Zoom In: TechTrek in the COVID Era
For the first time since it launched in 2008, TechTrek has gone virtual. No trips to Silicon Valley. No company tours. No pizza. Yet pivoting to an online format for safety’s sake definitely has its benefits. Class size, for one, has nearly doubled, and classes now meet 12 weeks instead of six, alternating between two cohorts, and have up to three weekly Zoom visits.
We asked Professors Jerry Kane and Jere Doyle and Shea Center student Lindsey Zver to share their thoughts. Here’s what they had to say about the undeniable upside of TechTrek in the COVID era.
Q: So this program is a different ballgame now. How have students shown resilience and creativity?
Kane: One of the key messages we’ve always had in this class is be prepared to adapt. So we were ideally suited to pivot to the online environment, because we already have that mentality. It’s also a core feature of entrepreneurship we’re trying to instill in students.
Doyle: Look, the whole world has had to show some resilience with this pandemic. This little microcosm of TechTrek where we couldn't visit companies has allowed students to see what it’s like to work in the real world right now – a huge educational opportunity.
Zver: I think this is how we showcase our creativity best. I’ve seen some truly genius posts from my peers. Students have made their blog posts a way to connect with each other in a time where COVID has stopped almost every conventional means of socializing.
Q: You went from 24 students in the program to 43! What’s it like to almost double in one semester? Challenges? Benefits?
Kane: It’s given us an opportunity to reach a wider variety and greater number of people. The Zoom meetings can be scaled almost infinitely. And they’re available to anybody who participates in the Shea Center. So we’re creating synergies between what’s happening in the classroom and our broader reach.
Doyle: As an entrepreneur, you always think about how to scale. We’ve always wanted to scale this course, but we had challenges, space being one. When we visit a company, they don’t want 50 kids walking in the door. So now, instead of visiting 15 companies on a four-day trip to New York, we booked three a week for 13 weeks and opened it up to so many more students via Zoom.
Zver: In my opinion, it’s been great to have such a big cohort. We meet every other week with half our class, so you still get the small group discussion-based curriculum. But outside of class, we all get to interact with each other on Twitter and through our blog posts, which has been such a beneficial experience.
Q: TechTrek was conceived as the ultimate in experiential or immersive education. How has that changed now that it’s a larger group?
Doyle: One of our visits this semester was with Ceros CEO Simon Berg. We’ve visited their New York office before, but this time was better because it was so intimate. It was so one-on-one between the CEO and the students, and Simon shared a screen and videos, which would have been really difficult to pick up in a group setting. We’ve also gone to see companies we’ve never been to before, like Tesla. I don’t think we would have visited there in person because of all the hoops you have to jump through just to go in and see them.
Kane: We’re no longer limited to the geography of San Francisco and New York, so we can integrate people from Chicago. We have one former student of mine who has a startup in Geneva. So now we’re thinking, How do we expand to cover different geographies where BC alumni or startups are strong? That’s an upside we haven’t quite fully leveraged.
Q: So if you were to continue to make the online classroom a component of TechTrek in the future, is that one way you can sort of bridge that gap?
Kane: Yes, absolutely. Hopefully it allows us to reach out and get a greater diversity of alumni involved, because it really is this nice way for alumni to give back and interact with students and for students to learn from our best alumni. And the way we thank them is to make excellent use of their time.
Doyle: Here's another different thing. Every week, we assign a student to host a company and it’s that student’s responsibility to put together a presentation about them. We put that up online and all the students watch it. Then that student’s also responsible for hosting the visit. They’ve got to get questions ready. Then they’ve got to come on early and welcome the guests. They’ve got to call on other students to ask questions. It’s a great practical experience.
Q: Two years ago, when we first talked about TechTrek, students were keeping blogs and using phrases like “transformative experience.” Are they still doing that, and what are they saying now?
Doyle: What you lose when you don’t travel is that week of students all being together with us, and that’s a transformative week. There’s the time away from the companies where students are spending time with one another and getting to really kind of unpack what we’ve seen. But I think we’re picking it up in other areas like how quickly we can talk about all these visits in class. Over the course of the semester, we’ve spent an hour in each class talking about all the visits we’ve had.
Zver: I think the best way to describe it right now is a constant source of inspiration and excitement. Our class is slightly different than past years. Instead of having an entire course that leads up to one final week filled with tech and entrepreneurs, our meetings with companies have been throughout the semester. Instead of being a full week that has this life-changing effect on all of us, I think we each can point to one or two Zoom calls that have been really influential.
Q: Are you still using Twitter feeds as a resource to start conversations or have you switched to Zoom like everybody else in the business world?
Doyle: Yeah. Same thing. We discuss it every week. The students tweet three times a week on current events or on a particular speaker we may have had.
Zver: I’m constantly communicating with my classmates over Twitter as well as watching conversations they have with big names in venture, tech, and startups. While we do use Zoom for our talks with the entrepreneurs, our most consistent communication stream is through the TechTrek Twitter feed.
Q: What stands out from the student blogs this year?
Doyle: One of the nice things about the blogs is they tend to get better throughout the semester because students read each other’s stuff and learn from it.
Kane: I had one of the all-time great posts from a student comparing the platform companies to a particular video game he likes, complete with customized artwork. And not only was it an incredibly creative post, but once a student goes out and does something like that, it sends a signal to everybody else to up their game.
Zver: Tesla and all forms of clean energy are huge topics of our weekly blog posts. I have seen posts that compare Tesla to its imitators and scrutinize their success in the clean energy space. Our class is also super focused on the technology behind Tesla and how well they are building newer and more efficient models.
Kane: What’s most important about the blog function is it allows students to pursue avenues related to topics they’re interested in. So it really encourages them to take ownership over their own learning experience and figure out what it is they want to learn about and go do that. It gives them a mechanism to reward that behavior.
Q: So what have you learned from this little experiment?
Kane: This semester more than any other, I really appreciated the partnership with Professor Doyle, because we’re both in the classroom and have the time to reflect on the talks. He brings a more practical perspective as an entrepreneur and a VC. I’m an academic who’s done a lot of research into these areas and has a broad understanding of the technology. And that combination has really played out over the course of the educational experience this semester.
Doyle: Those conversations are so valuable – where we can unpack these visits. I think the list of the benefits is 1) more visits in a geographically broader area; 2) more students; and 3) better content in the class because we’re able to unpack the visits in an environment that’s really conducive to conversation. So a lot of what we’re doing now we’ll continue after the pandemic when we can travel again. But I don’t think we’ll ever stop these Zoom visits. This is a super exciting time for this class because we have a front row seat for the greatest managerial challenge most of these companies will ever face.