It’s become an annual event. Nearly two-dozen Michigan Tech students spend a week in California’s Bay Area learning about companies, culture, and all things California. Selected from a competitive pool of almost one-hundred applicants, these twenty engineering and business students have a self-identified desire to learn more about what it means to be an entrepreneur, and what better place to see what it’s all about than in Silicon Valley. Supported by gifts from alums Rick Berquist and Tom Porter, and organized and supported by the School of Business and Economics, and the Center for Entrepreneurism in the Pavlis Honors College – these students spent the week at Meraki / Cisco, Autodesk, Porter Vineyard, Netflix, Apple, Ford, Brocade, and Clari as well as recent Michigan Tech alumni startup companies Skymind and Handshake. Facebook not only provided an afternoon of tours and discussion, but also hosted a student, corporate and alumni event on-site to wrap up the week. But don’t take our word for how successful and impactful the week was – read what our students had to say.
The anticipation for this trip made it difficult to focus in the weeks prior to leaving. I was so excited, mostly because of the things I had heard from students who had previously gone on the trip. Everyone I have talked to that has been a part of this trip in previous years has had nothing but positive comments and it seriously seemed like their mindset moving into careers had changed as a result of the trip. The time finally came.
Meraki definitely set the bar high for several days. We were shown around the workspaces and then had a Q&A with two engineers and an HR representative, which was fantastic. Meraki definitely came off as a 21st century, Silicon Valley company. What was even more unique was that the MTU graduate who spoke with us was a previous Team Leader for the Oculus-ASR Nanosatellite project that I am now the Project Manager for at Michigan Tech. Talk about networking!
Day 1 showed the variety of startups competing in the same space. From all ends of the spectrum, we viewed well-known leaders optimizing business models in a wide market to growing business accelerating growth over traditional models by leveraging open-source collaboration. Autodesk, an established leader in innovative engineering and design software showed the structure of Shanghai Tower, biomechanics of Nike shoes, and special effects and skin overlays of James Cameron’s Avatar were each accomplished using from the tools AutoDesk offers. As an added bonus, 3D printed projects, a driving simulation, and even interactive science fair project entertained us as we browsed the ever-changing gallery.
Rising in the space of deep learning intelligence is Michigan Tech alum Adam Gibson of SkyMind, navigating the chaos collaborating in an open-source software project for sales in analytics while managing a team worldwide. Inspired by the Terminator’s Skynet, his presence began on Youtube in Houghton, Michigan, testing different projects until they were both profitable and scalable. Now as a collaborator in university research, the intrigue of Fortune 500 companies, and joining in at the top-tier incubator Y Combinator, Adam has been doing much more than expected in building the presence of Skymind.
Skymind was something else completely. Adam Gibson left Michigan Tech, moved to Silicon Valley with a couple thousand dollars and a one-way plane ticket, and is now one of the world leaders in his field. His very small startup is based inside of Galvanize, a host for startups and big companies alike who need workspace and a collaborative, innovative environment. Adam took us up to the roof of his building and showed us an incredible view of San Francisco, while telling us that he will do everything in his power to get us all to move out to the Bay Area – an unbelievable gesture.
Our second day was spent visiting Garrett Lord at the growing company Handshake – originally started in Houghton. From their recent move in just a week before, the team was hard at work while Garrett and select members of his staff revealed the secret to the success of the business model. Now working with universities like Princeton, Villanova, Michigan, and Stanford the company is rapidly scaling and expanding into new spaces. Understanding the struggle of a multinational and all-inclusive company vision, the team has key metrics in place and features unveiling in the near future to improve the software.
Handshake, a company founded by a few MTU graduates who quickly realized their company had potential and moved to the Bay Area. The office sits atop Bank of America and has an unreal view of San Francisco, something I think every new college graduate dreams of. The employees are all relatively young and the environment is very Silicon Valley – everyone there was willing to do whatever it took to see the company succeed.
