This post summarizes the study trip of the the first group of #hwzdigitalleader to San Francisco and Silicon Valley. Written by Ari Byland (@abyland).

San Francisco didn’t change much since I first visited this mighty town almost 15 years ago. At least that’s what the receptionist told me, when I pointed out that they still have the same map like back then. Only that almost no one uses these maps anymore, because you know: Digitalization.

This is why we did our Study Trip to SF and Silicon Valley to begin with: To learn more about Digitalization and the companies created by and profiting of Digitalization. To learn more about their culture, their purpose, their business models.

MetaDesign @ SF
MetaDesign @ SF (Thanks for having us!)

The most important things happened beside the company visits, though. No, I’m not talking about the baseball game and the after-work beers. I’m talking about the experience of being in the epicenter, being right where „the thing“ happens. Being and taking (almost) directly part of the most important transition (or, as people like to call it these days: disruption) since industrialization at the begin of the 20th century.

It makes much of a difference, whether I read about Uber and Lyft and Yelp and Evernote and AirBnB (to mention only a few) or whether I experience how it is to just order a Lyft to take a shared ride to the ocean for a few bucks or to stand in AirBnB’s shiny headquarters we heard so much about. It’s the omnipresence of the „brave new world“ in San Francisco and Silicon Valley that makes the difference between being there or here in Zurich.

Since this brave new world is currently mainly built by Software Engineers (and associated roles), it’s completely normal to see billboard ads in the commuter train promoting things like Google APIs or big data solutions. Of course some of us even tried the infamous „Eatsa“, the restaurant where you never see a human taking your order or preparing your food.

T.M. Ravi @ Hive Data

T.M. Ravi @ Hive Data, gotta love this guy

Nevertheless, day 4 blew us all away. After having spent the first day on introduction topics and the 2nd and 3rd down in the ever calling Silicon Valley, we stayed in town on day 4. We all met in that fancy café, where you couldn’t tell if the hipster in the corner was the barista or yet another freelance programmer. Expecting another awesome day we grabbed enough coffee to keep a sloth stay up all night and off we went.

We all read the stories about how AirBnB would focus on design and used design thinking to get off the ground a few years back. But we weren’t prepared for something like this:


We couldn’t decide, whether we liked the furniture more or the people. Everything looked so comfortable and cozy, and everyone so smart and beautiful. Most of us couldn’t really follow what our nice guide (a Swiss guy actually) told us, some even tried to hide and stay in this great place. I myself was skeptic: It looked too perfect, too smooth, too well designed.

Either way it was hard to imagine people actually working here. What we encountered was so way beyond of what all of us ever experienced in their workplace (and some of us have quite „fancy“ employers), that we must have looked like visiting a zoo for the first time.

After we left, I had to think about what Chuck Darrah, Prof. of Anthropology at San Jose State University, told us the first day: Engineers usually made at least 250k/year, if not much more and Silicon Valley and San Francisco therefore attract thousands of young, well-educated people to work in such jobs. Since the rents aren’t regulated and are therefore on a rise since years (if not decades), quite lot of longer-time residents who don’t want to (or don’t have the chance to) work in tech, need 2-3 jobs to make a living and be able to stay in the Bay Area. It’s this gap between „the valley of dreams“ (for the well-educated, wealthy folks) and „the valley of nightmares“ (for the rest) that increasingly causes tensions between residents and tech companies.

Chuck Darrah

Chuck Darrah (no, he doesn’t own a mobile phone)

The day before we had experienced a rather desperate approach of profiting of Silicon Valley culture. We had visited a „Innovation Lab“ of an established german car manufacturer. The goal of the lab is to give certain employees enough freedom „to be innovative“ and to get the car company ready for the upcoming trends (like autonomous driving). While the people there certainly try really hard to make a difference, we could clearly observe the difference between „growing a company“ and „establishing an innovative outpost“ in Silicon Valley culture. The visit made it crystal clear to us that there is so much more to Silicon Valley than just „being there“. It’s a question of adopting the culture, the way of thinking and of perceiving the world.

Our job as Digital Leaders will be to make a synthesis between these worlds. We need to achieve better results in our companies in bringing together our company’s culture with the benefits of the „brave new world“. Obviously there is no easy way to do this. It requires us to have a broad view on the human beings involved, on rising technologies, and the way we collaborate. We need to stay open for new aspects, while also be able to keep a clear focus on what creates value in our companies.


I assume next time I’ll visit mighty San Francisco there won’t be any paper maps anymore. Gladly I still have one of my first visit, buried somewhere in my souvenirs.
San Francisco

  • How will your company (re-)act to the pace and innovation coming from Silicon Valley?
  • What are your own personal actions to stay fit in a world where (almost) everything is shaken by new technologies?

(Title reference)

Thanks to all involved, especially Joanna @ MetaDesign for all the work you put into organizing! We greatly appreciated all your hospitality!