From Airbnb to Uber: An MIT Sloan Tour of Bay Area Tech

Opinion

I’ve always been curious about the West Coast, especially San Francisco and Silicon Valley. Growing up in India and then working in the oil & gas industry in Latin America and Texas, I didn’t have much opportunity (or reason) to visit the Bay Area.

Now that I’m an MBA student at MIT Sloan, I want to explore the tech sector as a possible career path. So when I heard about the annual “Tech Trek” to San Francisco and Silicon Valley, I jumped at the chance. Not only could I finally check out the West Coast, I also could check out tech companies – including several that don’t recruit on the MIT campus – and see if they might be a good fit for me.

Throughout the week, our group of 30 MBA students visited a mix of large and mid-sized companies in the hardware, software, and consulting areas. While they were all quite different, a common theme seemed to be an appreciation for being “scrappy.” In reality, some companies were scrappier than others, but it’s interesting that most tech companies embrace the concept of “all hands on deck” these days, especially since many have incredibly high valuations and in theory could afford an army of people in different functions.

We started our trek at LinkedIn, which is now a large established company. When I think about LinkedIn, I only think about its core functionality of providing a business network, so I was really interested to learn what else it has in store for the future. The presenters talked about the company’s exciting plans to expand in new directions and geographies. In particular, it is moving toward an analytics focus to make all that data it collects more useful for subscribers.

Moving on to Apple, my biggest impression was of its strong culture. We heard from several employees at various stages in their careers, several of whom were MIT Sloan alumni. They all shared an intensity and drive that I found remarkable. If your personality and ambitions align with those of the company, this could be a great place to develop your career.

VMware was a particularly interesting visit, as it does not have consumer-facing products. Many people on our trek weren’t from a tech background and were very curious to learn more about what this company does. Also, Dell had recently announced its intention to acquire VMware’s parent company, EMC, so we wanted to know how this news might impact the environment. Upon arrival, we were very warmly received by several MIT Sloan alumni who discussed their career trajectories. They did a great job explaining what the company does and the roles of MBAs at the organization. It was useful to hear that the company doesn’t require a specific degree to become a product manager (PM). Rather, the company values past experience and doesn’t provide a cookie cutter career path for everyone. As for the merger, they said it’s been business as usual on their end.

Next up was Walmart eCommerce. I was expecting this to feel pretty corporate, given Walmart’s size and relative age, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. The e-commerce division is relatively new and the CFO we met showed as much enthusiasm for his job as any 20-something at a startup. The division was created to keep Walmart competitive with the likes of Amazon, and the employees have immense responsibility. They appreciate how they are helping one of the largest retailers in the U.S. move onto a new platform that can generate billions of dollars in business and impact millions of consumers.

Heading over to Google, I was really curious to see its famous campus. Like many others, I had watched the movie “The Internship,” which, regardless of its cinematic merits, did paint an image of Google’s campus as a sort of tech Disneyland. It was fun to see its indoor slide (although we didn’t see anyone actually using it), unique sculptures, and lots of open spaces for collaboration.

The people we met seemed very engaged and driven by innovation. They also appeared to have some fluidity in their roles, as many talked about having previously worked in different functions and on different products. It was notable how employees have a clear sense of what the overall company is doing rather than just a division-centric view of their own area. As for recruiting insight, we learned that a computer science degree or relevant experience is nonnegotiable for PM roles. I understood their point of view; since the products are so heavily technical, it is important for an incoming PM to be able to understand the code and gain credibility with engineers.

While it was hard to imagine an even bigger campus than Google, Facebook showed us what that looks like. Having taken over the former Sun Microsystems campus, Facebook is more like a mini-township. We also saw some of the strictest security at Facebook with company escorts accompanying us to the bathroom. This was oddly reassuring, as it showed how seriously they take the security of our personal data.

As for the presentation, we learned what lies beyond finding high school friends and “liking” posts. Facebook is much more than a social network; it’s really more of a big data company. It was interesting to learn about its focus on advertising and growth plans. A helpful takeaway for our group was that while the PM role is often the one most coveted by MBAs, we can add a lot of value in other roles. The presenters explained how Facebook is now a very large business and needs MBAs to strategize how to grow. We can make a significant impact in the strategy area even without a technical background.

Our visit to the tech consulting firm PwC was another good reminder of the different ways MBAs can add value. The presenters discussed overall tech trends like data security and the public cloud, and how consulting provides a great opportunity for MBAs to work on a variety of issues in the industry. While working in a tech company can be rewarding in terms of building products and taking ownership, working as a tech consultant can give you that big-picture view of the market and competitors. That can be immensely valuable in determining the fate of a company.

For the last day of the trek, we moved from the Valley to San Francisco. At Uber, presenters explained how the fast-growing company has more of a startup feel, as roles aren’t strictly defined. They look for people who can go out there and hustle. The vibe is clearly intense and they make no bones about that. I was really impressed by the people and their commitment to the company. A very helpful takeaway was information about MBA internship opportunities in community operations. What’s more, they even gave us the chance to submit our resumes that same day if we were interested.

Airbnb took the prize for the most magnificent office. It’s not a campus, but rather several floors in a city building. However, it’s the most beautifully designed space I’ve ever seen, with conference rooms designed based on properties around the world. Also noticeable was the lack of private offices. Instead there are conference rooms and open work spaces. Airbnb was voted one of the best places to work in 2016 by Glassdoor, but it was disappointing to learn that the company is not currently hiring a lot of MBAs. Nevertheless, we were heartened by the fact that they are looking for people with analytics skills and design capabilities, so MBAs with experience in either area could join in those roles.

Fitbit provided a positive end to the trek when we learned that it is beginning to hire MBA interns for the first time. We had an hour-long discussion with a PM about the company and MBA roles.

Overall, I gained a good sense of the value proposition of these companies as well as whether I would fit into their cultures. I also learned that analytics is the future, everyone appreciates scrappiness, and there are multiple ways for MBAs to contribute to the tech sector. I returned to Boston excited about the possibility of pursuing a tech career.

Nilanjana (“Nila”) Bhattacharyya is a first-year MBA student at the MIT Sloan School of Management. She is a former field engineer at Schlumberger with degrees in computer science and physics. Follow @MITSloan

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