Saturday, December 6, 2008
It's 9:15pm on a Saturday night, and if you're an MBA student like me, that means you're somewhere alone in your house doing homework! Your spouse, friends, and family are either sleeping, watching a cool movie you're never gonna see, or out hanging with people you once saw more than annually or only on Facebook, and here you sit, pouring through some intractable HBR case or tweaking some swanky PowerPoint presentation. I'm doing the latter.
When this is all over, I know I'm going to go back to normal Saturday nights, like any sane person would. That means I won't be doing what I'm doing now, namely drinking coffee way too late in the evening and listening to The Jazz Image on Minnesota Public Radio. The Jazz Image has long been one of my favorite programs on the radio, but in my normal life I'm usually never alone or around to listen to it. Usually I have a life. There have been exceptions in the past, like when I'm traveling or when I'm up way late at night painting a room in the house or something, but for the last 15 months I've been able to catch more episodes of The Jazz Image than ever before because of all the homework.
I'm gonna miss you when this is all over, my lovely little radio program.
Friday, December 5, 2008
Now, in my second year, I'm realizing there's a second benefit that I didn't anticipate, and it's one of the things I'm going to miss most. One of my biggest challenges in my workaday world is fighting to remain strategic in my work. This is why I always enjoy attending conferences and why I even enjoy traveling-- doing so gives me "downtime" away from the challenges of work to reflect and recharge. I find I'm actually always thinking about work, so the ability to do so in an environment of reflection allows me to develop new strategic ideas.
In class, thanks to the wireless network and my laptop, I find I'm able to think about work and craft e-mails that are more strategic than my typical missives. Maybe it's the inspiration I draw from lectures or class discussion, but I find I'm better able to advance my concerns and drive key initiatives by "working" during breaks while in class.
So now I wonder how I'll be able to replicate that same unique combination of inspiration and productivity after this program is over. Sounds like a good new business venture....
Sunday, November 30, 2008
Now, of course whenever I'm feeling like "hey, I've got this MBA program thing licked," along comes some totally sobering realization that is actually more along the lines of, "oh no, you moron, you just failed to look at the other half of the syllabus" as I draw perilously close to missing some major deadline, but unless I'm really missing something this time (not beyond the realm of possibility), the work has slowed to a crawl. First year, I really did do three hours of homework, on average, every day (seven days a week) but I'm a bit embarrassed to say I haven't so much as cracked a book in almost two weeks. Part of that is due to the Thanksgiving holiday, of course, but still....
So I'm left to wonder: is this some mysterious break in the action, and will things get really lousy again in January when our fourth and final semester heats up? And let's not forget the virtual Hell that was September and October of this year-- our group had most of its work upfront (owing to our group number: 2), so I'm sure many of my classmates are agonizing over their remaining work even as I type this. But I am getting to the point where I'm almost kind of thinking about declaring the second half of this semester the easiest yet. And it feels really great-- like I've earned it. So I'm just going to let myself sit in this blissful state for a few more days-- class resumes this coming Friday, so we'll see if I'm clairvoyant or just plain oblivious.
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
We've all come to expect that expectations will be clearly laid out before us, like a well-drawn map complete with breadcrumbs to follow.
I say all of this is funny because, as working professionals, it is unlikely we find anywhere close to this type of certainty in our everyday lives outside of class. We navigate re-orgs, trans-continental conference calls, ever-changing projects, and shifting management to read the organizational tea leaves; we jump from stone to stone trying to reach the other side of the river without falling in.
There have been classes where our expectations have gone unmet, where they have changed, and where there just haven't been any guidelines. Such is shaping up to be the case in our venture capital class: we have our first major presentation in two days yet no one I've spoken with seems to have the foggiest idea of what it is we will be measured against.
This is causing more than a little unrest among the troops. It's almost midnight as I write this, and my guess is that there are scores of my classmates also up later than they should be, stressing more than they should be, about a little 10-minute presentation coming up Friday afternoon. Blink, and it will be over, and we'll all be on to the next challenge.
Friday, November 14, 2008
One of my classmates said it well tonight: "I came [to the bar] tonight because time is passing quickly." He's right-- before we know it, January will be here, and soon after that, our trip to China in March, and then it will be graduation in May.
I have a lot yet to learn before I leave, I have a lot more to write on this blog, and most importantly, I have a lot left to experience. Hence the value of taking the time to meet up at the Corner Bar. There's a lot more to this program than the 18 hours we spend in a classroom every other week. Soon enough, we'll find ourselves missing days like today (when we all played hooky from work, we all had lunch catered, we all got to sit and pontificate instead of wrestle in the "real world", and I got to have a beer with friends at 4:30).
Aside from the interesting question of "what is the objective of an ethics class in an MBA program?" our professor's admitted lack of practical experience in the business world has put a spin on this class that is making me question its lasting value. Is this class just an exercise by MBA program leadership to blanket us with a foundation in something resembling ethics in the wake of scandals at Duke and other MBA programs? A checkbox, as it were?
Our discussions have ranged much more broadly than in other classes. This wouldn't be as much of an issue if we were operating from a shared framework, some agreed-upon method for analyzing or structuring arguments, but we don't have anything like this. In fact we have fewer textbooks this semester than any other semester to date. We have fat binders full of photocopied materials, including more than a reasonable amount of content generated by the professors themselves, but no foundational elements. A base text in ethics would be useful, as would a book on rhetoric. Lacking these, we have the oddest and meandering discussions about everything from dwarf tossing to the state of the auto industry. I look at the notes I end up taking in each session, and there's little more than the date and a few scribbles.
