Summer 2012 – Silicon Valley

A little over a year ago, I came back from an amazing summer at Silicon Valley in California. Here’s a small guide / story for anyone thinking about going out there to work, or if you’re just curious about my experience there.

Motivation

As part of my degree requirements at Imperial College London, we were made to apply for 6 month placements in the industry. I had interned at Goldman Sachs in London, so I was looking for a different experience to the conventional finance route that the City of London offered.
After relentlessly preparing for interviews by going through algorithm and data structure questions I got into a few companies in the San Francisco Bay Area and New York.

My first choice however was Palantir Technologies, where I was offered a place as a Forward Deployed Engineering Intern for their Metropolis platform. There were around 4 non-US interns and they sponsored our visas for the internships as well.

Palantir Technologies

We build software that allows organizations to make sense of massive amounts of disparate data

The company is based in downtown Palo Alto and the office I was working out of was the ex-Facebook headquarters, 156 University Avenue. For interns they provided free housing 5 mins from the office, bicycles and intern specific nights as well as the conventional perks for full time employees including free breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Palantir is one of the most relevant companies in the information age where we have terabytes of data floating around and no one has the tools to make sense of it. This is especially the case for large organizations.

Apart from all the fun and games, I was given a fair amount of responsibility during my summer projects. There was pretty much an open door policy at the company and I often found myself talking to interns, full time employees and directors late into the night about life, philosophy and code.

Fun, games and Silicon Valley

One of my friends (Rafal) from university was interning at ClassDojo on California Avenue and we often found ourselves going to Stanford over weekends where you can pretty much go around the whole campus and read under the beautiful lawns.

Once term time started I would often go to Stanford events where one of my Kenyan friends, Elahe was studying.

Cycling around Palo Alto is the best way to get around as everything is so close.

When you get bored of suburban Palo Alto, San Francisco is a stone throw away. The Caltrain goes into the heart of the SOMA district.

For our main Palantir intern event the company hired out the Exploratorium in San Francisco and had a party at Peter Thiel’s house (founder of Palantir and early stage investor in Facebook).

I also got the opportunity to visit the Dropbox HQ where some family friends are working.

Weekend getaways

Weekends were also spent traveling to attractions near and around California.

A few of my friends were interning at Amazon (Seattle, Washington) and we spent a weekend there which is ~2 hour plane ride away.  One evening we ended up at a beautiful restaurant called Ray’s Boathouse, which I would highly recommend.

Another weekend was spent in Los Angeles.

We had hired a car on these trips and didn’t have an issue with non-US driving licences. However, one thing to be wary about is that if you are under 25 then you have to pay a premium. They often require a credit card as well.

Rafal and I also drove to Yosemite despite the Hantavirus scare at the time.  We climbed up to Vernal Falls and were brave enough to take a plunge in the ice-cold water.

Freezing water!
Freezing water!

My last week of the internship was spent working out of the Palantir New York office in Manhattan, where I was staying in the vibrant Meatpacking district.

Interning for a company in the Valley is something that I would definitely recommend if you are student or have recently graduated.

Get in touch if you have any questions!

Founder Stories: Storify and MinuteBox

Last Friday, as part of the Imperial Entrepreneurs speaker series programme, we had the founders of Storify, Xavier Damman, and MinuteBox, Josh Liu, in the Imperial College Business School.

The evening kicked off with a presentation from Imperial Entrepreneurs about what they do and the set of events planned out for the year. Both speakers had fascinating stories of entrepreneurship and how they grew their businesses from scratch in uncertain times.

Xavier, who has a background in Computer Science joined the City for one year and swiftly moved on to starting his own business. His first concept was to develop a product to help people publish stories around social media, in particular Twitter. He was bold and moved from Brussels to Silicon Valley with his girlfriend not knowing what to expect and with only a few contacts. After 6 months of hard work and networking, his business, Storify, got $2 million funding from Khosla Ventures and also managed to get a co-founder who was in the media industry. Xavier was juggling his time between meetings with venture capitalists and coding the product by himself. Storify allows people and companies to create stories around social media sites including Twitter, Facebook, or Youtube. Xavier is very passionate about the concept of sharing and how his product allows people to capture individual posts, photos and links that would otherwise have been lost in the web, and create stories around these. Xavier says “Everybody is a reporter, but thanks to journalists, those voices can impact wide audiences, be remembered, change the world”. Xavier’s aim is to reinvent storytelling with social media, and to make everyone a ‘journalist’.

One tip from Xavier for aspiring entrepreneurs was “Don’t ask for permission. Ask for forgiveness.” It is, after all, in words of Steve Jobs, those of us who “think different, … , have no respect for the status quo”, that will make a noticeable difference in this world.

Our second visiting entrepreneur was Josh from MinuteBox. Josh is an alumni of Imperial College, and his product focuses on in getting people in touch with specialists in certain areas of expertise. The first iteration of his product got some negative publicity on TechCrunch (a leading technology/startup blog), but despite this, MinuteBox became a succesful startup enabling people to have a live chat with professionals in various fields through looking at LinkedIn profiles. Josh came from a working class family and fought hard to break out of it and build his own business. Josh’s largest piece of advice from the evening was to have a great team when starting out, as these are the people who you will be spending most of your time with. Even though Josh was not a technical cofounder, it was his succesful collaboration with the team he formed, that ensured the eventual success of MinuteBox.

The visit from Xavier and Josh is the first of many inspiring talks Imperial Entrepreneurs has planned. The focus of the society is to promote entrepreneurship and the idea that there is another possibility after graduation other than working for one of the very tempting investment banks. Imperial College represents some of the top intellect around the world, and it is people like that who are able to create innovative companies of their own which generate value for society.

If you are interested in entrepreneurship, starting your own company, the technology sector, or just want to listen to some very inspiring speakers, come to the talks organized by Imperial Entrepreneurs!

Seedcamp 2011

After interning in London for the summer, I had the opportunity of helping out with Seedcamp week 2011. Seedcamp is Europe’s largest tech startup accelerator programme. There were 4 main days, Entrepreneurs, Product, Growth and Demo day. The energy throughout the whole week was intense as a whirlwind of more than 100 entrepreneurs and venture capitalists from around the world were present each day. We also got a copy of ‘The Lean Startup, by Eric Ries‘ one week early!

We had quite a few interesting talks throughout the week as well. Notable ones are from Ilya (Yandex), Martin Varsavsky (Fon) and Dave McClure (500 Startups). The best quote I took away from the event was from Dave who said “Hate is closer to Love than indifference”. Slides from his presentation are here.

Inspiring talk by Martin Varsavsky

Good luck to the Seedcamp startups!