Spring 2017 SDM Tech Trek Report

By Juan Lara, SDM Certificate ’16

Each year, some of MIT’s best and brightest graduate students visit several of the world’s most innovative and successful companies to learn about leadership, innovation, and systems thinking from industry experts—and to explore recruitment opportunities.

Amazon (Photos by Ben Linville-Engler, SDM ’16)

The biannual MIT System Design & Management (SDM) Tech Trek is a tradition that has evolved over the past several years. Organized and run by SDM fellows, the treks were developed to enable SDM students to explore a variety of industries, examine different platforms and technologies, and speak with and learn from leaders at best-in-class companies. These up-close, personal interactions further the students’ education while also strengthening the relationship between SDM and host companies, fostering future opportunities. Two treks are held annually: one in the San Francisco Bay/Silicon Valley area in the spring and one in Greater Boston each fall (see related story below).

During the spring 2017 trek, SDM visited Amazon, C3 IoT, Continental, Ericsson, Google, Intel, Planet Labs, and Tesla. Several of these have sponsored thesis research or other projects; some already have SDM alumni on their staff and/or are looking to hire SDM graduates.

SDM Executive Director Joan S. Rubin remarked on the generosity of the companies visited during the treks. “All of them opened their doors to SDM students and provided unsurpassed opportunities to hear from industry leaders, tour facilities, and experience product/technology showcases and demonstrations. Most importantly, they shared the time, knowledge, and experience of some of their most talented people with the SDM fellows—offering a privileged and much-appreciated opportunity for networking and learning.”

The 2017 spring tech trek was organized and led by SDM 2016 fellows Christian West and Jose Garza. Organizational assistance was provided by all student participants, as well as by Rubin, SDM Director of Recruitment and Career Development Jon Pratt, Logistics and Administrative Specialist Amanda Rosas, and Career Development and Alumni Associate Naomi Gutierrez.

Trip highlights



At Continental’s offices in San Jose, CA, the SDM group met with the company’s vice president and head of products for intelligent transportation systems (ITS), Pasula Reddy; the director of products for Access Solutions ITS, Raj Sundar; and the head of products in China ITS, Yao Zhai. These leaders provided a general corporate overview, described overall industry challenges, discussed the organization’s project development structure; and gave product demonstrations. Later, SDM fellows went on a company tour to see some of the infrastructure put in place to support the company’s evolution. Throughout the visit and during an informal networking session, Continental executives encouraged questions, feedback, and suggestions from the SDMs on what they had seen and heard. Tour hosts included MIT SDM ‘08 alumnus Anil Rachakonda, director of products, Smart Cities ITS, and Heather Pagh of human resources.



Speakers at Ericsson’s facility in Santa Clara, CA, presented an overview and shared the company’s vision for strategy and growth over the short and long terms, focusing specifically on developing new technologies and connectivity for social interactions. They described the role of innovation and the company’s processes to support it, including predictive and optimization models that use data in conjunction with demographics to develop high-value products and services. Tours, product demonstrations, and access to working prototypes showed Ericsson’s commitment to reinvention, innovation, and adaptation over the 140 years of its work in the technology arena. Curtis Ludwig, director of global talent management, was SDM’s host for the visit. Other speakers were: Diomedes Kastanis, head of technology and innovation; Eric Qian, director of product management; Alvin Jude, researcher; and Nese Ozler, who works in the company’s OnSite Experience Center.



At Tesla’s headquarters in Palo Alto, CA, members of the engineering and development teams described the company’s history, products, approach to innovation and design, and several roadmaps for its systems and applications. Students got a glimpse into how fast the company’s culture is evolving to meet aggressive business deadlines. Learning about Tesla’s approach to design and development, as well as how its leaders plan, develop, and execute projects at the highest level in one of the world’s most competitive industries was invaluable.

