Sunday, September 07, 2008

Stanford Business School, Sloan Program, Entry 3: The First Week of Class

We just ended our first week of classes at the Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB) in the Sloan Master’s program. The Sloan program, as I mentioned in my first post about arriving here, is a one year, full-time Master’s program that is kind of an “accelerated” MBA for people who have significantly more experience in the real work world.

Although it’s only been a week since classes started, it feels much longer – that’s because during this “pre-term” we have the same three classes each day, every day, for three weeks before the fall quarter “officially begins” at the end of September.

The three classes during this pre-term aren't graded. Professor Flanagan, our econ prof, told us on the first day of class that there are three distinct languages he could teach the class in – words, graphs, or mathematics.
Read more!

I would actually say that’s a pretty good way to describe the three classes that we’re taking during this pre-term:

  • Managerial Accounting – mostly math (budgets, income statements, balance sheets – the math itself isn’t that difficult but knowing which number to plug in where can be tricky)

  • Microeconomics – mostly graphs (demand curves & supply curves – they look pretty simple – two lines on a graph, but reveal much more than meets the eye)

  • Strategic Management – mostly words (in-class discussion about real-world company case studies on what made them successful).

I’ll say a lot more about each of these classes below, including what we’ve learned (which is quite a bit, especially for only one week!), what our professors are like, and what I think of the material. But first, some general observations about the first week of class:
What’s it like to take classes at Stanford Business School?

It’s actually very unlike any of my undergraduate classes. For one thing, the classrooms aren’t big lecture halls, nor are they little breakout rooms. They’re more like a mixture of a trader’s pit in a stock exchange, and a movie theater that has stadium seating.

There are rows of tables and chairs, each one slightly higher than the last one, with the professor standing in the middle of the room. It’s also a lot more high tech than I remember undergrad classrooms being - instead of blackboards, there are white-boards, and there is a built-in projector and screens for showing slides and videos from a laptop.

Moreover, we have very nice plush green chairs, and the tables on each row have slots in the very front for our name-tags (Nice, no worrying about my butt getting sore after sitting in those old wooden chairs we had in undergrad for an hour and a half).

Taking classes is a little bit like a cross between high school (“Suzy, you sit here, next to Johnnie, that’s your assigned seat”) and the United Nations Security Council, with our nametags very prominently displaying who we are and what delegation (er, I mean company) we are representing. In fact, this last bit about the UN is doubly true in the Sloan Fellows program since almost half of our classmates are international, so we can get a pretty good perspective on an issue from around the world.

What is a Case Study Anyways and Why Are They So Important?

In Business School, much of the curriculum centers around Case Studies. WhenI first heard this term, I thought it sounded a little mysterious, since during undergrad, we only had “problem sets”, “exams”, and “group projects”, but never "cases". There are, as far as I can tell from the first week, two kinds of “case studies” in business school:

· A problem set disguised as a “case”. In much of our classes, including accounting, microeconomics, and our modeling with excel class, what biz schoolers (er, I mean, GSB’ers) like to call a “case” is really just a problem scenario followed by a set of questions about it.

Think of those old wacky groups of SAT questions that start with some kind of introduction: “Suppose Tom is in Denver and Fred is in Houston. Suppose also that Tom starts jogging east at 20 miles per hour, and Fred starts jogging west at 20 km per hour.” After the introduction there is a group of questions associated with the scenario: “When, if ever, will Tom and Fred collide with each other?” and “If so, which city will it be in?”.

OK…OK, maybe SAT questions weren’t quite that outlandish, but you get the idea. Now think of pretty much the same thing but with a company as the subject of the scenario and not dorky guys named Tom or Fred. Simply making the case about a company makes it seem like we’re studying “real business” and handling “cases”, not just really learning arithmetic, graphs and spreadsheets. One Example is our Davis Kitchen Supply Case that we got this week in our managerial accounting class, which started with a company that makes ovens. In fact, it makes 6,000 of them per month (with the recent housing slump, not sure exactly how they stay in business, but that’s beside the point). The costs associated with making these ovens (actually, they weren’t ovens at all, they were stoves; oops!) range from $50 for variable labor, $60 for fixed overhead, to $95 in marketing costs, including variable and fixed costs. That’s the “setup”.

Once the scenario is set up, we are supposed to answer a group of questions about them. Suppose some slimy mafia guy came to Davis Kitchen Supply and said that he could “take over” making their stoves for them, at a cost of only $215 per stove. Should Davis Kitchen let this guy (ok it wasn’t really a slimy mafia guy in the case, I made that part up) take over manufacturing of those stoves?

I think you get the idea. Basically you have to add up all the variable costs, and fixed costs, and figure out at which price it makes sense to outsource stove-making vs. doing it yourself. The econ “cases” involve a little less math and a little more graphing of supply and demand curves– for example there was one this week about US farming associations telling their members to dump (or simply destroy their wheat or rice or corn or fruit crop) in order to get the price of that item to stay high. We had to figure out whether this was a good idea or not, and under what circumstances it would make sense to do these.

The only real complications in these cases is 1) figuring out the right answer, and 2) making a presentation to the class (using powerpoint or excel) as a group (“study group”) about the answer that you found. We’ve had some pretty creative ones already.

· A full case study of a real-world company. The second group of cases are more like the “case studies” that I had been told about by my buddies who had already gotten their MBAs. Before I got here, I thought it odd that you could learn much by sitting in a room where the students all opined with each other about what they think a company should or shouldn’t do. But this has actually become the dominant form of teaching in the best Business Schools today.

