When riding in a police car after getting stranded across the Golden Gate Bridge isn’t the most memorable part of your vacation, you know it was a special Spring Break.
The occasion was Boston College’s TechTrek West, a weeklong field study in San Francisco and Silicon Valley preceded by a solid two months of academic preparation. Under the direction of professors Jere Doyle ’87 and Gerald Kane, the 24 students in the three-credit course researched 21 technology companies based in the Bay Area. In blog posts and weekly class meetings, the students shared what they’d learned and discussed industry trends. Then, over their week off in March, the class flew to Frisco, visited each of the tech firms they’d studied, met with senior executives, founders, and partners of those firms (most of them Boston College alumni), and asked them informed questions.
The whole experience was geared to learning how a tech company goes “from startup to blue chip,” as Kane explained. And it introduced the students—most of whom are from the Northeast—to a realm of sunlit offices where workers free of neckties take breaks in ball pits before going back to changing the world.
“It’s T-minus ten days and counting till our trip to California,” says Kane, presiding over a Cushing classroom on a Wednesday afternoon in late February. His two dozen students are arranged in a large circle, a laptop computer and a paper notebook on every desk. “Our flight leaves at 7:55 a.m. That means you need to be at the airport by 6 a.m. So plan accordingly. You can’t just wake up at 5:30 a.m. and call for an Uber. . . .
“In San Francisco, the attire is much more low-key,” continues Kane, a professor of information systems at the Carroll School and a regular contributor to the MIT Sloan Management Review. “No jacket or tie—but no jeans. For young women, I have no idea about women’s fashion,” Kane confesses.
“I tell my wife ‘smart casual,’” says Doyle. “She says, ‘What the hell is that?’” Doyle, a seasoned, successful entrepreneur, serves as executive director of the Carroll School’s Edmund H. Shea Jr. Center for Entrepreneurship. The two professors run the course with help from Kelsey Kinton, Morrissey College ’12, MBA ’18, the center’s assistant director. (TechTrek, which has been offered for several years, was recently brought under the auspices of the Shea Center. Other changes include an expansion in the number of companies visited and the addition of a blogging requirement.)
For the first portion of the class meeting, led by Kane, the students discuss in person what they’ve been discussing all week on Twitter—technology trends and news, from Google launching a hot-air balloon to Spotify exploring hardware products such as speakers.
“We’re going to visit Spotify when we go out west,” Kane reminds everyone. “And they may share a secret [development]. Be cool. Don’t tweet it out.” (A few weeks hence, Spotify would begin trading on the New York Stock Exchange.)
“What else?” Kane prompts, fishing for another topic.
“Walmart didn’t do well in the holiday quarter,” volunteers one young man in a long-sleeve button-down shirt.
“Some of that may be growing pains as they get into online sales,” says Kane. “Who knew that Walmart is one of the most innovative companies [according to Fast Company]?” The decades-old brick-and-mortar retailer has opened a tech incubator in Silicon Valley, which the students will also visit.
“It’s interesting to see how these legacy companies have to make big bets,” Kane continues. “Walmart needs to take risks, even if it means they’ll stumble at times. In Silicon Valley, it’s much more the experimentation, exploration mindset. . . . You’re going to meet a lot of crazy people out there—sometimes it’s hard to tell which ones are the visionaries and which are just crazy. That’s your task.”
Next, a series of students give Powerpoint-aided presentations (which will be graded rigorously) on a few of the tech companies they’ll all trek to in a couple weeks. They each spend five to six minutes relating what’s unique about the company’s model or what makes it relevant right now.
Camille Oemcke, Morrissey College ’19, a math major and economics minor, outlines the rapid rise of Airbnb. The online hub for short-term home rentals got its big break when Sequoia Capital invested in it in 2009. (The class will also visit Sequoia, meeting with partner Pat Grady ’04, among others.) Now, Airbnb is valued at $31 billion. When it comes to travel and hospitality, Oemcke says, “Only Marriott, a legacy hotel chain, is valued higher, and they’ve been in business for 90 years.”
Erik Aborde ’19, a finance and computer science student, talks about Apple’s “sticky ecosystem” of interrelated products, and its recent acquisitions. “They’re betting big on AR [augmented reality] hardware, building an AR super team,” Aborde says. “What’s their goal?” Given the company’s long-established strong suit, design and user experience, perhaps they’re angling to produce “the first easy-to-use AR headset,” Aborde speculates.
