Friday, October 31, 2008


Today was the first day of our VC class, and it was one of the most stimulating four hours of the entire program. The professor is a seasoned VC himself, and asked the class today: "How many of you plan to start your own companies or develop a new venture as part of being in this program? And if you don't, what are you doing in this class?" He was only half joking. I wasn't one of the people considering that.

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.

Getting Old

Today in my Venture Capital class, it occurred to me that I am truly starting to get old. The realization hit me in an instant as the professor was making a reference to mainframe computers. He asked if we were old enough to remember working with mainframes in the pre-PC era (I was). I found myself taking pride in identifying with the generation who would remember mainframes. Then it hit me: that's something an older person would do. Young people probably would take pride in not identifying with the mainframe generation, but here I was doing just the opposite. I think that may be the divide (not just for mainframes but for lots of things)!

Always On

It has been fascinating for me to watch the "always on" state of my colleagues in class. When I was in college, technically there was no public Internet (the HTTP protocol that gave birth to the public Internet wasn't invented until a year after I graduated) and there definitely wasn't anything like wireless access. When you were in class, you were in effect a hostage. No laptops (we took notes on paper), no e-mail, no instant messaging, no web browsers. Now it is a totally different game. None of our professors have even attempted to prohibit us from using laptops-- the closest any has come was our Ethics professor today, and all he could muster was a vague threat to call on us randomly if we appeared to be too heads-down with our PCs during class (hardly a threat).

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

Think in WORDS, Not Numbers

After so many semesters of having to draw upon the slim pickings related to the part of my brain that works with numbers (there's just not much there) struggling through Finance (two semesters in a row!), Accounting, and the like, I found myself wrestling with the syllabi for my next round of classes (which begin Friday). The reading wasn't making much sense, nor were the assignments, until I realized "OH! I get it, these classes expect me to make arguments, draw conclusions, and do other non-mathlike things." After that, it was a lot easier to do the preparation. Now I think I understand why my science and econ friends in college had such a hard time in liberal arts classes (or when I did extracurricular activities like the campus newspaper)-- they never got a chance to switch their own gears out of mathlike certainty into the nebulous world of the unknown. Time for me to make the switch, and time to dive back out of the frying pan and back into the fire that is the second half of the semester.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

What I Need

So after yesterday's release of stress and (gasp!) two nights of decent sleep in a row, I'm starting to feel like a normal human being again. I've always been the kind of person who needs a lot of sleep-- I'd pick sleep over just about anything else if given the choice. And sleep is precisely what has been training off the most lately. Either there's homework to do, the baby's up at 4am, or I stay up way too late playing Halo or something crazy like that, but in the morning the result is the same: sheer exhaustion. Coffee helps but caffeine only goes so far-- quickly I find I'm back to my original low level of concentration and I'm not really productive. But give me one or even two nights of decent sleep and it's amazing how quickly the horizon opens up for me-- I have perspective today I literally couldn't summon earlier in the week, and it's all because of that glorious sleep. Good to know.

Friday, October 24, 2008

A Moment of Relief

With the conclusion of the 10th group presentation today, IT class has come to an end. My response in these situations (i.e., post-exam or post-class) is typically the same: way too much internal panic and thoughts of desperation leading up to the event, excitement and high energy on the date the assignment is actually delivered, and a huge sense of relief immediately afterward. Like we all survived some shared horrible experience. Such is my feeling as I type this post-- class is over, my suit jacket is off, I've eaten lunch, and I've settled into one of the conference rooms to wrap up my few remaining assignments for the remainder of the half-semester. We're back again next week for the start of our second half of the semester, and we already met about our first assignment from that class (due on November 1), so the rosy feeling won't last for long I'm sure, but for now I'm going to savor it.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Level of Effort

Now that we're deep into Second Year, the topic is coming up more and more frequently of: just how much effort do we need to put into "X" anyway? ("X" here could be a group paper, final, or PowerPoint presentation). Not that we're thinking about skipping the work entirely, just that we're questioning how much we really need to put into every little thing that comes up. Honestly, it seems we were all a lot more eager last year to go above and beyond; now it seems like we just want to keep our heads down in the foxhole and not get our heads blown off.

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

Hitting the Wall

OK, somewhere in the last two weeks, this stopped being fun. When I saw the Year 2 schedule in the summer before things got rolling again, intuitively I knew October would be a hellish month-- class on three out of four weekends, many overlapping due dates, and general fatigue. But being in it all-- actually down in the middle of it now-- really sucks much more than I expected. Can someone just hand me my shiny MBA diploma and give me an early get-out-of-jail-free card so I can be done with it all?

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

No Surprises

As we continue into the second year of this program, it's become clear to me that one of the most important factors in a program like this (targeting working professionals) is consistency. We expect to get our marching orders in the form of a syllabus at the start of the semester, and we build our weekly working plans from that. After that initial plan is set, even the smallest change (like adding a new case to read) is a huge issue. Almost no professor we've had seems to fully comprehend this. During first year, it was common for us to receive notes mid-week before a class weekend changing an assignment, adding an assignment, or extending the due date on an assignment (which of course only penalizes those of us who actually stuck to the original schedule).

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

Second Years

Halfway into my third semester (of four) in this program, I'm amazed at how the politics of experience works. We are second years, and we are so much more laid back than we were last year. We feel we have conquered some challenge, we feel we have survived, and we have much of the confidence that goes with that.

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.