These case studies are usually put together by Harvard Business School, or by Stanford GSB, range from 10 to 15 pages, and include the fully history of a company and some of the challenges facing the CEO of the company. In the first week alone, in our strategy class, we did cases related to Wal-mart, Capital One and a few others. It turns out that talking about the strategy of real life companies is actually quite fun. In fact, it hardly feels like we’re in school at all … so Case Studies like this give us a level of engagement that other subjects don’t.

What is a Study Group and How Late Do You Study?

So I finally figured out what a study group is – a pre-assigned list of “friends” that you have to work with during each term that cuts across all classes in that term.

In fact, I’m beginning to think that working in study groups is not just about the classes themselves, but about learning how to work with diverse groups of people that we had no choice in being involved with. This must be a common case in the business world; but as an entrepreneur, I have almost no experience at working so closely with people that I have no control over, so this has been an interesting experience.

Part of the reason for a study group is so that you can all help each other get through the term – by preparing for class together, sharing notes, and doing group assignments. However, thus far I have to say that the study groups seem to be as much of a source of stress as the classes themselves – almost no one I’ve talked to is really happy with the way that their study group has decided to do everything, though everyone (including me) likes some aspect of what their study group is doing.

One fundamental question each study group had to answer was how often it’s going to meet and when. For our group, which was larger than other groups, this little question, which should be easy to answer, has been the hardest one to answer.

A few of us in the group, like me, are not morning people. As an engineer and a writer, I tend to go to sleep well after midnight every night, so I would prefer evening meetings. In one of my software companies, I even had an explicit rule: “no meetings before 10 am”.

But, many of the members of our study group are morning people, so they would prefer to meet before our first class in the morning, which is at 9:15 am. So something like 8:15am. Ouch!

We decided on what seemed like a good compromise, our first meeting would be in the afternoon, after the first day of class, which was the Tuesday after Labor Day. After all, the pre-term wasn’t being graded, so we could afford to take it easy in the mornings, right?

Wrong! Before I knew it, while I was wandering around the San Jose Art Festival on Labor Day (Yes, this would mean I was enjoying myself and relaxing before we started our high pressure classes with no grades), my iphone started buzzing with emails from study group members about how they’re worried about all the reading over the weekend, and want to meet at 8:30 am to discuss it (Yes, this would mean we were doing study group meetings before classes had even started; I guess we were really worried about not being prepared for our classes with no grades).

The next day, because the group didn’t have enough time to argue every point in the reading from every angle, the time was moved even earlier, to 8:15 am. The next day, we had suddenly somehow decided that we were going to meet even earlier, at 7:45 am every single day! Double-Ouch!

I came to business school with memories of my undergrad days - staying up late, ordering pizza, discussing problems and working collaboratively with my classmates, with more than an occasional philosophical discussion thrown in each night.

I had heard that the Bill Clinton White House was kind of like that – with all night policy study session and lots of creativity and free flow of ideas. When George W. Bush came into office, this changed, since Bush rarely stayed up past 10 pm.

I suddenly felt like I had shown up for work thinking I was going to work for Bill Clinton, but when I met my boss on the very first day, it turned out to be George W. Bush instead! Triple-Ouch!

Let's just say I missed more than my fair share of early morning study group meetings in the first week; in the real world I wouldn’t show up at 7:45 am even if I was being paid good bucks to do so – and in this case I’m paying Stanford, not the other way around.

Well not to belabor this point, but I get the sense that our class is really taking this pre-term a little too seriously. I was speaking with one of the Sloans from last year and he said that we’ll have plenty of pressure in the fall – we should be enjoying the pre-term, perhaps enjoying the world famous Stanford Golf Course.

Actually, that is exactly what a few of our classmates did on the Saturday after our first full week. See, at least some of our classmates in Business School know how to relax: Sleep in, play a few holes, enjoy the California sunshine. Right?

Wrong. it turns out that their tee time was set for 6:30 am on Saturday (Yes this means that they had to get up even earlier on the weekend than on the weekdays!).Quadruple-Ouch!

Anyways, after a little bit of early heart-burn our study group has now settled into a rhythm. Now that some of our meetings are in the morning and some of our meetings are in the evening, I’m relatively happy with our study group. We’re also finding ways to be more efficient in our overly high reading burden.

What Have You Read for me Lately?

For someone with an engineering background (we’re called “Quants” in B-school, as opposed to the “Poets”), Business School isn’t really that difficult, though it can be hard. I mean hard in the sense that adding up 10,000 numbers isn’t conceptually very difficult. It just takes a lot of tedious work no matter what path you take – whether you type in 10,000 numbers into a spreadsheet, into a calculator, or calculate them by hand.

In the same way, we are required to read several chapters of our textbooks, do some problems, read and review cases, and be prepared for the next class, every single day. In querying the Sloan administration, I was told that the program is designed so that it’s really not possible to read every single thing we are supposed to read by the time we need to read it, while still having a life.

So, the reading can be a great source of stress, if you let it be. But that’s what the study groups are for. In our group, one guy had gotten an MBA before and told us that it might be helpful if we break up the reading, assigning different chapters to different folks, who would prepare summaries for the rest of the team of their assigned chapters.

I think the reason they designed it this way was that they wanted us to find ways to juggle the reading by prioritizing what is essential to study, and what can just be read casually. I actually think that this one of the keys to business school success.

What we learned.

OK enough of my general observations. Let’s get to what we actually learned this week. Wow, this post has already gotten long – and I haven’t even started on my reading for this weekend. I’ll have to tell you what we learned in the next post...stay tuned.

SPECIAL DISCLAIMER: the opinions and experiences recounted in these blog entries about my year at Stanford Business School for the Sloan Program are my own personal observations and ranting. This blog is not endorsed by either the Stanford GSB or by any of my fellow Fellows.

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