Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Sleeping Efficiently

I just saw an article in WIRED magazine today that discussed how you could train your mind to maximize your awake time and alertness and get just two hours' sleep each day. How? By training your mind to quickly go into REM sleep and take one 20-minute nap every four hours. People who have done this report better quality sleep than those of us who take the normal path, and they get 22 hours of awake time every day on top of it.

Why mention this here? One of the things I noticed while in the thick of first semester was that I was developing (or re-developing) the ability to catnap. This was one of the things that saved me in college and allowed me to operate on about 3-4 hours per day (night) of sleep-- something that seems totally unimaginable today. Looking back, though, I took naps almost every day (during breaks from class) and I got very good at napping. During the semester just passed, I'd started taking a quick 20-30 minute nap after dinner and after putting the kids to bed, and found that I started dreaming almost as soon as I closed my eyes. REM sleep? Maybe. But it sure made a difference. Now I'm curious-- I'll have to experiment a bit more with this during second semester and see if I can hone my sleeping skills even further.

Stunned, and Done

I can't believe it: checking my university grades tonight, I see all my grades from first semester have come through. And I am stunned by my accounting grade-- really, I thought that one was a goner for sure. As it turns out, I placed above average, which is waaaay more than I expected. I completed the first semester with a better GPA than I carried in college, which is proof that maybe I've learned a little since the 1990s. Or maybe it's just that I'm a beneficiary of the university's bell curve policy. Actually, that must be it. Either way, I'm doney-done-done fellas, and I've got solid grades to show for my first quarter of my master's program.

That's about the nicest Christmas gift I could have asked for. Now it's time to crack a whole new set of books and get ready for second semester, which starts in less than three weeks!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Gap of Time

I had an odd sensation last night. Sitting at home, e-mail up to date and the kids in bed, Katie was painting the upstairs bathroom and I was sitting there saying to myself, "now, isn't there something I should be doing?" For almost the last five months, the answer to that question has been YES! Either work for work, or work for school-- there was always more of it than I could reasonably expect to accomplish, so I never had to ask myself questions like, "should I clean the basement?"

Last night it was nice to have that freedom to select the things I wanted to spend my time doing, without having to worry about falling farther behind in either my schoolwork or my work work. I did end up choosing to clean the basement, and it was nice to be in that work, feeling the pace of it, without thinking I should be doing something else. But it was also a little strange-- I've become so conditioned to the trauma of nightly homework sessions, part of me still felt like I should be doing some other work.

Soon enough-- I already have my textbooks and homework for next semester, and classes begin in a few weeks, so I'll enjoy the time I have.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Put a Fork in It; It's Done!

Well, it's over. Our team just completed our final presentation for our three professors and our 55 colleagues in class. It still seems like a blur, and my pulse is still coming back down to earth, but initial impressions are that our team did not, in fact, crash and burn. In fact I think we did pretty well. We'll see how the peer evaluations come back, and I'm sure our professors will have more than a few nasty things to say, but hey, we're outta here, baby. Hasta la vista.

The punchline from this day of torment and suffering?

They gave us the books for our second semester classes in a giant black bag, along with our first homework assignment which is due at the start of our first class on January 11. So much for having time to kick back over the holidays-- time to get ramped up on Marketing Strategy and Managerial Accounting.

Just thinking about those classes fills me with dread, but right now it all seems like a lifetime away. For now, it's one more team presentation and then it's on to the bar for a class celebration!

Day of Reckoning

So, here we are, the last day of class in my first semester of graduate school. So many hours of pain, suffering, sleep deprivation, learning, and stretching my mind to get to this place.

Today's schedule: 10 straight presentations for eight hours. My group is #9 out of 10 so people will likely be in a coma by the time our group goes. I feel good about our content and it's wonderful to know that, either way, today it will be over!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Done-y-Done-Done (with Accounting)

Sometimes it's best just to be done, no matter how painful it was or how crappy a final product you end up turning out. Such are my feelings tonight after completing my accounting final-- we had 2 hours to complete the test and I just couldn't work quickly enough to get it done in anywhere close to that time, so much of it will be turned in undone.

How do I feel about this? On one hand, this is the first time I've turned in an incomplete test in probably my entire academic career. On the other hand, I heard one guy in our class actually handed in his midterm exam BLANK, so I guess I could have done less on this final than I did. In the end I gave it a solid two hours, and I produced some good work, but no additional amount of studying, time spent on the exam, or acts of God were going to get me through that mess with much better than I ended up doing. And you know what, I'm OK with that.

Mostly I am just exhilarated to be done with accounting. All of my classwork is now officially complete. Just one more "rock" to climb: our final team presentation on Saturday. That will be a breeze compared to the Hell that was accounting. I say it again: why anyone chooses this profession of their own free will is completely beyond me.

Saturday, December 1, 2007


Remember when you were a kid in school, and you went to bed the night before a forecasted snowstorm hoping really hard that school would be canceled in the morning if enough snow fell? Some mornings you woke up and, sure enough, there was a ton of snow and school was canceled; just as often, you'd wake up to find the storm had missed your town and you'd trudge off to school.

