Monday, May 04, 2009

Stanford Sloan GSB, Entry 21: The Spring Quarter, Star Wars, and the Class of 2010

The Class of 2010

We just met members of the Stanford Sloan Program class of 2010, who are having their orientation this weekend, as I write this. We gave them a “welcome” presentation (“The opening ceremonies for the class of 2010”, as our Master of Ceremonies, Tim, Tim, described it), in Bishop auditorium, the main auditorium at the GSB.

In the words of Darth Vader from Star Wars (more on the Star Wars theme later in this blog post): “The Circle is Now Complete”.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been a year since we sat in Bishop, watching the Sloan class of 2008 give us their wacky and informative presentation about what life was like in the Sloan program, amidst the MBA's at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

I can remember sitting in the theater, with my then future-friends/classmates, watching these guys and wondering: “Wow, these guys seem to be such good friends and having such a good time – I wonder if our class is going to gel like that?”

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I remember the 2008 class members, with their private jokes about texting each other at night and hurrying to a restaurant, bar, or social gathering in Palo Alto. It was clear they were having a good time, and I doubted whether we'd be like that in under a year's time.

I sat with my own personal combination of excitement, anticipation, and even anxiousness, about how I’d fit in to the Stanford GSB. I wondered if I’d like taking classes again (it had been 15 years since I’d been to school), wondering if I’d get along well with my classmates, and more importantly, whether I’d be able to relate to any of them personally.

The Sloan program, after all, consists of a very diverse group of people, from a large number of countries, at very different stages of life (from single Sloanies to families with 4 kids) and stages of work (from entrepreneurs to unemployed to Employed for Life).

As I sat in the audience yesterday, that question was finally answered. We have gelled as a class and it was funny to see in our skits and videos just how well we’ve gotten to know each other (and the faculty and administration, who several members of our class played during the skits). Particularly hilarious was our classmate Bree’s imitation of the director of the Sloan program, Marie – who knew we had such a good impersonator in our class?

The experience turned out to be more emotional for many of us than we expected - Of course our first priority was to welcome the new class with open arms and to give them a preview of what they might be like a year from now – which we did. But it also brought forth the realization that we have come full circle and our year at Stanford is almost over! In fact, there are only 4 weeks of classes left, only one big Sloan party left (The Latin party), and then finals, and finally graduation in June.

Many of us are going on the international study trip to South America, though some of us are more concerned about what we’re doing afterwards, with the job market and economy as it is and won't be attending.

What a year it’s been and what great friendships we’ve formed. I find it funny that even those classmates who I didn’t always get along with, or those I didn’t relate to very much during the school year - have become trusted friends that I’m looking forward to seeing sometime after graduation.

The Spring Quarter
Several of the new members of the class told me they’d been reading this blog regularly (one even said that was how he learned about the program), and asked why I hadn’t written any entries lately.

Honestly this last semester has been really busy – not so much with academics, but since it’s my last semester at Stanford, I’ve been trying to meet with as many interesting folks on and off campus, and figuring out exactly what I might be working on next that academics have fallen to a “lower priority”.

Which leads to a piece of un-asked for advice that I’d give to the new class: Think about why you’re coming to Stanford and what your priorities will be. Of course, there will always be academic, social, and professional aspects of your year here, and in the fall quarter they will be all mixed together. But come January, I would suggest it’s important to have a sense of what you’d like to get out of it – is it more experience with Finance? Is it to meet a team (MBA’s, Engineers) that you’d like to start a company with after the program? Is it to get to know professors that you want to keep in touch with? Is it to break into a new industry? Is it to socialize?

Whatever it is, you've got to focus on what's right for you!

Spring Electives
So to give our future Sloanies and others who are interested in classes at the Stanford Business Schoool, here’s the low down on the classes I’m taking this quarter.

I decided to take only four classes this quarter. There are two required core classes (as part of the Sloan curriculum). I took two electives this quarter, which should (fingers crossed) give me the right number of credits to graduate. I intentionally took a light load this quarter (I had 5 classes in the winter quarter, several of which were very demanding). Again, this gets back to priorities – one of our classmates is taking 6 classes this quarter, because it’s our last quarter at Stanford and he wants to take as many classes as possible.

The core classes:

Non-market strategy.
This was a term that I hadn’t heard before. The idea of this class is that while most business focus on the “market strategy of a firm” (what are competitors doing, what is my product strategy, m&a, marketing, etc.), many firms (particularly big multi-nationals) have to deal with things that are not directly market-related. What things? A big thing called the government is a good example – many firms are in industries that are regulated, that might face environmental issues, that are attacked by citizen groups, and on and on.

As an example, our first case was about Shell and greenpeace and the media. More recently, we spoke about patents, trademarks, and intellectual property protection. Last week we did simulation based on the Microsoft anti-trust case – where one study group (my study group) played Microsoft and another study group played the Department of Justice and we argued whether Microsoft had violated anti-trust laws or not.

The best thing about this class? It makes me think about things I really don’t think about much. The worst thing about this class? It’s at 8:00 am in the morning – I call it my “sleep killer” class.

HR class.
This class is about HR-related issues and how to structure personnel and compensation based on the strategy of the firm. Some cases we studied include Southwest Airlines, the Portman hotel, and InfoSys, to name a few.

I like the general theme of this class, because I don’t always think about HR issues as being strategic, but rather operational. However, contrary to my expectations, all the assignments in the class are data regressions, which has cause more than one of my classmates to wonder: “Is this a class about financial modeling, or Human Resources?”.

It seems like many professors here at the GSB in what I would consider “soft subjects” (HR, organizational behavior, marketing.) really want to hammer in the point that business-school in general and their field in particular is about data analysis and quantitative techniques – i.e. that it’s not really touchy feely, but rather quanty-crunchy.