I question whether this class is giving us much that will be of value to us in 10 years, as we move on to manage companies of our own and as we face ethical dilemmas alone from the comfort of (perhaps) a corner office. Without substantive notes to reflect on, and without a lasting framework to use to analyze our situations, what will we have?
One final and rather humorous spin on the ethics class today: the other class this semester is on venture capital/startup businesses, and today the professor from that class lectured at length about the duplicitous methods he has used during his time as a VC and business owner to surreptitiously survey customers, have his employees shadowed by detective agencies, and lie to customers about true pricing.
What implications are we to draw from having both classes in succession on the same day?
Friday, October 31, 2008
We had a fascinating discussion about the level and type of risk you really undertake when embarking on a new venture. Coming into this program, I have to say I was comfortable in my corporate position. I have flirted with striking out on my own-- it would certainly alleviate much of the frustration I experience on a daily basis as part of being in the gears of a large organization. My father ran his own company, so my experience growing up was that my dad didn't have a boss and pretty much did his own thing. By the same token, my father was also unprepared to be a leader and ended up losing the family business, casting our family into a downturn from which we never fully recovered. The stress of managing that ultimately led to my father's death at age 50 (when I was just 19). So obviously that is also a strong countervailing memory in my mind of the risks of being out on your own (i.e., not having a corporate safety net to fall back on).
I tend to view things pretty simply: I chose to work for a large organization because I like both the opportunities and the protection it affords me: opportunities in the sense of working for one of the most recognized brands in the world, and protection in the sense of my employer having lots of cash on hand and the market share to survive economic downturns. Plus the benefits are pretty good too!
So, when you weigh that against the prospect of being out on your own, with potentially multiple years of low (or no) salary and maybe even needing to put your personal assets up as collateral to make your dream a reality, the cushy (if occasionally annoying) corporate job seems like a fair bargain. Especially when, like me, you have three small kids and a spouse who works.
Our professor told us story today, though, that has me questioning things. "Twenty years ago," he said, "I left a job at a large company and went to work for a VC firm." Many of his big-company friends said he was crazy taking on so much risk.
"Now I look back at those people, and they are all very successful in highly-specialized corporate jobs, but they also live in fear of being one step away from getting re-orged out of a job. And then what transferable skills would they have?" By contrast, he said, "I have played so many different roles in so many different organizations, I feel I could do just about anything."
Then he hit us with the zinger: "So in the end, who actually took on more risk?"
Many of my classmates are planning to use their degrees from this program to strike out on their own-- it is a common situation in many MBA programs I'm sure. Today's lecture has me thinking whether I wouldn't be better off in the long run joining them and forging my own path sometime soon. The company office is pretty comfortable, but I will also admit that rarely a day goes by that I don't worry about ending up like one of our professor's colleagues in the story: experienced, specialized, highly paid, and completely vulnerable.
My task will be how to reconcile that fear with the alternate (and visceral) fear I experienced when I saw independent business consume my father.
I sit toward the back of the room this year (last year I was up front), so it's fascinating to glance at the laptop screens of others to see all the various things they are doing with their class time. Some aren't even taking notes, others are typing furiously. Some are on e-mail or instant messaging (myself occasionally included, in truth), but everyone has the ability to look up a new term on Wikipedia or via search in real time. Triple Bottom Line? One second while I become conversant on the topic. It's a bit like The Matrix where become a karate expert was a matter of popping in a disc and inserting a probe into your head.
A bit scary, maybe, a bit distracting, yes, but ultimately powerful and completely unstoppable.
Monday, October 27, 2008
Saturday, October 25, 2008
Friday, October 24, 2008
Tuesday, October 21, 2008
In an instant messaging conversation with one of my teammates tonight, we were discussing the group presentation we have coming up on Friday for IT class. We've had a couple of weeks to size up the professor and feel we have a fairly good idea of how he grades assignments. Plus many of us have memories of busting the midnight oil last year (remember those teams who met two or more times each week for Markstrat?) only to receive.....pretty much the same grade we would have received if we didn't have the 3D animations in our PowerPoints (or the plumber's outfits, the dancing elves, or video montage).
Truth be told, it's a good thing this program is only two years long-- any more and we'd really be phoning it in!
Monday, October 20, 2008
I was on the road two weeks ago traveling in Las Vegas for a team meeting, and this was where I hit the wall. I've had many work trips over the MBA program period, and all of them involve schlepping extra-heavy books hundreds of miles, reading materials on airplanes, and attending team conference calls in highly suboptimal locations. I've reached my limit. As I sat there in my beautiful Vegas hotel, having once again told my colleagues as they invited me out for the night "no thanks, I need to go back to my room and do homework," I realized I had crossed a point where the returns were lower than the effort I was putting in.
This semester is passing just as quickly as I'd suspected, but the work is taking more of a toll on me than I expected. I'm oh so focused on graduation in May!
