Cat Flag: Silicon Valley Edition

Beautiful San Francisco Bay

This past week, I went on a trip to the San Francisco Bay Area as part of a Cal Poly MBA program event. It was an absolutely eye-opening experience. I got to visit Apple, RealScout, First Republic Bank, Zynga, Google’s San Francisco office, and Microsoft’s Technology Center in Mountain View. I met with top executives at each of these businesses, who gave us presentations about how each of their businesses work and answered our questions.

It amazes me that we were able to visit all of these places in just two days. We certainly didn’t have time to play tourist or see the sites.

For example, I have no idea what this arrow sculpture is.

For example, I have no idea what this arrow sculpture is.

Still, we stayed at the fanciest hotel I had ever been in, the Sofitel Hotel in Redwood City. It was a place so high-end, a man with a top hat greets you at the door…

Sofitel Top Hat

…and there is a full bar in the lobby.

Sofitel Lobby

We were also able to spend a little time in the Financial District, where I was quickly reminded that I live in a very small town.

That... is tall.

That… is tall.

From what I saw, San Francisco is a city of contrasts. Everywhere you looked, there were graffiti-covered, run-down vacant buildings with the paint chipping off, and yet at the same time, everywhere you looked, there were new, shiny, clean buildings and buildings that were still being built.

Construction in San Francisco

After being picked up at Cal Poly before sunrise and taking a long bus ride up the US 101, we eventually arrived on the first day at Apple headquarters in Cupertino.

Me at the main entrance of the company that made my phone.

Me at the main entrance of the company that made my phone.

I can hardly describe just how big Apple HQ is. It covers multiple city blocks. As you drive up to the main public entrance, you pass Apple buildings on both your left and right, and there are still more Apple buildings ahead of you.

Of course, in order to protect the secrecy of the prototypes they are working on, Apple is super-strict about what public visitors can see. We were taken straight from the lobby to a conference room and back, with no sightseeing in-between. We weren’t even able to take any photographs. The best I could get was this sign in the parking lot:

Apple No Smoking

Oh, well, I at least understand it. The man who spoke to us walked in the door, looked at his watch, then realized, “Oh, wait. You aren’t supposed to see this.” He quickly tucked the watch in his back pocket, where it stayed until we left. I’m not going to knock these secrecy policies – the company must be doing something right, if they are posting the largest quarterly profit ever recorded.

RealScout, on the other hand, was pretty much the exact opposite, and going from one directly to the other caused a bit of whiplash. RealScout is a start-up founded by Cal Poly alumni Andrew Flachner and Michael Parikh, who both met us in person. The company currently employs 23 people, and is based in a small office building that it shares with a pre-school. It provides a service to real estate agents and home buyers who work with an agent. Buyers can search RealScout’s database with much more detail on houses than what competitors like Zillow can provide. While Zillow only allows you to search for basic things like size, number of beds and baths, price, or the year the place was built, RealScout can let you search for detailed things like “has granite kitchen counters” or “large backyard”. This allows both the buyer and the agent to save time and increase the chances of a good sale by narrowing the field and removing homes that don’t meet the buyer’s needs.

First Republic Bank was another business with an interesting business model. Founded in 1985, it is very much a traditional financial institution, with banking and investment services. The difference is that First Republic is not a generalist like many other banks out there, serving anyone who comes in. First Republic is only interested in urban, coastal, wealthy professionals. It only has locations in six states, and it emphasizes exceptional customer service over one-size-fits-all efficiency. It has managed to make such a niche business model excel – its assets have only grown over the years, and it weathered the recession much better than most.

The next business we visited after very-traditional, suit-and-tie First Republic was Zynga, the video game maker. Once again, the pairing couldn’t have been more opposite.

This is what you see when you walk in the door.

This is what you see when you walk in the door.

Zynga is a place where everyone dresses the same way to work as they would on the street, where people are free to bring their dogs in (since the company is named for the founder’s dog, that’s not surprising), and where the employees have access to free food on the company dime. I’m not talking about potato chips or ramen noodles, either – I mean restaurant-level, high-quality, $20-a-plate food. For breakfast, lunch, and dinner. All completely free to the employees.

This is Zynga's in-house bar where they brew their own beer and liquor and serve it to employees.

This is Zynga’s in-house bar where they brew their own beer and liquor and serve it to employees.

This was a trend that I saw in the technology firms we visited. Apparently free meals and perks are standard operating procedure for Silicon Valley firms that are competing for the most talented employees. It is such a common practice that the IRS is considering placing taxes on the meals.