I remember our negotiations instructor, when someone said "negotiation is more of an art than a science". She got very upset and yelled at him: “what have I been teaching you? This is a science, not art!” Of course anyone who’s done complex negotiation in the real world knows that it is as much (if not more) of an art involving personalities as it is a science, so I ask you: what gives?

It seems to me that teachers of soft subjects want to portray their subject as “real science” in order to get “academic respectability” from their peers and of course, to get tenure (can't say I blame them). I remember our Organizational Behavior professor’s grading of our final papers, refusing to acknowledge that the case that he laid out for us had more than one way to come up with a “right answer”.

Oh well what can you do? How about running a data regression on it and see if what I say can be backed up with empirical data LOL!!

Best thing about this HR class? The case discussions. Worst thing about this class? The data regressions, and the fact that it’s a “3-day weekend killer” class – it’s on Friday afternoon and Monday afternoon.

My two electives:
Of course everyone has taken different electives this quarter. I’ve taken two classes that I really like and help me to branch out in my own thinking:

The Business World: Moral and Spiritual Inquiry through Literature.
It might seem funny to be taking a literature class in business school. But this class has been hailed by many MBA’s as a class to take in your last quarter of business school because it provides a good way to “cap” your experience and to think about larger issues of life, purpose, and where we’re headed in our lives and our careers.

I can’t agree more. Each week we read one book, and then we have our three hour class session on Thursday to have a discussion/debate about the book and the themes that were raised by the book, and how/if they have any relevance in our own lives and careers.

We started off by reading F. Scott Fitzgerald (the Last Tycoon) followed by two well known US plays about salesmen – Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, and Glengarry Glen Ross, by David Mamet. We then read a novel that had very strong elements of Jewish-American culture post WW II in it – The Ghost Writer, by Phillip Roth. Then we read a novel about post WW II Japan – An Artist in the Floating World. We’re now reading a spiritual novel about a Japanese characters who travel to India on a spiritual quest – Deep River, by Endo. We have a few more international readings, ending a Tolstoy story..

This class might seem like a lot of work, because we’re supposed to read an entire book every week. But, the books are all pretty small (especially compared to the 800 page Tome we have in Non-Market Strategy) and very easy to read. In fact, I can honestly say that this is the only class in my entire business school experience for which I expect to do 100% of the readings – Why? Because they’re all classic works of literature and all very well written.

Leadership in the Entertainment Industry.
My final class this term is about the entertainment industry – yes – film-making and TV. Given my interest in the film industry (I have been an executive producer and investor on a few indie film projects in my spare time), this is one of my favorite classes. It is taught by an Oscar-winning documentary film-maker (it was cool to go to Blockbuster after we’d started the class and see Professor Guttentag’s name on a movie there).

Each week, we have speakers from the entertainment industry come by and give us a talk, after which we pepper them with questions. This is definitely the fun part of the class. For example, we had the head of Fox TV channel come by and talk about the issues facing the entertainment industry as it goes on line (they funded Hulu for example, but haven’t figured out how to make advertising profitable online). He talked about the history as well. I tried to get him to tell us if Fox was going to renew “Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles” but he was mum on the subject, since he hadn’t even told the producers yet.

We also had Alexander Payne, the director of the film Sideways come in and talk about directing and his experience in the film industry. He was particularly terse in his answers. It kind of made me laugh when one of us would ask some high-minded artistic question and ask his opinion of it and he’d just stroke his chin and say “I don’t know. Never thought about it. Next question.”

Of course the class has more than speakers – it has field trips, which are particularly fun.

The House that Lucas Built
Last week we went to the Presidio in San Francisco and visited Industrial Light and Magic, the company built by George Lucas after the success of Star Wars.. There are actually several companies housed in this gorgeous complex built on a very large park area on San Francisco Bay.

Anyone who is a fan of movies know about the Star Wars films and George Lucas. It was incredible to be able to go the company and see how people work and how the offices are laid out. We were told that they don’t generally do public tours, so we were very lucky to have gotten a tour. The hallways are lined with artifacts from movies that ILM has worked on. This of course, included props and costumes from the Star Wars films – including Stormtroopers, Darth Vader, Yoda, C3PO, and even Han Solo in carbonite!

ILM also did the special effects for the Indiana Jones movies, and (unbeknownst to many) the Star Trek movies, among many many others. In fact, they did all the special effects for the new Star Trek movie that’s coming out next week. There were artifacts from all these movies strewn throughout the hallways - it was so cool! My favorites turned out to be the Matte paintings that were used as backdrops for scenes in the film. Needless to say a classmate and I "got lost" on this tour, and had to be picked up and led back to the tour!

The complex actually houses several of Lucas’ companies – ILM (the special effects company), Lucasfilm (which is the film production company which owns the Star Wars films), and LucasArts (the video game company). We got a private Q&A with the heads of these companies, which was great. One thing that was interesting to me was the key role of the video games in this entertainment empire as it moves forward.

Since this trip wasn’t listed in the syllabus it came as a surprise to all of us, and definitely contributed to making this one of my favorite classes at the GSB.

We have one more field trip scheduled in the Bay area, which also relates to George Lucas in a roundabout way:

'In the 1980’s Lucasfilm/ILM had developed some animation rendering technology which was spun out as a separate company and was funded by a famous Silicon Valley entrepreneur. That company worked on 3d animation and rendering technology, and eventually used that technology to make animated 3d films. I’ve heard that they don’t give public tours either, but we’re going to visit them the week after next. The company? Pixar!

Now who says Business school isn’t cool?

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Blogger Byunghwa said...

Your posts describes the air of Sloan. I decently got admitted for class of 2012 and thrill to share same experiences as yours!

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