UVA Darden Students on Bay Area Tech Trek Gain Insights From Companies Disrupting Across Industries
By Mary Shea Watson
“What’s your rocket ship vision?”
That was one question asked of Nevro and Plaid panelists on the University of Virginia Darden School of Business’ Bay Area Tech Trek by Jordan Hart (Class of 2020), one of 53 students participating in the three-day trip to San Francisco and Silicon Valley. In an environment of rapid disruption, a tech company’s rocket ship vision might need definition within two to three years, rather than other industries’ decades of strategic planning.
Organized by Darden’s Career Development Center, this year’s trek allowed students to customize the trip to serve individual interests while meeting 34 Darden alumni with roles at 20 early and late-stage companies. With 18 percent of the Class of 2018 accepting full-time roles in tech, industry-specific tracks were offered to respond to growing interest among students for tech roles at companies across sectors.
On Day One, students selected one of three sets of company visits, ranging from entertainment software company Electronic Arts (EA) to medical device company Nevro, part of a rapidly growing market for spinal cord stimulation and chronic pain relieving products.
Day Two featured four more tracks, among which included visits to Plaid, one of Inc.com’s top six ventures disrupting the financial services industry, retail stalwarts The Gap and Macy’s, health care provider Blue Shield, and cloud-based software giant Salesforce. Many students also attended an invite-only LinkedIn open house. On the final day of the trek, students visited companies familiar to them and to recruiting Darden talent — Walmart eCommerce, Google and Facebook.
Combining Darden Methodology With Medical Technology
Nevro panelists and Darden alumni Lauren Opoliner (MBA ’10), Matt McCarthy (MBA ’04) and Katharine Neuenfeldt (MBA ’07) extolled the ability to evolve quickly, feel comfortable with new concepts and pivoting, and the power of the case method to prepare students for success in the medtech space.
“In a startup, you have to know what you’re doing and have to build from scratch with the industry knowledge you have.” Neuenfeldt said. “Darden sets you up well to have an impact at any organization you join. Figure out your skillsets. The health care industry needs more people from outside.”
Game-Changing Entertainment Technology
Jacob Hoffman, EA product manager of mobile and social experiences on the Player Network platform and an unannounced social network, encouraged students to “lean into” their passions. A self-professed “hardcore gamer,” Hoffman highlighted innovation, initiative and “design sprint culture” — a week when producers, product managers, markers and engineers ideate with the goal of producing a lightweight prototype — as integral across functions at EA.
He also referenced EA CEO Andrew Wilson’s belief that subscription and streaming services as the “biggest disruptors in the tech industry” and that “games will be playable on demand in five to 10 years.”
“We’re seeing everything you do and using that data to improve user experience and build new player experiences. A product manager is the quarterback for product features,” said Hoffman. “You’re working with designers and engineers to build prototypes and make decisions on features for each release of a product. You’re making relationships.”
Financial Technology: Centuries of Banking, Made for Millennials
Two recent Accenture studies highlight the “real and growing threat” digital-only banks and fintech companies pose to traditional banks — driven by consumer demand and radical industry changes in the 10 years following the financial crisis.
Dan Kahn, a member of Plaid’s business development team, believes that trend will continue. Joining Kahn on a panel at Plaid headquarters were growth team members Kathleen McGuirk and Catherine Bakewell, a 2012 UVA graduate.
Brooks Jung, a First Year with an interest in product management, asked panelists which courses MBA students should take for a foothold in fintech.
“Focus on anything that’s interactive, deals with leadership, and explores tacit and explicit negotiations,” Kahn said. “Learn quantitative marketing. Try things you’re not as good at today. In startups, you’ll be asked to operate in problem spaces where there isn’t a clear answer. You have to be able to tell your story about why we should hire you.”
Darden alumnus Brian Cramer (MBA ’13), a senior product manager of user growth at NerdWallet, similarly endorsed an inquisitive nature. NerdWallet’s online content — written by 300 financial experts and garnering 100 million visits annually — details personal finance topics ranging from student loans to home-buying to opening a credit card.
“A lot of people think product management is cool. But do you actually get energized by that job and have the skill sets? It’s interesting to me, and I wanted to show that I was good at it,” Cramer said. He encouraged students to right-click a webpage, inspect elements and ask, “How is this stitching of tech working? There is a lot you can start to figure out, if you unpack it.”
