Business Trip to Silicon Valley

In early June 2019, I went on my first business trip to discuss a project with our sister company, Edmodo. The project manager, engineering lead, and I flew to Silicon Valley in San Francisco. We also invited Codi, the representative of our EdTech platform, Coding Galaxy, to join us. Although our project and official schedule were tight, I couldn’t help but be excited to visit a tech company.

After a full day of flying, stepping out of the cabin into the warm sunshine was a rare treat! Cars are essential in the USA as I can’t drive, so I had to rely on two colleagues to take turns driving the rental car. One was a risky holiday driver, and the other said he wanted to be an amateur instructor and drove very smoothly. They gave me a lot of surprises and pleasure.

I relax in the back seat and take in the scenery. The road signs in the United States are strikingly similar to those in Hong Kong, with similar fonts and colours and place names written in capital letters. The font is bold and has a uniquely American feel for a foreigner.

Arriving at our destination, our first meal was my favourite of the trip – lobster rolls. I was tested on my English, which I had improved through my previous job, so ordering food was no problem. Although I do not usually eat lobster, I enjoyed it – the food looked as good as it tasted. As I ate, I listened to my colleagues’ stories about the lobster farm and forgot I was on a business trip. Where did these live lobsters come from?

We then visited the NASA tourist site. The building had a sturdy, futuristic feel, and the surrounding emptiness and clear sky made it easy to imagine the desert and aerospace research. This was our first stop in Silicon Valley, and everyone was eager to take pictures outside. Inside we found a simple souvenir shop. The yellowed display boards, T-shirts, planet models, astronaut equipment, etc., reminded me of the old Hong Kong Space Museum I visited as a child.

Would it be more popular with visitors if they decorated this place? After leaving the shop, I realised that the NASA research centre was nearby. So this is an affiliated souvenir shop, which is why there aren’t many visitors.

After leaving this place, we walked a short distance and found that the Americans were more strict about traffic rules than I had imagined. I usually thought Europeans and Americans were less strict than Hong Kong people and would cross the road without a car. We even crossed the middle of the road, although there was no danger. Then a security guard reminded us. Later, in other places, pedestrians and cyclists all obediently waited for the green man to cross the road, just like in Japan.

Edmodo Headquarters

After returning to the city centre, we visited our sister company Edmodo to officially start our business trip. Edmodo is a well-known online education platform in the United States. When we arrived, they had recently moved into a new office building by the lake, surrounded by willow trees. We worked in the office from 9 to 5, went sightseeing and had dinner in the evening. Late-night meetings in the hotel room tested everyone’s physical endurance.

Compared to Hong Kong, people here finish work earlier. At 5 or 6 pm, no one was in sight except for a few higher-ups, and we were writing on the whiteboard. Everyone kept their work, and personal lives separate, so it was somewhat awkward to ask them to stay late. As there were no restaurants nearby, the company provided a self-service lunch. Everyone was as excited to see the pizza as I was to see the sushi. Lunch varied daily with tomato rice, beans, chips, grilled meats and their favourite sweet drinks. Although I found the food a little greasy, it was interesting to chat with the staff and hear about their parental lives.

I’m delighted as long as I have rice.

Sometimes I see people eating a bag of chips as a meal. For them, however, chips are not “cursory rice (頹飯)”. Like potato chips, mashed potatoes, French fries and potato wedges in Western food, chips should not be differentiated, and I miss the hot rice in my hometown after a few days in the city…

Around 4 or 5pm, the staff went out to eat and relax. There was a famous basketball game with a renowned team that day, and our project manager and the fan staff eagerly discussed it. Meanwhile, I was tasting the savoury and sweet food, wondering if everyone would have enough to eat.

In the afternoon, we ate, drank and visited the cooperative company Got It. The founder is a young Vietnamese man, and the manager is lovely. They gave me canned Japanese green tea, which you can buy in Hong Kong, to help with my homesickness. They also shared stories about starting a business in Vietnam and working with employees worldwide, which was inspiring.

The other manager was amazing too. Whenever we had a problem in the meeting, he seemed to be able to solve it. He was great at controlling the situation and loved using the whiteboard to explain things, which inspired me to use the whiteboard more often in meetings. This way, we can ensure everyone is on the same page and avoid misunderstandings.

After work, the three of us used our free time sightseeing. That’s the beauty of youth, even if my physical strength isn’t what it used to be – haha.

