Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Stanford Business, #11, Glad To Be Here...

Last week marked the first full moon on campus since the term officially started. For the Sloans at the Stanford GSB, this means we’ll have been here two months next week. As usual, we had a jam-packed week.

Glad to be Negotiating?

A few weeks ago we saw videos of the Blue Angels starting (and ending) their briefing and de-briefing sessions with these words “Glad to Be here”. The members of the Sloan GSB class have taken them to heart, often starting meetings (or even emails) with: “Glad to be here”.

Ok maybe sometimes it’s said with a knowing smile and little bit of gritting of teeth, especially when we learn that we have even more reading to do for our classes, while we have midterms rapidly approaching.

We’re now entering our “busy” period: this week, every single evening after our normal classes finish, we have our 5-session intensive negotiations class from 5:15pm to 8:15pm. Which leaves us with plenty of time to study for our midterms, doesn’t it? Did someone mention something about a speed-reading course? That would be useful right about now…

For me, I’m just glad that it’s at 5 pm in the evening (which I can make) and not 5 in the morning (which I probably wouldn’t make it to).

Two Parties, Who Wins?
Even before our intense negotiations class started, we got a taste by doing a negotiation exercise last Friday in our OB (“Organizational Behavior”) class. This exercise was called a “two-party multi-issue negotiation”).

For each pair of students, one of us played the part of a proprietor of a family-owned Latin American food processing company; the other became a representative of a big international conglomerate that was going to acquire the company.

Points (“payouts”) were awarded to each side depending on how well they negotiated their position on each of the four issues we had to deal with: 1) amount of cash paid up front vs. paid later, 2) years of non-compete that the entrepreneur will have after the acquisition, 3) number of family members of the entrepreneur that would still be employed after the acquisition, and 4) which party would take on potential liability. Each issue had its own payoff structure, and we weren’t allowed to see the other party’s payoffs.

When I told an engineering friend of mine about our OB class recently and the exercises we do, she asked why we were just “playing games” every day in business school rather than studying!
I can assure all of my engineering friends that these games are actually serious academic exercises designed to teach us well-researched techniques. That they are also fun is beside the point!

The results ranged from shark-like (one party walked away with the store) to moderate (both sides ended up with about the same number of points). We quickly learned who the sharks and the pushovers were in the class (though that’s likely to change rapidly in the new negotiations class).

You might be thinking that this scenario is a little contrived. After all, in the real world, there aren’t any explicit points awarded for negotiating issues. But by being so explicit with the payoffs, it was possible for both parties to review each other’s payoff schedule after the exercise was done.

It was eye-opening. We realized (too late) that some issues were more important to the entrepreneur and not important at all to the conglomerate (Damn! You mean I could’ve negotiated more and the other side would have given in?). Some worked the other way around. And some were, rather counter-intuitively, such that both parties actually wanted the same outcome!

Turns out that by understanding the other side’s priorities, both parties could have gotten higher payoffs rather than negotiating each issue as if it was a zero-sum game.

How to do that? In a multi-issue negotiation, you can simply ask the other side to rank the issues by importance. You’d be surprised how many people are willing to answer that question since it’s innocuous enough.

To my chagrin, I didn’t ask this to my partner in the exercise, and he didn’t ask me, so we ended up with a run of the mill 50/50 compromise. Acceptable but as our modeling professor would say, sub-optimal.

Study Trip to the Valley

This week, we had our first Study Trip, to prominent Silicon Valley Companies. Study Trips are sort of like field trips in elementary school, except they’re for b- school students and we don’t get to go to any museums.

We visited three companies on our trip this week: LinkedIn, Google, and DCM. Our bus left at 8:30 am sharp (Yes, I made it on-time, believe it or not!) and drove all the way to Mountain View (where the first two companies are located) and then back to Palo Alto on Sand Hill Road where the third (a venture capital firm) is located. So what was it like?

LinkedIn. Our first meeting was with the CEO of LinkedIn, a well known business/resume/social networking company: Dan Nye. He told us a little bit about the history of the company. It was started by a number of founders, including one of the founders of PayPal (Reid). Dan was at an enterprise software company before taking over as CEO of LinkedIn, and he spoke about the differences in running a high-profile web 2.0 company vs. his previous jobs. Unlike some companies where the founders left when professional management, at LinkedIn the founders still work closely with the CEO, which has made it a great experience.

Dan wasn’t present at the founding of LinkedIn, but he did tell us one obligatory Silicon Valley “startup” story – on the first day he joined LinkedIn, they were still in an old office in Palo Alto with a leaky roof and there was no one to call for maintenance so they had buckets set up to catch the water. Needless to say, they don’t have that problem today – their offices are quite plusch in a class A building in Mountain View just down the road from Google..

As an interesting aside, he mentioned that his brother worked for Bain Capital in Boston – turns out I pitched my last company to his brother a few years ago with my last company. They didn’t fund us, but as I remember, they gave us some pretty good feedback and advice…small world.

Google. The second company we visited was Google. I would really like to tell you what we saw and heard at Google, but they made us sign an NDA so I can’t tell ya nothin.

HINT: Both of the speakers were women, and both were among the first 20 hires at Google (no we did not meet with Larry or Sergei, the founders). One of the speakers, who spoke about innovation in general and how they innovate at Google in particular, looked a lot like, and spoke like the woman in this video (though the woman we saw had the presence of an in-command corporate VP, rather than the uber-geek presence in this video):

Kidding aside, the talk about innovation was actually pretty inspirational, and the stories of how Google iterated from just search towards its final model of "search, see ads, click, and ka-ching!" was pretty interesting.

We also got to eat lunch at the much-vaunted Google café, and even saw Spaceship One, which one of the Google founders bought after it won the X-prize in 2004. Google also added its own version of this prize, which involves giving $30 million to anyone who can launch a satellite to the moon and send a signal back.

