Silicon Valley is unique. It is home to a culture of rapid innovation and fast failure, an exhaustive list of tech companies and legacies. Cambridge MBA Class of 2019 students invited Oxford Class of 2019/20 students to partner as Oxbridge for an exciting student led pre-MBA trek in Silicon Valley. After months of preparation across multiple continents and multiple time zones, 19 of us gathered in early August to participate in this life changing professional experience.
This article summarises highlights of our visits to Box Inc, KKR, Microsoft Garage, Google, IBM, Code Tenderloin and Slack, our experience and some takeaways from visiting the hosting companies.
Most of us arrived the Sunday before the trek week in order to meet our fellow attendees and to get to know each other before the trek. Where better to take San Francisco first-timers than across the iconic Golden Gate Bridge? A group of us met in the Marina for the first of what’s sure to be many coffees over the next year! We then rode across the Golden Gate Bridge just as Karl the fog began melting away.
The plan was to tackle Hawk Hill, which has a steep ascent but offers outstanding views. However, plans change, and at the end of the bridge, we evaluated comfort levels and split into two groups, one of which took a leisurely ride down to Sausalito and the other which committed to the aggressive Hawk Hill route. It was a great lesson in the importance of defining a plan, evaluating that plan, and having contingencies.
Later, we met up at a beer garden for a few well-earned drinks. We then kicked off the trek, setting expectations and aligning on logistics.
We started the day 1 in downtown Redwood City, where we visited Box Inc headquarters. Box is a leading cloud content management platform that enables organisations to accelerate business processes, power workplace collaboration, and protect their most valuable information and intellectual property.
After checking in, we were escorted to a conference room for a Q&A session with a Cambridge alumnus who works in product management. He gave us an overview of the roles and responsibilities of a product manager, the culture at Box, and the way of life in the Bay Area. Afterwards, we were given a tour of the building.
While the perks were plenty, it was the company culture that was most impressive. Box has a unique set of company values that unite the organisation: “Bring your __self to work”, GSD (“Get sh*t done”), and “Make your mom proud” were some of our favorites.
After our visit to Box, we headed to the financial district of San Francisco to visit KKR, a global investment firm that manages multiple alternative asset classes, including private equity, infrastructure, and real estate. Located on the 52nd floor, our conference room had some of the best views of the city. We all managed to snap a picture before two managing directors took the time to share lessons they have learned throughout their careers: “Don’t be an a**h*** to anyone because the world is smaller than you think” and “Go try something that makes you scared, at least you’ll learn a lot.”Most importantly, they mentioned that relationships are the greatest assets obtained in business school and advised us to invest more time on people and enhancing our soft skills alongside studying the books.
Oxbridge Alumni Society
We ended the evening with an informal happy hour with local Oxbridge alumni. We kicked off our industry networking with over 100 attendees (yes, the picture doesn’t do justice to how overwhelming the participation and interaction was) during this social. They wished us well and gave us sage advice going into the MBA program and thereafter coming to work in the Silicon Valley.
Our day 2 visits were outside the San Francisco downtown. We traveled to Sunnyvale and Mountain View for Microsoft Garage and Google. Unlike those in downtown, these companies were hidden away in the peaceful and tranquil suburbs of the upper South Bay.
We first arrived at Microsoft where a member of the Garage team gave us a tour of her lab. She explained that the lab, giving off a nostalgic classroom environment, is designed to spark creativity. While we toured the lab, we were introduced to a deeper concept of hacking. Hacking is identifying a current gap in an industry and filling it with solutions. At the hub of experimentation, Microsoft Garage promotes growth mindsets where teams build solutions for customers and give back to the community.
After the company introduction, we then proceeded to a bigger room for our Console to Cloud presentation, which was an opportunity for us to highlight our business perspective for Microsoft. It was truly exciting when we saw the room packed with Microsoft employees. The Oxbridge’s presentation on cloud gaming sparked many people’s interest.
This was a great start to the many presentations that lie ahead of our futures as MBA candidates. This experience also acted as a stepping stone to these future presentations and consulting projects by highlighting several valuable lessons about showcasing an idea. When consulting to any company, it is obvious that the company knows most about itself. Thus, relying on information available on the public domain only, scratches the surface of what one can say about the company. In the same vein, we realised the importance of discussing ideas with industry experts, utilising information sources provided by the company itself, and the need to practice for any and all questions that the company could throw at us. We must embody the company’s ‘modus operandi’ before presenting new ideas to any company. The experience at Microsoft Garage made that abundantly clear to many of us, a lesson we carry with immense gratitude and pride as we transition into our MBA candidacy.
A trip to California is not complete without a stop at In-N-Out Burger, one of our favorite dining experiences during this trek. With a tight schedule for company visits, we sometimes had limited time for lunch in between. Thankfully, we still managed to explore the restaurants’ “secret menu”, sit outside under the California sun, exchange ideas and thoughts from the previous company visits, and most importantly, get to know each other over delicious food.
Aside from focusing on our career development and broadening our business horizons, the Oxbridge group also had immersive dining experiences in the bay area. We tasted food from around the world, including pizza at the Italian town Sausalito across the Golden Gate Bridge, late night Ramen near Union Square in downtown SF, and spontaneous Korean BBQ in Mountain View.