Thursday, October 16, 2008
Even in second year, and especially with our IT class, things are still much less predictable than I'd like. The professor has frequently added work, changed work, and created distractions in the form of optional exercises to the point that it's very difficult keeping up. I think many of us have just checked out-- I know I've come close. As results-oriented professionals who seek clarity in other areas of our lives, it is been extremely frustrating to deal with these distractions. E-mails from the professor announce new activities and we constantly have to re-assess these in the context of our other work for the class, in the context of our potential grades, and in the context of the rest of our busy lives. This may work for undergraduates (unmarried, no kids, no jobs, lots of time on their hands) but it's driving me absolutely batty.
Saturday, October 4, 2008
At this time last year, we were scared new students to whom the second years probably seemed arrogant and disconnected. I know I thought they seemed like upperclassmen-- and I mean that with all its intrinsic envy and resentment. Who did they think they were, anyway? Well, if they were anything like we are, they were probably just happy to be finished with their first year. And also like us, they probably looked on the first years with sympathy.
It's interesting to see how much of this type of behavior relates to experience rather than age. In college, everyone's pretty much the same age, so it's easy to attribute the upperclassman syndrome to age, but in our little experiment now, I'd have to say it has more to do with experience. We've been through things (like Markstrat, like Charlie's accounting class) that the first years can't even dream about. And we've survived, realizing (maybe a little too late) that in the end we're all going to be just fine.
I see it on the faces and in the attitudes of my classmates now: we all come a little later to class, some of us are even (gasp!) missing a class or two, fewer of us are asking questions or keeping up with the reading. Call it our own version of the senior slump.
What's most interesting is that this has nothing to do with age-- some of the first years are older than some of us (just as some of us were older than the second years last year). Being a second year is more a state of mind than anything else: a little less panicky, a little wiser, a little more anxious for the whole thing to be done already, and also a little sad that it's all passing so quickly.
Such is probably the case for any challenging time in our lives. The actual experience of it all is way too complex to fully describe in words. In order to experience it, you have to sit in that chair every other weekend for a full year, vacillating between terror and insight.
Thursday, September 25, 2008
"How did I do this last year?" I asked myself, unable to focus my eyes to read much beyond 11pm.
I think I've finally crossed the line, dipping below "zero" on the Cumulative Sleep Index, and that's a good thing. I'm remembering now that things really start picking up once I've exhausted all my stored-up energy and I begin, in a sense, running on fumes.
Once I reach terminal tiredness, tiredness itself falls away. I'm operating on just five hours' sleep last night and I'm feeling great. During the summer, any less than eight hours a night would leave me groggy the next day. Clearly I'm into a new zone right now. This is where I thrived in college, where I lived on something close to 3-4 hours of sleep a night with fantastic results.
Of course, I could just be delirious, like the man walking toward the oasis in the desert anticipating a long, tall drink of water.
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
Overall, my hypotheses have been proven out: I have been more productive than at any other time in my life, and somehow I've managed to keep the other parts of my life together as well (no pets have died from neglect, laundry and dishes always get done, food on the table, etc.).
But now that the reality of the middle of the semester is setting in (on a timeline where midterms come just two weeks into the semester!), I'm struggling with a new challenge. Last week I learned that, due to a reorganization at my company, the number of accounts I cover has doubled. I was so good about my planning this year, I thought I had everything planned out and under control to a degree that would allow me to have a challenging but attainable year (remember, as a sales rep I get paid on my attainment). Now my account list has doubled, and these aren't small accounts either! So it's back to the planning table and I need to assess how my risk profile has been irreversibly altered with the past week's changes.
As I face two looming deadlines for midterms and the meeting invitations continue piling up in my inbox, I'm trying to keep the old maxim in mind: God doesn't give you more than you can handle. Or at least He's not supposed to! :-)
Saturday, September 20, 2008
Then, suddenly, it's Saturday night, my family's in bed, and I'm faced with a daunting choice:
- Get a leg up on reading for the next class weekend
- Go to sleep to catch up on my rest
- Completely veg out, either a) browsing the Internet (usually getting sucked in to some random YouTube video thread) or b) watch Tivo until my eyes dry out and/or the sun peeks over the horizon
Do you want to take a guess as to which choice I usually make? Let's just say it's >2. This happens on a regular enough basis that I know there must be some reason (it can't be me, after all, can it?).
I think it has a lot to do with exhaustion combined with the false belief that "two weeks is plenty of time to get my reading done for the next class." As I've seen time and time again, two weeks will pass in a flash, so I'd better get off this chair right now and crack a book if I know what's good for me.
The jury's still out on which decision I'll actually make. And hey, is that ice cream I spy in the fridge?
I just got home from class and realized I've spent eight of the last eleven days in all-day sessions (that's 10-12 hours/day for those of you keeping track). Throw in a trip to Florida for work this week, a ton of reading, and two group projects already done, and it's amazing none of us have committed ourselves to the nearest padded cell.
One other thing I'm also remembering about this experience is how quickly we regain that stamina I spoke about last week (was it really just last week?). I was happy get most of my reading mojo back this week (hopefully along with some of the retention), and as long as the coffee holds up, I seem to at least be able to stay awake in class.
Nonetheless, it's pretty amazing that we already are getting our midterm exams and that we're almost halfway through our first round of two classes. Before we know it, finals will have passed, the semester will be over, and we'll be catapulted into our last semester together.
