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:

Oh.

Oh.

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.

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