DCM. In some way, this was the most interesting of the three stops for me. We met with David Chao, Cofounder and General Partner of this well-known leading Venture Capital firm. He told us how he started to invest in China and Japan in the nineties when people thought he was crazy for doing that and not investing in dot coms. He told us his thoughts about leadership, which seemed to be the result of a lot of professional reflection and self-awareness (something I have to admit I don’t see a lot of with Venture Capitalists; Wonder why that is?).

He said that to be a leader (especially an innovative one), it means that at some point you are going to get lonely. There is always that point when you are out front, going to have to be out front at some point, by yourself, when people are not following you. Eventually (after one day, one month, a year, or 10 years) people will eventually catch on. It can be quite lonely during that time.

He also talked to us about how he used his intuition to help guide decisions. As an example, he mentioned how an entrepreneur once showed him a spreadsheet that listed all the factors they were looking for in a VC. He said that probably wasn’t the right way – you had to go with your gut feeling of who you’d work best with. He also talked about “signs” – little things in the environments that inspire you in some way to follow a course of action. It could be a song you overheard on the radio, or some conversation you overhear that speaks to you. I found this intriguing enough since I had never a VC talk in these terms before. I believe that intuition is the most overlooked factor in making professional decisions which define an innovator and have started writing a book on it. Stay tuned for that.

Full Moon Over Stanford
In my brief year here, I’ve vowed to try to keep up with some of the undergraduate traditions at Stanford. This can be difficult, since graduate students are explicitly not invited to said undergrad traditions. And Sloans are even older than your typical graduate student. A few weeks ago I witnessed the “Band Run” (see earlier post on that). One of my friends who attended Stanford Undergrad, thinks it’s hilarious that I’m trying to re-live her freshman year. For the record, I’m only observing the undergrad traditions, not trying to be a freshman again!

One of the more famous (infamous?) traditions is Full Moon On The Quad, referred to by the student body affectionately as “FMOTQ” (yes Stanford students like acronyms, as does the faculty).

This long enduring Stanford tradition, started probably a hundred years ago, was historically a way for Senior boys to welcome the Freshman girls by giving them a rose and getting back a kiss on the cheek. Since then it has evolved (devolved?), becoming a way for undergrads to cut loose and get over their inhibitions at midnight by making out with other students when they are relatively new to campus.

A few business school students sneaked into the Quad to see what was happening around 11:30 pm. There wasn’t much happening, though there was clearly some anticipation in the air. Bands were playing on a make-shift stage, with groups of students dancing a little and otherwise enjoying being with friends. But no kissing.

I asked some undergrad girls nearby about what was going on – both of them, one of them a senior, one a sophomore (both of whom looked like they might have been straight A students in high school) said that they’d attended FMOTQ each of the previous years but hadn’t kissed anyone. They looked a little nervous about the whole thing but seemed determined to get over their trepidation this year!

By midnight, there still wasn’t much happening. There was one dorky looking guy walking around with roses handing them out to undergrad girls, who smiled sweetly but as far as I could tell, he wasn’t getting anything in return; the girls would take the rose and wander closer to their girlfriends, who were typically dancing next to some of the frat boys, who were clearly not handing out roses but were obnoxiously bragging about how they were going to kiss more girls that night than they had the previous years.

After 12;30, things started to change, slowly. A small portion of the student body was mingling and bumping into each other in the middle of the well-decorated and grandiose Stanford Main Quad, eyeing each other to decide who would get a kiss and who wouldn’t.

By about 1am, things had changed radically. Let’s just say that there was an even smaller subset of students (mostly undergrads with a few shady grad students who sneaked in, I’m sure) out on the floor, doing some serious making out with their fellow students.

At some point, I don’t remember exactly when, the nudists arrived (yes, there’s a group of about 80 nudists at Stanford who I’m told run around campus naked on special occasions like this one). They didn’t actually look like they were naked, since they were covered with body paint that in the middle of the night looked like it could have been clothes. Plus it gets really cold in Palo Alto after midnight, so it would be really stupid to run around campus with no clothes on, or so I thought. When one bumped by me, I took a closer look. Yup, they were definitely naked…no doubt about it.

Now who would have thought Stanford students, among the most academically minded geeks in high school, would be out kissing random strangers on the Quad under the first full moon of the school year? Krutos.

We left shortly thereafter, but I’m sure that for the ambitiously minded, the party continued well into the night! No, I didn’t participate, but as I walked back with some of my classmates I was clearly thinking maybe, just maybe, it might have been more fun to be an undergrad at Stanford than at MIT!

What’s Your Type?
Speaking of a totally different type, on Friday, we had as part of our leadership series, the MBTI personality test and workshop, which stands for Myers Briggs Someting Something. It’s basically a personality test, where you answer questions (used to be on paper during the time of two people named Myers and Briggs; now they’re online) about your preferences in life.
Here are some examples (not real questions, just what I remember being on the test):
Do you like to have your schedule planned out to the minute or do you like to wing it?
Are you flexible with time or do you like to have everything planned out?
Do you get annoyed with people who are flexible with time or do are you like them?

The eventual goal of the test is to classify you into various quadrants of the MBTI graph (are you introverted or extroverted? Are you more likely to be thinking or feeling? Are you perceptive or intuitive?).

The workshop started at 8 am on Friday after a very busy week. Needless to say, since I thought it was an optional workshop, I missed it.

Honestly, I have never been a big fan of categorizing people into buckets, since in my humble opinion, each person has very unique characteristics and doesn’t always fit nicely into one bucket or another. Throughout high school and even college, there are some people who, believe it or not, would classify me as clearly introverted, while others would have clearly said I was extroverted. So, which am I? An E or an I? To quote our accounting professor, It Depends.

Categorizing reminds me a bot of Astrology (I’m a Sagittarius, what’s your sign?) or numerical types in the Enneagram (I’m a 3, what number are you?). Now there are certainly people who swear by these categories, and maybe they’re right. I just tend to have an initial skeptical reaction to them (though I’m willing to be convinced).