Today there was a 6-10" snowstorm forecast to hit Minneapolis, and I was hoping against all hope it would be enough to forestall my accounting final. In the morning school still hadn't been canceled, so I drove to school and we had our first class. The snow began to fall right before lunch, and our accounting professor came into our other class and made a stunning announcement: in consideration of the weather, the final would now be a take-home test and it wouldn't be due for another two weeks! Amen, we all said, and the day was altered. Suddenly we could all breathe again.

I'm not going to wait two weeks to do the test-- I'm still stressing about it and I want the pain and suffering to end as quickly as possible. But it was so wonderful not to have to take that damn test today. I came home early and had a fantastic day with my family, enjoying the snow which in the end did actually turn out to be about 8".

All in all, a great day. And hard to believe we are officially finished with all our classes as of today. Just the final group presentations in two weeks, and we're done with the first 25% of our battle.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Time to Pay

Here I am, the classwork from my first semester in my MBA curriculum all but done. It's almost midnight, which means I'm just about 12 hours away from perhaps the most dreaded exercise of the entire semester: our in-class final for Accounting. It's worth 20% of our grade, and all of us are predicting mass failure. The biggest surprise this semester has been that Accounting was much less enjoyable and much more difficult than Stats-- going into the semester, I had assumed the opposite would be true. In the end, I really enjoyed Stats and learned a lot, but Accounting has been sheer punishment at every turn.

Much of this is due to the fact that accounting is, as a general profession, torturous. Why anyone goes into this field voluntarily, I'll never know. They clearly possess a mindset I'll never grasp. I think it takes a certain--maybe a sick--mind to actually enjoy accounting. All semester I've struggled through quizzes that make me more angry than learned, more frustrated than eager to learn. Maybe that motivation works for undergraduates, but for people at my stage of life, it just makes me want to smack the professor.

Today in class, the professor said he assumed we'd all spent 10-15 hours studying for tomorrow's final. That sounds like something an undergrad might have time to do, but I gotta tell you, I sure as hell don't. So I gave studying a shot tonight, reviewing the book and trying some cash flow statement construction, and I'll study bonds and shareholder's equity for another 30 minutes tomorrow, but more than that I just can't do. I've long since ceased enjoying the class, and I'm mad as hell about having to take a traditional in-class final tomorrow, so at this point I'm just like "bring it on, pal."

The question is: will I be mentally prepared to face the music tomorrow? Will I be able to confront an exam I likely will not finish, and be ok walking out once time expires? It's something I would have lost sleep over in college, but at this point, life is way more important than this little Accounting class.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

B's are......Bokay?

Well, time to put your money where your mouth is. All along I've been telling myself I'm not in this MBA program for grades-- I'm in it for the degree and the experience. Well, I seem to be stuck writhing beneath the thumb of a devious Accounting professor who thinks trickery is more important than actual learning, so after taking the midterm 2 of 2 allotted times, my highest score is an 83.3%. Pretty good, given the hell the professor put us through.

Now, seriously facing a "B" in this class, I need to remember what I've been saying to myself all along: that I'm not in this program for the grades. In all things, I try to use the 10-year test: in 10 years, will really matter? My Accounting midterm score won't matter, the Accounting class itself won't matter, none of my grades will matter (assuming I still graduate), and even the MBA itself will only matter in the most indirect of senses. So why sweat the small stuff?

Thankfully, as with most things these days, I'm almost too tired to care.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Entering Hell

Remember about how I've said when you feel peaceful and like you're caught up with your classwork, it usually means you've forgotten something or that you're not working as far ahead as you need to be? I'm in that very situation now-- it's been weeks since I used the part of my brain dedicated to my Accounting class, and now that's all coming back to bite me. Although we don't have class again for two weeks, tonight is the official beginning of Accounting Hell Weeks.

Check it out:
  1. Take-home final due in four days, covering seven chapters (only six of which I've read as of tonight). Two chances to take the final, each 60 minutes. 30 questions. Immeasurable pain and suffering.
  2. Take-home questions from the final. Due November 16. Seems easy, but the questions themselves are impossibly difficult, and wait until you read all the rest of the crap that's due on the 16th and 17th as well.
  3. Textbook chapters 8-9, along with homework problems, both due November 16.
  4. Textbook chapters 10-11, along with homework problems, both due November 17.

Normally this would be a bone-crushing load, but to add to it, we've also got Organizational Behavior reading and homework to do-- including reading an entire book! And there's also a session of Ops Management, with homework, due that same weekend.

I think I may slip into a coma at 4:30pm on Saturday the 17th, when all this crap is done and handed in. Stay tuned, and please say a prayer for me if you have a little Altar of Accounting anywhere in your home or office.

Taste of Pain

They treat us pretty well at this executive MBA program: catered breakfast, lunch, and snacks at every session. Along with that comes mountains of soda-- all you can drink, in fact. Since the school has an exclusive contract with Coke, Coke is what we get. Right after the program began, I tried my first Coke Zero. For those of you who don't know, Coke Zero tastes just like regular coke but it's like Diet Coke (no calories, etc.). Only it doesn't taste like Diet Coke (I much prefer Diet Pepsi over Diet Coke)-- apparently there is a Diet Coke taste and a diet-but-tastes-like-normal-Coke taste. Coke Zero is the latter, and I liked it so much that I've since stocked up at home.