That was a good reminder to me today as I sat talking with classmates at lunch: although you can't imagine it now, this time will be over before we know it, so amidst the chaos, at least make an effort to savor the relationships, laughs, and even the humiliations (thank you, Advanced Financial Management!) that are part of this quick, strange, wonderful journey.
Friday, September 19, 2008
Not so for our IT class. This is our third session and already the professor has based his lectures on information that is not only dated but also inaccurate:
- He claimed the total sales at Wal-Mart were in the neighborhood of $175 billion. In fact it was $397.3 billion.
- He claimed that Apple had the largest market capitalization of any technology company. In fact, Apple is #3 behind Microsoft and IBM.
- He claimed you could only buy Dell computers online, using Dell's direct model. In fact, Dell now sells PCs through Best Buy stores as well.
- He claimed you couldn't buy M&M's online. In fact the company has offered custom-printed M&M's on its website for years.
- He asked, "Who ships anything via next-day shipping anymore?" Um, how about just about everyone in business?!?
- He claimed, "everything Microsoft has, Apple had years ago." I'm not even going to touch that one, it's so uninformed.
It would be different if he were espousing items we couldn't easily check online, but this is pretty basic stuff.
Further bringing us down the rabbit hole of technology, I found this morning that our IT professor has himself been blogging about us.
Is it possible to create a blogging feedback loop? Or a blogging Hadron Collider?
Should be fun to find out.
Thursday, September 11, 2008
Going into this program, I dreaded the thought of classes like Statistics and Accounting. OK, Accounting was pretty hellish, but the classes I enjoyed most from first year were Managerial Accounting and, yes, Statistics. That fact still surprises me. We had a full roster of more "touchy-feely" classes last year: classes like Organizational Behavior, Strategy, and Marketing, and while those were enjoyable, what stands out for me are the more analytical classes.
If you know me, you know that's pretty much the opposite of how I view myself. I'm an English major by training, though I'm also a bundle of contradictions. Growing up, I loved electronics and taking things apart to see how they worked; throw a computer into the mix and I was in heaven. I'm pretty sure my path to dot-com greatness was first averted by a spate of math teachers in high school sent by Satan himself; this is when I gravitated to the school newspaper (later to become managing editor) and it's also when I first read a work of literature (my parents had books, but it would be a stretch to say there was much reading going on in our house growing up).
All of this led to a liberal arts degree, though I was almost a joint English and Environmental Science major. And looking back to my college experience, I think I enjoyed my junior year class in Geology more than any other class. Again, totally out of the realm of what I assumed to be my "style". The professor even approached me and asked if I'd consider changing my major to Geology, so there may also be a lost opportunity of Geologic Greatness in my past as well.
And here we are, circa 2008. I work in sales which is a lot more about art than science, I've managed magazine publishing endeavors, worked in nonprofit fundraising, and explored the higher education market as well.
More and more, I'm wondering how much opportunity I'm not noticing in both my personal and professional life because of my self-notion as someone who doesn't (or shouldn't) be drawn to topics like Statistics. Yet I am. Could there be a little patch of untapped Statistical Greatness in my future?
For the rest of this academic year, I'm going to try viewing my tastes and attractions in a slightly different light.
Finance, anyone? Coming from an Engligh major, that's pretty radical talk.
You can see how it's going.
One funny thing I did want to share was a Yogi Berra quote from yesterday (related to us by our Finance professor):
The story goes: One day, Berra ordered a pizza. When asked whether he would like his large pizza cut into four slices or eight, Yogi replied: "Four, because I don't think I have enough appetite to eat all eight."
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
Simply stated, it takes pure stamina to power through a day of work at our regular jobs, followed by evening personal lives that include families and small children for many of us, and then to pick up a book or do homework for three hours each night (7 days a week) while class is in session.
I thought I was tough. I thought I'd retained much of my edge from first year. What I'm learning this week while on retreat (where the work just doesn't stop, even at night or at 6 in th morning) is that I am sorely lacking in stamina. Somewhere between the early bedtimes and homework-free days of summer, I lost it. Time to build it back up!
Right after first year began, I remember going to the zoo one Sunday morning after class with my family. I'd been up the night before until 2:30am and was up again at 7 with the kids-- all in all, a respectable 4 1/2 hours of sleep, but some additional factor (the accumulated fatigue of a weekend of class) made me literally fall asleep standing up at the zoo. I feel like I'm right back there tonight! That's what the Pepsi and Red Bull was supposed to counteract an hour ago down in the hotel bar. Now I'm facing a mountain of reading for tomorow morning ("tommorow" being the class period that begins in 9 1/2 short hours). Time to push the limits and rebuild that intellectual stamina.
We look at value add all the time in our jobs: economic value add (EVA), market value add (MVA), and other methods look at finance impacts of various activities. But what do you do at the end of a long class day in a classroom that doesn't have working ventilation and you're trying to assess the value-add of the class you're sitting through?
Here's my formula-- see if it works for you. It's not a numeric formula (though you could measure quantitative items like number of slides or lines of notes), but you get the gist.
Step 1: Consider the assigned readings (books, articles, cases, etc.). Do the assigned readings.
Step 2: Consider the PowerPoint slides the instructor has prepared for class. Review them online. Note: if an instructor doesn't post the slides in electronic form before the class, it may be fair to ask yourself what they're trying to hide (you know the kind of professors I'm talking about).