By about 10 am that Friday, I was facing the by-now familiar Engineer’s Dilemma – do I go to the workshop, having missed the first half, or do I just wait until it’s over? I decided to get some work done and show up to the next item in our jam-packed schedule – a brown-bag lunch during which some classmates were making presentations, followed by our OB class all afternoon.

Turns out that my MBTI type was “ENTP”, a fact which the teacher shared with the class. Apparently, people in this category, as far as I’m told, are very flexible with time and may even occasionally show up late to things.

The teacher was looking for an example of someone in this category and (as I’m told) called my name. I wasn’t there. A fluke?

Since I wasn’t there, she went to the next name of a classmate whose answers to the test also fit him into the ENTP category. Characteristically, it turns out he wasn’t there either! Only 50% of the four people in this category had bothered to show up for the workshop… which proved to be instructive in its own right.

Hmmm… that's a pretty big coincidence. Maybe there is something to this MBTI thing after all…

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 and definately not by any of my fellow Fellows

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Monday, October 13, 2008

Stanford Business, #10, Tragedy Hits GSB

This weekend three Stanford GSB MBA Students (2 first years and a second year) were in a car accident and lost their lives - see the full article from the Stanford Report below.

This hit all of us at the GSB as a shock, and for many of us, it help us put many things in our lives into a larger perspective. Although I did not know any of the students personally, I'm sure I speak for many at the GSB when I say that my heart, prayers, and thoughts go out to the family and close friends of the Victims. One of our professors told us today that although the GSB has lost students before in its long history, this kind of tragedy is totally unprecedented. Enough said. It's a time for mourning and healing here...

Stanford Report, October 11, 2008
University mourns loss of three Business School students

Three students from the Graduate School of Business lost their lives when the car in which they were riding Friday evening apparently careened down a cliff off Highway 1 near Big Sur, the Monterey County Sheriff’s Office confirmed today.

Confirmed dead are Viet Nguyen, 28, of Raleigh, North Carolina; Chris Sahm, 29, of Long Island, New York; and Micah Springer, 23, of Columbus, Ohio. The three men were reported missing Friday night after failing to unite with a group of fellow graduate students for a weekend gathering in Big Sur. On Saturday morning, Monterey County search-and-rescue crews located their car about 300 yards below Highway 1, just north of Big Sur. The three occupants had not survived. The cause of the accident is under investigation.

“This is a tragic loss for the Stanford community of three brilliant and promising students who had so much to contribute to the world, and lost their lives too suddenly and too soon,” said President John Hennessy. “To the families, friends and graduate business colleagues of Viet, Chris, and Micah, and all those who are also grieving at this shocking news, we send our deepest sympathies from the entire university community.”

Robert Joss, dean of the Graduate School of Business, said that the school's close-knit community was stunned and saddened at the loss of all three students.

“All of us are shocked and full of grief, and our hearts and prayers go out to their families and friends,” Joss wrote in a note to students and faculty. “We will prepare plans for the coming week to remember them, to share our grief, and to support each other at such a difficult time.”
Students who need support in coping with this tragedy are urged to contact Counseling and Psychological Services (650) 723-3785 (24 hours a day), the Office for Religious Life (650) 723-1762, or the Graduate Life Office's, Associate Dean and Director Ken Hsu at (650) 888-8496.
Nguyen was a first-year MBA student; Springer, also a first-year MBA student, also was a graduate student in materials science and engineering; Sahm was in his second year of the MBA program.

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Saturday, October 11, 2008

Stanford Business, #9, I Have a Dream... of Approaching Midterms and Dysfunctional Study Groups

Time is flying fast, and we are almost to our midterms – only two weeks to go. This is no doubt raising some concerns and fears within the business school in general, and the Sloan program in particular (more on some of the rising tensions later).

So, what’s our week like?

Monday is our Excel day (we have two class-dose of financial modeling with Microsoft Excel). Tuesday is our “hard science day” – with Finance in the morning and Economics in the afternoon. I say hard science, but honestly I personally have some concerns about whether economics is such a hard science and not really a social science disguised as a hard science. Sometimes, when i'm not sure what direction the supply and demand curves should go, it kindof seems like a social science ("anthropology?") that's basically concerned with an imaginary tribe of people called “rational” people (rumored to exist?), an imaginary group of producers, called "profit-maximizing firms" (also rumored to exist) , and what these two groups might do in an imaginary place called "the free market".

On Wednesday we usually don’t have any official “classes”. You might think we have the “day off” – but not really. Usually there is a dizzying array of activities planned for us on Wednesdays – some of it by the Sloan GSB program itself, and some of it by our study groups (speaking of study groups, I think we are starting to see some real drama in the study group realm– see later in this post). Last Wednesday we had the lunch with the CEO of Skype. There is usually a Career Development Workshop on Wednesdays for self-funded Sloans, and those of us in study groups usually work on our finance assignments, which are due on Thursday. Next week we have our Silicon Valley Study trip on Wednesday.

On Thursday, it’s Finance and Economics again. And on Friday we have what I like to think of as our touchy feely day. On Friday, we have two doses of our OB class. I’m not even sure what the class is called in reality; we just refer to it as OB.

So, what is OB, really??

OB stands for Organizational Behavior. At Stanford, this seems to be the “discipline” (or rather, the umbrella) under which all so-called soft stuff – leadership, interpersonal dynamics, communication skills, teambuilding, HR – gets dumped. It's just OB.

I like to think of it as a way for academia to talk respectably about interpersonal dynamics and touchy-feely stuff without actually calling it that. By calling it “Organizational Behavior” instead, it lets Stanford GSB still maintain that everything is being researched rigorously and thoroughly as a “field of study” rather than a bunch of interesting ideas about how people behave in groups.

