Takeaways from my trip to Silicon Valley: what makes companies like Google, Facebook, Linkedin & Big Monocle great?

Last week, the Communications Department of BYU-Idaho visited the Bay Area and met with some of the best companies on the planet. They are full of top notch people. Each company has a unique company culture, but they all had a similar thread. I’m going to take a moment and talk about the commonalities in these companies and the people that make them great.

What struck me about these people is that they are not God-like Super Beings. They are normal people like you and I who choose to do exceptional things everyday.

BYU-Idaho Comm Dept at Goodby Silverstein

We visited Big Monocle, Linkedin,Three Marketeers, Facebook, Google, Clorox, Edelman, Goodby Silverstein, Ebay and Paul Gustavson.

The purpose of this trip was to make connections with these companies to better prepare and place our students in high quality jobs. In addition to our conversations with these questions:

What are you looking for in people when you’re hiring?

What do you wish you would’ve learned in college that would have better prepared you for this job?

What could we do to improve our curriculum?

In no particular order, here’s a list of the top things we heard.

Passion Projects

One thing that stood out with each of the people that we met was that they all had side projects that they enjoy. A woman at Facebook quit her job to start an effort to help a leper colony. Employees at Big Monocle routinely break up their day by creating crazy vine videos.

The creative boutique Big Monocle

An employee at Ebay wrote a textbook of a class intended to teach visual designers how to code, a class he wishes existed. Every Google employee is expected to be “googlie,” or in other words, be the type of person who does something more than what is expected of them. In fact, google expects you to work 80% of your time on the job that you were hired for and 20% of your time on something that you’re passionate about. The employees we met at Edelman were hired based on their extracurricular activities. One woman began writing about sustainable agricultural practices in college to raise awareness on the issue (something she did on her own that had nothing to do with her classes) and was hired based on this extra effort.

Each company that we visited are looking for passionate people. The owner of the Three Marketeers said that he finds it very difficult to find employees with drive and ambition.

Three Marketeers b2b

Several of the companies echoed what we heard at Skype, “Great storytelling is crucial.” Almost all of these companies mentioned that altruism was an extremely valuable trait in a potential candidate.

Think about it; the type of person who is so passionate about something that she writes about it for free or spends his free time creating it or builds a nonprofit to fix it is the type of person who will bring that same effort to the job. These are not the slackers.

Today’s employers want passionate and driven employees. Doing more than you’re asked because you want to is a great way to demonstrate these qualities.

Takeaway: Do something. Do it now. Don’t wait to be asked. Don't wait to be granted permission. Get in and help. Create something. Chances are that you are watching way too much TV. Cut an hour or two out and do something that you love.

Start a personal project today and do it everyday.

Your personal project should have 2 main criteria:

  1. You should feel vulnerable doing it.
  2. You should share it with the world.

Concise Writing

This came up at every company and, not surprisingly, was emphasized at the companies that require a lot of writing. No one in business appreciates a long winded email, no matter how well crafted it is. The ability to succinctly communicate your message is key. The recruiting sift through hundreds of cover letters a week. I wish I could convey the overly dramatic full body eye rolls that I watched as they described the “cover letters that go on forever,” and the “resumes that never end.” This is why I am such a huge proponent of Twitter. Learning to craft a message in less than 140 characters is great practice is concise writing.

Takeaway: Edit yourself and cut the fat in your communication before you send anything. Start practicing concise communication now so that you’re not learning those skills while writing your cover letter or sending a message to your boss.

Twitter is a great way to practice succinct communicating because you're limited to 140 characters.

Figure it out

The best way to learn is “being dropped in the deep end.” The idea of learning to swim by being tossed in the deep end of the pool and possibly drowning may sound a bit harsh, but in today’s work environment, no one is going to spoon feed you the answers. On the job training does not mean that there is a regimented training program set up to teach you everything you need to know. It means that you will be required to do things that you’ve never done. In fact, some of the most agile companies we visited take on projects where no one in the company has any competency in the necessary skills. This may seem crazy, but they have full confidence that their people will figure it out and they continue to deliver quality results project after project. Many of these companies are on the cutting edge and are the ones blazing the trails into uncharted territory. They draw their own maps and write their own manuals. There is no tutorial for the thing that no one has done yet.