RealScout offers its employees a laundromat and massages, as well as some reimbursement of the cost of commuting to work. Google provides employees with generous family benefits, on-site medical staff, and reimbursements for continuing education. Zynga offers its employees a game room and a gym:

Zynga HQ Gym

One thing that did disappoint me a bit on the trip was that we didn’t get to see the Googleplex, Google’s famous headquarters in Mountain View, even though we were right there just a few hours later. Instead, all I got to see was Google’s San Francisco office, and once again, we were led straight to a conference room and not allowed to look around very much. Then, I found out why they were being very careful about what we saw:



In any case, we were allowed to visit the Google free-for-employees restaurant on the roof, where I took those pictures of San Francisco Bay.

Our last stop was Microsoft’s Technology Center, where I was given a tour of a sort of “play area” that Microsoft leaves aside for developers to see if their programs will work on various machines. I got to see a 3-D printer, part of a server farm, a demonstration of how the Kinect works, and the biggest touchscreen I have ever seen in my life.

Giant Touchscreen

I also learned some interesting things about Microsoft’s future plans during my visit. First, I learned one possible reason why the next Windows operating system will be called Windows 10, instead of the expected name Windows 9. While the story I was told was just an educated guess, it was explained to me by someone who develops software for Microsoft and probably knows what he’s talking about. He said that the reason is technical – many websites and programs either won’t work or won’t work optimally on older Windows operating systems, so they will actually have a line of computer code to search the machine to see what version of Windows the computer is using before running. That line of code will flag the number “9” as “old” because of Windows 95 and Windows 98. It was just easier to call the new system “Windows 10” than try to force every software developer to change that line of code. Again, this is unconfirmed (and probably oversimplified for non-techies), but it makes sense.

I also learned that Internet Explorer’s days may well be numbered. A new web browser, currently referred to as “Spartan”, will be launched alongside Windows 10. Spartan will shed much of the backwards-compatibility “legacy code” that currently holds IE back, making Spartan function more like Chrome or Firefox. Now I can’t wait to try it out for myself.

San Francisco Street

This was an amazing trip. I got to meet many new and interesting people, visit some really impressive companies, and learn a great deal. It really opened my horizons. I hope that all of you Cat Flaggers learned something, too.

Awesome Forgotten Women of the Middle Ages

St. Joan of Arc image from Wikipedia

To most of us, the Middle Ages were a time when history was shaped by a few powerful kings and nobles, knights in shining armor jousted and fought in battles, peasants lived in the mud working their lord’s land, and women were passed around through arranged marriages to broker treaties and create alliances, with virtually no say in the matter.

Be honest, how many women from this time period can you actually name? Saint Joan of Arc and… Saint Joan of Arc?

To be clear, medieval society was not great for women, but it wasn’t as bad as you might think. There were plenty of women who made great accomplishments during this time. Women like…

Anna Comnena

Anna Comnena image from cover of Anna of Byzantium by Tracy Barrett

Anna Comnena was the eldest child of Byzantine Emperor Alexius I Comnenus. She was taught many subjects as a child, including astronomy, geography, mathematics, science, history, and medicine. In an age where education was rare, this was a luxury that shaped the princess’s life. She became a medical doctor, and with her father’s help she built and ran a hospital in Constantinople that could treat 10,000 patients. She even became her father’s personal physician in his last years, trying to save him with the treatments she had learned and practiced.

When her father died, the throne was passed to her younger brother, John II Comnenus. This didn’t sit well with either Anna Comnena or her mother, who conspired to try to overthrow him and replace him with Comnena’s husband. However, her husband refused to participate, the plan fell apart, John II discovered what his sister was up to, and Comnena wound up spending the rest of her days in a convent.

Even in exile, however, she continued to make history. Literally – she became the first female historian, writing a chronicle of her father’s reign called the Alexiad. This text is invaluable for modern historians, as Alexius I’s reign happened to coincide with the First Crusade. Not only did Comnena recount the broad, sweeping events of that time, but also many specific anecdotes of events she witnessed first-hand. Such detailed accounts written so soon after the events are very, very rare in the Middle Ages.

Hojo Masako

Hojo Masako image from Professor Brian Hoffert

Let’s talk a little bit about a woman’s life in Medieval Japan. Though Japanese society was very much a male-dominated space, there were many female samurai (known as onna-bugeishas), female ninjas (kunoichi), as well as female novelists and poets. There was even a female shogun! Sort of.

Hojo Masako was the wife of Minamoto-no-Yoritomo, a proud and ambitious warrior who defeated his enemies in the Genpei War, secured complete control over Japan, and became its first shogun. Unlike many of the politically arranged marriages that were common among noble clans of the time, Hojo’s was a love-based marriage. She was so dedicated to her husband that she would ride side-by-side with him in battle. Then, in 1199, Minamoto died, passing the title of shogun to his son, Minamoto-no-Yoriie.