In some ways this has been the most “fun” class thus far. Last week, we watched video clips from the movie, 12 Angry Men (the old one, with Henry Fonda). We were discussing influence and how, in the movie, the jury starts out as 11-1 for a guilty verdict. He gets them, through many techniques, one by one to reconsider, and by the end it is 11-1 on his side for a non-guilty verdict. I won’t tell you what happens at the end (If you haven’t seen this movie, it’s a great one to watch). Basically the whole movie takes place in the jury deliberation room. Henry Fonda’s character is masterful in how he unfolds his doubts about the case to the rest of the group.

I Have a Dream … of an iMac?
This week our OB class sessions were about goal-setting and effective communication. On this second point, we watched the complete video of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech from 1963. It is interesting, says Professor F., who teaches the class, that many of us know the last few minutes of this speech, but few, if any of us, have watched the speech in its entirety. I don’t think there was anyone in the room who had read or seen the whole speech.

He gave us a transcript of the speech and we watched Martin Luther King deliver it. I don’t have to tell you that it was a masterful speech; but afterwards we analyzed it to see what techniques he used in his speech that made it very effective. Here’s some of what we found:

· Analogies. MLK used analogies and metaphors very effectively, talking about the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. He also spoke extensively about the metaphor of a check being given to the African American community when the Emancipation proclamation was issues in 1860’s by Abraham Lincoln, and how that check was bouncing. There were many, many more.

· Integrating the Setting. The speech was given in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC at a very large rally. MLK did a very good job of integrating this setting, starting by talking about Lincoln, alluding to the famous Gettysburg Address, and mentioning the Emancipation Proclamation (for our international readers, this was the proclamation at the end of the US Civil War made by President Lincoln which freed the slaves in the south). He also brought in the US Declaration of Independence and Constitution indirectly, quoting “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, and “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”, all the while with Washington DC as his backdrop.

· Identifying a Common Purpose. One of the things that MLK did in his speech was to talk about racism as not a problem just of the “south” (technically, southeast) but of all Americans. There were lots of references to the North and states which were not part of the south (California, Colorado, New Hampshire) in an effort to cast light on the speech as affecting an American issue and not just a regional issue.

· Repeating Key Concepts. MLK repeated certain phrases over and over again, which made them stick. In fact, Professor F. pointed out, that a few of his repeated lines basically captured the whole speech, including the progression of the speech: “100 years later”, “Now is the time”, “Never be satisfied until”, “I have a dream”, “Let Freedom Ring”.

· Building Momentum and Creating a Sense of Urgency. The speech started out very logically, and with MLK speaking softly and slowly. As the speech went on, as the metaphors became more colorful, we saw him speed up and start raising his voice.

After watching the MLK speech, we watched another example of effective communication, this time of Steve Jobs when he rejoined Apple computer. It was a precarious time for Apple, and as usual, Jobs did a masterful job of presenting the iMac as being better than most, if not all, computers out there.

He focused on the issue of speed. First he showed a chart comparing the speed of iMac vs. a Compaq PC. Then he presented a slide showing the speed of iMac in relation to other Pentium computers out there. Finally, to hammer the point home – he showed a demo of an animation running head to head on a Compaq PC and on an iMac. Let’s just say that the demonstration was pretty effective -- the Compaq computer was limping along with the animation barely moving, while on the iMac, the animation was blazing along.

Now as I said the demo was pretty effective communication, though perhaps a bit contrived. As a software guy, there could have been any number of reasons why a particular animation ran slowly on the PC rather than the Mac. If some of those conditions had been reversed, it could have been the Mac that was running painfully slow compared to the PC. That’s what marketing is all about, I guess.

Those of you NOT in business school will probably see right away the irony of showing and evaluating these two pieces of effective communication one after the other. One was about a social issue of staggering importance, while the other was pretty much only of staggering importance to the shareholders of a given corporation, albeit an iconic one. One was about social justice, while the other was about technological prowess.

Don’t worry, those of us in Business School see this irony too (at least I hope some of us do!) Or maybe we don’t. Maybe to b-school students, these are both, well, simply good examples of OB.

Midterms are Approaching

As the midterms are approaching very quickly, I can sense a general level of nervousness in the class rising, particularly as we struggle with finance, modeling, and even economics – have we learned enough to pass the midterms? Are our study groups being effective? What is a Net Present Value, anyways, and why do I care?

We’ve started having “Modeling for Poets” sessions (aka remedial modeling) and “Finance for Poets” (aka basic finance) sessions each week. The finance sessions are scheduled very conveniently at 8 am in the morning.

Inspired by our discussion of goal-setting in our OB class, I think I’ll set a goal related to these early morning sessions. I will set a goal to make it to at least one of these “Finance for Poets” sessions (yes, the 8 am ones) sometime this term.

Speaking of OB, my goal is what Professor F. would label as a SMART goal, a popular acronym for goals which are set in a “good” way. S is for Specific: one session of Finance for Poets is specific enough– nothing vague about it; M is for Measurable: Well, so far I’ve made it to zero sessions so this is easy to measure; A is for Achievable: Yes I have occasionally gotten out that early so it is possible; R is for Realistic: well, not sure about this one- we’ll see; T is for Timetable: I have a clear timetable in this goal, by the end of this term.

Study Group Drama

Yes, I think as mid-terms approach, tensions are definitely heating up, and not only in our study group, but others as well. Tensions between morning and evening, all of whom have to agree on a time to meet. Between married, married with kids, and single Sloans, all of whom have to pay the same class dues, and who often have radically different schedules trying to coordinate a time to meet. Between those who think finance (or economics, or modeling) is easy and those who think it (they) is black magic and extremely difficult. Even between those who think certain classes are not being well taught and those who don't.

I have also heard from several people that their study groups are not working well. I originally posted the specifics of an incident from my own study group.

-----Incident Transcript and Interpretation Deleted-------

I've taken it out because it proved too controversial since it involved my taking serious offense at comments directed to me personally from a member of my study group about why our study group wasn't functioning so well.