Googleplex

As an IT guy, I had to visit the Googleplex in Mountain View!

As soon as I entered the park, I was greeted by a unique scent. Looking down, I noticed the grass was full of pale yellow flowers. The soft yet distinct aroma made the scenery behind me unforgettable. It was clear that this was the park experience Google had created for everyone.

The park resembled a university campus and a holiday camp. The low buildings were probably staff dormitories, and a gift shop was in the basement. In the middle of the park were many buildings that looked like classrooms. Passing through the platform, I could see a glass conference room. There was a badminton court in the atrium and a cycle path. It was convenient to take a tricolour G-bike to explore the park.

Google Android Statues Square

The must-see attraction is the Android Statues Square. This square brings back memories of when I first started designing mobile applications. It’s full of Android’s codename statues, making it the perfect place for Android fans to take pictures.

“Which version of Android did I start designing?” To be honest, I don’t remember. All I know is that the code names sounded familiar. At the time, I thought it was cute that the development codes were named after snacks and sweets. I’d often guess the name of the next version with my colleagues. But since Android 10, the naming method has changed, and the fun has gone. The statues may have become increasingly worn down by the new naming method; sadly, this place was dismantled shortly after we returned to Hong Kong.

Stanford University

Whenever I visit a foreign university, I’m overwhelmed. One afternoon we visited Stanford University. The campus is enormous, and I don’t know where to go. But the significant teaching buildings and structures were dazzling to my eyes. The classroom building was ancient and exquisite; the arched gate was delicately carved, the door was decorated with flowers, and the pillars were decorated with hearts. But above all, they were engraved with “ENGINEERING”! Could engineers study in such a culturally rich place?

Golden Gate Park

Photographing people and being photographed and photographing the magnificent red bridge is a popular activity for locals. The seaside bridge, with its grassland and fishing, is a beautiful sight. We played on the grass and took a panoramic photo, and the day’s exhaustion washed over us. Sitting on the pier, we felt the strong wind and photographed the Golden Gate Bridge in the golden hour. We had to be careful that our poses didn’t look like those of our aunts and uncles.

We climbed the steps to the bridge through the red brick tunnel covered in graffiti. I was exhausted by the time I reached the top. Although there were sculptures along the way telling the bridge’s history, there was nothing special. When I arrived at the bridge, I was slightly disappointed as it was just a bridge for cars. We took a picture and walked back into the darkness. The sun is very long in the USA at this time of year, making it difficult to keep track of time. It was already 8pm at dusk and almost 9pm when we went down the bridge. No wonder I was walking downhill with a rumbling stomach!

Facebook Headquarters

The Facebook HQ was on our itinerary, but we only had a few hours to see it, so we had to knock on the door at night! Finding the entrance was surprisingly tricky; we kept checking Google Maps on our phones, but the buildings were marked with numbers and letters, which was confusing.

“This doesn’t look like the visitors’ entrance,” I paused.

We got out of the car to explore, but it was late at night, and nobody was around. I couldn’t make out the building, just the iron gates and the guard booth, which was very heavily guarded. There was a bus stop in front of the building, and some people there were probably Facebook employees waiting for the bus. I remember waiting for the bus outside Cyberport in the middle of the night at my first job, and it felt particularly lonely.

We looked for the entrance several times without success. Was it simply because it was too late? Our engineering lead bravely rode an unfamiliar bike to find the way, while I, too tired and sleepy, had to stay put and wait for good news. We finally found the iconic 1 Hacker Way next to the roadworks, which became our only photo at Facebook HQ.

Car-through – evidence of our hard work

We discussed our trip but still had to work hard and burn the midnight oil.

By 10pm, after visiting Facebook HQ, we were hungry. We looked for a 24-hour fast-food restaurant, like McDonald’s, and saw lots of cars queuing up for takeaway. This is called car-through. You have to line up like a person in a vehicle, and a huge menu board is lit on the side of the road. Worried about the drivers behind us, we quickly took pictures of the menu board to choose our orders. Little did we know that we would live to regret this mistake!

It was so dark I couldn’t even see my hands. I also couldn’t see the black intercom in front of the menu. It turned out to be for ordering! You had to tell the intercom your order number and number plate. When we got to the front of the restaurant, the waiter asked us to line up again because we hadn’t ordered correctly. After more than 20 minutes of starvation, we finally made it. I was so tired I didn’t even want to talk. When we returned to the hotel, I had no idea what time it was. All I remembered was that I was glad I had ordered chicken rice! A hot meal, the taste was still good, and it warmed my tired body and mind. That night we ate dinner, moved Trello cards and held meetings for tomorrow’s work.