Planet Labs

Planet Labs

In San Francisco, CA, several Planet Labs leaders met with SDM fellows to deliver presentations. Topics included a company overview; Planet’s approach to agile systems; satellite construction and operation; space deployment methods; and logistics for in-orbit satellites. A discussion followed on product design; methods and tools for development and user feedback; and the discovery of new use cases. SDM fellows received deep insight into a company operating in a small niche market with large demands for data management and reliability; they also gained an understanding of Planet’s business models. Planet representatives included Matthew Ferraro from spacecraft research and development; Ryan Kingsbury from electrical engineering; Cole Murphy from product design; Joseph Mascaro from impact initiatives; Lee Frantz from people services; and Alex Shih SDM ’09 from product and ecosystem, who hosted the visit.

C3 IoT

C3 IoT

At C3 IoT headquarters in Redwood City, CA, the group heard presentations from two MIT alumni—President and CTO Ed Abbo SM ’86 and Director of Products Erick Corona SM MBA ’13. Students learned about the company’s history; how data technologies and connected products interact with society; and what opportunities exist for employing applications in large-scale industries, cyber systems, and data learning. Together with the SDM fellows, Abbo and Corona discussed strategies for rapidly developing products, customizing projects for specific companies/industries; and providing value. The visit concluded with a networking lunch with employees from several of the company’s key departments, including engineering, services, and products.


At Amazon in Tracy, CA, SDM fellows toured the state-of-the-art order fulfillment center, where robots are deployed for product handling, distribution, and manual labor. Students learned how this highly complex, flexible, automated system can quickly be reconfigured and adjusted for variables such as seasonal demand using a robust model that integrates data management inventory and scale. A question-and-answer session that followed the tour covered a variety of topics, including operations metrics; motivating people; the challenges of business growth; and inventory management logistics. Director of Operations Sanjeev Vaid led the visit, which was hosted by Community and Public Relations Specialist Danielle Tafoya.



In Mountain View, CA, students learned how systems thinking was applied at Google to develop the company’s autonomous car spin-off, Waymo. The hosts provided an overview of employee roles and responsibilities in system development for this complex project, and they gave students a look at project management and milestones—all of which aligned remarkably well with what fellows are learning in SDM’s core course. The visit also included a trip to Google’s ACME Lab where they saw how the company uses agile approaches to develop new products and applications as well as to address issues with existing products.


SDMs visited Intel’s product development lab at its San Francisco campus. There they saw how Intel uses rapid prototyping tools, and fellows examined sample products developed by Intel’s design team and marketed by partner companies. On-site discussions that followed focused on the design process, the challenges of developing wearable technology, and Intel’s market strategy.

Key Takeaways

While all the companies visited are technology-driven leaders in their fields, visiting them in rapid succession gave SDM fellows valuable insight into the differences in cultures, strategic and technical approaches, and market challenges—as well as the similarities from business to business.

  • Through meeting and engaging with SDM fellows, company leaders experienced the unique character that MIT SDM fellows share: All are experienced engineering professionals with an average of 10 or more years’ experience, and many already hold one or more advanced degrees. Several companies actively recruit during the trek and/or identify candidates for future recruitment.
  • SDM fellows return to MIT with new professional opportunities and an expanded appreciation of the versatility and applicability of their SDM education across industries.

Upcoming Tech Treks

Twice every year, fellows, faculty, and staff from MIT’s System Design & Management (SDM) program embark on tech treks to learn from leaders at best-in-class companies about how systems thinking is being used to address their most complex business challenges.

SDM will hold two treks in the upcoming year:

  • Fall 2017—a one-day trek to top technology-based companies in the Greater Boston area.
  • Spring 2018—a four- to five-day journey to the Silicon Valley/San Francisco Bay Area that will covers a wide variety of industries.

If your company would like to participate in an SDM Tech Trek, please contact SDM Executive Director Joan S. Rubin at jsrubin@mit.edu, 617.253.2081; SDM Industry Codirector (Name and contact info) or Director of SDM Recruitment and Career Development Jon Pratt at jonpratt@mit.edu, 617.327.7106.