The reactions from my classmates to this blog entry were perhaps even more interesting than the incident itself - ranging from:

· encouragement ("a little dirty laundry can go a long way", "thanks for saying what some are thinking but not saying", RESPONSE: thanks)

· genuine concern about our relationship ("Hope you and this other guy are going to get along", RESPONSE: we're going to get along fine; we had a very heated discussion today that did a lot of good for us both and will hopefully lead to a productive relationship over the next eight months of the school year)

· logical admonishments ("you really should have discussed it with your classmate before putting it in your blog", RESPONSE: thanks, a very good point in general)

· offense ("I'm shocked. can't believe someone would say that to you!", RESPONSE: neither could I at the time)

· censorship ("Please don't put anything in your blog that might make the GSB look bad or hurt recruiting for the Sloan program or that those recruiting from the Sloan program might read online"), RESPONSE: Call me crazy, but I think Stanford GSB's reputation is strong enough to be able to handle it; if it can survive a book called "Snapshots from Hell", my little blog isn't certainly going to tip the scales...

· a serious case of cold-shouldering from some of my previously very friendly and warm GSB Sloan classmates ("If I don't look at Riz today and don't say hello to him, maybe he'll know that I don't approve of him putting stuff that happens between him and his classmates into the blog"). WARNING TO FUTURE BLOGGERS: yes, this is part of the joy of personal blogging, especially if, like me, you don't always follow the party-line that everything is always hunky dory... I read one blog that took place at a prominent business school (!) from a few years ago; the blogger quit in October, because "it was just too controversial" to continue. We'll see how long this one lasts - even this revised entry is likely to generate its share of controversy!

Interestingly, the most encouraging and helpful reaction was from our study group. The incident and our subsequent discussion led us to one of the more open and most productive study group sessions we've had in a while, with broad agreement about how to move forward.

So, ironically, our study group at least, is likely to be well prepared for the approaching mid-terms!

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Sunday, October 05, 2008

Stanford Business, Sloan #8: Top 9 Things I Learned in School Last Week

Yes the official term has started – not just for us, but for all Graduate Students and Undergraduate students on campus. We’re now officially two weeks into the Stanford “Fall Quarter”. Stanford uses a Quarter-based system – so there are three quarters in the “school year” – Fall, Winter, and Spring. The summer quarter is, well summer and not an official part of the school year – not sure if this system is used in other countries as well.

Here are some of the top things I’ve learned in the first two weeks:

1. Monty Hall is a Genius. On our first “official day of class”, we had a double-dose of our Modeling class (see previous post about the modeling workshop we took in pre-term). In our very first class, Professor M. played a version of Monty Hall’s game show. Not that many of us had actually seen the show, Let’s Make a Deal, which is an classic American TV show that involved contestants choosing a door from three potential doors. One of the doors had some cool prize behind it like a New Car! Others had nothing.

As many of you may know, this game comes down to probability – it’s pretty easy to figure out what the probability is of something being behind door #2 when you first start the game (1/3, assuming the other doors don’t have prizes between them ). After the contestant had chosen a door (say you had chosen door #2), Monty would usually (according to Professor M., since I don’t remember the show at all) reveal what’s behind one of the other doors (usually an empty one, say door #1) and then let you choose whether to switch from your selection (door #2) to the other, unopened door (in our example, door #3). Should you switch? This is an interesting question and it comes down to probabilities.

The probability isn’t what you would think it is. This is so commonly gotten wrong that academics have a name for it: The Monty Hall Paradox (do a search on Google, our professor told us and you’ll see almost a million hits). Now how many TV game show hosts have academics name a phenomenon after that? Not many, forcing me to conclude that Monty must have been a freaking genius.

2. Stanford really is the center of Silicon Valley. Many of my classmates will know that during the pre-term, I sort of became infamous for saying, “OK, but how does that apply to software or internet companies?” The pre-term content was very “big company” and “traditional industry” based, and I was beginning of to wonder if b-school wasn’t going to be all like that.
Luckily, now that the term has started, I see that’s not the case – in fact, there is probably so much software and entrepreneurship stuff going on at Stanford, that it’s difficult to keep track of it all. In the first two weeks, we had: 1) a co-founder of Siebel Systems (Pat House) come talk to us about the experience of starting Siebel and growing it into a billion dollar software company, 2) Steve Ballmer, who dropped out of Stanford Business School back in 1981 when he joined Bill Gates at Microsoft and is now CEO of Microsoft, and 3) The CEO of Skype (another Stanford GSB alum) talked to us about his experiences. Ballmer was in what they call the “View From the Top Series” which is open to the full business school. The other two came to our special Sloan TMS series, which makes the event much more intimate (there are only 57 of us, compared to over 600 b-school students total).

2a. Bill Gates was Paranoid and had a pretty Persuasive Dad. Steve Ballmer, the current CEO of Microsoft talked about a lot of things (how Microsoft’s strategy adapts, how he sometimes underestimates people that have different leadership styles than he or Bill Gates had, as a Detroiter how he looked down on Cleveland – something I could relate to since I grew up in Detroit,, etc.), I found the most interesting part of his visit was when he spoke about his decision to quite Stanford Business School and join Microsoft. He remarked that he was having a great time at Stanford ( “I learned a little here,” he quipped, “But man the Golf course is Great at Stanford!”).

Steve was doing pretty well at the GSB, and it came time for him to find a summer job. His old buddy from Harvard, Bill Gates, had started a small software company called Microsoft in Seattle, and Bill was trying to convince him to leave b-school and join the very young company. Steve made it sound like he had offers from top tier consulting companies (Booz-Allen maybe? I can’t remember the specific companies) and investment banking companies. He told all of them and his friends that he was considering an offer from a very small software company – this was back in the early eighties and everyone thought he was either crazy or just saying that to get leverage with the “real firms”. Even Steve’s father (who was dead-set on him going to Harvard and already thought he was crazy for going to Stanford b-school) thought he was nuts. Bill asked Steve to have dinner with BG’s father, which we were all surprised to hear seemed to be BG’s strategy when he wanted to convince people of something in those days.