Only problem is, I've come to associate the taste of Coke Zero with the taste of pain: the pain of homework, the pain of impossible questions, the pain of utter sleep deprivation. So now I have all this Coke Zero in my fridge and I hate the taste of pain!


Once I graduated from college, I wondered how I was able to accomplish so much with so little sleep (informal analyses indicated that I plowed through college on an average of 3-4 hours' sleep each night). I realized that napping was the answer. There were numerous breaks in my college schedule, enough time to walk back to my dorm (later, off-campus housing) and catch a few Zzzzs. In the workplace, of course, you can't do this, but even Winston Churchill at the height of WWII was rumored to have taken a one-hour nap every day, so there must still be hidden value here.

While I still can't just conk out for a nap midday at the office, I am getting much better at taking shorter naps in the evenings (just before dinner) or on weekends. 20-40 minutes is enough for me, and it works much better than trying to make it through a late-night study session on caffeine alone.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

My Brain is Full

Here's a good indicator of just how jaded we're all getting: today in a breakout session to work on a financial model, one of our team members worked with us to run the model twice, then proudly declared, "OK, I get what we're supposed to learn here. I'm done." That was about 10 minutes into our 75 minute exercise. Rock on.

Let Me Listen

Higher education has to be one of the only environments were you can have a professor walk up to a group of students arguing in the hall an offer to moderate their argument. This morning while getting my second cup of coffee, our Ethics professor walked up to a group of students from the other class who were arguing and said, "if you two are arguing, I would like to listen in to observe and maybe help mediate."

Wouldn't it be great if we had people like this in our offices, offering to help us resolve our differences?

Friday, November 2, 2007

On Language

Today in our OB class, the professor used the word "irregardless." I really don't think that's a word. Do you think I'm entitled to a refund for a portion of my tuition? Shouldn't we have the right to expect that our professors will at least use proper English?

As says:

Usage Note: Irregardless is a word that many mistakenly believe to be correct usage in formal style, when in fact it is used chiefly in nonstandard speech or casual writing. Coined in the United States in the early 20th century, it has met with a blizzard of condemnation for being an improper yoking of irrespective and regardless and for the logical absurdity of combining the negative ir- prefix and -less suffix in a single term. Although one might reasonably argue that it is no different from words with redundant affixes like debone and unravel, it has been considered a blunder for decades and will probably continue to be so.

Kinda makes you wonder, huh?


This is the first week I've basically phoned in this class. Until now, I've been luck enough not to have had significant amounts of "work" work to do at night, which is why I've been able to do my classwork at night. Lately, though, work has picked up significantly, to the point that I wasn't able to do any reading for the classes today. I'm having a conversation right now, in fact, with other classmates, many of whom apparently have also skipped the readings. And others are even debating skipping out on the afternoon class. So I think we're all reaching a point where we know what's required, we know the flow, and we know what we can let slide.

It's evolving into the art of minimum contribution!

Tuesday, October 23, 2007


OK, it's official: being in school has lost its luster (if you could really say committing yourself to 3 hours of homework every day and locking yourself in a windowless room every other Friday and Saturday ever had "luster"). Now it's just getting long and unrewarding. I suppose I knew this point would come. Now that I'm here, what do I do about it?

I went grocery shopping tonight, to clear my mind, and I thought about how in two years, none of this is really going to matter, and I'll be able to do anything with my career that I want to. It is very easy to get bogged down in details, like "I don't like this professor" or "that classmate really annoys me" or "is he/she pulling his/her weight on our team?" But in the end I'm getting out of this experience what I put into it, and what I put into it is completely up to me.

Sure, on nights like this when it's 11:30pm and I'm the only one awake in my family (hardly a rare occurrence), that's a tough pill to swallow. And I'm starting to run into energy walls where I literally can't imagine crossing over (bed is so tempting). But the thing is, I am making some pretty damn good progress, and overall I'm finding I can do the work. I cancompete in an academic setting. And most of all, this is my choice and I'm the primary one funding it, so what good is it to have anything less than the best experience possible?

And so the bitter pill goes down, and I turn back to my mountain of books.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

One Down

Well, I survived my first Statistics class. Today was officially our last day of stats. As someone who only had one financial class prior to embarking on this MBA journey (and that was a pass/fail macro economics class in college), I was more than a little nervous about jumping into stats. Thanks in part to a brilliant and very approachable professor, and thanks to advanced statistical software (saving us from the pains of doing manual calcs), I have to say it was actually a great experience.

One course down, something like 85 to go. :-)

Just Get Through It

Today we have two group presentations to deliver. I'm dreading the whole thing, actually. There are 10 groups in our class, so that's 20 presentations I need to sit through in the next eight hours. Can you guess how many other places I'd rather be today?

This is just one of those days you need to power though. You know it's not going to be fun, but you also know you can't avoid it. I think I had days like this in college, but of course I only remember the good days from college. This semester is getting very long, and truth be told, I'm about burned out with this MBA program. And it's only the first semester! Time to look a little harder for some balance in my life.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Burning the Oil, Back in the Zone

Here I am, once again, the night before class and I'm up late writing a paper. I'm absolutely exhausted, I haven't spent a night with my family in almost a week, and I know I'll be even more tired tomorrow for class (when I'll need the energy the most). Writing this particular paper for Organizational Behavior has been difficult, but since I'm down to the wire, there is a certain clarity in knowing that, come hell or high water, this thing needs to be complete in about two hours.