Step 3: Come to class, and take notes.
If you do all this, NVA will be a measure of net new insights or information you gain by coming to class and taking notes. I have captured all notes from all classes in the last 13 months electronically, organized by date and class, and I find that I take copious notes in some classes and almost no notes in others. Sometimes this is due to having firsthand experience with the subject matter (i.e., less need to take notes), but sometimes it's due to a professor just "phoning it in" during class and reading rote from the slides (or, worse, reading from slides his/her TA prepared for them).
Classes with high NVA will generate lots of meaty notes because attending them will be a worthy investment of your time and because attending will increase your knowledge by giving you things you couldn't glean from either the readings or the PowerPoint slides. Classes with low NVA will be have few if any notes (or, worse, just doodles in your margins) because the professor is largely regurgitating what was in the book or in the slides. In low-NVA cases, you could get just as much by staying home and reading the information for yourself.
In addition to the three variables above, NVA results can be augmented (or decremented) by two additional factors:
1. Guidance and coaching ("help") you receive from the professor on assignments or in-class exercises (higher values here imply marginal NVA even when the other factors may be low)
2. Number of random web pages you find yourself visiting as a distraction during class (likely because you are suffering from bone-crushing boredom). High numbers here translate to lower NVA (unless you have a diagnosed attention deficit disorder).
So, working toward a formula, how about:
Tuesday, September 9, 2008
Learning, for me at least, only (or best) seems to take place when I can suspend the nay-saying voices in my head that shout out, "Who do you think you are, taking a finance class? You're an English major, pal!"
As I learned last year, it takes conscious effort for me to keep those voices at bay, but when I can, what arises in the space between "what I know" and "what I'm being exposed to" can indeed be called learning.
It could be worse, though. There are also two cameras aimed at the professor, and they follow him/her around the room via some mysterious auto-humiliating technology.
So now we have even fewer places to hide. Look for videos of us on YouTube soon, I'm sure.
I think there's something primordial in all of us that kicks into gear each fall. Decades of "first day of school" have worn their paths in our psyches and some part of us still thinks about getting books, school supplies, and new clothes when the beginning of September rolls around. For the second September in a row, it's been great to get back into these rhythms. There's an anticipation about the first day of class, whether that's kindergarten, high school, or graduate school.
Enough for now-- I'm so behind on reading, I need every minute I can get!
Tuesday, September 2, 2008
Well, now it's a pretty concrete notion-- FOUR MONTHS has dwindled down to ONE WEEK! One week from today we will reconvene in downtown Minneapolis at a really ugly-looking hotel and resume classes. I have cracked my books for the coming semester, but only slightly-- clearly I am still in a stage of massive denial.
Tuesday, August 19, 2008
Monday, August 11, 2008
It must be a sign that MBA season is about to begin again, because I'm having a whole new set of classroom-panic dreams, this time involving my MBA classes. It started almost a week ago, and I've had three of them so far, all equally detailed and terrifying. Last night's dream involved an open-book exam for a class (I think it was Strategy or Marketing) that involved a childhood book about Clifford the Dog. No I am not making this up-- you needed a copy of Clifford the Dog to take one section of the exam. I had brought all of my traditional materials with me to class- the textbook, my notes, and all handouts. But apparently I missed the part on the syllabus where I needed to also read a copy of Clifford. The dream ended with me scurrying around the classroom trying to bum a copy from one of my classmates; none of them could help me.
Clearly I'm not getting enough sleep. Either that, or I need to start reading something else to my kids.
Sunday, August 10, 2008
In fact it has been a whirlwind summer, most of it spent blissfully unaware of things like weighted average cost of capital, the "four P's", and balance sheets. We just returned from a weeklong trip with the kids to Wisconsin and Illinois, and we've had fun events, kids camps, sleepovers, movie nights, and all the other fun things that make a summer a summer.
At the same time, as I think I hinted at in my last post, I have really been missing the rigor, intellectual engagement, and quite honestly the sheer insanity of being in school while also juggling (or at least trying to) all these other aspects of my life. So sitting here at my computer, perched on the edge of summer, I can also say I am ready and eager to resume the madness. Does that make me somehow mad myself? Very likely so.
One of my most vivid memories of last year was at the September 2007 residency, at an executive center just outside Minneapolis, where we all had gathered after two weeks in class to really dig in. We were still getting to know each other then, and I remember looking upon the second year students with a kind of awe and reverence. They were learned. They were experienced. They had survived. What would it feel like to be in their shoes? I wondered.
Well, now I am in their shoes. Somewhere out there are 60-75 nervous adults like me, all with at least seven years' work experience, getting ready to head into a classroom environment that scares the hell out of them, even if they are already experienced and even if they already have their PhD. Because no matter how old or experienced you are, no matter how many times you've rounded the ol' academic bend, walking into a new program still makes you a little sick to your stomach.
In just under four weeks' time, we (the now-proud second years) will greet these scared newbies, and they will wonder what it feels like to be in our shoes. I can tell you it feels nice to know (or at least to believe) that the worst of it is behind us, that second year won't be as difficult as the first. And I can say at least it feels good to know something about what the bone-crushing rhythm of it all will be like-- if you know the process will crush your bones, at least you can put on shoulder pads, right?