When Steve arrived in Seattle, he stayed at Bill G’s place, because they didn’t have enough money for a hotel. One thing he remembered was that Bill had little scraps of paper littered all over his apartment. On them, he had a list of all the employees and their salaries. “Bill was paranoid that Microsoft would go Bankrupt, so he kept writing these pieces of paper to make sure there was enough money in the bank to make payroll.”.After a few weeks of this crazy life, Steve decided that maybe he should return to B-school rather than stay at this crazy little company. He had already told Bill that they needed to hire like 18 more people, but BG was so paranoid about the company going out of business that he wasn’t enthused about “spending all that money”.

When Steve told him he was ready to leave, Bill returned to his old tactic: He told Steve to have dinner with his (Bill’s) father before making a final decision. I guess it worked. Steve never returned to b-school (though they’re thrilled to have him back now), and the rest is history…

2b. The House that Siebel Built. Patricia House and Tom Siebel left Oracle to start a new software company dedicated to enterprise customer relationship management, Siebel Systems.. Pat spoke to us and told us this story. It was an interesting story in many ways, as was the Q&A afterwards. Siebel is a well known success story from the nineties, they defined one category of Enterprise Software, CRM (which is a term Pat told us they made up and convinced others to use). Siebel is also well known because near the end (after staggering growth in the nineties and going public) they sold the company to Oracle.

But there were a lot of things about the story I didn’t know. One thing I didn’t know was that they got an office in East Palo Alto (which was the murder capital of the world at the time, according to Pat) because they had no money. For 18 months, people flocked to work for them without pay because they already had a successful track record in the software industry in Palo Alto.

A company NOT built by engineers. For one, the founding team didn’t have any technical people. This means that what they were innovating was not really a new technology, but a business process. For that reason, the way they went about it was almost completely different from most tech startups I’ve seen. They built a 700 page product specification and roadmap after extensively interviewing customers about what their sales-related needs were. They recruited 4 customers to pay like $1 million each in order to be early adapters of their software. They didn’t take a dime of VC money in the beginning. They convinced George Shaheen, CEO of Andersen Consulting, to put his own money in and that tied them to a large implementation partner for their very large deals. They talked to CIO’s who had spent tens of millions of dollars on custom mainframe business systems built by firms like Andersen to spend a million dollars on their new CRM software. In many ways, their culture – a sales oriented culture, a very professional culture – dress up every day, was a key to their success (she used the word “insubordination” at one point in her speech talking about subordinates, which honestly I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone outside the Military use). This was the culture of AC and many large companies to whom enterprise software was being sold. Although their product had many innovations, particularly using client/server technology where only standalone desktop or custom mainframe apps had been used in the past, it didn’t strike me as an innovation culture, but rather an “execution” culture.

While this contributed to their success, my thoughts are that it may also have been a part of Siebel’s downfall, since the general perception in Silicon Valley was that they had missed the big new wave of Software-As-A-Service over the web that started at the end of the nineties (led by one of their main competitors, SalesForce.com) which started to displace the need for costly enterprise systems like Siebel. By the time they sold, many people in the Valley thought that Siebel was on its way down.

It was almost like SalesForce was doing to Siebel (using web technology and a new model to displace costly client/server) what Siebel had done to the mainframe players (using client/server to displace costly mainframe systems). This last part was not something she talked about (in face she pooh-poohed Salesorce as a small niche player) – but the shift to the new model is pretty undeniable for the rest of us.

2c. One of the Best First Acts in Business History. Last week we had Josh Silverman, who is the CEO of Skype, which is completely owned by eBay. He made the statement that Skype had one of the best first acts in business history – no one can argue that – they’re up to 300 million users (yes that’s more than Facebook) and have built a great brand and a great technology. But it seems like they’re now treading into waters that involve the big telecom companies and that seems to be their new challenge. Josh was the founder of evite, another brand that most internet savvy people have heard of. He talked a lot about that experience, and how they probably sold too early. Of course evite was founded in the nineties when expectations were sky hi for companies like that – I remember those days well.

Josh spent a lot of time talking about leadership challenges since he joined eBay and how he handled them (he ran Shopping.com, another ebay acquisition, before taking over Skype). One of these included all of the direct reports of the new CEO resigning before he even took over as CEO. Ouch! Did business school help him?

He said that he got a lot out of his experiences at Stanford GSB, though what he used were mostly the touchy-feely aspects of leadership. If as CEO, he said, you’re using things like your accounting or finance class, then you’re probably micro-managing. Josh was an Arjay Miller scholar, which meant he got very good grades in b-school, which brings me to the FOAM.

3. Where’s the FOAM? Everyone else at the b-school who is not an AM scholar is referred to as FOAM – friends of Arjay Miller. FOAM is also the title of the Tuesday night social events that happen each week (there are no classes on Wednesday, though plenty of other stuff going on), which makes partying until the wee hours of the night more than acceptable for normally uptight b-school students. We had our first FOAM event last week, with what seemed like all 600 MBA’s attending, at the Blue Chalk in downtown Palo Alto. It was a typical college night out, and loads of fun. The MBA's know how to Party!

Honestly I felt a little old as a Sloan Fellow at this first FOAM event (the Sloans in general have more years work experience than the MBA's, which means that most of us are in our 30’s while most of the MBA's are in their 20's). Still, a small group of Sloans stuck it out until about closing time, so I guess we still know how to party, too! But, then again, the MBA events are fun precisely because there are so many younger people with a lot of energy (Not to mention the significiantly larger number of cute women in their twenties at these events!). On the other hand, the Sloan events are fun precisely because we have gotten to know each other so well through our smaller, more intimate program. Let’s see how these shake out as the school year progresses - stay tuned!

4. The Prisoners Dilemma. Our economics class began in the same way our modeling class did - all fun and games.

In particular, we started talking about "game theory" which is built on studying how people who are in collaborative or competitive situations behave in fictional "games". The most famous of these is the Prisoner's Dilemma: This is when two people who committed a robbery together are both arrested and then put in separate rooms. They are then told that the police have evidence against them and that if they squeal on the other person, then they can get a reduced (or no) sentence and go free. On the other hand, if they don't tell on the other person, and their partner squeals on them, then they,'ll go to jail for a long time while their partner goes free. Of course, if neither of them squeal, there is the possibility that they'll both go free.

