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Seattle's Union Station. Photo: Prayitno

Although I’m a tech geek, I haven’t actually worked for a tech company yet. My background is in finance, so I figured MIT Sloan’s recent Technology Trek to Seattle might be a good way for me to see how – and where – I might fit into the tech world.

Our trek started out on a stereotypical Seattle day with lots of rain. While the weather was expected, I was somewhat surprised to see such a vibrant tech scene in Seattle. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t the entrepreneurial vibe that was apparent at even the biggest of the tech companies we visited: Microsoft.

Our Microsoft visit began with a tour of the “Home of the Future.” We saw how a touch panel would remind you of a houseguest’s imminent arrival and ask if you wanted the home programmed for their preferences. The home’s technology also could help you decide what to wear, suggesting items in your closet that would match and alert you to the availability of matching shoes on sale at a nearby store. That was actually a little weird, but maybe people in the future are cooler with targeted ads than we are today.

Microsoft Commons. Microsoft photo.

Later, we had a conversation with MIT Sloan alumni at Microsoft. They were refreshingly candid about what it’s like to work there. Admitting that it can be bureaucratic because it’s a large company, they also emphasized how they have the resources to do innovative things that would be cost prohibitive at a startup – like design the Home of the Future.

You have to see Microsoft first-hand to get a sense for how big the facility really is. It’s literally like a college campus with building after building. You feel like a college freshman when you arrive without a clue what is going on. Luckily, we had a recruiter take us on a tour so we didn’t need a map.

In contrast, Amazon seemed lean and quirky. While they had a bunch of buildings, everything was much closer together and the desks were made entirely out of doors. Why doors? I still have no clue, but maybe it’s something I’ll learn if I get a job there.

Amazon Locker

It was also interesting to see how every surface is an actual whiteboard. Even in the elevators and hallways, you can see the equations, business plans, and supply and demand charts filling up the white spaces. While the folks at Microsoft seemed collaborative, the employees at Amazon took sharing to a new level.

Another cool thing at Amazon was how they are their own Guinea pigs. They explained how they are coming out with a new product soon where people who live in apartment buildings in cities like New York will soon be able to utilize a central locker in their neighborhood to securely receive Amazon packages. To test this out, Amazon employees receive their own packages at similar locker locations on its campus.

Adobe was the final of three companies we visited where we took the typical tour, visiting places like the weight room, patio and kitchen. Unlike the tech companies in the Silicon Valley where they provide three free meals a day, it was interesting to see that the food at Seattle companies wasn’t necessarily free. Maybe that’s because the tech community in Seattle isn’t as free-wheeling as it is in the Silicon Valley where they will spend money to make you happy and keep you in the office at all hours.

On the other hand, Seattle seems to have a leg up when it comes to work-life balance. We didn’t hear any stories at the Seattle companies about people working until 2:00am writing code, which seems to be a common occurrence in the Silicon Valley.

Getting beyond Adobe’s kitchen, I noticed that it was different from Microsoft and Amazon because everyone had an office. There seemed to be a big focus on making sure the environments are enjoyable – there’s a lot of exposed brick and wood and they were in the process of building out more common areas around the kitchens.

One thing that stood out was the giant punching bag in the sales team’s area. Whether it was a fun diversion or stress release, it definitely caught my attention.

Amazon Fresh trucks are commonly seen on Seattle streets.

During our time in Seattle, we also visited the Boeing factory where we got to see the new Dreamliner aircraft. We also toured the Space Needle and downtown area where we noticed Amazon’s grocery delivery trucks everywhere. It’s pretty cool how people in Seattle can order groceries from Amazon.

It turns out that Seattle is a happening city where people both live and work downtown. Unlike the Silicon Valley where it’s suburbia with office parks, there is a lot happening in this city and it has a surprisingly vibrant tech environment.

Kousha Bautista-Saeyan is a first-year MBA student at MIT Sloan School of Management. 

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