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On March 4, a class of 22 undergraduates, led by Associate Professor John Gallaugher (information systems), flew to California’s Silicon Valley for a week of encounters with managers in the high-tech sector, including four corporate vice presidents, six CEOs, and seven partners in venture capital firms. The class, “Undergraduate TechTrek West,” aims to furnish a glimpse of the valley’s business culture—which Gallaugher describes as “deeply egalitarian, highly tolerant of failure, a massive idea-generation machine”—and to expose the students to issues faced by business leaders. It’s one thing to hear a classroom lecture on a concept like burn rate (the rate at which a start-up firm uses up venture capital money), Gallaugher maintains, but quite another to discuss burn rate with a CEO who is burning through his start-up funds.
Firms on the TechTrek itinerary ranged from household names like Cisco and eBay to outfits like Glu Mobile, which sells video games for mobile phones, and Zafu, an online marketer of clothing. Before the trip, the class divided into teams of two or three, with each team assigned to lead a 30-minute class segment on one of the firms. Course readings included 85 journal and magazine articles on the companies, all selected by the teams.
The students went west armed with detailed interrogatories (“Google just bought your main challenger. How are you going to survive?” the presenter at one start-up was asked, according to Gallaugher). Topics covered in their meetings with managers included mergers and strategic alliances, venture capital investing, selling high-tech goods and services in developing economies, and trends in green technology. In a typical encounter, a manager launched into PowerPoint slides but was “immediately overwhelmed by questions,” says trekker Jacqueline Jacobs ’07. Her classmate Jay Bavishi ’09 jokes that he measured each meeting’s success by the number of slides the presenters got through—with fewer slides meaning a better meeting. Joan Hoover, Apple’s director of investor relations, was on her first slide when the questions began, Bavishi says, and she never made it to Slide 2.
After the trip, Apple’s Hoover requested the résumé of trekker Liz Dean ’09, who had fired off a set of questions about Apple’s competition for the business market with Windows-based PCs. Since then, the finance and accounting major has been talking with Hoover about a summer internship. Undergraduate TechTrek is in its second year, and a graduate version, also led by Gallaugher, is in its third. Though Gallaugher stresses that the trek is not a recruiting trip, last year’s graduate and undergraduate treks yielded four full-time jobs and two internships.
Asking “the tough questions” of senior managers, says Gallaugher, builds confidence. As one trekker told him afterward, “I’ll never be nervous at an interview again.”
David Reich is a writer based in the Boston area.
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