What would you do in this situation? There is a cooperative solution (neither of them tell, which is best for both of them over-all), or two non-cooperative solutions (one of them tells on the other, or vice versa) and one not so great solution (both of them tell and both end up in jail). Turns out that these situations occur in business, though you can usually signal your intent based upon your public behavior, which is prohibited in a "True" Prisoner's Dilemma. The idea is that the one cooperative solution is best overall for both parties, but the competitive situation is best for one party and not the other, or in the worst case, it is a lose-lose for both parties. In fact, you can usually label each of the four quadrants as "win-win", "win-lose", "lose-win", "lose-lose". Of course, in the real world, a competitive situation can become worse if you can force yourself and the competitor into a lose-lose. The professor didn't think this approach was rational in the real world, so long as both firms were earning profits.

This led us to the idea of a Nash equilibrium. In game-theory speak, a Nash equilibrium is a point in the game where neither party can better their situation by acting unilaterally. I and others brought up that one party might do it anyway, going into a loss situation in order to drive the other competitor out. The professor again thought this was "irrational" behavior and wouldn't be adopted by profit-making firms.

Given that i'm a big fan of movies, I think a more intuitive description of a Nash equilibrium was given in the movie, A Beautiful Mind, about John Nash starring Russel Crowe (assuming we're talking about the same Nash, which I'm pretty sure is the case). In that scene, Nash and his grad school math-geek buddies are sitting at a bar when they see a group of young women, the most striking of whom is a beautiful blonde, while here less (but still) attractive friends are all brunettes. One of the engineers is going to ask the blonde out. Nash has a flash of insight - if none of them ask the blonde out, it's likely that they will all end up dancing with a girl - each one with one of the brunettes. If one of them asks the blonde out, he may be happier if she says yes, but if she says no, then he can't in good conscience go ask one of her friends to dance. And ditto for everyone else in the group. So the best point - the equilibrium is for none of his friends to ask the blonde out, and for all of them to ask one of the brunettes to dance.

Now OK this is a contrived scenario and it doesn't exactly strike me as a likely outcome in real life. But watch the movie and I think you'll understand what a Nash equilibrium is all about, and then ask yourself what you would do in such a dilemma?

5. The Engineer’s Dilemma and the Career Vision Workshop.
I confronted a whole different kind of dilemma this week. I call it the Engineer's Dilemma: I was up late (let's say 3 am) the night before our Career Visioning Workshop, which was to start on the dot at 8:30 am and went until noon. Needless to say I didn't make it to class at 8:30am. By the time I got up and got ready, it was almost 9:10. So I was confronted with my own dilemma: Do I go to class and get something out of it? Although I missed over half an hour, the class went on until noon so there was a lot to learn.

Or should I blow it off completely - which will save the embarrassment of going into the class late? After all, we found out (later that day) that the b-school professors are calling our Sloan class the "Tardy Sloan Class". (There's a word I haven't heard in a while - tardiness - another reason why b-school is kind of like elementary school, we get graded on attendance and tardiness!). Turns out I"ll be facing this dilemma alot more I think since our professors are not big fans of us walking in late to class...

So what to do? If you don't stay up late, or don't require much sleep, then you probably won't face this dilemma, but if you do, do you go to class or skip it?

I ended up going after all - partly because it sounded like an interesting workshop, and after all, we are paying Stanford quite a bit of money to be here and learn, not the other way around! In the real business world, paying clients can usually get away with showing up late, while those who get paid generally can't get away with this kind of thing! Call it the Golden Rule.

Turned out I wasn't the only one late - one of my Swiss colleagues showed up at the exact same time, and one of our other colleagues showed up half an hour later! Whew!

It turned out to be the right decision after all, and not because I wasn't the only one late. The workshop, taught by Andy, the director of the career office, was pretty interesting. It also revealed how Stanford, probably unlike alot of east coast schools, can be creative in "touchy-feely" ways. At one point in the workshop, we did a relaxation and visualization exercise where we imagined ourselves to be in an ideal career and personal situation some time in the future. I saw some very vivid imagery about where I might end up; in fact it reminded me of some Shamanic journeying that I have done in the past, where you journey into an "imaginary" future and bring back insights and energy to motivate yourself. The Journeys are based on techniques used by Shamans in indigenous cultures around the world. Of course at b-school, we simply call them "visualizations" and partner them with lots of "rational analysis" so that it doesn't come across as too sketch loosey-goosey!

6. Seeing the Trees from the Forest. One concept that we learned about which I think gets at the heart of business school thinking is the decision tree. When faced with multiple choices and unpredictable events, you draw a tree, starting at the present and branching out for each choice you have to make. For external events, you assign a probability to each branch as a potential outcome.

For example, in the Stanford Concessions case, you are a vendor who provides food at the Stanford football stadium and the biggest game of the year is coming up. In this case, it was when O.J. Simpson played for USC (yes, OJ was a football player before he becamse a celebrity on the run from the law), and USC was ranked number 1 (in the PAC-10, and perhaps in the coutnry). The only problem: it might rain that day, which would mean the crowd might be as small as 20,000. If it ended up being a bright sunny day, the crowd might be as high as 80,000. So, how much food to rder?

The key data was to use probabilities provided by historical data - the probability that it might rain might be 40%, meaning it was a 60% probability that it would be sunny, etc. (not the actual numbers). In the decision tree, you look at all the possible outcomes, and work backwards assigned each branch, all the way up to the initial choice, outcome values (usually $ amounts).

This is called the EMV (expected monetary value) and my initial impression is that it comes up again and again in our classes (we've already seen it in our economics, our organizational behavior, and perhaps even in our finance class).