Tim Porter worked as an engineer for several years before finally moving to take over the vineyard that his father started and made so successful. He led us through the cellar tunnel carved through his very vineyard, where all of the fruit processing,fermenting, and storage is done. The incredible part was that they also had furnished tasting rooms inside the cellar. In the main dome tasting room, they had prepared wine and cheese/chocolate pairs for us all to try and then mingle with a pizza lunch to follow. They were extremely generous and it was a fantastic afternoon in Napa.
I wake up and my first thought is, ‘I am exhausted’. Day 1 and day 2 were amazing. I have a dozen new Linkedin contacts, and interest in companies I did not know existed 48 hours ago. Today can’t go any better. From the moment we walked in I could tell this place is serious about movies. Each of the rooms were named after movies or tv shows, not that shocking, but there was also extensive theming to match. We were in the Cowboy Bebop room right at the door there was a huge mural of the characters. Dianne, a Tech alumna was our host. She is the Director of Engineering Tools at Netflix. Her and three other engineers gave us a great understanding of how technology behind Netflix works. We got a pretty cool behind the scenes look into all that makes the streaming service work. We even got a little insight to the technical challenges in optimizing streaming quality for a wide variety of internet conditions and streaming platforms.
Netflix hosted us for breakfast and we discussed their jobs doing stream rate optimization, hardware integrations and expanding video streaming into different cultures and remote regions. The part I found most interesting was Netflix exceeded expectation in the viewing habits among different cultures. They found certain shows worldwide were strongly homogenous among viewers regardless of location and culture, something I’m sure anthropologists and sociologists alike would find fascinating. With the conversation never in a lull, the question and answer session scheduled for the intial part of our tour took the entirety of our time.
The next stop was 1 Infinity Loop. Michigan Tech grad Dan Lykowski was pretty cool. He works on the security stack for pretty much all Apple devices. He was humble, but it sounded like he has a pretty important position. According to Dan all of the positions at Apple come with a high level of responsibility. Even the interns are assigned specific task that play a direct role in ongoing development. There was very little we were allowed to see and even less Dan was allowed to tell us. Dan was able to get us passed the Apple security and inside the infinite loop. This is not small feat and was an absolutely glorious feeling! We got to stand on the same ground at as Steve Jobs. If I had a bucket list that would definitely be a check mark. I asked Dan to sign my Macbook Pro… He said no, but I had to try.
Seeing Infinite Loop and the Apple campus in person left me a bit star struck. Although we were only allowed in the main lobby and into the courtyard inside all of the main buildings, it was still an incredible experience. The MTU graduate who spoke with us told us all of the different projects he had been a part of and different release delays he was responsible for, which was pretty funny. We also walked right under Tim Cook’s office, which left several students a bit starry eyed.
Our last official stop of the day was the Ford, more specifically the Ford Research & Innovation Center. This Silicon Valley office is Ford’s stab at developing a young technology focused division within their cooperation. I did enjoy hearing the history and success the office has seen. Dave Kaminski was our host for the event, he is the Director of the Research & Innovation Center. He is another very successful tech alum. Ford chose Dave and his partner Dragos Maciuca to start this satellite office, whose focus is autonomous driving. We got a full tour of the faculty and even got a look at some of the development products. Spoiler alert, not all of them have four wheels.
Ford Research and Innovation Center was pretty incredible – although as a mechanical engineer I may have been a bit partial to them. It was very interesting to see all the different projects they were actively working on, including the autopilot or self-driving vehicles. We were led to their garage where they were bench marking the performance of the open source Tesla Model S for Ford’s vehicles, as well as to their driving simulator.