Although I'm not proud of it, secretly this is how I work best. In college I always did my best work at the last minute, usually late at night, sometimes under the influence of fruity alcoholic drinks (I could go for one of those now, actually). I find that deadlines produce a clarity and focus you just can't get anywhere else. Again, not sure that is a good thing, but hey, whatever works!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Hasta La Vista, Stats Homework!

Ah, I never thought this day would come, but I have finally finished my last statistics problem on my last stats homework assignment. This was some of the most meticulous work I have ever done-- literally one hour PER PROBLEM and there were 15-30 problems per assignment. In total I produced 58 typed pages of XBAR charts, statistical formulas, p-charts, and just about everything else statistical. Good riddance!

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Controlling my Mind-Brain

Historically I have a fairly poor record for being able to bring any lasting discipline or order to my thoughts. I have a short-term focus level that is tragic: historically I haven't been able to read anything for more than 20 minutes at a stretch, and I've considered myself an extremely slow reader. I just can't keep focused. Everyone has a million things running through their minds, but I follow my million things, meaning that there isn't much if anything that can keep me focused for any length of time.

Now, with all the work and reading I need to do for school, I am starting to develop some mental focus. I simply have no choice but to read for periods longer than 20 minutes, and I have a vested interest in noticing if my mind strays. Like with meditation, I've noticed the development of an inner consciousness that reminds me "hey, your mind is straying," and I'm able to bring it back. I never used to be able to do this before. It's pretty cool, actually. In the past, entire paragraphs or pages would float by my dreary consciousness before I noticed; now I'm able to tell pretty much within a sentence or two if I'm really paying attention. This is an exercise in wakefulness itself, and it's enabling me to read much more (and remember it) than I ever thought I'd be able to.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Marching, Marching

There are some days (ok, more than a few) when being part of this class is a vicious mental game. "Did I forget to do an assignment?" "Am I really actually ahead in the reading?" "How long will my three remaining Stats problems take?" "Should I go to bed, or pound a coffee and burn the midnight oil?" "Am I the only one in the class who feels this lost?"

Today was one of those days. It's the weekend, I just returned from a week long business trip, and I should have been enjoying the day with my family. Instead, I was semi-obsessing about Stats and about the meeting I have coming up with my team later today. It's an unusual Sunday meeting for us on an off-class week, but we have two group presentations due in the next week so we need time to prepare. I feel lost, and just about the last thing I want to do is go back to campus on a Sunday, spend yet three more hours away from my family, and do yet more work.

Some days you really never get a break, even when every fiber of your body wants to lay down and just sleep. Or play with your kids. Such is the evil game of trade-offs I find myself in with this program. A good day is when you just ignore the mental demons; a bad day is when you let them set up shop in the dreary cobwebs of your little mind.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Clarity at 30,000 Feet

I've never considered myself a "reader": I enjoy reading, and I know it's necessary in life, but reading has always been such a laborious pursuit for me. Inevitably I get tired and fall asleep after reading for 20 minutes, and I usually never recover in time to get much more reading done. Today was different, though, and it's changing my perception of myself as a non-reader.

I had a three-hour plane flight today, and in hand was a book for Organizational Behavior that's due in less than two weeks. Normally, the prospect of needing to read an entire book on top of an already inhuman mound of work would fill me with dread; today, though, way up there on that plane, I read half the book in that three-hour period. Amazing-- I don't think I've ever done anything like that before. If I could do that with all the other un- or half-read books sitting on my shelf, I might actually become...learned. Shocking.

I always get so much done while on planes. It's the only place where finding a distraction actually takes more effort than just working. It's my strategic place, where I can think about work and personal issues very clearly and where I get perspective that's so difficult to come by during the everyday rush.

I think I need my own plane. Better finish that MBA first!

Saturday, October 6, 2007

In the Dark

Driving to class this morning in the rain and in the dark, while my family and most of the others in Minneapolis were sleeping, I had to wonder: what the hell am I really doing? We're getting to crunch time in the semester, where the workload is really starting to pile up. And by "pile up," I mean it's getting to the point where working three hours a day, seven days a week, isn't enough to get everything done. I have entire books to read in two weeks, multiple presentations to collaborate on, and two online exams to complete. Plus statistics homework that will take 10-15 hours to complete. And I have a business trip coming up this week.

Mostly, it's getting accustomed to feeling really overwhelmed and trying to keep things in bite-sized chunks just to keep yourself from losing your mind. If you stopped to think about everything that needs to be completed, you would sit in a corner, weeping, totally unable to get anything done. So that's the hard part-- looking far enough ahead that you can plan for future classes and stay at least a little bit ahead of the assignments, but not looking too far ahead where you would go insane.

Every week is a new test of that precarious balance, and I'm finding that when I think there's a lull in the work and pressure, typically I'm missing something and I'm not doing some work I should be. It's like always waiting for the next battle.

And so today, the battles are Operations Management and Accounting.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007


OK, so most of my classes, while they are impossibly difficult and time-consuming, at least take into consideration that we're busy, working professionals with families and lives outside of class. As a result, most of the classes don't have traditional in-class final exams, favoring instead a series of homework, essay, and group project work.

