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Seattle scene (Kurt Schlosser photo)
Seattle scene (Kurt Schlosser photo)

When considering where to go on an MBA Technology Trek, Seattle was a no-brainer.

It wasn’t just that the city is home to some of the world’s leading technology companies, but Seattle has successfully created a technology innovation ecosystem — one that spawned many of the past few year’s largest tech IPOs. It is the philosophy of not resting on one’s laurels that has created longevity in Seattle’s companies, and provided important lessons for MBA students. My goal on a recent MIT Sloan Technology Trek was to understand the strategies, cultures, and goals that have propelled Seattle companies’ long-term success.

Our trek began at Disney, where I have to admit I was a giddy child. Disney + Technology = Heaven.

But why were we at Disney on a Tech Trek? The reality is that Disney has always placed technology at the core of being “one of the world’s leading producers and providers of entertainment and information.” From developing the multiplane camera for its first animated feature (Snow White) to its recent MagicBand launch, technology drives its mission and growth.

MIT MBA students in Seattle
MIT MBA students in the Disney offices in Seattle

With each business unit having its own CTO, Disney Technology Solutions & Services has a unique role in identifying the synergies across its 30+ brands that will keep The Walt Disney Company on track for its long-term vision, while allowing each unit to achieve its short-term goals. While this is certainly the mantra of our classes, hearing in practice how this fine balance works and the choices that sometimes have to be made truly solidified the lessons we learned over the last four months.

Next, we visited Microsoft.

I’ve always been a Microsoft fan. I even wrote a 6th grade paper on its founding. But despite my fervent loyalty (don’t separate me from my Excel), I expected to visit the same company I wrote about in 1997. I could not have been more wrong. From the moment we stepped on campus, it was clear that Microsoft is not the same Microsoft we grew up with.

As Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa said, “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” Microsoft has embraced this as a philosophy to remain a market leader while staying true to its mission “to enable people and businesses throughout the world to realize their full potential.”

As Microsoft shifts from its vision to have a computer on every desk to enabling customers through a family of devices, the energy and excitement of its employees was palpable. Surely our Organizational Processes professors would be delighted to know that on our visit we witnessed the importance of aligning the strategic design, culture, and political networks to drive growth (as they spent the last semester teaching us).

We started our second day at Nordstrom. Just in case Nordstrom’s reputation for being a leader in leveraging technology to deliver the omnichannel experience didn’t impress us, the amazing views of the Cascades from its office deck certainly did! But the true revelation was that Nordstrom is not a technology consumer, but rather a technology company. This vision is made clear through its investments (more than 30 percent of its CapEx budget) and its strategy. In other words, Nordstrom truly puts its money where its mouth is.

Seattle Nordstrom (Photo: Prayitno0
Seattle Nordstrom (Photo: Prayitno0

Driving this transformation is an iterative culture that’s willing to turn its stores and websites into laboratories rather than accept the status quo. It was here that we learned how a dose of “healthy paranoia” can be a good thing, preventing complacency and promoting innovation to keep a company from falling victim to the active inertia caused by success.

Our last visit was to Amazon, which was the embodiment of our Strategy professor’s mantra: “Strategy without numbers is poetry.” While some may think this data-driven environment would create a rigid culture, the opposite is true at Amazon.

It actually promotes a framework for taking chances and also gives customers a prominent voice in its strategy development. By putting data – and customers through the voice of the data – at the center of its development process, it is able to rapidly meet and adjust to the needs of customers. In fact, this data-driven culture allows concurrent development of similar products in different groups to allow the customers to choose the best one at the end. It’s like the Darwinism of product development.

My trip to Seattle was not long enough. It felt merely like an amuse bouche to what I hope is a lifelong meal with the city.

From playing shuffleboard at Brave Horse Tavern to talking strategy at Technology Titans, I had my first chance to apply my classroom lessons in vivo, but will also take back to Cambridge a whole new set of lessons. Thank you, Seattle.

Brittany Greenfield is a first-year MBA student at MIT Sloan School of Management. Prior to MIT Sloan, she worked at a startup that was acquired by NetSuite, which took her on assignment to Australia. Upon her return, she worked at Hubspot and Kronos, both founded by MIT alumni. After graduation, she plans to work with growth-stage technology companies.

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