Invention & Re-Invention: Newcomers Explain Silicon Valley’s Allure

It’s always good to see things through fresh eyes. If you’re part of the Bay Area tech community, you can take for granted the constant news about clever inventions, flush financing rounds, and intriguing jobs rising from this concentrated region of innovation.

My antidote to that ho-hum mood was talking to three of the 30 MBA students from the MIT Sloan School of Management who had just finished a tour called the “Silicon Valley Tech Trek,” an annual opportunity for students to check out one of the U.S. technology clusters where they might like to work.

There are Boston and Seattle tech treks too, and some of the MIT students had experienced those as well. After all, Boston, with its own dynamic tech community and world class universities such as MIT, has been holding on to more of the graduates who used to emigrate routinely to the Bay Area, says Brittany Greenfield, part of MIT’s MBA class of 2016.

But Greenfield, after visits to big companies including Google, Facebook, and Netflix, as well as smaller ones like San Francisco-based App Annie, has definite leanings for the location of her summer internship and first job post-graduation.

“I would absolutely love to end up in the Bay Area,” says Greenfield, who had already gained tech company work experience in Boston and in Australia before coming to MIT. Her two fellow Tech Trekkers, Rachit Parekh and Daniel Glogowski, also named the Bay area as their top geographic choice, if the decision were based solely on the region’s advantages and not on other factors such as family preferences.

“I think it’s just the sheer variety of opportunities and the energy,” says Parekh, a trained engineer and startup founder from India who came to MIT for exposure to the international business world. “In Seattle and Boston, the variety is much smaller.”

Now, to be fair, the weather has something to do with it. Boston can’t help it that its low temperatures were in the teens when Glogowski, a native of balmy Israel, arrived back at MIT after enjoying spring-like January days on the Bay Area trek. “I’ve started my campaign to convince my wife,” he says.

But the goals of the MIT trio have a lot more to do with how they see the future of tech evolving in the many years ahead of them in their careers.

Greenfield compares what she sees as “East Coast conservatism” with what she calls the Bay Area’s “irreverent attitude.”

“I mean that in the most positive way,” she says. On the East Coast, startups tend to be judiciously developed one step at a time, while Bay Area startups are encouraged to take risks, quick-start their projects, and seek customer feedback right away. That’s the innovation wellspring she hopes to tap into.

“You sort of want to go back to Mesopotamia and see that original stream that brought it all,” Greenfield says.

Greenfield also wants to pick up a second part of the Bay Area skill set—the ability of large companies such as Google and Apple to re-invent themselves continually, even though their first major growth spurts are well behind them.

These companies are part of a radical re-definition of the meaning of technology itself, she says. Google, founded as a “pure tech” search engine, is now a consumer service company with offerings such as the shopper’s delivery option Google Express, Greenfield says.

On the flip side, consumer businesses are becoming technology-centered companies, she says. The trek provided good examples: the students visited Walmart eCommerce in San Bruno and Los Gatos, CA-based Netflix, which started out putting DVDs in mailboxes and is now streaming videos on the Web.

Increasingly, consumers themselves are driving innovation because they expect technology to be part of all their activities, says Greenfield, 29.

Parekh noted this as well. He’s interested in the connectivity of non-computing devices to the Web, and its potential for industrial use. But it’s the consumer products, such as San Francisco-based Fitbit’s wearable exercise tracking devices, that are leading the charge in this area, he says.

“Typically, your industrial and large enterprises are at the back end of any new changes that happen,” Parekh says.

An attraction to startup employers was part of the buzz among students on the Silicon Valley trek, Parekh says.

“The attitude now is to be involved with whoever is going to be the next Google or the next Facebook,” Parekh says. This feeling was common in spite of the wow factor of big tech campuses studded with yoga studios and other amenities, such as Google’s site in Mountain View and Facebook’s location in Menlo Park.

Glogowski says that while the big companies can offer more resources to their employees, an individual can often make a bigger impact at a smaller company as part of a product development team with only a few members.

“At a big company, there may be less of a sense of ownership,” Glogowski says.

Parekh says he’s been struck by how easy it’s become in recent years to launch a startup “in your room, with just a credit card and a laptop.” He traces this to the market traction gained by companies like Google that can offer small businesses affordable services, such as e-mail and Web-based data storage, at low rates that only increase as the startup scales up.

“You can pay more as you grow,” Parekh says.

The MIT Sloan class of 2016 may have more opportunities and more freedom to take risks in their early careers than students who graduated into a much grimmer U.S. economy in the aftermath of the financial crisis in 2008, Greenfield says.

As students consider the rewards of helping a young company grow, tech giants are facing more difficulty attracting the best talent, Parekh says. That competition may be driving the proliferation of yoga studios, rock climbing walls, and other perks on Silicon Valley’s expanding corporate campuses, he says.

“Each of them has to keep up with the Joneses,” Parekh says.

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