And then there's accounting. This devil of a class is killing me. I thought statistics would be my hardest class; instead, accounting is brutal. The professor seems to take particular delight in requiring us to take not one but TWO exams plus a series of quizzes. In the "old days" of undergraduate education, I'd be OK with this, but in my current situation I'm rebelling. Today I took the first online quiz. Twice (the maximum number of times you could take it). An hour each time. And the best I could do was an 84%. Still pretty good, but not what I was used to producing in college. I'm having to re-invent my concept of an "acceptable" grade in light of the fact that I'm primarily here to get a master's degree, not to get a GPA. Does anybody ask what your MBA GPA was? Maybe if you're applying to work for Goldman Sachs, but I think we all know that's not me, so why should I care? Truth is, I'm too tired to care a whole lot.

What really gets me is that the quiz had a large number of tricky questions, items where it was easy to miss the obvious and/or to fall into a trap. Judging from the personality of the professor, he delights in inflicting this type of pain on his students, but I'm sitting here thinking, "hey, buddy, I'm paying you like $1,000 per session for this class, so can we let go of the need to answer to your crazy level of detail and just focus on testing the fundamentals?"

Maybe this is all some clever little mental experiment for the professor, but in 10 years I don't think much of what I agonized over on the quiz today will really determine whether I'm an insightful business professional or not. And yeah, I'm still pretty pissed that I got an 84.

Stepping off my soapbox now....

Switching Gears

We're taking four classes at once this semester, and one of the hardest things for me to do is switch gears from class to class and focus on that particular subject area for any period of time. The classes are staggered just enough so as to induce amnesia, so when you walk out of a stats class on September 7, you feel like you're on top of the stats world, but when you go to do the homework on September 26, it's like aliens have replaced your textbook with some instruction manual from the future. None of it makes any sense. So you cram again, reviewing your notes and re-reading some of the chapters, and just when you get back into gear for that particular class, BOOM you've got homework for another class due and you need to start all over with that other class.

Basically I'm still getting used to the fact that I'm not going to spend much time in my comfort zone for about the next two years.

Overwhelmed, Again

We had our weekly team conference call tonight, and once again I'm pretty freaked out. More than once I've gone into these calls feeling pretty good about my pace of work: that I'm keeping up, that I'm making progress, that I might not get every bone in my tired little body absolutely crushed by the workload of pursuing this degree.

Then, as happened tonight, something comes up and I feel totally behind again. Tonight it was just listening to my teammates recount the list of assignments that were due in the next four weeks. Seeing it all on paper tonight, I can't see any way (short of not sleeping) that I'm going to get it all done. So here I am, up past midnight once again, slowly chipping away at the mountain.

I need to make a T-Shirt that says, "holy crap! What have I gotten myself into?" That pretty much sums up my life these days.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Mixin' It Up

Are Red Bull and Sudafed compatible? By "compatible," I mean: will taking both at the same time kill me? We'll see. That's the solution I needed tonight to persevere through this evil stats homework. I've had allergies for a week that are causing me to consume more Kleenex than the patients in an average hospital wing, and I'm wiped out tonight yet face a mountain of stats problems, so what else is there to do but chase my Sudafed with a can of Red Bull?

Ah, it feels like college again.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

I Like People More Than Numbers

Back again for Day 2 of Organizational Behavior. I find this topic fascinating. Maybe it's just because there is almost no math in the class, maybe it's because most of the work consists of writing and essays (which I love and which are challenging me to rediscover my academic writing side), or maybe it's just because I believe people influence the organizations they work for more than the rules those organizations try to enforce on people.

I've always been fascinated by the unseen elements that make organizations tick-- not the rules, not the HR values, but the people. The messy, political people-- to me an organization is nothing without its people. And things don't get interesting until you really start unpacking the baggage people carry with them into meetings, interactions, relationships, and work effort. The best organizational plan can be subverted by people who don't buy into the vision.

One of the exercises I completed last night was an assessment of my own company's values, and it was surprising. I've long taken pride in working for a company that makes a big deal about its values, and I really thought my company's values were differentiators, but after comparing them to some objective cultural analysis, I was surprised and disappointed to learn that many of my company's values are "permission to play" values or "aspirational" values. P2P values are values almost every company has-- they don't provide market differentiation and any company would be foolish to hire someone who didn't have the P2P values. These are values like integrity and honesty-- they look great on a boardroom wall but at the end of the day, what do they really mean? Aspirational values are those a company believes it espouses, but that on further examination are lacking or have yet to be fully implemented. I was dismayed to find how many of my company's values fall into this category.

One of the most interesting comments has been the fact that to have true meaning, values need to inflict pain on an organization. They can't be platitudes. How many of us can say that our companies are actually willing to tolerate an amount of pain to live their values? I was surprised to find that most of the pain in my company flows down to the employees-- that's not where the pain should reside. To transform the aspirational values into core values, my company would need to change and be willing to "own" a lot more of the pain at the corporate level that it currently lets flow downstream to its employees.

So, very interesting conversations today. This is the kind of class that can get me up on a Saturday morning.

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Punchline

As I was driving in to class in the dark this morning, it occurred to me that I was in some way the living punchline of a very cruel joke. Something that ends in "Sitting in an Accounting class that starts at 7:30am...."