From the moment we sat down in the executive dining room, the staff at Brocade made it very clear that their intention is to change the world. In each part of our visit, Brocadians demonstrated a passion for revolutionizing the world’s network and creating success for their customers. Our tour began with a light yet impressive breakfast with the company’s CMO, Christine Heckart. She explained the company’s vision of global innovation for IP technology and answered any questions we had about their place in the network industry. Next was an open panel with four Brocade employees; two software engineering leaders, a university relations specialist, and the director of corporate affairs. After their introductions and a discussion of Brocade’s unique path to success, we were encouraged to ask the panelists any questions we had about their work and the company in general. Following our Q & A, we took a short tour of the facility and then enjoyed snacks, games, and mingling in the company game room.
This is not a trip for the weak. I said I was exhausted yesterday, but today is exponentially worse. This is our busiest day yet. I will say Brocade was the biggest shock of the trip. I knew a bit about the company before the trip. They are a huge communications company with products that include routers and switches optimized for data centers, campus environments, channel storage network fabrics; and network management software that spans physical and virtual devices. It’s pretty technical stuff, but pretty much, they keep the internet working. When we arrived they impressed me on so many levels. The office was defiantly more mature. We were greeted by their CMO Christine. She gave probably the best speech of the trip. She was extremely passionate and extremely knowledgeable about the industry. After talking with her we had a panel discussion with four employees, ranging from technology to recruiting. Again, they were all very knowledgeable about their positions. After the discussion we went on a tour of the campus which ended in the game room, I knew they had to be hiding it somewhere, it is Silicon Valley.
Brocade raised the bar originally set by Meraki, giving us a full breakfast in the Executive Conference Room and an introduction by Christine Heckart about her journey and role driving technology and innovation. We then had a panel discussion with the engineering director, senior manager of engineering, and university recruiter about their careers, everyday life at Brocade, and what Brocade is all about. Finally, they took us on a short tour of the facility and provided snacks for us in their game room – the bar had been officially raised.
Our visit with Google took us to the official Google Visitors’ Center, a museum dedicated to both the company’s achievements and the relaxed yet innovative working environment that they have become known for. The attraction is still a work in progress, however we were taken on a lovely tour by two MTU Alumni, and had a fun discussion with members of the Gmail and Google+ development staff. After posing for pictures in the Android garden and a quick trip to the Google shop, we went on our merry way.
Clari is an up-and-coming sales analytics company whose claim to fame is a powerful email analysis and sales forecasting tool whose intuitive dashboard interfaces seamlessly with the Salesforce CRM platform. What began as an informational meeting with company executives transformed into an inspirational story of one man’s hard work, perseverance, and the importance of mentorship in startup culture. Venkat Rangan, CTO of Clari worked through numerous startup companies, learning the secrets to success and forging connections with the foremost minds in the tech industry. He taught us that everybody has a valuable lesson to teach, that we must always adapt and learn from our experiences, and when in doubt, to trust our guts (even if it means jumping ship).
On our schedule was Brocade, the behind the scenes powerhouse; Google, the leading player in technology today; Clari, the rapidly expanding customer relationship management (CRM) software company; and Facebook, the most recent IPO looking to revolutionize the internet experience. Of these companies, I enjoyed Clari the most during the day as the CTO Venkat Rangan told us how he rose to the level of beginning a company in Silicon Valley. The free t-shirts, snacks and drinks the office provided were a bonus among the story and advice he was able to offer. Many people wouldn’t work for a startup because of the risk, but the culture and experience they offer are often overlooked in small, private companies like Clari.
Our final visit of the day was to the Facebook campus, and they had no shortage of excitement planned. After checking ourselves in through another of Silicon Valley’s famous security checkpoints, we were taken on a tour that was nothing short of incredible. The Facebook facility functions like a small city, with every building reflecting the idea of a perfect working environment. Restaurants and artwork lined the main walkway, while behind the scenes engineers and developers work tirelessly to optimize the services of the primary site as well as all of its acquisitions and side projects. After free ice cream, a few false Zuckerberg sightings, and a little fall of rain, we moved into a conference room to discuss the company’s data center operations and construction. Here we learned what Facebook is really all about, they are in business to connect and improve the world, and anybody with passion and talent has a place on their team, regardless if they’re a mechanical or electrical engineer, a business graduate, or even a microbiologist. To end the day, we all enjoyed food and drinks at our alumni mixer event, and had a golden opportunity to network with some of Michigan Tech’s elites and reflect on the entire week’s events alongside many of the people who made it possible.
