During the first week of January, over 300 HBS students descended on Silicon Valley to hear speeches by tech industry executives, visit over 200 leading technology companies, listen to industry panel discussions and do significant damage to their livers. All of this was done as part of WesTrek 2001, HBS’ largest and oldest high-tech trek.
By all accounts, this year’s WesTrek was a spectacular success. Students learned a great deal about the Valley and the technology industry, identified summer and full time job opportunities and thoroughly enjoyed San Francisco’s nightlife. According to Heather Clayton OA, “WesTrek actually succeeded in making recruiting painless and fun. West coast companies seem to have so much flavor and personality. Most of them brought out their top management to speak with us — not to mention a wide assortment of mousepads and t-shirts.”
For many, the highlights of the Trek were the featured speakers. Of these, the keynote speaker, Bill Campbell, was by far the most entertaining and interesting. In a raucous speech on the first evening of the trek, Campbell regaled students with tales of his experiences in the Valley, as VP Marketing of Apple, founder and CEO of Claris, Chairman and CEO of Intuit, and Netscape board member. Early on, Campbell dispensed with formality, prowling the audience with a bottle of Sam Adams, giving a no-holds barred account of life in the tech industry and offering frank and motivational career advice. His most poignant advice was for us to “get a real job” on the operating side and eventually become CEOs, explaining self-deprecatingly that if a “football coach like [him]” can do it, so can we.
Said Clayton, “I especially enjoyed hearing from Bill Campbell, the chairman of Intuit, who urged us all to make our career choices based on chasing the learning, not chasing the money. In today’s more realistic valuations of the high-tech sector, that advice seems especially timely.”
Other speakers were similarly engaging. On the last day of the Trek, Josh Silverman of Evite relayed his experiences as a dot com CEO in today’s turbulent environment, and Geoffrey Moore, author of Crossing the Chasm, made a surprise appearance and offered his take on current and possible future trends in technology.
Most of the learning, though, went on at on-site company presentations, the core of WesTrek. A total of 130 companies gave on-site presentations in industries that included wireless, optical networking, enterprise software, computer hardware, dot com, semiconductors, ASP, web hosting, venture capital, investment banking and management consulting. Students could attend a total of three presentations per day, or a total of 12 over four days, with most attending 8 to 10.
Presentations ranged in size from 8 to 200 but were generally regarded as informative and worthwhile, regardless of size. Most cited the opportunity to hear a company’s story and meet employees at a firm’s offices as particularly valuable. Attendees gained insight into a company’s industry sector and got an inside peek at its work environment and culture. According to Jason Bunge NB, “WesTrek provided the unique opportunity to evaluate both industry and company fit with my personal interests and career goals – all within the actual environment of the company.”
The success of the presentations was due in no small part to the enthusiastic participation of alumni. There seemed to be a high-ranking alumnus at almost every presentation. Numerous HBS Silicon Valley luminaries made appearances at their respective company presentations, including Scott Cook, the founder of Intuit, Jim Breyer, Managing Partner at Accel and David Filo, Co-Founder of Yahoo.
Trends in student career interest also became increasingly clear as a result of WesTrek. Given the large number of participants (second only to last year), it is clear that HBS students still retain a significant interest in Silicon Valley and technology. However, this interest has shifted.
Cisco, HP, Intel and IBM played to packed houses while start-ups struggled to generate interest.
Highlighting this trend, Ask Jeeves, a WesTrek 2000 sponsor, for instance, opted to participate in WesTrek’s start-up company career fair instead of hosting a company presentation, while HP, which had long ceased recruiting at HBS due to lack of student interest, had to turn students away this year. Investment banking and consulting firms also enjoyed increased interest. Of course, certain trends still persisted. Venture capital presentations were consistently oversubscribed, even though the venture capitalists consistently claimed not to be hiring for anything but their portfolio companies.
Beyond featured speakers and company presentations, WesTrek, for the first time, offered educational panels each morning. The first and most popular was the wireless panel on the topic “Device Convergence: Phone versus PDA, Who Will Win?”, which was moderated by a partner from Mohr Davidow and included senior executives from Handspring, Omnisky and Openwave. Other panels included: an alumni panel moderated by HBS professor Donald Sull on the topic “How to Succeed After the Downturn” that featured prominent venture capitalists, entrepreneurs and executives; an optical networking panel moderated by a partner from Lightspeed that featured prominent optical networking CEOs and executives from ONI, Redback, Terawave and Applied Micro Circuits; a venture capital panel that included partners from Kleiner Perkins, Softbank and USVP; and a venture philanthropy panel. Despite their start times of 8:30AM, every panel was well attended and well received.
The panels were part of an effort to enhance the educational aspects of WesTrek. According to organizers, the complexity of the technology industry is difficult for average students to grapple with while also studying, especially for those with no prior technology experience. The panels were designed to help alleviate this problem. Also, WesTrek provides much more than recruiting leads. It provides an opportunity to gain an up-close understanding of current business practices and trends in the Valley and in technology, the leading industry in today’s economy. For this reason, WesTrek organizers worked with the Entrepreneurial Management Professor Donald Sull to design a series of events to maximize educational benefits, particularly Bill Campbell’s speech and the alumni panel. Aspects of the Trek will likely be incorporated into this semester’s RC Entrepreneurial Management course.
Educational enhancements were not the only additions to this year’s WesTrek. Despite resultant logistical and organizational difficulties, the event was greatly expanded by this year’s WesTrek Co-Chairs Caroline Pan, Tina Hsiao and Julia Davies. In addition to the panels, other improvements to WesTrek included complimentary morning breakfasts, free student parking at the Hyatt, a business center with online DSL access, a toll-free number updated daily with last minute changes and announcements, and a bevy of evening social events.
Speaking of social events – many would say they were the highlight of the Trek. After days filled with panels, presentations and speakers, Trekkers partied till the wee hours in an HBS-like flurry of activity. Social events were kicked off with a happy hour sponsored by Lightspeed on Tuesday, January 2. This was followed up with a night at Fanny and Alexander’s in Palo Alto sponsored by Siebel, complete with free food and drink and general irresponsibility. By acclimation, Section C’s Brendan Strong won the unofficial MVP award for the night for his spirited exchange with the founders of PayPal (see Jordan’s article in the humor section). A night out in Santa Clara after a happy hour sponsored by Yahoo followed on Thursday.
But, most of the damage was done on Friday and Saturday night. For Friday night, WesTrek organized a large, upscale networking reception co-hosted by the HBS Alumni Association at the St. Francis Yacht Club, one
of San Francisco’s most beautiful locations. This was followed by a night of bedlam during a pub crawl in the Marina that included stops at some of San Francisco’s best hot spots. It seemed at the Balboa Caf‚ that even some of the most quantitative of our male classmates (who shall remain unnamed) had difficulty telling the difference between 25 and pretty darn close to 40. Social events and the Trek itself culminated with a “Blow-Out Party” at San Francisco’s most popular club, Ruby Skye.
All in all, this year’s WesTrek lived up to its billing, giving students a chance to learn about Silicon Valley, to hunt for jobs, and to enjoy some much-deserved spirited revelry during our winter break.