Silicon Valley: What Google & friends taught me

I’ve just returned from an incredibly inspiring week in the Silicon Valley & San Francisco Bay Area.

I thought I’d share some thoughts & insights from the wonderful places I was able to visit & wonderful people I learned from. 


 

Google:

The Googleplex in Mountain View is an entire creative city where teams of people work the days away building the tools that organise the world’s information. Actual people run these platforms, not some giant robot cloud brain thing (yet).

My friend was working on some AR/VR algorithm I didn’t understand but the highlight was the on-campus coffee lab (until recently it had AI-designed cookies. Don’t ask). After an enlightening chat about video games while sitting on hammocks with a mutual friend (who founded the awesome GirlsMakeGames project) I headed to the main buildings where it all began at Google. 

Reflection: Google founders give a weekly, open talk for all employees to ask anything they want. This tradition keeps all team members connected directly to the leadership vision and any immediate concerns they have.

 

Facebook: 

The main campus is split into two huge areas and I was fortunate enough to tour both. One is designed to literally feel like a theme park, and team members were out enjoying themselves. There is a fun, creative ‘hack’ culture that permeates every corner and sign.

The second campus is ‘the largest open floor plan in the world’ with a huge nature area on top designed by Frank Gehry (super cool). Walking past the offices of Instagram & WhatsApp (both owned by Facebook), it was quite incredible to think how significant these tools & teams impact my life daily. 

Reflection: Team members are empowered to change the live platform as they see fit without ‘asking’ management, so it’s evolving & iterating every minute. If something breaks, no big deal, just fix it.

 

Airbnb:

The most beautiful office spaces I’ve ever been in!  Absolutely loved exploring these rooms with my super generous host Khaled. Each ‘office’ around the building is modelled directly on real places you can stay around the world using the Airbnb platform – so the whole environment feels like a metaphor for exploring the world. I love that it connects employees to the customer experience of the product itself.

Khaled made me a delightful coffee which truly embodied the ‘host’ experience that reflects the entire Airbnb brand mantra. Khaled had recently sold his company to Airbnb and shared some gems from his entrepreneurial journey.

Reflection: Be around people who stay humble even after they’ve had incredible success.

 

IDEO: 

Perhaps the most inspirational design company on the planet, I arrived at the front door of the Palo Alto office just as a smiling designer was walking out.  We had a quick chat and before long I was fortunate enough to be given a tour of the whole space – it’s an amazing place full of light, walls of post-it notes, super cool designer types and a special workshop at the back.

The designer was super friendly and even let me hold an original 80’s Apple mouse prototype that IDEO had designed for the earliest Macs. (#Design geeking out here!)  My day was made when IDEO liked my instagram post haha.

Reflection: Go knock on the front door, you never know your luck!

 

Stanford/d.school:

After two years I’ve finally completed the Stanford Innovation & Entrepreneurship Certificate. Graduation was in the evening, but first was an optional full-day workshop module run by legends of Design Thinking from the highly influential d.school. I learned so much from the experience that it will need a whole new blog post, but it spanned specific empathy & design-thinking tools, field-work experiments (around the stunning Stanford campus), brainstorming techniques and creativity exercises guided by leading experts. Huggy Rao shared that you have to ‘be like the elephant (big ears, small mouth), not the hippo (big   mouth, small ears).

Reflection: Enrol in that course you’re thinking about. I had no idea if I was able to manage to study with family & work commitments, but it was a hugely positive experience and absolutely worth the effort.

 

Apple: 

My friend generously gave me a tour around the campus area where they focus on mobile & internet services (App Store, Music & so on). We had a long chat about Apple culture, creative teams and what it’s like working in one of the most iconic & influential brands in the world. In contrast to Google or Facebook, it’s a much more focused and structured working environment – each person or unit working on tiny parts that all interconnect into a giant machine.

Team members can’t simply explore their famously secretive design labs or easily wander up to Jony Ive, which is probably a good thing because I’d want to talk to him for hours. Anyway, I had to finish the tour with a visit to the gift store to top up my Apple merchandise collection from previous visits! 

Reflection: Apple has a unique working environment & team culture that seemed more focused, structured and defined than the very open team cultures at Facebook & Google.     

 

Zaytuna College:

Their new campus atop the beautiful Berkeley Hills is a stunningly beautiful, peaceful sanctuary away from the bustle of life. It’s a space to learn, reflect and ponder signs of the universe. My state changed immediately here – it’s the feeling you want to spark personal reflection & growth.

Reflection: This beautiful space was only made possible because community members and leadership have worked together tirelessly for decades.  

 

Taleef Collective: 

A warm embrace from a beautiful community that I’d missed visiting. Pioneers of the third space concept that welcomes people to ‘come as they are’ without judgement. A night of inspirational dhikr, praise of the Prophet and a talk from a beloved teacher who had us all in tears.

Reflection: These spaces are so important to facilitate community, connection and remembrance – we need more of these spaces in our global communities.

 

500 Startups:

One of the partners was kind enough to see me and we had a fantastic conversation overlooking the entire Silicon Valley in a 360 view from their Mountain View office.  Exchanging ideas around startup culture, success and balancing the demands of raising a family was enlightening and inspiring.

Reflection: Find and spend time with people who can relate directly to your situation and current path in life. Even a few short words of wisdom can help steer your path in the right way.

 

Philz Coffee:

No trip to Silicon Valley is complete without at least one meeting in Philz.  While it’s still nothing compared to Australia coffee (sorry American friends), it was a treat to sit and soak up the atmosphere while all around me, engineers, designers, thinkers & creatives were building and making (or maybe just wasting time on YouTube).  I struck up conversation with a designer who had finished four years at the Stanford d.school, so we had much in common to share around Design Thinking and what the future holds for designers. We’ve since connected and turns out she has an awesome design blog. 

Reflection: Be in spaces that encourage serendipitous meetings and conversations that inspire you in ways you can’t predict (positive black swans). 

 

Uber Drivers: 

I rode with around 20 people. Uber drivers are a gold mine of human wisdom. I like to ask questions about life, parenting, creativity, anything. Some of the best advice was from a grandmother who picked me up from Google on my way to Apple – even the tech giants couldn’t come up with what she shared. More great advice came from a veteran soldier who was now re-finding his way in the world.

Reflection: Start conversations but then just listen – there is always something to learn.