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Meet our graduates | Marco Zocco (BS '22)

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July 19, 2022. Interviewed by Jim Fabry. Audio and text edited for length and clarity.

As part of MS&E's 2022 Graduates podcast series, we chat with Marco Giuseppe Zocco, a graduate of the bachelor’s program in MS&E.

Marco shares how his lifelong love for creation led him to pursue both music and MS&E at Stanford, and how he utilized skills from both disciplines to make the best out of the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Marco describes how a desire for interdisciplinary studies led him to MS&E, and how he plans to utilize the skills he learned to innovate and enhance both his artistry and career. 

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My name is Marco Zocco, and I’m an MS&E Bachelor of Science graduate from Geneva, Switzerland.

Tell me about your background—where did you grow up?

I was born and raised in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, where I grew up in an Italian American household, which meant constantly having to juggle three different cultural identities. From K-12, I attended the International School of Geneva at the La Grande Bossiere campus, which is the world's oldest international school.

I am also the proud brother of three and feel blessed beyond belief to have my two younger brothers with me at Stanford—Paolo and Matteo—as Freshman and Sophomore undergraduates, respectively. It’s been a joy to overlap with them, even if just for this year.

Looking back at my upbringing, the constant exposure to diversity of culture and thought that characterizes Geneva and most international schools was likely a large factor in shaping my love for the interdisciplinary. I think that drove me to major in MS&E and to emphasize interdisciplinary proficiency, which in my opinion is one of the major’s greatest qualities.

How did you become interested in engineering? Are there a few experiences growing up that you can draw on?

The impulse to create has always been a core facet of my being, but the lens through which I approached creation vacillated over time. I remember as a kid, I was very interested in building and creation in the conventional 2D and 3D senses.

In first grade of primary school, I’d be off in the play corner building lego obsessively during free periods—so much so that all the teachers pitched in one year to buy me an entire set. Then in my teenage years, music quickly took hold as my main vector for creation. One Christmas, Santa Claus left me a copy of the game Rock Band 1 under the tree; it was a competitor of Guitar Hero at the time. I remember instantly falling in love with the guitar and the celebratory, in-your-face bravado of rock music.

I mastered the game and wanted to level up to the real thing, so I begged my dad to lend me his old acoustic guitar that had been stored in our attic for years. Since then I haven’t looked back. I’ve been playing solo and with multiple bands since middle school, and have written originals across all kinds of different instruments. It's an integral part of my creative spirit.

Funnily enough, I also applied to Stanford with an art supplement for electric guitar. I think I may be one of the only Stanford students in history to have submitted Metallica and Megadeth guitar solos as part of an arts portfolio. I’m not sure how the music staff took it, but I guess it didn’t hurt.

Beyond that, my mother, who is also a focal point of my universe, is a very talented writer. She also showed me early on how to meld emotion effectively into art through good, powerful writing. My father worked in the tech and venture capital space for quite a while, so I gained an appreciation for great software products early on that later crystallized at Stanford when I was surrounded by talented people in tech and the arts.

Can you tell us a bit about your research? What do you work on, and how did you get interested in it?

I chose the Finance and Decision concentration in MS&E. My learning goal going into Stanford was to develop the necessary skills to be able to navigate any role across startup, media, and investment jobs throughout my life. I think MS&E is one of the best and most comprehensive programs that can help achieve this at Stanford.

The math, computer science, economics, and engineering core provides the technical proficiency and first principles needed to understand the steps for value creation in any of those endeavors. Then the electives—such as 146 and the 180 series specifically—provide a thorough understanding of opportunity evaluation, the role of capital, and the understanding of organizational behavior needed to operate in any role successfully. These learning tools gave me a holistic and top-down understanding of all the key drivers of success in any context that I may encounter professionally.

I got interested in MS&E when I discovered its ability to foster ability in multiple domains. I arrived freshman year and saw that MS&E was an engineering major that didn’t just build further on STEM, but actively fostered cross-disciplinary proficiency, and I was sold right then and there.

