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The Great Wheel is one of many new things spinning in Seattle.

Having grown up in Portland, I didn’t really think anything would come as much of a surprise during my career trek to Seattle with MIT Sloan’s Tech Club. After all, I had visited Seattle many times with my family over the years.

While some of my classmates were shocked at things like the weather (yes, the sun does shine here), the silent traffic (no horns!), and the abundance of coffee shops, I knew to expect these things.

However, what I wasn’t anticipating was the degree of change in downtown Seattle or how vibrant the tech scene is. Obviously, Microsoft is still huge here and Amazon is everywhere. But what is also huge is a booming entrepreneurial ecosystem that is literally changing the landscape of the area.

We started our trek at Amazon, which is consolidating its space into a downtown location. They are creating a campus so it feels more like an educational community with its own culture within the city. Not having visited this neighborhood in a while, it was nearly unrecognizable.

Amazon’s South Lake Union campus. Photo via bytesrc

During our tour at Amazon I was struck by the prevalence of posters and signs on campus inviting employees to information sessions about different jobs and functions – just like on a college campus. Instead of a prescribed promotional path, employees seek out the various opportunities while they ride an elevator or walk down the hall. It’s a big company with many avenues for professional growth, but employees need to actively pursue the positions they want.

Next, we visited Microsoft’s suburban campus, which has its own mall and bike shop. The first thing I noticed on campus was the ebullience of the employees when discussing the company, perhaps due in part to how well Microsoft takes care of its staffers. In addition to flexible schedules, every employee has an office, and over the holidays they received a Microsoft Surface Tablet, a Windows 8 phone, and a spec upgrade for work laptops.

Not too shabby!

Microsoft also emphasizes building your network. It’s essentially part of employees’ jobs to get to know other people at the company. From a career perspective, you aren’t achieving if you’re not extending yourself to share what you know and don’t know with others. This focus on networking also might explain why so many of Seattle’s successful entrepreneurs seem to have cut their teeth at Microsoft.

Moving on to T-Mobile’s campus, it was interesting to see the sky bridges and various ways to get between the buildings and their workspaces. The company is built on the side of a hill in Bellevue and the view from its large balcony was incredible.

At T-Mobile, we heard from a former intern whose talk drove home how seriously the company takes its internship program. He explained how he wasn’t expecting to work in telecom, but during an internship there he was given so much responsibility and made such a big impact with his project that the company asked him to continue his work during his next semester. It was impressive to see how interns there are given real work that can have real results.

We began the next day at Starbucks, where coffee is almost a religion. Everyone we talked to could tell us about their favorite roasts as well as the backgrounds on the growers and regions where the beans were grown. No one appeared to have the jitters, though based on the sheer number of French presses I saw, I’m not sure how the employees weren’t wired out of their minds with caffeine. Also, the entire place smelled amazing.

In contrast to the other companies we had visited with sprawling campuses, Starbucks is in one large building. There were many open work spaces where people were chatting over cups of coffee. Encouraging people to come together and collaborate over a cup of coffee is part of their strategy not just in retail stores, but also in the office.

Philip Gabriel Simko

Our final company visit was to Big Fish Games, which has grown like wildfire in the last few years. The casual gaming company has a large office right on the water with lots of cool spaces. There is a big focus on customer service, and everyone who is hired at the company starts out in that area. Having worked in the software industry, I know how unique (and important) that is, and was impressed by the dedication of the support staff.

While you might expect a gaming company to be filled with foosball tables and candy carts, the employees and the atmosphere were pretty serious. Much of our discussion with our hosts centered around analytics and how data can be leveraged in creative ways to expand and improve your product.

As a result of this focus, they were eager to talk to MIT Sloan students, who are known for being comfortable with data. From marketing to business development to cloud gaming, all functions at Big Fish utilize data to improve results.

We concluded our visit with a panel of speakers from Zulily, Zillow and Groupon. It was great to hear more perspectives about what entrepreneurship is like in Seattle. We heard several times that Seattle is similar to Silicon Valley in the 1990s. The city has huge tech companies as well as the guys working out of their garage, and there is an increasing amount of VC money and energy being invested in the area.

Having come to Seattle thinking I knew all about this city, I had to eat some humble pie. The high-tech scene is so much bigger and more active than I ever thought.

Clearly, our trek only scraped the surface of this fast-growing ecosystem.

Philip Simko is a first-year student in MIT Sloan’s MBA program and vice president of treks for MIT Sloan’s High Tech Club. He is currently working as an intern at Wellframe in Boston, and is interested in working in the high-tech field.

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