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February 1, 2016

Opinion: MBA students make a Tech Trek to the NW

Special to the Journal

Del Vecchio

Prior to MIT Sloan's Tech Trek to Seattle, I was only peripherally familiar with the city's major tourist attractions, employers and weather patterns, so I was excited to see the city in person for the first time.

Having spent the previous four years in Denver, it sounded like a place with a similar urban lifestyle, access to the great outdoors, and tech community. As I am planning to transition from the energy sector to tech, I ultimately wanted to know if I could see myself relocating from Boston to the Pacific Northwest.

Making my way from the airport terminal to the Link light rail, I was admittedly surprised to see snow falling in Seattle. I wasn't perturbed by the snow so much as the fact that I had only packed a raincoat for my week on the West Coast. Thankfully, the snow eventually turned to rain, but the rain continued for the entirety of our visit.

I was repeatedly assured, however, that the picturesque Seattle summer makes up for the remaining months' ongoing precipitation.

We spent our first afternoon touring the Seattle sights — the Farmers Market, gum wall, Chihuly Museum — and began the trek the following morning.

Our agenda included visits to Tableau, Amazon, Disney Interactive and Microsoft. All of those companies had hosted MIT Sloan MBA students on past treks except for Tableau, which students had previously visited at its location in San Francisco. I was excited to see these companies' campuses in person, get a sense of their cultures and learn about career opportunities for MBA students.

We began at Tableau, which has several buildings in Fremont, a neighborhood set apart by the low-standing warehouse architecture, community feel and the Fremont Troll. Tableau focuses on data visualization software, and the employees we interacted with seemed truly passionate about the company's mission. Having spent my career as an engineer at a firm with 30 employees, Tableau's 3,500-person workforce is orders of magnitude larger, but it felt significantly smaller both in the way that individuals interacted with each other and how they communicated Tableau's values and vision. My only disappointment was that the company does not have a formal MBA internship program. Nonetheless, I plan to keep a close eye on the website's career listings.

It was interesting to contrast our experience at Tableau with the tremendous size of Amazon, the next stop on our tour. Amazon comprises many high-rise buildings on an urban campus in downtown Seattle, with more on the way. Our visit included a trip to Amazon's recently opened brick-and-mortar bookstore, the concept of which I find fascinating. The bookstore is cozy and thoughtfully curated, although the clean lines and sleek design reminded me more of an Apple store than my neighborhood bookstore. It was great to finally meet Alexa, the artificial intelligence packaged within the Echo, which was prominently displayed alongside Amazon's other hardware. She even recommended my next book.

What struck me the most about Amazon was not the organizational adherence to the company's 14 leadership principles or the incredible diversity of businesses under the Amazon umbrella (both are unique in their own right), but rather the sheer number of employees required to maintain its growing operations.

With 24,000 employees in Washington and more than 220,000 globally, it makes sense that not everyone at the corporate headquarters knows each other by name. Nonetheless, I was surprised when the MIT Sloan alumni who paneled our discussion appeared to meet for the first time. For students who believe they'd thrive at a data-driven organization unafraid to experiment at incredible scale, it is encouraging to know that the company's formal MBA internship is robust.

The next day, we began at Disney Interactive, which focuses on technologies across a variety of Disney organizations from the theme park experience to ESPN to toys. We learned about the company's two-year rotational program where MBAs work on a diversity of technology projects as well as an accompanying summer internship program.

It was difficult to discern too much about the company's corporate culture from the presentation, although it was clear that resources at its disposal are vast, and many of them are targeted at continuing to incorporate cutting-edge technology into the organization's DNA. For lifelong Disney fans, it might be a dream post-MBA experience. For others, it could be an enticing opportunity to gain exposure to various facets of the organization's truly global footprint.

Our final stop on the Seattle Tech Trek was Microsoft's massive campus in Redmond. We spent the majority of the afternoon in the building dedicated to recruiting. Although there's no slide in the lobby, there are myriad Microsoft toys on display to entertain visiting guests while they wait. During our visit, we met a number of MIT Sloan alumni who now work in various parts of the organization and who shared their experiences across the organization's recent cultural shift. It was exciting to hear from alumni who have transitioned from non-technical backgrounds into incredibly technical post-MBA careers, as many of my classmates hope to do.

It may not be the norm, but even at Microsoft it's a distinct possibility.

Despite the rain and snow, Seattle is most definitely a city where I can see myself continuing my career after MIT Sloan. If you're looking to start your tech career in a vibrant city with a mature tech culture that isn't too far from the water, mountains or the office, this may be a good place to call home.

Nick Del Vecchio is a first-year MBA student at MIT's Sloan School of Management. A Massachusetts native, he formerly worked as an energy engineer for EME Group in New York City and Denver.

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