My major problem with this approach is that it fosters a (false) sense of certainty. The probabilities are the key to the whole equation. If you assign the probabilites basedon historical data, you will get some results that tell you branch A or branch B is the rigth way to go. Definitively. Unfortunately, in the real world, it's highly unlikely in my opinion that the probabilities come up right - so simply caclulating what looks like the highest $ based on these is a way of thinking you have a "certain" answer in an uncertain situation. Let me give you an example of when this can go wrong.

7. To Race or Not To Race, that is the Question! In our Organization Bahavior class, out first task was to break into groups and take on the "Racing Case" as it's called. Each group had to decide whether to race or not to race in a formula one race on a given day. We were told we were having a great season, finishing in thetop 5 in over 50% of the races that we had run in. Unfortunately in 29% of the races we were in, the engine crashed. We stood to make *alot* of money if we finished in the top five in the day's race, including a million dollar sponsorship. If we didn't run in the race, then we were at a loss. Plus all of our engineers (except one) really wanted to go ahead with the race and it would be demotivating to everyone to not go ahead.

So, What to do?

Well, our first inclination was to use the data presented, including probabilities of finishing the race and our engine blowing up, to construct a Decision Tree and figure out the expected payoffs on each branch. The decision tree and EMV was very definitive in what we should do, but something didn't sit right with me. Everything in the decision tree was based on probabilities, and something in this situation reminded me of bad decisions made in the real world. In fact, the fact that the Decision tree was so definitive when in reality you just don't have that kind of certainty, made me suspicious.

I won't give away what we were supposed to do, but suffice it to say that decision trees are only as good as the percentages you plug in. In the real world, there is more uncertainty about probabilities and percetnages than there is on paper, so you have to do the best you can!

8. What is a Zero Coupon Bond anyways? No discussion of our first few weeks of class would be complete with discussing our finance class. Professor I., who was our finance teacher, wasn't much older than those of us in the class - in fact, probably younger than us, and this created an interesting dynamic. The material itself was cluttered with NPV (Net Present Value), IRR (Internal Rate of Return), PV, and covered interest parity.

I finally learned what a coupon and a zero-coupon bond were (a coupon isn't something that saves you money in finance, it is a periodic payment that a financial instrument makes; a zero copuon bond). My big impression of finance is that finance is the art of doing equations using r, the required rate of return. We learned how arbitrage can exist and how markets price thins based on the time value of money - there it is again, the interest rate. Well, rather it's the required rate of return that we plug into a given equation. Usually it's the yield-rate of zero coupon bonds plugged in. But this is why i find finance to be a bit of black magic. It isn't always clear what r will be over a period of time, nor what a required "rate of return" is. This differs by industry - in the tech industry, for example, we need 30% return on invested capital. Does this mean that a software investment that returns 30% is a good invesment?

No, not really, because software investments are so risky inherently that we need a 30% return over a portfolio. Since most software investments will fail completely (zero or negative return on investment), the ones that succeed need to return signficantly more than 30% return in order to get to the "required rate of return".

So, thus far, finance is all about the present value of a future stream of cash or payments and almost completely based on the prevailing interest rates, which might be different in different countires. Which brings me to the interesting question: If some students are required to pay the full Stanford tuition at the beginning of the year, while those with financial aid can pay only some of the money up front and some of it later, are some students paying more tuition than others, although we're both taking the same classes, given the time value of money, or r?

The answer, according to our finance equations is, Yes! How much more? Depends on the number you plug in for r.

9. Band on the Run. Every university has its traditions. Stanford has its, definately, though for the most part they seem to be undergrad traditions. One of the first ones a freshman sees when they get here is the "Band Run".

Now those of you who've heard of the Stanford band may know that they're a little "unusual" and in true Stanford style, don't "conform" to the normal ideas of a marching band. They don't wear uniforms, never march in a line, and generally do goofy things, like throwing up their instruments into the air. I was sitting next to a grad student who had just arrived from the University of Michigan at a grad student welcome picnic, when the Stanford "Band" appeared to play a few instruments (I would say a few "tunes" but that's really debatable). The grad student from Michigan, which has a very well-respected and well-uniformed and well-playing Marching Band, was horror struck. "What the hell are they doing?" she asked. "That's not a real marching band!".

I find the band pretty amusing. So back to the band run. On the first night of freshman orientation, the Stanford Band comes to a dormitory and starts "playing" their instruments from outside (quotes around the word playing for obvious reasons, for those of you who have heard the Stanford band play). The freshman rush out, along with the upperclassmen, and they form a gang that runs around campus to the next dormitory. There the band plays and hte rest of the undergrads yell and shout and generally make fools of themselves, dressed in funny clothes, until the next group of freshman come out of their dorms. This continues all over campus - and if you've ever been on a tour of Stanford's campus, you'll know it is the largest contiguous campus in the country with over 8000 acres, this can go on for quite a while. The large body of undergrads ends up at the Stanford Main Quad - a beautiful architectural area that usually has a peaceful, even serene feeling.

At this point (usually after midnight) the Band "plays" for another half an hour while the students generally party until about 1 am. As a grad student, I wasn't technically invited on the Band Run, but I tagged along anwyays jogging around campus with the mob (er, I mean, crowd) of undergrads. Unlike them, I ran out of steam well before 1 am, and hopped on one of the Golf Carts (who trail the crowd for those who need a little help) for the rest of the Band Run. Driving the Golf Cart was a member of the staff, who explained to me all about the Band Run and what it was about. Along the way, we picked up a few Dollies.

What are Dollies? No, they're not devices used for hauling furniture, but rather the proper term for Stanford's cheerleaders (Stanford, as I was reminded, doesn't have cheerleaders, just Dollies).

Does that Make sense? Not really? Oh well u must be getting old like me. Stay tuned for more interesting (or inane, depending on your point of view, Stanford traditions). I find them kinda fascinating since I wanted to come to Stanford for undergrad but ended up across the country in Boston instead, so I get to see a glimpse of what I missed out on!

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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