I realized this morning that I've crossed a threshold: I'm rediscovering the "student mode" I used in college to get through the experience. I find myself able to subsist on far less sleep than I once was, I don't get alarmed at the prospect of reading 100 pages a night in a textbook, and I'm again able to churn out academic assignments that seem at least moderately well-done.

This is all very encouraging, but the truth is that I just don't have a moment to stop. The work continues coming at such a furious pace that you either keep swimming or you drown. It's actually compelling to a degree-- at least that's what I tell myself when I'm not whimpering in my home office at 2am struggling with yet another homework problem. The reality of day-to-day corporate life is pretty unfulfilling in many respects, but there's nothing that'll get your juices flowing again faster than the raw fear of four graduate-level courses!

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

OK, Now I Get It

After my first full day at home caring for my baby son, I think I'm getting a handle both on childcare and also on how I'm going to be able to manage this MBA program. Last night I was pretty freaked out about all the mounting reading, assignments, and deadlines and I just didn't see a way I could make everything work without putting my family and life on auto-pilot and locking myself into a room.

Today was good-- Peter's operating on a fairly regular schedule (thanks to my wife Katie for that!), so I was able to sneak in the remainder of my Operations Management reading during the day while he was napping. We also got our fair share of shopping done, so overall I'm reassured by how much it seems possible to accomplish in a day. Don't get me wrong-- it could all go differently tomorrow, but today at least it was reassuring. I'm caught up in my reading for OM and tonight I'm working to hammer out my part of our next group assignment which is due on the 21st. Hopefully I'll be able to make a dent in my accounting homework tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Now the Real Work Begins

OK, this is going to be harder than I thought. At first glance it seemed like a "can't lose" proposition: take the month off for parental leave to spend with your new baby son, get a leg up on your MBA homework, get lots of extra time to work while your classmates are bogged down in the work of their jobs.

Only that's not how it's turning out to be. This is only Day 2 of officially being home with my baby son (and my wife hasn't even gone back to work yet-- that happens tomorrow), and already it's turning out differently than I imagined. I've taken leave before for each of my other two children and it's been a great experience-- in both cases I was able to pretty much shut down and leave work and technology behind. This time, though, I'm having trouble doing that because I need to remain marginally connected for my MBA-related e-mail. And once the computer's on for MBA work, why not check work e-mail as well, and you know how it goes from there.... So I can't really disconnect, which is leaving me remotely feeling like I'm falling more and more behind each day, and I'm certainly not getting the level of relaxation and family quality time I was hoping for.

On top of all this, I expected to get so much more done because of being home, but in fact the opposite is turning out to be true. While my colleagues can get their work done during lunch or even while they're doing other work, I'm offline all day every day with my family, so the only way I've found thus far to satisfy my 3-hour-per-day requirement of MBA-related work has been to do it at night (like I am tonight), or worse, not do it. Neither is working very well, and I again have a mounting feeling that I'm falling behind. We had our weekly team call tonight and it seems everyone is miles ahead of me on the assigned work.

So, what I think I need to do is create a new schedule, one that allows me to truly turn off during the day and enjoy my time with family, and then focus on MBA work either at night in a solid chunk, or some morning/nighttime split. Right now I'm trying to stride both worlds and I'm doing both fairly poorly-- that's got to change.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Coming Up for Air

It's 2:55pm on Saturday, and I'm about ready to run screaming from the conference center. Moments ago, we wrapped up our 3-day stats class. This 5-day exercise in pushing one's mental boundaries has come to an end. It was much more intense than I expected, and while I did pick up some good tidbits of knowledge (or at least it seemed like I did), we'll see how much of it I'm actually able to retain after driving home and putting my brain on ice. Thankfully, I think our class bonded over the intense frustration and study we all went through together-- the last time we all experienced anything this intense was likely college. Personally, my brain is full, just like that little kid in the Far Side cartoon. Time to go back into the real world. The respite will be short, though, as the homework will be piling up and I can't afford to take that long of a break.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Stats is Getting Old

OK, we're now into the afternoon of our second straight 8-hour session of statistics. But if you add the days this week before the class spent doing stats homework, or the time over the last two nights when I've been up to or beyond midnight doing stats, it's easy to see that this is all getting a little old. I'm getting sloppier in my homework and more frustrated with my growing inability to "get" the concepts. I'm burning out. We have another full day of this, so it will feel like libration tomorrow when we're released into the fresh air and allowed to drive back home to be with our families. Overall stats is interesting, but not for three solid days.

As I like to say, Disneyland is a great place, but I wouldn't want to live there.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

A LIttle Help from Technology

In statistics all day today, it's amazing to me how much time we've spent watching the professor use Minitab on his laptop and the overhead projector walking through calculation of the assigned problems and the key concepts.

This is amazing to me because I'm used to not being able to use technology at all in a classroom setting. In high school and college, we couldn't use calculators (especially graphic calculators) in class. Instead we were required to use the manual method to find the answers. I'm amazed at how much that has changed, and also by how easily the complex answers I used to spend 30 minutes on can now be found in seconds using programs like Minitab.