How did the COVID-19 pandemic affect your time at Stanford?

As it was for so many of us, it was difficult for me to be isolated yet virtually connected. That aspect of the whole experience had a strange, surreal feel to it. But as an optimist, I do believe chaos can inspire creation, and I was able to make the most out of my pandemic situation.

About midway into the online academic year, I took a leave of absence and reached out to two great friends in the entertainment world, one of whom is a manager and producer of top-tier artists and owns a music label based in Los Angeles. I asked him what they were thinking given the inability of artists to tour. It was a crippling reality at the time, because touring has become the de facto income stream for most artists. They were envisioning a new model for artists to monetize live performances remotely in the age of Zoom—livestream shows and virtual assets for those shows—under the name of a new company called Rolling Live Studios.

I was very excited at this prospect, and having worked previously in numerous tech startups, I immediately offered my help and was asked to come out to LA and work on it with them. Over the next few months, I helped Rolling Live successfully validate their value proposition by filming and selling a first-of-its-kind livestream show with David Bowie’s estate, which featured Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins, Corey Taylor of Slipknot, and Taylor Hawkins of Foo Fighters (God bless his soul).

We also worked with other rock artists whose posters I had on my wall growing up, so it was an absolute dream to say the least. And it has been a large stepping stone in my future plans to launch a music career after graduation. I’d like to take the opportunity to send a shout out to the Brown family for introducing me to that world and including me on that great project. It was an honor.

What are your career plans after Stanford, and how did you decide on them?

I will return to Stanford for a final quarter in fall to finish a second Econ minor that I started along with my music minor. I wanted to extend my time at Stanford, because it goes so quickly—bewarned! After that, I plan to move to LA to work with my friend’s label to release my first album, which I am very stoked about.

When I was working at the label, I also helped Rolling Live raise their first series A fundraising round to expand their operations, and I currently serve on their board. So when I’m there, I plan to help the team scale their current model further, in conjunction with pursuing my artistry.

Can you describe your experience of doing a Music minor alongside MS&E?

When you engage the right and left hemispheres of your brain with creative and more technical things, in my experience you start to see problems in a more 360-degree way. Now, I look at a beautiful melody or the right harmonies in the right place like an elegant solution to a STEM problem, similar to an elegantly condensed line of code.

I’m not sure that the combination inspired the advancement of the pure craft of either music or MS&E, but it provided me with a more holistic approach to both worlds. And I think the people that push barriers in any domain have to have a foot in multiple doors. If you’re too deep into one thing, it’s hard to break free of the conventions and first principles of that domain. For example, if you’re a classical musician, it might be hard to come up with the next wave of heavy metal.

I enjoyed combining music and MS&E precisely for that reason. In each respective endeavor, it allowed me to approach problems in a way that others might not, conventionally.

What most excites you about your future?

In the short-term, I can’t wait to start my career as an artist and launch my first album. It’s been a dream of mine since I can remember to give it a real crack. And I feel like at this stage in our lives, we’re at the lowest risk period with regards to career,  with plenty of time to experiment and pivot if needed and a relatively low opportunity cost with regards to job opportunities.

The other really exciting thing that I took from MS&E is that of seeing the combinatorial potential of different academic approaches when honing a craft. With regards to music, this hasn’t been done enough in my opinion. I’m excited to innovate on the music consumption and distribution sides of the equation, which are areas that have a lot of room for disruption.

The business and art sides of music have always been fair-weather friends, with each treating the other with some level of distance. This probably comes from a feeling that combining expertise across domains can tarnish the authenticity of each individual craft. But post-MS&E, I am very comfortable bridging both. I intend to treat my launch with the same first principles as that of a startup—exploring different ideas for marketing and gamification while staying true to the art and my rock and roll roots.

Longer-term and personally, I am very inspired by the Greco-Roman tradition of living your life virtuously and in chapters across disciplines. Parallel to how Romans would start in life as students, then serve as soldiers, then come back as entrepreneurs before serving in the senate and finally going into philosophy, carrying the spirit of never ceasing to learn and explore new professions down the line is critical to me after my work in MS&E.

