis, including Fisherman’s Wharf, Ghirardelli Square, Lombard Street, and Pier 39.
Our trip served as a stimulating opportunity for us to experience first-hand, the distinctive culture and penchant for disruption found at many tech firms and startups in the Bay Area and their influence around the globe. The trek ignited our collective excitement as many of us look to transition into or stay within high tech, following the completion of our MBAs at Olin.
It also proved to be a friendly reminder of the innovation driven by these companies and the Olin graduates who work there, who make these innovations possible. As we boarded the plane to return home to St. Louis, many of us were already enthusiastically discussing next year’s Tech Trek. We hope you’ll join!