Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Second Mentor Session

I recently wrote about a mentor session that I participated in. The mentor was a gentlemen who had experience in several start-ups. Most of that experience was successful. He has essentially "made it" at this point and is giving advice to a few lonely MBA candidates. His advice to me was to change my resume and to build my brand. By this he meant to brand myself as an employee and market my best qualities.

Overall, this session was depressing. I found out that I don't communicate well through my resume and that I need some serious help nailing down exactly what it is I want to do.

Enter Mentor number two.

The second mentor was a senior level individual at a well know tech firm. (I am looking to transfer into the tech industry after/during school). While she did not specifically review our resumes (their were ten of us in the mentee group), she did talk a lot about what a person should do who wants to enter the tech sector. Her two main recommendations were to "get to know the space" and "to take hard quantitative classes".

She explained that the last thing a group at a tech company wants to do is to bring you up to speed on everything going on. She said that if you could get to know their environment (i.e. technological advances, customers, competitors, market share, etc.) you will have a much better chance at landing the job.

She further explained that taking the heavily quantitative classes and highlighting them will be to your advantage. The problem a lot of MBAs have is that they can't understand the technical people. And I'm talking about guys like programmers, developers, statisticians, etc. The more quant, the better the level of understanding... and in some ways the better the problem solving skills.

It was so refreshing to hear some practical straightforward advice. Everyone else just says "network". while networking is important, it is good to know I can do some more tangible things now.

Overall, I was very happy with the second mentor session. I think both of them gave me some good advice, but the second motivated me to get going on some simple first steps.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

MBA Degree Woes: Stats on My Own

Tuesday was my last Stats class for the quarter. This was a very exciting day... however, this was also the day that my take home stats final began.

Now, if you have read my previous entries, you know that I hate the idea of a take home final. I can't recall a time outside of business school where someone said to me, "Oh you're not sure? Why don't you write down the question and look into it for the next 48 hours.". In addition, I think it makes the curve extremely steep. This is mainly because the types of students you see in MBA programs are over achievers who will spend 10 hours on a take home test. Consequently, I had to devote several hours to the exam as well.

However, in this case I actually appreciated the take home exam. You see, I have been teaching myself stats since the midterm. And lets just say that I am no business school prof. So, why am I teaching myself? The basic answer is that I was unable to follow the professor. I am not sure if it was me or him, but I would sit through an hour of class and feel like I had learned nothing. So, I made the decision to study on my own.

Here's the rub though... I was two weeks behind. So as I am taking the exam I am teaching myself multiple regressions, time series, and Chi squared. Let me tell you... this is not a good strategy. Needless to say, the exam took over five hours. It was supposed to take 2.

The good news is that it is over and now I know regression, chi squared, time-series, and more...
The bad news is that I'm not sure how well I learned it. I may be writing to you about my second go at stats soon.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Business School: The Competition Continues

A few entries ago I mentioned that I decided to compete in a business plan competition this quarter...

This competition is a bit unique in that it is joint collaboration of the Business School and the School of Engineering. The main idea of the contest is, "Great idea meets market opportunity". Well, the training today talked a lot about the market opportunity.

I guess there are a lot of engineering students that tinker around in there garages, basements, or lairs with some pretty cool stuff. The problem is that most of their inventions never see the light of day because they don't have enough business savvy. Enter Business School student... Our job is to take our business savvy (or develop it very quickly) and bridge the gap between the dusty basement and the market.

Here is the rub though. I've never done this before. Yes, I have taken a lot of courses on various aspects of business, but very few on start-ups or market research. So, I'm in a little over my head. What is my plan?

Well, first I brought in another MBA student who has some expertise in the product area as well to help share the burden. Second, I am banking on the fact that this is a primarily product driven competition. I will do some research, but there is no way I have enough time or the network to fully develop the business side of this product. By the way, the product is a scalable tidal generation system. I work in Operations Management, remeber...

I'll let you know how the competition goes and I may even get some photos of the prototype up on the blog.

Sunday, February 22, 2009


There is something special about those of us who decide to go back to school to pursue a graduate degree. There is something especially special when we have spouses, children, and work when we decide to do it. What is it that's so special?

We think that we are superhuman. We think that we can do anything in any finite amount of time. The truth is that sooner or later we are all destined to find our limits. This past week I found mine...

This quarter I am taking three classes (Statistics, Finance, and Open Innovation). As if the extra class weren't enough, I tacked the responsibility of leading a team in a competition onto my responsibility clipboard. The days I have class begin at 6:00AM when I wake up for work and end at 11:30PM when I get home from school. The days I don't have class are full from beginning to end with e-mails, team meetings, and homework. I've even found time to work out 4-6 days a week, lose 12 pounds, and start a low carb diet. I almost got away with it too.

