WesTrek, an HBS tradition since the early 90’s, arrived in full force this year, with HBS students driving a full range of shiny rental cars across the Silicon Valley in pursuit of the perfect tech job. While traffic is certainly lighter these days, the news is better than some might suspect – despite reports to the contrary, tech remains alive and kicking (albeit somewhat blue in the face), with more than a few HBS alumni contributing to the cause. While few of us returned with offers in our pockets, we have certainly improved our suburban highway driving skills and our knowledge of the business of technology after a series of fireside chats with some of the Silicon Valley’s most notable entrepreneurs and managers. Below are a few notes from the adventures and lessons learned from WesTrek 2003.

January 6th, 2003
Hyatt Regency
9:12 AM

Entering the Regency Ballroom, I narrowly miss crashing right into Meg Whitman, President and CEO of eBay, en route to grab a cup of coffee prior to starting her keynote address. (Note: CEO gets her own coffee = fiscal responsibility + reduced hierarchy = submit resume)

Having successfully picked up her coffee, Whitman launches into a comprehensive review of eBay and their seemingly never-ending success. We watch a video on a few of eBay’s most loyal and successful customers who are often passionate collectors of collectibles once traded in more modest arenas such as flea markets and garage sales, that have now found a new life at eBay. One of the most memorable examples highlights a woman who cashes in her son’s college fund to invest (quite successfully, it turns out) in collectable glass eyeballs traded on eBay.

If you are somehow not blown away by eBay’s phenomenal growth margins, you have to love their ability to build a revolutionary and successful company through the budding businesses of trading glass eyeballs.

Whitman also offers some valuable career advice by emphasizing the importance of finding the right people to work with and work for, instead of worrying about titles or the size of a paycheck. “Life is too short and you spend too much time at work – you will be much better off if you actually like the people you work with,” advises Whitman. She also assures us that if we follow our passion, the money and success will follow. If you know anything about Whitman’s career – including a range of ascending management positions at Bain, Hasbro, and Walt Disney to name just a few – you get the distinct sense that this is a woman who has followed her own advice to enormous success.

January 6th, 2003
Menlo Park
Sun Microsystems
4:08 PM

In sweats and Adidas tennis shoes, Scott McNealy strolls in, confirms that we are all MBA first years, and promptly congratulates us on the fact that we will very likely enjoy a long summer of doing absolutely nothing.

Despite his jovial nature, McNealy has a lot to say about the future of Sun Microsystems, highlighting such technologies as Open Source, the Linux operating system, and Sun Ray servers that he strongly believes will continue to revolutionize technology as we know it today.

McNealy also advises us on best practices for identifying winning technology companies: be on the constant lookout for companies that are value engineered versus financially engineered, have a clear competency, do not depend on M&A as a strategy, command a clear cash stream, and possess a culture of ethics and integrity.

McNealy additionally delivers a decidedly different analysis on the value of an MBA – pointing out that while medical schools require doctors to cut open cadavers as part of their training, and graduate chemistry programs send their students straight into the lab, business schools actually provide very little practical training for operating successfully in the business world. He likens business school to a sort of half-baked golf training program where one sits in a classroom for two years watching videos, reading articles, and participating in rigorous conversations about how to play golf. After two years, one graduates with a degree as a “Master Golfer” without ever having actually hit a golf ball. The first time one heads out to take a real swing, Scott reasons, one is likely to miss the ball and need significantly more practice before actually earning the title of “Master Golfer”.

The true value of business school, McNealy argues, lies in the networking and relationships built among classmates in and out of the classroom that are likely to last a lifetime. McNealy, a Stanford GSB alum, who by his own analysis, skipped approximately 50% of his second year classes, advises us to stay until the end of the party and the last of the keg has been consumed. Finally, McNealy tells us to be persistent – “Never take no for an answer. It’s just a delayed yes.”

As we wander out of the vast and incredibly well groomed Menlo Park campus of Sun Microsystems, it is easy to imagine that McNealy likely enjoyed a lot of good beer in business school and doesn’t often take no for answer.

January 7th, 2003
Mountain View
Intuit Headquarters
4:28 PM

Walking past beautiful gardens and cascading waterfalls into Intuit headquarters, one begins to wonder if all the most successful technology companies employ the same landscape designer. (Perhaps this is the key to success in the Silicon Valley?)

We soon find ourselves sitting in front of Scott Cook, an HBS alum, Founder and Chairman of Intuit. Cook takes us through a whirlwind tour of Intuit’s history, products and opportunities for future growth. Cook emphasizes that Intuit has built their success on building and promoting “disruptive technology” that revolutionize how an industry is run. The numbers certainly seem to support Cook’s analysis – as Intuit’s profits continue to climb and their stock has outperformed Microsoft, Intel and Dell for the last five consecutive years.

When discussing areas of future growth, Cook, cites as one example the US government’s annual changes to tax code and forms as a critical contributor to the continued growth in sales of their TurboTax product each year. Cook goes on to describe in detail the prolonged inefficiency that exists in the tax arena as a result of three separate computer systems – that of the employee, the employer, and the IRS – remaining unconnected. The current process allows enormous opportunities for human error as the relevant information is printed and re-typed again into each system. It is Intuit’s goal to revolutionize the industry once again by linking these disparate systems together, thereby dramatically reducing the opportunity for continued mistakes and inefficiency.

With approximately one out of four tax returns in the US currently prepared on Intuit software, it is more than feasible that this will be the company to so significantly minimize the pain and headache of April 15th so that one day in the future, as those at Intuit like to say, we will not be able to imagine it any other way.

January 9th, 2003
Redwood City
Electronic Arts
2:17 PM

Rushing from my car into the lobby to avoid the pouring rain (A few limited days a year God chooses to deliver something other than clear blue skies to the Silicon Valley), I discover a transfixed group of fellow HBSers madly playing the latest and greatest in video games in the lobby of Electronic Arts (EA).

Arcadia Kim, a 2000 HBS grad and now a development director in production at EA, leads us past the video arcade and pool tables, and into the EA movie theatre to get a personal tour of such wildly popular video games as “James Bond Nightfire” and “The Lord of the Rings”. We are joined by Steve Perkins, a Wharton alum and senior marketing director at EA, who was instrumental in rolling out the wildly successful game “The Sims” that reconfirmed EA’s place in gaming history. Kim and Perkins discuss the long hours and passion for gaming that is imperative to
a successful career at EA. They also warn of the devastation that can follow the cancellation or poor performance of a game into which one has poured years of sweat and soul. It is clear that gaming is not well suited for the faint at heart.

Kim, who most recently managed a group of over 100 developers at EA towards the successful launch of the game “The Lord of The Rings”, describes in detail how she relentlessly pursued a job in the gaming industry when few at HBS were willing to start their career as an entry-level production assistant. Her devotion to her job is obvious and her enthusiasm is addictive.

While few of us have ever spent the number of hours pondering the gaming industry as Kim has, one can’t help but think back to Meg Whitman’s advice at the start of WesTrek to “follow your passion and success will follow” and believe that Kim, who clearly had the right idea from the start, is now well on her way to something special.