All in all, I am very excited to see my classmates (indeed, my friends) again, to pick up the books and fire up the financial calculator, to gather at obscene hours in the morning every other Friday and Saturday, eat little sandwiches and drink Coke Zero, and be pushed beyond my limits.
Because, truth be told, that's really the only place it's any fun to hang out anyway.
Friday, June 20, 2008
First, I've been reading (and thoroughly enjoying) Alan Greenspan's book, The Age of Turbulence. Who knew economic history could be so eminently readable? So two of the people Greenspan respects most (as he describes in the book) are John Maynard Keynes and Adam Smith. As I'm wrapping up Greenspan's book, I ordered both The General Theory of Employment Interest and Money and The Wealth of Nations and have those lined up to read next. The Wealth of Nations (all 1,200 pages) as light summer reading? That's just crazy.
Second, I caught myself feeling something akin to "missing school" earlier this week. The feeling caught me by surprise: why in the world would anyone in their right mind miss something as demanding and crazy as MBA class? I realized that my overall productivity (in life) was so much higher when I was running on the caffeine-and-stress-infused pressure of class, and that's what I had started to miss. On an average day lately, I can get my work done and also fit in some pleasure reading, but it's nowhere as productive as I experienced at the peak of the MBA madness earlier in the year. While I'm not yet ready to return to class, I will say that I do miss the intensity and the overall beneficial effects it had on other areas of my life.
So there you have it, I'm spending my summer in a questionable mental state. How's things with you?
Tuesday, May 20, 2008
I'm reading Alan Greenspan's book, The Age of Turbulence, and really enjoying it. Mostly, I'm amazed at my ability to devour whole chapters without my mind wandering-- normally I find it difficult to remain focused on reading no matter the subject. After digesting two Accounting textbooks and one Statistics textbook, maybe Greenspan seems like a sweet dessert, though I do also have to wonder about my sanity when I find books on economics and finance to be this compelling (clearly, my MBA work has already altered my consciousness).
Tuesday, May 13, 2008
I've been sitting on a complimentary one-month XBOX Live subscription for almost six months-- I finally activated it last night and it was great to be polishing my gaming skills against others playing my favorite game, Burnout Revenge. In school, I just didn't have the option of doing something like that. All I could see was an endless, barren field of homework assignments, tests, and wireless clickers (you know what I mean, classmates).
Of course, that's what programs like this are all about: putting much of your life on hold for a concentrated period of time so you can work like a rabid ferret in the pursuit of a lofty goal. Then, if you don't go ballistic and hurt someone, and as long as you keep your grades up, they give you your degree and you can re-enter decent society. I'm getting a glimpse of that now, and boy it sure feels nice. In fact, I think I'll crack open a bottle of wine with dinner tonight and not give a second thought to the prospect of getting overly sleepy.
Sunday, May 11, 2008
So, now it's Sunday night. We've had a busy weekend so I'm only now getting time to unwind and let the enormity of being done really sink in. I went to see a chiropractor on Saturday who said the tension in my neck was similar to that of a person who'd been in a car accident-- chalk that up to my first year of graduate studies!
It is strange, not having books to crack open, problems to work, or case studies to dissect. And it will be odd this coming Tuesday night, when our team won't be having its weekly team call at 8pm. My wife was complaining that I'd dropped out of the family in recent weeks-- tonight she just commented that it seemed like I was unemployed and just sitting around. It's going to take awhile to re-adjust to not having class, homework, and pressure coming from school, and only now am I really understanding the toll all the work has taken on me. As they say in the program literature, this year truly was "harder than I think, but easier than I fear."
Most importantly, the box of books I ordered from Amazon has arrived-- my summer reading list! When was the last time I actually had the ability to read for pleasure? What does that even really mean, anyway? I'm going to find out! I figure I've honed my brain into a super reading and knowledge-absorbing machine, so why not make use of it? It's just going to be so nice not having to read anything related to finance, statistics, strategy, accounting, or operations for the next four months.
I'm sure I'll continue updating this blog during the summer, but likely on a less frequent basis. For now, it's time to go to bed before midnight-- for a change!
Thursday, May 8, 2008
Now it is almost 10pm on the night before the other finals still ahead of me (two more parts to Finance and one 2-hour portion of Strategy). I'm studying a little tonight (mainly just reviewing materials), but overall not much. Both tests are open book, and they're the kind of tests where open book won't really help you if you don't know the material. So I'm just at the point where I assume I know what I'm going to know by the time I start the exams, so why not just call it a night and get some decent sleep? That's where I'm headed in about 30 minutes.
Hard to believe it's almost over-- my first year of graduate school. It's been an amazing, crazy, exhausting ride. I'll have more to say about it tomorrow after walking out of that Strategy exam, but for now it's another quick run through some cases, and then off to dreamland.
Monday, May 5, 2008
I just don't consider myself a math person (even after loving statistics and management accounting), so there are certain core elements of this work (things like the time value of money and net present value of bonds) for which I have inbuilt resistance. Plus I really don't like word problems, so when I see all these things in a single place on an exam, I tense up. Getting beyond the tension and seeing through to the solution is one of my biggest challenges-- I had good results last night and I'm hoping to get back at it tonight. We have a busy week of evening activities for Lindsey's school so I want to get as much of this out of the way as possible, as quickly as possible.
