Commentary: An MBA’s take on Seattle’s tech scene

Photo via Kevin Lisota

Photo via Kevin Lisota

Even before coming to Seattle for the first time on MIT Sloan’s Tech Trek, I had a feeling that I’d like this place. I’d heard how it’s laid back and outdoorsy. Yeah, rainy weather, but I’d also heard how friendly everyone is. Having just returned from our visit, I can say that the city lived up to its reputation. I really liked the vibe.

We visited three big tech companies on our visit: Amazon, Microsoft and Groupon. They had all given formal presentations on MIT’s campus and are always in the news, so we were all pretty well-informed about them. Visiting on their home turf, however, gave us a unique opportunity to observe and experience their culture, get a feel for the environment, and ask more probing questions. We also visited the venture capital firm Madrona Venture Group, which hosted a startup panel discussion.

Our first stop was Microsoft. We’d heard about its giant campus, but it was incredible to experience the scale of it in person. We started with a tour of a few buildings, the cafeteria and a full-size soccer field for employees. We met with MIT Sloan alumni for a discussion about what it’s like to work there. Collaboration is very important, but there also is a very high degree of ownership over work. I got the sense that there is no micromanagement there. The focus is on achieving results.

microsoft-building99Microsoft is shifting toward selling devices and services, which means an emphasis on the Xbox, Surface and Windows Phone and creating a similar user experience across the devices. The company also recently went through a reorganization to become a more functional-based organization. It eliminated stack rankings during the annual review process, and is now waiting for a new CEO to take over. It was clear to us that this is a really exciting and transformational time for the company, with more to come with the new CEO.

Next up was Groupon. Its Seattle office is relatively small with about 180 people. However, it has grown significantly in the past few years. A senior director, who was one of the first employees in the Seattle office, discussed how the company’s business model is changing to focus on local and mobile. Using its data on customer preferences, it’s building analytical, tailored local solutions for customers. For example, if you’ve just arrived in Seattle you could use its app to get recommendations for food, drinks or other attractions based on what you’ve liked in the past.

It was really interesting to hear about how the company is putting mobile first. Typically, a company’s mobile page is scaled down, but for Groupon it’s the full experience. That just goes to show the increasingly important role of mobile in the consumer tech space. I would love to be at the intersection of tech and retail, so I’m keeping my eye on Groupon.

Our third company visit was to Amazon. I expected a campus setting similar to Microsoft, but Amazon is integrated into the heart of the city with cafes, restaurants and shops sprinkled in between its buildings.

Amazon's South Lake Union campus. Photo via bytesrc

Amazon’s South Lake Union campus. Photo via bytesrc

A number of Sloan alumni came to our panel, and we talked about what it’s like to work at Amazon and live in Seattle. One thing that stood out for me was how employees don’t use PowerPoint very much. Instead, they use thoroughly written white papers that explore issues in depth. They ensure that the supporting data and details (that are often glossed over during PowerPoint presentations) are scrutinized before discussion and debate commences. This is pretty unique to Amazon, but it wasn’t too surprising because the company is known for its analytic depth and attention to detail.

Panelists also stressed the company’s mission to become the “Earth’s Most Customer-Centric Company.” As one of the earliest Amazon Prime customers, I sure appreciate that!

We also visited Madrona, which brought in senior people from several of its startups, who are all interested in hiring interns.

The panel included the CEO of Rover, a site that connects dog sitters with people in need of that service. He gave an inspiring presentation of his business model, explaining how dogs in the U.S. are viewed as members of the family and people feel bad leaving them when they go on vacation.

We also heard from the real estate site Zillow, which has an enormous amount of data about the real estate market. It’s just scraping the surface in terms of creating products that customers and businesses could be interested in. It’s also just beginning to monetize a lot of these opportunities.

Qumulo’s talk focused on how it’s making the next generation of storage systems both for enterprise and the cloud. I hadn’t realized that the market opportunity in storage is so tremendous. The company expects 50x growth in storage by 2020. Working in data storage seems like a really good space to be, with interesting scalability challenges.

Simply Measured discussed its focus on the social media impact of companies’ marketing efforts, and Context Relevant explained how it’s building software for real-time predictive analytics. Rounding out the panel was Apptio, which works in the technology business management space.

It was clear from our discussion with these startups that analytics is playing a significantly greater role in business models. There are a lot of opportunities to apply analytics in various settings and industries, which is great news for students from MIT Sloan where big data is an area of great interest and strong expertise.

Overall, it was a terrific visit. I could definitely see myself working and living in Seattle, with its vibrant energy fueled by innovative tech companies. Not only are those companies pushing the envelope with new products and services, they are doing it in their own unique ways.

Jarek Langer is a first-year MBA student at MIT Sloan School of Management and vice president of treks for the Technology Club.

  • Madrona Venture Group

    Madrona Venture Group loved hosting you and the rest of your MIT/Sloan colleagues. Come back, any time!

  • That Guy

    Could that article possibly have been any more superficial?