It's an approach that I think will leave us more equipped as future leaders to deal with the ever-increasing uncertainty in our world and the higher number of job changes that my demographic will statistically encounter across our lifespans. This notion is also encapsulated in Da Vinci’s idea of the Vitruvian man, which I wear around my neck as a reminder of my commitment to innovating across disciplines and to never stop learning and building.

And finally, I am excited to incorporate an important social element into my work. My biggest idols were all cultural engineers in that their work sparked unification and positive change beyond being great displays of talent, from Bob Marley, to John Lennon, to Dr. Martin Luther King.

Whatever I build and create, I look forward to being a vector for unification, and not simply creating for creation’s sake. I feel quite strongly about the idea that as human beings, we are all more similar than different overall, and I’d like through my work to remind the world—and specifically my generation—of that axiom, which I feel at times we forget.

Of the many problems worth solving, one of them is undoubtedly maximizing human cohesion and collaborative potential. Music, oration, and the arts are some of the strongest catalysts to achieve this in my view, so I’m excited to include this dimension in my future endeavors.

What advice do you have for future students? How can they make the best use of their time in MS&E and at Stanford?

It may sound cliché to a certain extent, but to me the greatest value available to us as students is the people. Having collaborative access to so many great minds in one place without significant barriers is remarkable.

With regards to the MS&E cohort, many students who come out of this major are working on actionable projects or plan to in the future. Just about everyone is actively open to riffing and working together on things. This leaves MS&E grads with a plethora of potential future colleagues to collaborate with as we start our different career paths.

I’ve found the same to be true of MS&E professors and alumni. Seeking out mentorship, advice, or opportunity in your area of interest is actively encouraged and highly valuable given the caliber of the ecosystem.

I’ve found the chances of meeting someone highly proficient in a sector or role that you are interested in are high. I came to discover this through my interactions with my major advisor Tom Byers, who had a stint as a professional guitarist before later working in tech, venture capital and eventually the Stanford Technology Ventures Program in MS&E. It was inspiring to me to see that roadmap in his career.

The same willingness to collaborate is true I would say for the larger Stanford community. For example, I’m currently working on different aspects of my artistry with a professor of English, Kai Carlson-Wee, who’s an absolute legend.

What will you miss most about Stanford and the Bay Area?

Beyond missing my colleagues and the wider Stanford community, I will most miss the handful of lifelong friends I made here that changed my life, the people who were there for me through thick and thin and that marked my experience beyond words since I first moved to California. They were integral to my Stanford experience, and I am so grateful that we crossed paths.

I will miss the great live music opportunities San Francisco had to offer, which gave me some of my best concert and crowd surfing experiences of my life, often in the most unknown and desolate underground venues. Honestly, I think we should add a Stanford varsity crowd surfing team for all of us to hone the skill.

I’ll also miss my Stanford rock band, Margin of Error, which I started with 3 other Stanford undergraduates in freshman year. In exciting news, we are releasing our first EP as a band this fall. We plan to play the full thing live at a launch party on campus, so everyone is invited, including professors and staff!

Lastly, I’ll miss the department experience and all the great moments shared on campus with people in and outside the department.

To conclude, I’d like to thank you again Jim for having me on, and I’d like to give a special thank you to the titans Riitta Katila, Lori Cottle, and Linda Esquivel for reaching out to me for this interview, and for the many years of great help they gave me and the rest of our class in the department. They’ve been invaluable. 

Secondly, I’d like to thank my friends and family for their love and support throughout this journey and beyond.

And lastly, I’d also like to thank my favorite bands, all of whom happen to be from California, and that likely have unconsciously pulled me to this part of the world since I picked up the guitar. A thank you to the lads in Avenged Sevenfold, System of a Down, Metallica, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Queens of the Stone Age, and Green Day.

Thanks for tuning in, and now it's time to rock and roll. Let us go in peace and love.

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