Visiting the famous Google campus was unique. We felt that we were visiting a school rather than a company. People at Google were filled with youthful energy and the offices were designed to look like classrooms and campus buildings. Upon arrival, we were welcomed with Google gift bags. Of course, in sunny California, we weren’t going to miss the chance to put on our Google sunglasses!
Three members from different teams welcomed us at the door and gave us a company introduction. At Google, every team highlights three core tenets: 1) small tangible acts that are done routinely and carry value and meaning, 2) identifying your value, and 3) constantly promoting these characteristics. Google teams are always thinking 10X to focus their solutions on their users. Being prototype driven, each team has a unique growth mindset. The teams taught us to see failure as an opportunity to grow. “If you can’t afford the cost of failure, you can’t afford the cost of success,” words of wisdom from Google.
One of the key learnings was that “decisions are always made under uncertainty.” As MBA students, we should learn to take risks and become comfortable with ambiguity. We had 3 company visits planned for day 3 of the trek, all in the heart of San Francisco. For many of us who live in the suburbs, this was a great experience to walk between the skyrises sipping our early morning coffee, getting a taste of what it’s like working in the city.
Our first stop was at IBM, one of the most veteran IT companies in the world. We were greeted by a CJBS alumnus at the reception and headed to a large conference room. There, we met 3 more IBM employees from the product marketing and technical sales teams. First, a much enthusiastic and energetic member from the product marketing team walked us through how he enjoys mixing his passion for creativity with technology in bridging the gap between customer and IBM product line. He explained how Watson (an IBM flagship product) is used to harness more information from structured data.
Then the sales team walked us through IBM’s training programme for new sales hires, Summit Hub. They also spoke about hybrid roles within sales teams (mixing technical and sales skills), understanding that many of us have technical backgrounds going into the MBA. Lastly, they shared why they like working at IBM. Apart from enjoying having “people time” and constantly being able to work with the brightest minds, they also demonstrated how the company embodies constant learning through emerging technology, a process that sustains their love for the IBM vision.
Immediately after IBM, we headed over to Code Tenderloin, a charitable organisation that teaches programming to underprivileged individuals. We were told most of the members are homeless and live around Silicon Valley. This visit brought a breath of fresh air to our tech heavy visits for the past couple of days. It was humbling to sit at a classroom full of eager learners of all ages who were dreaming for a better future. Some of the volunteers and students spoke about their experience and what this institution means to them. They expressed how accomplished individuals like us can contribute immense value by volunteering to, not just teach coding, but also to help them with CV writing, interviewing, pitching, teaching workplace manners and, most importantly, connecting them with job placements. The significance of this statement is greatly emphasised by the fact that San Francisco hosts one of the largest populations of homeless people in the US despite also housing over 300 tech companies. The gap is often invisible to the professionals walking among the city high rises, so it is experiences like our visit to Code Tenderloin that grounds us and pulls us back to reality.
Our last company visit was to Slack. This was one of the nicest aesthetically designed offices in our visit to San Francisco. Located in the heart of San Francisco adjacent to the Salesforce Tower, most of us daydreamed wanting to work here just for the view of the Salesforce living roof, coffee, and snacks displayed all around every floor. We actually saw more themed lounge areas than actual office cubicles. One mezzanine floor even had been designed as a home living room with couches and a 8-seat dining table.
After our fascinating tour of the Slack office we sat with a member of the product marketing team, a recruiter, and three product managers of the company. The recruiter explained to us the hiring process, internship opportunities for MBAs, and the structure of the internship programme. Then a member of the product marketing team walked us through many features of Slack, the very app we used to plan the trek. We even got a good taste of how “Slack uses Slack.” The PMs, who themselves were MBA graduates, spoke about how their MBA helped them navigate the ambiguity and self-confidence challenges that exist in the competitive nature of the tech and business industry. We were enlightened by this quote in particular: “We only experience 0.000001% of the world, yet that shapes over 80% of our perspective and decisions. That means we will never know everything, so don’t act like you do.” These PMs largely talked about positive company culture, their own MBA experience and what it means to take initiatives in every aspect of their job to be a successful PM.
Takeaways and lessons learnt.
Most of us have stayed in the same industry in our entire careers. This trek was very enlightening because it enabled us to dive into the heart of the tech industry and its culture, to expand our own perspectives of its growth over the past several decades. It sparked a curiosity in us to continue to explore other industries and reflect on the kinds of work cultures that are right for each of us. We’re ultimately most grateful to be part of this trek because of the wonderful people we met. We had an opportunity to meet and bond with very bright incoming MBAs from Cambridge, who all embody qualities we admire. We are a diverse group with different backgrounds yet have so much in common. The time we’ve spent together highlights the transformative nature of the Cambridge MBA programme. It is easy to see how spending time with people with such unique perspectives and fluid personalities, will ultimately lead to formative change during the period of a year. Just three days together has already demonstrated the truth of this process. All in all, we’re very excited for what’s to come and the Silicon Valley trek gave us a taste of that.
As for the lessons we learned from the organisations we visited, we are better individuals for the insightful life and career advice that the professionals we met with were so kind to offer. Although some of the advice was difficult to hear at times, it is apparent that the harshest lessons are the most transformative. This is a truth that we expect to experience in full force as we dive into the heart of the Cambridge MBA programme.
We thank all those of you who participated in this trek. Each one of us contributed in such a unique way to make this a successful learning experience. See you in school!