All things considered, today was an incredible end to an unforgettable week.
And for the last stop on the trip, Facebook. The whole event was amazing. Like really really amazing. We went through the typical security frisk. We all had to show ID and pick up our guest passes to get in. Imagine a college campus, but everyone is a genius/closet nerd and everything is free. The Facebook campus is a fun place to be. Even as a tourist. There was little we could see as far as projects in development, but we got a great overview of projects from the data center team. Alex Johnson, Tech alum and director of stuff and things gave a great presentation about the data centers he helped design. These centers are pretty amazing. There was clearly a lot of thought on efficiency and innovation. The presentation from Alex shockingly involved no web development, not even a reference to computer science. Most people don’t realize the infrastructure required to run a website, especially one as large as Facebook. The data centers are critical to Facebook. They are what allow you to access you data anywhere. The takeaway, Facebook needs civil and power engineers as much as they need web developers. Keep this in mind when you are job searching. I left Facebook impressed. Somehow Facebook has mastered the concept of making things simple, thus inherently making them more efficient and more reliable. I love it.
Oh, and the alumni party. This was the grand finale. Everyone we met this week and the top alumni in the Bay Area all gathered in a meeting room at Facebook. Like the technical legend, behind the TCP protocol, the Pentium processors and the floppy disk, all in one room, all Tech alum. Keep in mind there were like 50 people in this room. Each of them with extremely impressive backgrounds. This experience made me even more proud to be a student at Tech and I am very confident that when I graduate I will accomplish great things.
Finally, the company so many of us were anticipating with great excitement, Facebook. We were greeted by Timur, a university recruiter, and taken into Hacker Square and through some of the buildings. It was raining, but most of us were so amazed at the expanse and beauty of the Facebook campus that we did not care. The campus has coffee shops, restaurants, ice cream parlors, a bike repair shop, a dentist, a bank, therapists, an arcade, and pretty much anything else you can imagine being on a college campus. The best part of it is that almost all of that is free for employees. Timur told us that he honestly felt like he was back in college when he stepped on campus for his first day on the job. He took us into the ice cream parlor so we could all have some free ice cream. We then wandered through some offices and into a conference room where two engineers met us for introductions and a presentation on Facebook Data Centers. Alex Johnson, whose wife showed us around Clari just an hour or two earlier, was one of the presenters. He and Paul, a Data Center Engineer for Facebook, described the need and the locations of some of their new data centers being built all over the world. We got contact information for those two, Timur, and another HR representative with invitations to email them without hesitation.
Last, but absolutely not least, was the Facebook alumni event hosted by Facebook that evening. We were in a small event room with food and drinks provided. I can honestly say that I will always remember that night as the night that made me decide I want to live and work in the Bay Area. I think I speak for all of the students on the trip when I say that we were star struck beyond belief speaking with Kanwal Rekhi, David House, and so many other successful MTU graduates. I even met a lady who worked on the stealth bomber for Northrop Grumman, which excited me particularly because of my interest in aerospace. I also met two current MTU graduate students who are interning at Tesla Motors, and they gave me all sorts of advice for applying and recommended I do so.
The Silicon Valley Experience trip was without a doubt the greatest trip and weeklong experience of my life. I met so many incredible and successful people, a lot of whom graduated from MTU, and made some very good friends along the way. I will forever be grateful for the MTU alum who donated to the school to help pay for this trip as well as to all of those who organized it. My mindset has changed greatly with respect to my career and where I want to be in a few years. This week has truly been one for the books.