Silicon Valley – the name has engendered legendary status in recent decades as the global hub for innovation and technology. And our week in the Valley certainly didn’t disappoint! I was very fortunate to be selected to attend the Global Immersion Field Trip based out of San Francisco and the stellar line-up of big tech companies, start-ups and venture capital firms, carefully allocated into a jam-packed schedule, kept us busy from dawn until dusk. Highlights of the trip included a presentation at Andreessen Horowitz by partner Todd Ludwack, an ex-exec of eBay. A16Z (as it is known in the industry) is a VC powerhouse based in Menlo Park, with successful exits in household brands such as Skype, Groupon and Instagram to name just a few. Ludwack shared with us frameworks with which to analyse digital platform propositions and investments (the likes of Uber and AirBnB) as well as some lessons-learned from his time at the VC house. In particular, he led an interesting discussion on first and second order effects when it comes to making investments – not only predicting outcomes as the business expands across markets but predicting secondary consequences of these changes that may have knock-on effects in new markets or sectors. Contrastingly, a small-group presentation at SoftTech VC led to fascinating insights into a firm that invests in very early stage ventures – when an entrepreneur may be armed with justa dream and a prototype – and whose expertise has led to some of the greatest edtech, platforms and wearable successes to emerge from the Bay Area (think FitBit, EventBrite and Twitter).

Later in the week, we had the ‘inverse experience’ through visits to several start-ups, a great opportunity to see the entrepreneurial space from a different perspective. We were treated to passionate presentations by entrepreneurs and co-founders from promising ventures such as DoubleDutch (a firm revolutionising live engagement marketing) from people that have grown a vision and personally tackled problems across the whole gamut of organisational functions.

Another fantastic visit included a tour and panel discussion at Pinterest. Everything you hear about working life in the Valley – the funky office space, the sushi chef slicing uramaki in the centre of the workspace, bicycles covered in flowers hanging from the ceiling, an endless mountain of muffins and cakes overflowing in open-plan kitchens filled with employees animatedly schmoozing in shorts, T-shirts and flip-flops. As soon as we walked into the office, our cohort was ‘Pinterested’ – challenging staff to ping-pong and table football games in the lobby. But when we finally got down to business, the managers we met knew their business analytics backwards – from potential opportunities for growth using existing profit drivers right down to what would be trending in the coming season for middle-agedmales in Tokyo.

Singularity University is a bit of a misnomer. It’s not really a university but a
think-tank and it doesn’t really focus on one technology but rather how many different emerging technologies can be leveraged and interfaced in order to drive growth and solve global challenges. A presentation by ardent futurist Darlene Damm opened our minds to new research in areas that will transform the way we live in the coming years – artificial intelligence and machine learning, bioengineering and regenerative medicine, big data and augmented reality were just a few of the topics touched upon during our workshop. The focus at Singularity is on “exponential tech” – technologies whose adoption and development can have skyrocketing impact in all industries across all markets. A hands-on session also gave us the opportunity  to see some of these new technologies in action – from having a chat with a cognitive robot to running around with Virtual Reality goggles, fully immersed in another dimension. One of the great take-homes for me from SU was a new way of thinking about technology application. As a non-gamer I was excited to see that research was underway to use VR headsets in the provision of palliative care and pain management for burns victims and other trauma patients. SU encourages students and professionals to ask the big questions. They don’t claim to have all the answers but they promote great vision, ‘moonshot thinking’ and alternative ways to think about, apply and leverage new technologies to impact meaningful change in the world.

No visit to Silicon Valley would be complete without a visit to Apple HQ or the Googleplex. At Apple we had the opportunity to meet two senior product managers and following several presentations had the opportunity to ask some of life’s most pertinent questions – why did Apple choose to remove the headphone jack from the iPhone 7? What’s the thinking behind the TouchBar on the new Macbook Pro? Why doesn’t Apple expand its portfolio of products? These questions may seem trivial but what lies behind them is masses of market research carefully formulated into intricate strategy applied to product design. The outcome is one of the world’s most beloved brands that plans the user experience right down to the carefully-engineered iPhone box that builds a one-second anticipation when lifting the lid for the first time. As someone with a non-profit background in the health space, I was particularly excited to hear from a lead at Apple’s Accessibility team. Apple  are constantly trying to add new features or extras to their products to ensure that they are functional for all members of society.  This goes far beyond adjusting font size for the visually impaired and ranges from ‘AssistiveTouch’ head-movement-controlled touchpads for people suffering with cerebral palsy to syncing devices with hearing aids to enable better quality conversations for those with partial deafness. Thankfully many never have the need to enter Settings>General>Accessibility on our iPhones but take a look at the impressive plethora of adaptations Apple works on to ensure accessibility and quality user experience for all users regardless of capability.

The Googleplex has a mythical status in the professional world. Ball-ponds at work. Croissant buffets lining the corridors. Self-driving cars whizzing around the parking lot, darting in between parked Google Maps vehicles with their iconic rooftop cameras. All this may be true. But this is not what stood out for me at Google. Several months ago I read Schmidt and Rosenberg’s “How Google Works” – a fantastic read for anyone with a keen interest in organisational behaviour and a passion for understanding how the world’s source of knowledge operates. The take-home message from the book was that Google is all about people and the culture they foster amongst their employees. This could not have been seen more clearly than on our visit to Mountain View at the Google HQ. We had the chance to chat with several LBS alums that are working out there in a range of roles from product management to business strategy. What came across most strongly was their love for Google and the freedom they have to pursue new opportunities and ‘self-actualise’ (in Maslow OB terminology). Googlers, as they are known, strive to maintain an entrepreneurial outlook in the face of global operations; a tremendous feat. They do this by giving their employees autonomy to be creative, to innovate and to follow their passions. The result of such policies (including 20% Time – the commandment for all Googlers to spend a fifth of their time in the pursuit of innovative projects – that according to employees results in working 120% of the time!) are some world-changing products including Gmail. Much food for thought to be gleaned from our time at the Googleplex in hiring talented people and allowing their enthusiasm and self-motivation to shine.

Visits to Electronic Arts (the world renowned EA gaming company), the beautiful Stanford University and their Design School, Autodesk and Shop.co among others topped off an incredible week but it would be remiss not to make special mention of the LBS alum community in the Bay Area. It was fantastic for our cohort to meet the incredible populations of LBSers and our supporters based out in the San Francisco area. One of the major plugs of our school is the global network of contacts as alumni forge their international professional careers. Indebted to the school for the education, life skills and opportunities afforded to us, it is really wonderful to meet LBSers from across the professional spectrum who offer advice, guidance, time, friendship and professional support. The large networking evening was particularly lively and enjoyable and was a great opportunity to link with those in the finance, consulting, technology and start-up spaces – united by our common love and gratitude to the London Business School. A big thank you to the Admin team – in particular Kelly and Fiona – for making such a wonderful, busy and exciting trip possible!

Pinterest

 

 

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