The boss and the team leader visited in the last few days. Our work schedule became tight, and our meals became luxurious. When we returned to Hong Kong, we shared these exciting stories with our colleagues. They suggested that since we couldn’t find a restaurant at night, why not order Uber Eats? One word woke the dreamer; none of the three senior staff had thought of it. We must have been exhausted that day.

Clothing of Americans

Two men and a woman were going on a business trip, and I envied them for not having to worry about what to wear. A shirt and trousers would never go amiss. I hadn’t thought about buying clothes for the trip, but I was worried about what to bring. When I arrived, I realised I had worried too much. Americans dress simply, with plain T-shirts and jeans, and a jacket if it’s cool. This style is commonplace. I still wore the clothes I had brought, but I didn’t have to worry about fashion, which made me feel much more relaxed.

For Americans, plain T-shirts are chic. They seem to like them and are always happy to receive company logo shirts as gifts. Of course, you never know if they’ll wear them. In Asia, company logo T-shirts are rarely given as gifts; the giver probably doesn’t expect the recipient to wear them.

A career in Silicon Valley

When we Asians dream of one day working for a tech giant, it can come as a surprise to people in Silicon Valley that we can stay in the same job for 3-4 years. In Hong Kong, two years is often enough time to get used to a current position. Are 2 years really enough?

I once dreamed of working for tech giants like Apple and Google, which attract the world’s best talent and offer great benefits. It would be an honour to be a small part of their staff, but their interviews are notoriously difficult. How can people talk about it so easily here?

Technology Wonders

Local parents are introducing their children to STEM and robotics in kindergarten and primary school! It must be fun to build robots with STEM teaching elements. We were surprised to learn that primary and secondary school students are using STEM education, but it turns out that some are starting even earlier! Some may think this is too early for children, but logic and hands-on activities are skills everyone can learn, and the earlier you know the logic, the better. There is no need to worry that learning too many reasons will limit the development of creativity, culture, etc. After all, children absorb knowledge much faster than adults.

In addition to education, the technology of Silicon Valley is visible and tangible. It is something you must have heard of and is very life-oriented. Unlike Japan, Silicon Valley has many new and high-tech inventions that are the products of creativity. For example, bitcoin machines outside supermarkets, key machines, electric vehicles and charging stations. Do you prefer technology that is visible or integrated into life?


Afterword

On a particular day in May 2019, I measured the size of my bag, counted the documents, and nervously made my way to the US consulate to apply for a visa. When I arrived at the gate, the security guard refused to let me in because my bag was slightly larger than the required size. I was at a loss with only 30 minutes before my appointment. This was my first time travelling abroad on business, and I had already hit a roadblock before I even left.

“If I couldn’t apply for the visa today, the visa fee and business agenda paid by the company would be wasted.” “Why did a design lead make such a big mistake at a critical moment?”

My mind was suddenly filled with myriad bad thoughts, and I was almost in tears. Should I call my family or colleagues who live nearby for help? Or should I leave the bag in the cafe across the street? After taking a deep breath and calling the manager who was with me, I took a taxi in the rain to the metro station to store my things.

The rain had stopped by the time I got into the taxi. I looked down at my wet, flat shoes and thought, “Ah, this pair will be scrapped.

The driver calmly listened to my desperate words, calculated the time for the round trip and kept reassuring me that I would make it. “Miss, turn around, and you’ll be at Hong Kong Station. You can go in. Don’t worry. You’ll make it.”

People often say that Hong Kong taxi drivers are arrogant and bad, but I was lucky to meet such a kind man. I left my belongings and took my documents, phone, wallet and umbrella. It was raining heavily, so I hugged my bags tightly and took a taxi back to the consulate.

I arrived at the consulate on time, as the driver had expected. The atmosphere inside was tense, not because of the tight security but because the local staff were strict. If people in the queue were slow to react, they were harshly reprimanded. Because I was a bit reckless, an aunt scolded me as if I had suspicious motives. The foreign staff in charge of the window inspection had no expressions on their faces and had questions about where I was going and what my job was. I wasn’t sure if they would understand if I said I was a UX designer, so I just said I was a web designer who designs mobile apps. It was an honest answer, though.