A lesser-known outfit, Coinlist, proves a fruitful topic for finance and information systems student Dan Paulos ’19. Coinlist, Paulos says, is an exchange platform that aims to standardize the initial coin offering (ICO) process—a crowdfunding effort for a new cryptocurrency. With a wink, Paulos earns brownie points (or at least a laugh from the class) by pointing out that Coinlist CEO Andy Bromberg is “devilishly handsome, bearing a strong resemblance to our TA, Matt [Giovanniello ’18].”
After each presenter is done, he or she fields questions from classmates who are, first of all, expected to participate as part of their grade, but moreover are genuinely curious and enthused about the ever-evolving tech industry.
These presentations (along with their accompanying blog posts) and the ensuing conversations—in class and online—are key to how the course works. It’s a kind of democratic system whereby the students learn from one another, under the professors’ guidance. By dividing and conquering the material (the stories of a score of tech firms) and discussing it in real time, they are preparing for their trek, diving deep and drawing up lists of questions to ask the companies’ founders and leaders in person. As a result, they will get far more out of the Silicon Valley visit than if they were simply a tour group, marveling at the sleek offices but little grasping what goes on in them.
Go west, young folks
Spring Break arrives. Some Boston College students flee to Cancun or Miami Beach for some R&R. Others leave for service trips, helping to build or repair houses in Belize or Appalachia. The students in Tech Trek, some of them, second-guess their own choice before they go. Finance student John Reim ’19 is, in his words, “so hesitant to give up my spring break to basically do networking.” (At least, that’s how he imagines the strings of meetings with executives.) Economics major Katie Bailey, Morrissey College ’19, worries she will “come back from the trip feeling drained because we didn’t get a ‘spring break.’”
And to be sure, the week that follows is a blur of activity. In seven days, the students attend 21 master class sessions led by the heads and higher-ups of tech companies across the Bay Area, ranging from scrappy startups—such as Ouster, Veem, and TalkDesk—to the industry giants, like Google, Apple, and Facebook. Staying on their best, most professional behavior at all times, the students have dinner with Boston College alumni who are established in the field.
“I don’t think I have ever learned more in such a short amount of time”
Nevertheless, the students make time to be tourists. They hike up and down San Francisco’s famous hilly streets, take a boat out to Alcatraz, dine at the first Dim Sum restaurant in the nation, and see the Full House house. Some of them also trek across the Golden Gate Bridge to Vista Point for stunning views of the bridge and the city beyond. Then they discover that after sunset, no Uber driver will pick them up, and the bridge’s pedestrian sidewalk is closed. Seeing their predicament, a kind police officer stops his squad car and shuttles the students safely across the bridge, back to the city.
But though the Tech Trekkers pack a great deal into a short time span (and they still have to write a final synthesis research paper by semester’s end), Bailey doesn’t return to Boston exhausted, the way she had feared. “The complete opposite,” she writes in a wrap-up blog post. “I came back from Tech Trek feeling excited, energized, and rejuvenated. . . . I cannot help but RAVE about how well this class provided the resources for us to be prepared, informed visitors, which resulted in once-in-a-lifetime visits.”
Her classmates echo those sentiments in their own blog posts. “I don’t think I have ever learned more in such a short amount of time,” writes Ellen Tschatschula ’20. “Ask me three months ago exactly how blockchain worked or even what venture capitalist firms did, and I could not have muttered a word. Terms like cryptocurrency or seed funding don’t even scare me anymore!! The preparation we had for this class is unbelievable and the hard work definitely [paid] off in the visits.”
Tschatschula added that she was inspired by meeting women such as Sophie Miller ’07, who works for Google in business development related to augmented and virtual reality products, and Margaret Gould Stewart, Morrissey College ’92, the vice president of product design at Facebook.
“There is obviously a stigma that STEM, and therefore Silicon Valley, is an area for men,” writes Tschatschula. “However, witnessing [Miller and Stewart] embody what it means to be a confident, successful female in the tech world was essential for me deciding I want to be in the tech world.”
Finally, besides inspiration, the TechTrek class returned with a virtual Rolodex of tech execs who had once “walked in my shoes” on the Heights, blogged Clare Zhou ’20, a finance and business analytics student. “It puts me at ease to know that if I were ever to move across the country to San Francisco (which has become a much more tangible possibility after this trip), I would already have a family of BC alumni who are more than willing to grab a coffee or help me with the transition.”
Not that Eagles in technology are restricted to California. The Shea Center recently announced a new offering for next fall: TechTrek East. Equally rigorous, the three-credit course will feature a weekend field study in New York City as well as several trips to local tech firms across the growing startup scene in Boston College’s backyard.
Patrick L. Kennedy, Morrissey College ’99, is a writer in Boston and the co-author of Bricklayer Bill: The Untold Story of the Workingman’s Boston Marathon.
Photography provided by the Shea Center for Entrepreneurship.