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McMaster Engineering Goes West March 6, 2018

Big Ideas contest winners explore the world's largest tech companies and meet with influential alumni in San Francisco and Silicon Valley.

During a whirlwind four days, McMaster Engineering students explored the tech company equivalents of Disney World — a fantasy that became a reality.

Touring Google, Facebook, Apple, Tesla and Corning was both surreal and life changing for six lucky students who won a trip to San Francisco from Feb. 20 to 23. To earn their way, Andrew Aslanidis, Elizabeth DaMaren, Salma Latuke, Justin Licari, Jesse Wang and Adit Patel competed in the Faculty’s first Big Ideas contest, where they pitched their innovative solutions to nagging engineering problems and nudged out more than 60 other applicants to win the dream trip.

What they got in return was a behind-the-scenes look at some of the world’s largest and most influential companies, and one-on-one time with the McMaster Engineering alumni who work there. First stop? Tesla, where students scoped out the open-concept work space of one of the world’s most innovative transportation companies.

“It’s surreal,” says DaMaren, a Mechatronics Engineering & Society student, as a Tesla sign towers behind her in the distance. “I’ve admired Tesla for years and to finally get to California and to see them and meet McMaster alumni working here, I have no words at this point.”

Alumni Mitch Kos (B Tech ’15), Brandon Sarjoon (M ENG Policy '16), Don Pathirana (Mech Eng ’ 14) and Eunice Lee (Chem Eng ’ 16) regaled students about their experiences working at Tesla — all of them hired within the last 18 months. The group described a dynamic and fast-paced work environment where teamwork to solve problems and draw on expertise from other areas reign supreme.

Recent graduate Kos, who has worked at Tesla for more than a year, offered this advice to students: “Follow your passions and your hobbies. Stay in school and perform at the highest level you can. Pursue the passions that you have whether that’s joining a school club, sport or an activity that you find interesting — those are the things that offer more opportunities to get jobs.”

“I appreciate how they gave a very honest and candid insights into what it’s like to actually work here,” says Wang, a Mechanical Engineering student. “The most surprising thing is how everyone has a very different background environment, not just in the auto industry.”

Apple's Tech Playground

The Apple Park Visitor Center in Cupertino, California is a tech playground. Light pours in from floor to ceiling windows, illuminating a range of Apple products. Students scatter to test out gadgets, including a 3D model of Apple’s campus, brought to life by augmented reality technology.  

The low rumbling sound of steaming milk lures students into the center’s cafe where three McMaster Engineering alumni and Apple employees welcome them. Nilay Desai (B.Eng ‘13); Waleed Shinwari (MA ‘07, Ph.D ‘11) and Tyler Roschuk (MASC ' 05 & PhD Physics '09) engage in a relaxed conversation about their career experiences.

“When I was in school I didn’t even think about interning at Apple or Google,” says Desai, who is excited to welcome McMaster Engineering students for the first time to Apple. “We’re exposing students to the fact that this is out there and it’s in your realm. This is something you can get.”

The guidance Adit Patel received during the trip will help him turn his big idea into a startup. The third year Software Engineering Embedded Systems student already has a prototype for his Smart Vent that uses Internet of Things technology to fix the temperature imbalance in homes.

Winning the Big Ideas Contest inspired Patel to apply to compete at this year’s Forge@Mac Startup Competition. He is now a finalist who has a chance of winning a chunk of $60K in prizes on March 22.

“Meeting McMaster alumni and learning from their experiences in Silicon Valley has been a highlight for me. Seeing what steps you need to take and the kinds of experiences you will have here especially with a startup, it’s really informative and let’s you know that you can go anywhere. You just have to find the right people, the right products and fit it all together.”

Facebook's Disney village

Facebook’s sprawling campus in Palo Alto lays before the students like a Disney-like village, a pedestrian street leading them to an ice cream parlour, arcade, town square and signs encouraging employees to ‘Hack’ their way to a better platform and world. Surprisingly, there’s no branding or famous ‘F’ in sight.

Alumnus Gurbir Dhulla (B. Eng. ’15) happily leads the group on a tour of the campus, taking a moment to answer questions in what looks like a town square — the site of many Facebook hack-a-thons.

“You feel like you’re part of something much bigger here and people value you,” Dhulla tells the captivated group. “For me, that really stood out.” Dhulla completed five four-month internships at various companies, including Facebook — which stood out for its laid back and start-up feel.

“There’s not many companies where you can say the code that I wrote impacts two billion people every day.”

Standing on top of Facebook’s nine-acre rooftop garden, Aslandis is blown away by his experience and how it’s enriching his worldview.

“It really is possible to come down here and work for them,” says Aslandis, a second year Mechanical Engineering & Society student. “It’s not the dream that’s on a pedestal, like I had in my head. These students, they went through McMaster, they did a job in Ontario and now the work at Tesla (and other tech companies). To me, it was eye-opening to see that such an experience is within reach for me.”

Channeling Willy Wonka at Google

At Google, colourful rainbow-coloured bicycles, dreamy oversized suckers and gingerbread men — a nod to different iterations of Android’s operating systems — and a dinosaur skeleton dominate. Cue Willy Wonka and the chocolate factory.

Instead, fellow student, Shawn Jin, who is a McMaster Engineering international student from Shanghai, greets the group. He is on a co-op placement at Google, and he’s dressed the part by sporting a Noogler beanie hat — given to all new hire— and a branded backpack and sweatshirt.

He’s two weeks into his placement, and besides the great experience he’s gained on the job working on the company’s mobile virtual network, the next best thing about this Google experience is clear: The free food — a mainstay at the world’s biggest tech companies.

“We have great restaurants and we eat the freshest foods,” Jin gushes.

It was also awesome to have a visit from his institution, says the Software Engineering student who caught up with Engineering Co-Op & Career Services Manager, Kathryn Leistner and Career Development & Relationship Manager, Jesse Sahota.

“I feel great I think McMaster cares about me. I had a site visit and I’m very glad that I can host the entire tour. Thank you for giving me the opportunity.”

What impressed Licari, a fourth year Computer Science student, most was the culture of Google and the other tech companies he visited. “One thing that’s amazing to see is the culture of technology and how it’s kind of seeped out of Silicon Valley into other tech companies around the world.”

Dragon's Den pitching at Corning

Salma Latuke takes a deep breath before launching into her two-minute pitch: A big idea to create a personal safety app that tracks your GPS co-ordinates and sends information to emergency services.

A group of accomplished McMaster Engineering alumni, now mainstays in Silicon Valley, are listening, ready to give feedback, Dragons Den-style. Experienced investors and tech leaders Waguih Ishak (Ph.D. Electrical ’78), Nitin Chopra (B. Eng. Electrical ’05), Faizel Lakhani (B. Eng. Electrical ’93) and Mark Costin (B. Eng. Chem Eng ’81) gather around a boardroom table at the Corning West TechnologyCenter.

Pitching their ideas was part of the deal for McMaster Engineering’s six Big Ideas contest winners, and Latuke loved it.

“We got to speak to people who actually do create start-ups and fund them,” says Latuke, a final year Chemical Engineering student. “Just hearing their experiences and their words of advice really helped.”

For Lakhani, an established entrepreneur who runs a data analytics company, the experience of hearing the bright ideas from the next generation of engineers and innovators was rewarding.

“I called myself a failed student because I wasn’t that great at anything I did,” Lakhani told the crowd, including Dean Ishwar K. Puri. “But I was able to learn quickly from what people were saying and I was always listening because I knew I was dumb and as a result of knowing you were dumb you were always trying to find people who were smarter and learn from them.”