Blakey Larsen, a business operations associate at NerdWallet, detailed the soft skills and technical skills firms like NerdWallet seek in candidates.
“Computer science is its own language. How do I translate my language to the language my engineers are speaking? It takes communication skills,” said Larsen. “Take an intro to computer science for MBAs class. Wherever you start, ask for context about how data is organized.”
Building a Better Shopping Experience Through Retail Technology
Darden alumni Ashish Sharma (MBA ’07) and Annelyse Norvelle (MBA ’03) spoke to Rakuten’s goal to dominate the e-commerce space, especially in regards to “frenemy” competitor Amazon. Between graduating and joining Rakuten subsidiary Ebates as senior director of corporate strategy, Sharma began in finance and consulting.
“[Consulting] was the best learning experience you can have post-Darden. It provided end-to-end visibility for an entire retail value chain,” Sharma said. “Tech has undergone a massive transformation in the past 10 years. I get to wear many hats — that’s a good thing.”
Joining First Years during Walmart eCommerce’s panel were Darden alumni Arnie Katz (MBA ’09), Dolly Hoskins (MBA ’18), Paige Hurlbut (MBA ’18) and Mariana Santos (EMBA ’18). Katz, vice president of product and engineering in international e-commerce, highlighted retail as an exciting and hot industry.
“As you think about your career, think about where exciting things will happen,” Katz said. “Spend a lot of time getting really, really good at something. It will help you get far in life.”
Hurlbut and Hoskins discussed how product managers must anticipate, understand and empathize with customer needs. This collaborative mindset played an integral role in Walmart’s winter 2017 launch of the Cashi app, a virtual wallet enabling customers in Mexico’s cash-based economy to make payments using the Android app. The company is planning an iOS release of the app soon, according to Walmart eCommerce Senior User Researcher Vidya Vaidyanathan.
Social and Software
In the trek’s final two visits, 11 Darden alumni greeted students at Google and Facebook headquarters. At each of the tech giants’ campuses, alumni provided clarity and offered insights into company culture, leadership and long-term vision. Panelists also emphasized the importance of understanding the value of emerging technologies like machine learning.
Facebook Finance Manager Kartik Krishnan (MBA ’13) sees artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning as “instrumental” players in the social platform’s growing family of products.
“AI and machine learning find inauthentic content that shouldn’t be on the platform,” said Kartik. “We need human trainers to teach those machines what to look for and to analyze those problems.”
Google Product Manager Alex Koes (MBA ’18) focuses on the YouTube advertising arm and also spoke to machine learning’s capabilities in identifying and removing user-generated video content that violates the platform’s standards.
“We want to create a cable-like experience for our advertisers,” said Koes. “We’re building tools to identify [negative] videos early on.”
Trey Wheatley (MBA ’10), a Facebook technical program manager, supports high-consumption products like newsfeed and events. He also manages new alternate reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) products — two components playing an integral role in Facebook’s 10 year plan.
“What Facebook is looking for is talent. For people who can lead, take action and not be told what to do,” Wheatley said. “Show that you know how to get something done in a collaborative way.”
Tech Career Takeaways
Senior Director of Technology Careers Jenny Zenner (MBA ’03) and fellow CDC adviser Reid Thompson (MBA ’09) elaborated on key themes gleaned from the trek. Zenner saw many companies responding to a pressure to ease global transfers of funds and to provide payment options to underserved populations. Echoing alumni panelists, Thompson said many companies in the Bay Area recognize the value of a Darden MBA.
“Like Darden, a lot of tech companies are mission-driven, and it’s important to align carefully with that in the job search process,” he said. “As tech companies mature, more of them are looking for MBAs to professionalize and standardize operations and processes.”
First Year MBA/MSDS dual-degree candidate Dylan Weber reflected on how valuable the trip was for him.
“The value of the tech trek is getting a sense of what it’s like to be at a company by meeting people on their home turf,” he said. “There are companies I’m excited to apply to that I knew nothing about before visiting. There is such a breadth of opportunities for MBAs out here.”
See the full list of companies visited on Darden’s San Francisco Bay Area Tech Trek below.
- Electronic Arts
- Walmart eCommerce
The University of Virginia Darden School of Business delivers the world’s best business education experience to prepare entrepreneurial, global and responsible leaders through its MBA, Ph.D., MSBA and Executive Education programs. Darden’s top-ranked faculty is renowned for teaching excellence and advances practical business knowledge through research. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.
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