One week ago my wife was skiing in Canada and she crashed pretty hard. The X-rays revealed a fracture and a surprise behind the fracture... a cyst. Since last Monday we have been to three different doctor's offices four times and my wife can barely move her arm. Luckily, my Mother-in-Law has been here to help out, but she leaves tomorrow. So here I am, not a moment to spare, and now I am also in charge of the house. But wait, there's more. I got a call today from my boss asking me to work an extra day next week for some sort of process excellence thing we are going through at work. So now I have one less day on my weekend right before my first final, a milestone in the competition, and two major assignments are due in the other classes. This is my limit.

What I should really be saying is, "that was my limit". The problem with thinking you can do it all is that inevitably... you can't. This lifestyle doesn't leave an inch for any surprises and you can always count on something happening during any 12 week period.

So, here I go... survival mode switched on. Bracing for impact!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

A Real Business Education: The Mentor Session

During my orientation for the MBA program, our Dean mentioned that some of the most important things we will do during the program are outside of the classroom. He was referring to things like clubs, unofficial happy hours with other students, competitions, and organized extra curricular activities like the mentor program.

Being in the Evening MBA program while working during the day has proven to be a real obstacle in attending any outside activities. However, I was able to participate in the mentor program. For first year students, the program consists of a reception with all of the mentors, a bidding process, and one 2 hour meeting with a few other students. My bids resulted in me getting two mentors. I met with the first one this past week.

We had all sent our resumes and a brief synopsis of our near term plans via e-mail prior to the meeting. I wasn't really sure what to expect...

Our mentor was in his mid forties, but had better experience than most business people that had worked twice as long. He received his MBA from Cornell back in the 80s and moved out west. He immediately went to work for a start up and then followed that with several turnarounds of local tech and biotech companies. He's now semi-retired.

He said that he landed his first job by making a pitch to the owner on the acquisition of venture capital money. He explained to the owner that he had been going about it the wrong way and that he could help. He got the owner to agree to give him a cut and a paid salary if he could land some VC money. He got it done and reaped the rewards.

Hearing this story was a real business education. The major theme of what he talked about throughout the meeting tied into this experience. Work outside the system, take risks, offer employers a deal they can't refuse tied to an upside that you can't refuse. He said he once offered to pay an owner for the opportunity to work for him. This was turned down, but he got the job.

He also took some time to go over all of our different resumes. When he got to me he first said, "your not looking for a job, right?". This wasn't a good reaction. He followed that up by telling me that my job title and descriptions made me sound like some old guy with a furrowed unibrow. This sounds a bit harsh, but it was my second piece of business education for the night.

He gave me an honest reaction to a resume that was full of eperience in an industry that most people know nothing about. After insulting me, he gave me a few pointers including the idea to pitch an internship with my current employer. He said that if I could communicate that I was able to affect change and lead in my current rigid environment, that I could boast the ability to do it anywhere.

I left the meeting a bit depressed, but I went straight home and made over my resume. I later sent him a thank you note. He replied and said that I could contact him any time to bounce ideas off of him. It was a positive interaction.

So for me, the mentor program has been a huge success. I have my next meeting with a software company VP this week. I will let you know how it goes :)

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Real Life: Limiting Executive Pay

Since entering Business school I have begun to learn that people who don't understand business often make crazy suggestions when it comes to government's interaction with it.

The paragon of this observation is in the deafening cry to limit Executive pay. Now, don't get me wrong. I have absolutely no sympathy for any executives who have recently been at the helm while their companies are going under. In fact, if a company has to take any sort of bailout, I think that the existing executives should be tarred, feathered, demoted to the mailroom, and later handed a pink slip with no severance.

However, I think that telling a company that is taking bailout money that they have to limit executive compensation until they pay those funds back is ludicrous. This will simply limit the quality of C level execs that these companies can attract.

Let's say that you are on the board of directors for GM, and you fire a few of your C level execs because, well, they have driven your business into the ground. Now, you find yourself looking to recruit some massively talented people, because it is going to take a lot of talent to dig GM out. You go out to a potential pool of candidates and offer $500,000.00 year. Right, wrong, or indifferent, you will find it extremely difficult to attract anyone. Why would a talented exec go work for a company in such despair for a tenth of the money they could get doing it somewhere else.

Sure, there may be a few guys/gals that just want a challenge, but for the most part you would be laughed at. It is a simple question of supply and demand. Not a lot of supply at that price level.

So how will companies deal with this? My guess is massive bonuses and stock options. If C level execs can't get the bucks in there salary, they will go after some serious upside in the event that they can turn around a company. My fear is that the government will go after limiting this as well.

The problem is that we have a ton of people who are out of work, taking pay cuts, and generally unhappy with the disparity in salary between themselves and these "elites". I am one of these people. So what do we do? We get pissed and catch the attention of the law makers. But limiting the incentives that struggling companies can offer is a very dangerous thing. We shouldn't begrudge a CEO his large salary if he earns it, and we should absolutely insist in a change of power in any company requesting "bailout" funds, but we can't control companies.

