Saturday, February 24, 2007

Silicon Valley road show: quick observations

Thursday night, I flew down to Silicon Valley for a whirlwind company tour with a group of classmates. Bryan Tomlinson, who coordinates employer relations at our career center, did a great job organizing the whole event.

The fun company

Our day started off with a quick tour of the Yahoo! campus, followed by a presentation and Q&A session. I was struck by how friendly the campus felt: bright yellow colors are everywhere, both inside and out. I found the employees who spoke with us incredibly funny. At one point the recruiter thanked me for constantly laughing during her presentation. Always the jovial one, that's me.

One way they conveyed the Yahoo! culture to us was through a "sucks list": stuff that they're not about:
  • Decaf coffee
  • Bad grammar
  • "Too big for your britches" attitude
  • Early meetings
  • Formality (did I mention that we felt self-conscious in our suits and ties?
I left Yahoo! feeling quite excited about the company; I definitely plan on applying for an internship there. Out of the three companies we visited that day, I personally felt the closest fit with Yahoo!. I like the focus on unique user experiences, the refreshingly humor-friendly culture, and the nurturing environment.

Serious secrets

I never thought of Apple as a serious company, but compared with Yahoo! and Google, Apple is serious indeed. From the people to the architecture, there's much less wackiness at Apple. But still, I got the impression that it's an amazing place to work for. Jo Lawson, UW MBA '00, gave us an informative presentation on her experience there in small business marketing.

Both Jo and Gary Wipfler (Apple treasurer, also a UW alum), mentioned more than once that secrecy plays a key role in Apple company culture. As the recent stories about the iPhone attest, Apple's competitive advantage depends on certain employees keeping secrets: from their family, friends, and other employees. While these communication restrictions can be taxing on everyone, the payoff is huge: jaw-droppingly innovative products.

The center of the universe (for now)

Simply put, Google exceeded my expectations. It's like Disneyland for grownups -- very, very smart grownups. The architecture and landscaping really present a feast for the eyes. Micro-kitchens are spaced throughout the campus, none too far from the next, and they pipe out the most amazing odors of delicious food. Our tour guide, Vicky Wang, (also a UW alum) enthusiastically explained that Google hires top-notch chefs from the region, and, as is widely known, the ingredients are largely organic and locally-sourced.

The feeling I got at Google is that everyone there is always "on" -- everything is in a state of flux, and to fit in there, you should be ok with that. Nay, you should thrive on chaos. It seems like a truly fun, challenging place to be, but it's not for everyone. I talked with three employees there, and I got a similar feeling from them that I got from employees at back in 1999 (when Amazon stock was sky-high): we are at the center of the universe right now. It's an intoxicating feeling, but it never lasts forever.

Could I see myself at Google? Certainly, I'd love to intern there. I confess, though, that it's competitive to the point of being a bit intimidating. Our hosts described how many of their employees are former CEOs, and how, upon arriving at Google, they gladly accept mid-level management positions.

The reception

After the Google visit, we headed to Nola for a reception with UW MBA alumni. I had a great chat with Beth Gorell, UW MBA '86, who shared the story of her career. Later, my old college friend Doug swung by with his wife. Doug works in the area at eHealthInsurance and I crashed at his place that night.

Visa? Visa?

Alright, so we didn't visit Alaska Airlines, but most of us flew down on an Alaska flight. I must say, I found it very odd when a flight attendant gave an announcement that was essentially an ad for the Alaska Airlines Visa card. Clearly the flight attendant hated doing this; I could hear the annoyance in her voice.

Another flight attendant walked down the aisle with Visa cards in her hand, waving them and saying "Visa? Visa?" as if she were offering us peanuts. How strange! She was walking really quickly and of course no one was interested.

I can understand the cost-based argument that motivates Alaska to ask its flight attendants to do this sort of marketing work. There's a problem, however, with using your firm's employees to advertise for you on the cheap (or for free) -- they might not, um, want to. And if they're unenthused about the whole thing (who can blame them?), those feelings show through. The real risk to Alaska here is of its employees reducing the brand equity of its Visa card by creating negative associations in customers' minds. For me, certainly, this is now the case.

Final thoughts

  • Walk around in a Silicon Valley company in full formal attire, and you'll receive plenty of inquisitive stares.
  • While you can learn a lot about a company by reading about it, you need to physically visit the company to get a real taste of its culture.



Vanessa said...

Sounds like you had an awesome trip! Almost makes me want to switch to commerce... jk.

Jonathan said...

Ah, you can always come back later (10 years later, in my case), and do an MBA...