Sunday, May 4, 2008
The take-home portion of the test (in itself just one of three parts to the final) is 11 typed pages long with scores of questions, charts, and exhibits. It was written for someone who, unlike myself, really understands Finance, so I'm sweating pretty mightily. I've been putting it off and putting it off all day-- now I need to give at least 90 minutes to it and I'm trying to give two hours each day between now and Friday. I figure if I can't finish this thing in 12 hours, forget it!
Wish me well.
Saturday, May 3, 2008
We got our new groups at lunch. I've had a great group this year, but against our wishes the admin staff has continued their new practice of breaking up our First Year groups and creating new groups for next year. Of course everyone was nervous at lunch when the new assignments were distributed-- I was surprised by how nervous I was. We've had some pretty long nights as a group this year, and we've formed some "norms" that we all expect to carry forward into our new groups-- of course the new groups will eventually form their own norms and practices but it's hard to imagine what those will be now. We also have two new people joining the program next year (an anomaly for a cohort program like ours), and one of them is in our group. We met him today and he seems extremely professional and energetic-- probably the same way we all seemed back in August on that first day of class! Now, we all just want to go home and begin the mad rush to next weekend when our exams will be over.
Friday, May 2, 2008
It's also hard to believe we've come through this first year. Looking back, this has been one of the best decisions I've made-- I have no regrets except for maybe the sleep I've sacrificed. I've come to view myself as a student again, I've gained insight that has already changed the way I think and look at business and my career, and I've regained confidence in my ability to digest and absorb immense amounts of information and to stretch my limits. Getting exposed to the rigor of academic research and writing has also been interesting-- being in the business world for 16 years has exposed me to a lower bar than I was used to in college and it was nice to have a mental tune-up this year.
Now I just need to keep up the rigor over the summer! What will I do without our weekly Tuesday night team call? What will I do every other Friday and Saturday? I think my wife is more than a little worried about what I'm going to do with all my spare time. I have a stack of books ready to read, and I am very much looking forward to seeing my family on nights and weekends again.
Saturday, March 22, 2008
One of the maxims that has held thus far is that you can measure the value-add of professors and classes by at least two factors:
- The delta between the number of PowerPoint slides in the handouts and the amount of material covered by the professor in class (being able to spend 20-30 minutes per slide while speaking "off the cuff" is a sign of preparedness and intellect).
- The amount of notes taken in class represents the net new knowledge delivered. The more notes I take each session, the more "learning" that's taking place to justify the class time spent.
We'll see if the trend continues, but right now this class has the best numbers for both measures above. It's also been very interesting to see how this professor's approach has elicited comments and contributions from every member of class- something that hasn't been true in any other class we've taken.
Two Finance professors were floating over a university campus, lost and riding in a hot air balloon.
They spotted a man walking on the quadrangle below, and asked him, "Can you tell us where we are?"
The man answered, "You are in a hot air balloon."
The second finance professor m the balloon looked at the other and said, "Must be an Accountant."
"How do you know?" asked the other.
"He gave us information that was factually correct, but absolutely useless."
Friday, March 21, 2008
So today we began Finance. My roommate in college was a finance major, and everything I remember from watching him study was that finance was about as exciting as eating tape. SO I went into class this morning with more than a little trepidation: would it be as much of a deathmarch as I feared? Would I even find it compelling?
I'm happy to say that we're not even through the first class session, and I'm finding it one of the best experiences in the program to date. Much of this comes down to the professor's teaching style: unlike several of the other professors we've had, the Finance professor is humble, inquisitive, and he's working hard to take us on the journey of the concepts he's building over time. This is precisely how I learn, and knowing the professor is our guide in this vs. our dictator makes a huge difference.
So there you have it: I'm actually excitedto go home tonight and read more finance.
Tuesday, March 18, 2008
While it has been nice, it all came crashing down to reality for me this week as I realized just how much reading I've been shirking during those precious "off" weeks. The semester is split this time, so we finished Accounting and Marketing and now we're preparing to begin Strategy and Finance. We're on the road this week but I'm having to burn the midnight oil to catch up on my reading for class on Friday-- the official beginning of the second half of our second semester. I'm making progress on the mountain of reading, thankfully.
Truth be told, I've missed the pressure and constant feeling of being behind in my work, so it will be good (in an odd sense) to get back into the groove of class this Friday.
Saturday, March 1, 2008
I also got to take the exam alone in a big conference room, so I could look outside big windows, spread out on a big conference table, and most importantly, I could talk to myself during the exam ("Now, does that make sense?"-- yes I talk to myself quite often).
We were allocated four hours for the exam and I completed it in two and a half hours. It was an excellent mental exercise but it's obvious how much I've adjusted to preparing for these types of exercises since starting class. I'm happy to see that my mind is at least a little sharper than it was in August.
So, another class down. That's five graduate courses completed-- who would have guessed I'd be able to say that? I feel good about the accomplishment and I really feel I'm hitting my stride with the program: less stressed about every week's assignments, better able to absorb material and call out the key points, and better able to take tests.
Most importantly, I'm starting to see that, contrary to the self-image I've had since high school, I may not suck at math. My two favorite classes have been math-related: statistics and management accounting. What's up with that? Going into the program, I would have expected the touchy-feely classes (like organizational behavior or marketing) to be my favorites, but I'm really liking the math challenges. Of course it all takes good teachers, and I've had math from some bad teachers too (like financial accounting last semester) so clearly it's a mix. Still, it's odd to find myself actually looking forward to engaging in a math exercise.