This is where things get a bit… complicated. Theoretically, the supreme ruler of Japan is and always has been the Emperor, who is said to be a descendant of the goddess Amaterasu. For almost all of Japanese history, however, the Emperor has been just a symbolic, ceremonial figurehead with no real power. This is the case today, with Japan’s modern democratic government, and it was the case in the days of the shoguns. Thus, the idea of somebody actually running things behind-the-scenes while the official ruler was a puppet is very common, and even expected, in Japanese political thinking.

So when her husband died, Hojo shaved her head and took the vows of a Buddhist nun, but didn’t go to a nunnery to live out her days in isolation. No, she continued being actively involved in the political affairs of what was theoretically her son’s reign. At first, she shared power with her father, Hojo Tokimasa, but that changed after a familial power struggle. After her father had her own son and six-year-old grandson killed, she sided with her surviving son, Monamoto-no-Sanetomo, in a rebellion that forced him from power.

For the next 14 years, she ruled Japan through her son, and when he died she arranged for Kujo Yoritsune to succeed him as the new shogun. She put down rebellions against her family’s rule in 1221 and 1224. She died in 1225, but the regime she helped create remained in power for more than a century afterwards.

Matilda of Tuscany

Matilda of Tuscany image from Wikipedia

While Hojo Masako controlled Japan indirectly, Countess Matilda of Tuscany openly shaped Italian politics in the 11th century. She inherited various domains in present-day Italy and France in 1076, after all of her male relatives died out. She took power just when a crisis was brewing between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor, officially over who had the power to appoint bishops, but in practice over who should be more powerful in general. In 1080, Emperor Henry IV marched into Italy to settle the dispute by force. Matilda rushed to the Pope’s aid with her own army.

Things went badly at first. The Emperor’s forces captured Rome, forcing the Pope to flee to Matilda’s castle for safety. However, Henry got cocky, leaving Italy once he had appointed his own “pope”. He figured his Italian allies could sweep Matilda aside, but instead Matilda’s forces were victorious at the Battle of Sorbara in 1084. For eight years afterward, a stalemate emerged, with Matilda’s forces unable to secure Rome for the Pope but the Emperor unable to drive Matilda from her mountain strongholds. By 1092, however, fortune started turning in Matilda’s favor with a string of victories. By 1097, Henry IV simply quit Italy altogether, leaving Matilda in control there.

Eventually, Henry IV died and his son, Henry V, took over as Emperor. Much more conciliatory than his father, Henry V formally recognized Matilda’s power by naming her “Imperial Vicar Vice-Queen of Italy”. This was the beginning of a peace process that led to the Concordat of Worms, which separated religious and secular power as two separate institutions. Every year, a historical re-enactment of the meeting of Matilda with Henry V is held in Quattro Castella, Italy.

The Anglian Princess

Valkyrie on horseback image from Wikimedia Commons

This tale comes from the writings of the historian Procopius. Unfortunately, he neglected to actually record the name of this woman, which is a real shame, as you will soon see.

Fans of medieval history will tell you that our English language, and the English people themselves, originally came from the Anglo-Saxons, who came from Denmark and northern Germany and conquered much of modern England from the Celtic and Roman people who originally lived there. A key detail about this period in history is that the Anglo-Saxons were not originally one people. Before they moved to Britain, the Angles and Saxons were separate tribes, and there was nothing to guarantee that they would end up getting along, let alone merge into a single people.

So it was something of a big deal when the Varni, a tribe who were vassals of the Saxons, arranged to have a young Varni prince named Radigis marry an Anglian princess. The two were betrothed, but before they could be married, Radigis’s father fell ill. As he lay dying, he told his son not to go through with the wedding with the Anglian princess, on the logic that the Franks were a rising power and securing an alliance with them was much more important than diplomacy with the Angles. Radigis followed his father’s advice, calling off the wedding when his father died.

It turns out that Radigis had just messed with the wrong princess. She raised an army of 100,000 warriors, sailed to Saxony, and defeated the Varni so completely that Radigis tried to flee. Soon, the Angles found him hiding in the woods, tied him up, and brought him before their princess. She demanded to know why he had broken off their engagement, and Radigis apologized to her and explained that he was only following his father’s wishes. Apparently, his answer satisfied her, and she released him on the condition that their betrothal was back on and they would be married. Sure enough, shortly thereafter, the wedding took place, and Procopius’s account ends.

Now, obviously one wedding didn’t create the Anglo-Saxons overnight; the merger of the Angles and Saxons would have taken many generations and been an incredibly gradual process. Having said that, the marriage of Radigis and the Anglian princess was a step in that direction, and might not have happened if our princess hadn’t decided to take matters into her own hands. If only we knew her name so she could get the credit she deserves.