Private enterprise has failed us, but that's no reason to make it worse.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Business School Rewind: The Finance Midterm

I just realized that I never made an entry about the midterm I took in Finance last week...

So how did it go? Well, let's just say it ended with me exiting the room with red ears, a bad case of calculator finger, and 4 minutes to spare. It was awful, probably the worst exam I have had throughout all of business school. Let me start from the beginning...

In the week preceding the test we had a case study due that took up several hours of the group's time. As a result, we all went to the Sunday review session for the exam without much preparation. We weren't the only ones, and our Professor picked up on it. He wasn't too happy. On Monday I spent some time going through one of the practice exams. The professor passes out previous year's exams for us to gauge our preparation. I think I did the 2006 test. Anyway, I felt pretty good about the test and figured I would put a little more time in on Wednesday night (the midterm was on Thursday).

We all went to class on Tuesday and the Prof mentioned that he thought we were all unprepared for the review session that he had conducted that weekend. He asked why, and of course we all mentioned the case we had done as a reason why. He didn't have a huge amount of sympathy for us, but he had enough to schedule office hours for the following day (5-6pm). Even though I couldn't make the office hours, I wasn't to worried.

Wednesday rolls around and I attended my Open Innovation class. Afterward, I hit the gym and then went with another one of my group members to the Business School lounge to study. By the time we got started it was about 11pm. We went through another practice exam and wrapped things up at about 1:30AM. I felt pretty good about this one too. I went home, slept, and woke up at 5:45 the next morning to start the day.

After a long day at work, I made the 1 hour commute to school and sat through an incredibly boring stats class. The Prof picked this of all days to show us the proof for the regression formulas. The entire class was zoning during the lecture... blank faces filled the room. Stats finally ended and we all began the long walk up to the fourth floor for the Finance midterm.

The test was handed out and the Prof put a clock up on the wall (this particular classroom has no clock). I looked at the first question and a little bit of panic began to set in. The question was on stock valuation. Not only had we spent very little time covering stock valuation, but the practice exams had almost no questions pertaining to it. No matter, I pushed forward with my graphing calculator in one hand a pencil in the other. I got through question one with only a slight hesitancy in the beginning.

When I turned to question two I knew I was in trouble. Not only was this one also on stock valuation, it asked to compare and contrast three different companies and to establish stock values through a 10 year period. Intertwined in the whole thing was a series of non-linear dividend payments. I panicked briefly and then began calculating the discounts for all the periods. Next, I added them up to determine the present value of the stocks. After this I began to compare them to answer the different parts of the question. After all was said and done, I spent forty minutes and half a page answering this question. The calculator was dizzy...

Going into the final questions I was pressed for time, but I managed to pull it out with four minutes to spare. I grabbed my exam pack and took it to the front of the room, packed up my bag, and left. I walked outside with red ears and a brain that felt like soup!

It was awful! It was one of those feelings where you are thinking to yourself, "Did I even use the right method on that?". I did a lot of computation, and a lot of work in general, but I may have been completely off the right track. Fortunately, at the happy hour afterward, I talked to several other students who had the same feeling about the exam. Since it is graded on a curve I should be OK.

I will get the exam back next week. If the grade is good I am just going to throw it away. There is no need to relive that experience in any way.

Monday, February 09, 2009

An MBA Degree must have: The First Competition

A huge part of getting an MBA degree is the opportunity to participate in various competitions. The traditional competition for a business school student is the business plan competition. I have a few class mates that have competed in these, but haven't had an opportunity to do so myself. 

Typically the contest involves writing a business plan and pitching it to some venture capitalists. The plan includes a description of your business idea, the market opportunity, and a justification of the investment. The last part requires some sort of proof of financial viability including cash flows, business model, etc. The winner of the competition, and usually a few runner ups, receive a cash prize and some recognition. I believe the cash prize is supposed to be seed money to get the business that you pitched started.

I decided to join a team in a different kind of competition, it's actually the first time my school has done it. It is called the environmental innovation challenge. The point of the contest is to marry up MBA Degree seekers with graduate level engineering students to bring their inventions to light and match it with an opportunity in the market place.

I had my first meeting with my team this last week. The engineer in our group has come up with a low cost tidal power generation system. The design is still being worked out, but it seems to be a niche that has not pursued with any kind of fervor. Maybe we will be the first.

In any case, I am looking forward to the process because it is really a unique experience to work with a team like this and be the only business minded person. The other team mates are really looking to me to write the business plan and come up with the presentation. I didn't tell them that this is my first competition - we'll see if they notice.

Anyway, the competition is on April 1st with a few other milestones (application deadline, full executive summary, condensed executive summary and slide deck, and the pitch). It shoule be fun, and who knows, maybe this invention will soon be supplying power to a grid near you.