I think part of the whole thing was to demonstrate how difficult it is to make informed business decisions without a solid information dashboard. The user interface for Markstrat was arcane and almost impossible to digest, so it was kind of like flying a plane wearing glasses covered in wax paper-- you could kind of see things, but in the end you never knew if you were going to crash into something or not. Every week, we'd submit our decisions and cross our fingers until the results came out the other end.
For the first two weeks, we were flying high on top of the other six teams, but everything after week two was pretty much downhill as the other teams figured out how the internal Markstrat machine worked and we continued experimenting. Overall I think we did the best we could-- how much time can you really spend on something like this when you also have a family, full-time job, and all your other coursework to do? Some of the winning teams spent 4-8 additional hours per week in Markstrat-specific meetings. No way we were going to do that.
So in the end, it's 25% of our grade, and we'll chalk it up to experience. But I warn you, beware the seven-week madness that is Markstrat!
Saturday, February 9, 2008
The degree is the same as the part-time and full-time MBA programs, so what, really is different? Are we somehow getting away with doing less than our part-time and full-time peers?
First semester I would have said "no", since our stats class was a full-semester class (delivered in just 9 class periods, mind you) and the other classes, though they all suffered from "compression" to some degree (i.e., having to do a full semester's work in 9 weeks), we still felt like our money was well-spent.
Enter second semester. We have a marketing professor who is in the hospital due to unexpected surgery: what can you really do about unforeseen events like that? To fill in, we have a lecturer (not a PhD), someone from the world of corporate sales who is very polished and generally a very nice guy, but you can tell the substance just isn't what you'd get from a tenured professor. And it's really starting to irritate me.
This morning we had a guest lecturer (a PhD Associate Professor) on pricing strategy, and his talk was full of insights and commentary, all delivered without the aid of PowerPoint or notes (something I consider amazing and proof of his intelligence). Then came our lecturer to cover the remaining three hours, and you could tall almost immediately that the substance went out the window. Do I really want to pay $5,000 to hang out every other week with someone who's just basically a really nice guy? I find myself craving more, and even a guarantee of an excellent grade this semester won't really keep me more engaged than I am now.
Saturday, January 26, 2008
At some point Thursday night, I finally started to believe the Accounting world wasn't in fact coming to an end, and last night I really hit my stride. Walking into the quiz this morning, I felt I had picked the right things to study, and the quiz was time-consuming but I felt I knew the model into which to plug the numbers. We'll see how accurate my calculations were (we weren't allowed to use Excel for this quiz, which was a undesirable throwback to circa 1987 manual calculations), but it feels good to finally have all of this "click".
Friday, January 25, 2008
One thing that's interesting to watch has been the differing teaching approaches taken by our two accounting professors (Financial Accounting last semester and Managerial Accounting this semester). Last semester the professor used trickery to teach: apparently he felt we would learn best by looking for little tiny discrepancies or tricks in exam questions. All this ever did was teach us we couldn't trust our professor.
This semester, the Managerial Accounting professor is using fear as his prime motivator: he told us on the first day that he took a 10-sided die (10 groups in our class) and a 6-sided die (6 people in each group) and rolled 20 combinations to see who in the class he would randomly call on to answer case questions. He said our entire team would be evaluated based on our responses to these random questions, and we would have to present them when called upon in front of the entire class.
My first thought was, "what is this, eighth grade?" Now we're all just mad, just as mad (but in a different way) as we were with last semester's trickery approach.
What's the point of these misguided motivators? While they might work fine for 19-year-old undergraduates, they're really just noise to us. What's happened is that we now find ourselves focusing obsessively on being ready for every question on every case, and we're not doing much of the reading. So there you go: another totally ineffective tool for learning.
Friday, January 11, 2008
Last semester, our class ended up gaining a fair amount of dominance over the structure and flow of the classes: we were able to get exams rescheduled and/or converted into take-home tests, we got presentations postponed, and we got online assessments restructured. It doesn't look like we'll be as successful this semester, though it will be interesting to watch how things all play out. One of the profs commented today, "the final will be a 4-hour in class exam, closed book. And no, this is not open to discussion."
It's got to be hard, standing up in front of adults paying $20,000 per semester, and telling them what to do. We're not 19-year-olds. 14% of the people in my class even have PhD's of their own. So this is a balancing act for the professors, and we have shown ourselves to be a strong-willed group who has no hesitation about complaining about every little thing-- if you let us. Today we were all like jackals in a way, watching our target and looking for weakness. The good thing is we also learned a lot about our subjects today, so as long as the "give/get" relationship continues equitably, we should be ok.
Still, it's funny how much we've all come to detest and even be offended by the standard evaluation methods like in-class exams, closed-book exams, and essay questions. Hey, it's the 21st century, and we're all in our 30s and 40s. Give us a break, professor.
Monday, January 7, 2008
That little voice in my head that used to shout "are you sure you haven't forgotten to read a chapter?" every Sunday has returned. That other voice that whispered "Hmm, I wonder if your other classmates are doing as little reading as you are?" is also back. I missed you, fellas, but really, couldn't you have given me a littler longer to recover?