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.