Have you ever wondered what the people at Facebook are like? Today, I had the once in a life-time chance to walk into the Facebook premises and ask Rodrigo Schmidt, an Engineering Leader at Facebook & Instagram, all the questions I had about their platforms. It was only one moment in a day full of inspiring business encounters we had on our Study Tour with swissnex San Francisco.
Silicon Valley is a Canyon
One of the most precious insights of the day however, was the talk we had with Chuck Darrah, a Professor in the Anthropology Department at San Jose State University. He was born in San Francisco, has lived here all his life, and has witnessed the trends that have come and gone since the 1950s. “As a kid, I hated Lockheed and all the companies that came in because they cut so many trees to clear the space for their huge premises”, he recalls.
But that was only one of many eras. With the big air force bases and various suppliers for the State Department of Defense the big money came in. And that lay the basis for a specialized workforce. Darrah knows how to tell the story and at the same time offer deep insights into the history of the Bay Area that is also known as the Silicon Valley.
“People are coming in from all over the world and most of them leave again after a few years”, he explains. The same goes for all the tech-companies. But Darrah is convinced that one thing stays: the network. “It’s all about the network”, he states. People bond with the people and with the knowledge network in the Bay Area. And these ties remain.
He even challenges the whole concept of the valley. “It certainly is not a valley”, he smiles. “The tech-companies are located between the hills and the coast line. It is much more appropriate to picture the area as a virtual canyon. If you imagined the layers of sediments, made of company logos, you would see that each era had its trend and its power players”.
There was the time of defense technology, then the computer software giants moved in, giving the region its name, as production of semi-conductors required silicon. Today, the trend is with Social Media companies. And due to the very specialized workforce that has congregated here, the next technological trend is bound to take place in San Francisco as well.
So, what is the next trend? According to Darrah, the next big thing is already in the making: Medical Technology and Solar Power Technology are moving into in the area, growing, and getting ready to make for the next layer of the canyon.
The Power of Digital Learning
After our talk with Chuck Darrah, the program of our study tour continued with visits to Facebook and Coursera, a company working with renowned universities in the field of MOOCs. In an open discussion, we learned how digital and blended learning courses are set up, which key issues needed to be taken into account and how this way of learning pays off for all parties, if done well.
The idea of accessible and affordable education for everyone, including people in developing countries, is mind-boggling – and certainly worth striving for. My peers from universities in Lugano, Basel and Lausanne and myself were so deeply interested that Coursera representative Isabelle Finger couldn’t finish her presentation – we simply had too many questions.
Connecting – Dot by Dot
Looking back, even just this first day of the study tour was worth the 12-hour flight to San Francisco (and the jet lag that came with it). In the next few days, we will be able to connect with selected tech-companies, expand our networks with the famous universities in the area, including Stanford and Berkeley, and last but definitely not least, get the opportunity to connect even stronger with our peers from the other universities in Switzerland. For me, swissnex really lives their promise of conneting the dots.
I have learned more about the spirit and the challenges of Silicon Valley and the digital trends than I could have ever learned at home. Dot by dot, pieces of the puzzle are now falling into place, helping me better understand the bigger picture of Social Media and passing on that knowledge to my colleagues at home.
About the Author
Joy Bolli is part of the communications team at ZHAW Zurich University of Applied Sciences and participated in the Swissnex Study Tour 2016.