I wonder, does this mean we now cover so much more material in the same amount of time, resulting in better economy and value for students? Or is there really some intrinsic value to knowing how to do things the manual way, a value we are now losing by using automated computer and calculator software?

I remember a parent-teacher conference I had in 3rd grade (circa 1977). Not surprisingly, I didn't like math. The teacher told my parents that I needed to learn math, the MANUAL way, because no matter what job I had, I would need to know how to do math. I remember the exact quote to this day: "Even if you are a garbage man when you grow up," my teacher told my parents, "you'll still need to know math to be able to do things like calculate the diameter of a manhole cover." Yes, that's really what she said.

Well, assuming I had grown up to be that garbage man, and assuming I needed to calculate the diameter of a manhole cover for some insane reason, what if I now had a calculator? Would I even need to know the manual way? I argued in 1977, and I still argue now 30 years later, that there is little or no value in needing to know how the number is calculated. It's nice to see that, at least so far, my professors seem to agree because they're focusing on the tools used to arrive at the number instead of the formulas used by the tools to arrive at the number.

I don't even want to think about all that frustration, all that time, and all that useless work spent in 3rd grades and so many others, on preparing to be that garbage man.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Meeting the 2nd Years

I just got back from our social event for the night. We got to meet the illustrious "second year" students, the ones who went through all the pain and suffering we're going through now, only they did it last year. And that makes them "wiser." And tonight it made me feel like a freshman all over again! It's interesting that "freshman" in this sense of the word is more about "incoming class who doesn't yet know the ropes and/or who hasn't yet paid their dues" than it is about being older or younger than anyone else. Even though we're older than some people in that second year class, tonight we all felt like newbies.

And how did our meetings go? They just brought the entire weight of what I've undertaken down on top of me. Not the pick-me-up I'd imagined. It turns out that many groups meet more often, and for longer periods of time, than my group does. It also turns out that the work seems to get harder, not easier, as the year progresses (on the admissions materials, they told us the opposite, liars). Great. I think we all walked back to our hotel rooms a little let down.

From where I sit right now, it seems inconceivable that I'll ever be able to finish the work ahead of me. Yet at the same time, I could see tonight that the second years were already regretting how quickly their time is passing, so it's more than a little perplexing. I'm a big one for being grossly sentimental, so I can see myself standing next year where that group stood tonight, musing to myself about how fast the time all went. At that time, I also hope I can pass along a message to next year's class that was a little more uplifting than the one we received tonight.

OK, time to read. I still have that mythical and seemingly impossible 100 pages of stats to complete, and class begins again in just under eight hours.

To Powerpoint or Not to Powerpoint

I'm reading and thinking a lot lately about how the tried & true paradigm of leading group discussion using PowerPoint slides is no longer the best way to communicate with people. I deliver a lot of PPT's as part of my job, so finding a new and more compelling way to communicate my ideas to customers is something that really appeals to me. The anti-PowerPoint theory runs like this: people are tired of seeing the same old clipart, the same eye charts with tiny, unreadable text, and the same bulleted lists over and over, so they don't even listen anymore. I've seen some really compelling presentations this year, including one from BMW chief designer Chris Bangle that was a 2-hour PowerPoint presentation that didn't have any words on any slides-- he brilliantly used images alone to make his point.

When I was in college, of course we didn't even have PowerPoint, and no classroom had a projector, unless you count transparency machines as projectors (ah, those were the days). I've been trying to think about how we got the information in classes-- I think it was just taking pages and pages of notes.

Nowadays everything is on PowerPoint-- all of my classes have associated PPT files, and every class thus far has consisted of professors basically paging through slide after slide-- two 4-hour sessions every other week, in our case.

Is this really the future of education? More and more I'm wondering what the next information delivery paradigm will be.

OB Rocks

We had our first Organizational Behavior class today-- now THIS is a class I can finally sink my teeth into. It's like an institutional soap opera, reviewing all the case studies and discussing all the messy details about why teams are dysfunctional, why companies go wrong, and how they could have been saved. It had been getting pretty bleak there for awhile with stats and accounting-- I was wondering if I was ever going to find a subject I actually felt I could get an intuitive grasp on. Good to see there really will be a mix of classes in this program, and a chance for each one of us to bring their unique talents to bear.

Being a Sponge

Up at 5am today to continue the reading I thought I'd be able to do last night. I've never considered myself a reader, so the sheer volume of reading required by this program is a bit overwhelming. Back in the spring when I found out I'd been accepted into the program, I knew I would need to re-tool my learning and ability to absorb information. I'm a very slow reader, and until recently I've operated under the false assumption that I was in the minority there. Now I'm seeing that reading and knowledge absorption is just like any other skill (exercise, playing an instrument)-- you just have to do it to get better. I'm still freaked out but no longer quite as frightened at the prospect, say, of having to read 100 pages in stats by tomorrow morning.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

MBTI Score

After Day 1, very tired and still with tons of reading ahead of me for tomorrow (it's 10:15pm and class starts at 7:30am tomorrow), but some good information from today's sessions. We did the Myers-Briggs test in class tonight and I have emerged as the only "P" in our group-- I'm a ENFP, apparently. According to the test, this means I am "warmly enthusiastic and imaginative. See life as full of possibilities. Make connections between events and information very quickly, and confidently proceed based on the patterns [I] see. Want a lot of affirmation from others, and readily give appreciation and support. Spontaneous and flexible, often rely on [my] ability to improvise and [my] verbal fluency."