Takeaway: If any of the following sounds like you, then you need to change your mindset and learn to figure things out:

  • You email your professor before you try to find the answer online.
  • You find yourself waiting to be told what to do next.
  • You get frustrated when you’re expected to perform a task without detailed instructions.
  • The idea of jumping in and figuring it out as you go freaks you out.
  • You wait until you feel completely competent at something before you start trying it.
  • The idea of starting a personal project sounds like something you may do in the future when you’re better, more prepared or experienced.
  • You view failure as an end rather than as part of your iteration process.


Urgent vs. Important

We are all pulled in a million directions all the time. The unfortunate situation is that the things that are on fire and need immediate attention (urgent) are usually not the things that will have a significant positive impact (important). The important things in our lives and work are easily put off until tomorrow to take care of the incessant needs of the urgent things.

One employee at Ebay told us that he had to learn which meetings to accept and which to turn down because he could fill every day with urgent meetings and never get anything important done.

Takeaway: Prioritize your long term and short term objectives and make sure to move the needle on the important stuff everyday without ignoring the urgent stuff. This is a difficult balancing act that will require constant tinkering. The key is to do something that moves the needle in the long run every day.

If you spend all of your time on the urgent and do not carve out time for the important, then you will die having accomplished nothing important.

Visual reinforcement of the company culture

I’m a visual creative. I have spent most of my early career working for small companies with small margins and crappy workspaces. The single most impressive thing that I saw on this trip was that these offices looked amazing.

Goodby Silverstein

What made them truly incredible was that while each one felt different than the others, they were all communicating something. Every building, cubicle, wall, bathroom, window, break room and landscape was sending an intentional message. None of the spaces had been left to rot or looked dated. Everything was new and specifically designed to create an efficient workspace for creative employees.

Many will talk about on-campus massages, free laundry, free food, free bicycles, foosball, pool, ping pong, maternity/paternity leave, etc, but these are all part of treating your employees like people rather than a cog in the machine. The real key to the company culture is in the posters and decor. Campuses like Google and Linkedin are some of the most impressive work places that I’ve ever been, but Facebook really knocked it out of the park.

As I walked in, I was immediately struck by the hand screen printed, gig poster styled, propaganda posters covering every wall. When I investigated further, I was taken to the “analog research laboratory.”

Facebooks Propaganda Posters

The screen printer told me:

“this is where we do the opposite of what everyone else at facebook does.”

They had a letterpress station with movable type. They had screen printing. They made buttons, posters, cards, flyers and shirts... one at a time, by hand.

Facebook's Analog Research Lab

Here’s the key: these were not top down mandated messages. Anyone at Facebook can walk into the Analog Lab and make a poster. It was a grass roots system designed to give a visual voice to the feelings of the employees. I walked away with a huge stack of posters and a new insight on the importance of surrounding ourselves with good design.

Later, in his living room, Paul Gustavson explained the importance of a well designed workplace with before and after examples of businesses he turned around. He starts by changing what the employees see in the office.

Takeaway: Surround yourself with visuals that remind you why you do what you do. You spend a huge amount of time in your office, it should look incredible.

Fill your life with good design.

Analyze and breakdown ads

People who create advertising and visual communication pieces don’t like or dislike things; They know why they work or don’t work. As someone who wants to connect and communicate with people, you should be able to analyze and breakdown what works in a project. Knowing the basics of design (proximity, repetition, alignment, contrast, flow, typography & color theory) are foundational principles in business today. Understanding sound writing practices is also key.

You don’t need to be a writer or a designer, but you do need to be able to communicate with them in industry standard terminology. Goodby Silverstein mentioned that they often require impromptu analyzation of ads during their hiring process.

Takeaway: What is it about that photograph, magazine ad or TV commercial that is making it work?

Make a habit out of asking yourself why you like something.

Be exceptional

Exceptional people are exceptional because they do exceptional things. Way too many people today are concerned with entertaining themselves and spend their entire lives never having made a difference. Too many students are waiting to be told what to do. We've built an academic culture in this country that produces students who are only concerned with how little effort they can put in to get the grade.

Exceptional people don't focus on minimum requirements. They meet the minimums that they're required to do and then get to work. They have passion. This passion drives them to excel and break barriers. They don't care about the minimum requirements any more than an eagle cares about a traffic jam.

Someone who is working on a side project instead of rotting on the couch is doing something exceptional. Putting forth any effort above what you are minimally required to do is out of the ordinary. If you are passionate about that extra effort, then it is exceptional.

Takeaway: Becoming an exceptional person is very simple:

  1. Do exceptional things
  2. Do those things everyday

The employees we met at these places are normal people who do exceptional things everyday.

Your thoughts?

Tell me what you think or ask me questions about what these places are like in the comments section.