For the most part, I think this evaluation is spot-on. The "extrovert" part always surprises me, because if given the choice, I'd work alone in complete seclusion for the rest of my life. Also, apparently I'm the only one in my work group of six who is comfortable doing things at the last minute. In fact, I thrive on doing things at the last minute. It'll be interesting to see how this all pans out....

Lockdown day 1

Greetings from an undisclosed location 30 minutes outside of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. I'm visiting my first executive retreat center for a 5-day intensive session where the plan is to cover an entire semester's worth of statistics. The schedule is rigorous: a string of 12-hour days in seclusion where theoretically the only thing we need to do between now and Saturday is focus on acquiring knowledge. Looking at the schedule, the amount of material we'll be reviewing (and the amount of reading I need to do) is staggering, so I'm appreciating the fact that I'll be able to devote all my time to studying. As adults, when do we have a chance like this? I'm also extremely fortunate not to have to focus on work while I'm here-- my one-month parental leave also officially begins today, so in theory I don't need to think about work until October 2. Looking at it all, everything seems to have been extraordinarily well timed.

I just hope there's enough caffeine onsite at this retreat center to keep me going.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Back again

Back again for my second week-- I must be crazy. It's 7am on a Saturday morning and I'm sitting with 65 other people eager (or foolish) enough to give up yet another Saturday to be on the campus of the University of Minnesota for school. Most of us had a rough week, crushed by the volume of homework we needed to have ready for today. I went through several gyrations of "how do I find enough time in the day to do this work?" and instead of pushing it all off to the mythical "after the kids go to bed" time period, instead I'm looking for smaller timeslots during the day when I can make at least a little progress.

Yesterday we had 12 hours of statistics-- that was about as interesting as it sounds. But I was surprised to find myself actually interested quite a bit in what was being presented. One of the reasons I've stayed away from math is because of a cadre of evil math teachers sent to torment me in high school-- this was the prime reason I didn't major in computer science in college. Now, with 16 years of the workforce behind me, I'm taking another run at it. It's amazing how the textbooks have changed since I left college-- they're much more graphical, informal, and segmented than I remember-- much easier to approach. And of course the Internet exists now, so the books have an online component that would have been unimaginable the last time I was in school. It's making everything more interesting.

Today's topic: accounting. (cringe) 12 hours learning the "language of business" as they say. I'm going to need all the caffeine I can get my hands on.

Monday, August 20, 2007

The Beginning

OK, to begin with you should probably know something about why I decided to return to school after a 16-year break and pursue my MBA. Ever since leaving college in 1991, I've always flirted with some form of higher education. I requested prospecti from MBA programs several times, researched programs, contemplated taking the GMAT, and just about everything else I'm sure you've all done out there.

When the time finally came earlier this year to make "the" decision, it wasn't because I wanted to radically increase my salary: I make as much now as I think I deserve (OK, maybe a little less than I deserve, but close, which is satisfying). It wasn't because I wanted to be a CEO or start my own company (truth be told I have a pretty low tolerance for risk and at least at this stage in my career, I'd prefer to nestle under the comfy umbrella of a large, cash-rich company that takes care of me. I also don't have any desire to subvert family to career just to get a corner office).

Why, then, did I decide to enroll in a program that, over two years, will end up cosing almost $85,000-- especially when my employer will only pay about 20% of that?

I work in sales at a software company. My “a-ha” moment came in February 2007 while attending my company's bi-annual technical training summit. I saw a presentation on Web 2.0 and all the services-based areas my company was planning to invest in. I began running scenarios considering my career advancing through traditional sales and sales management ranks; these I felt confident I could achieve, and indeed my earnings potential would only increase as I climbed the sales ladder. As I ran these traditional scenarios, however, they did not compel me in the way in which the product managers and planners onstage at the summit were compelled when they discussed innovations coming with online collaborative software platforms and the emerging field of software + services.

The software industry at large will be investing billions over the next decade to grow these areas at the edge of the IT landscape. I already see the trend beginning now when meeting with my enterprise customers: they are enamored with wikis, peer-to-peer collaboration, and software as a service. They are looking equally hard at adopting these paradigms internally (for their own employees and vendors) as they are looking to create new revenue and customer loyalty streams from them as vendors themselves.

This is what compels me. To be part of that in a manner that allows me to actually shape the industry: that is my ultimate career objective. It doesn’t necessarily need to be attached to management, it doesn’t necessarily need to come with a CxO title, but it does have characteristics that I will need an MBA to fully master. After the presentations at the sales summit, I spent hours researching industry job postings and also internal job postings at my company, and the roles I see in the emerging services area (Product Planner, Group Program Manager, Lead Market Analyst) all require a level of competency in corporate finance, operations, team dynamics, accounting, statistics, and marketing that I do not possess today. Nor do I see a “self-taught” path in my company that gets me anywhere close to those competencies through on the job training. This is my primary reason for pursuing the MBA at this time.

So here I am, one intense weekend of two 12-hour classroom days under my belt, up again late at night working on statistics. Me, an English major, working on stats. Clearly something's gone haywire in the works. Stay tuned and see how it all turns out.