Saturday, January 31, 2009

Stanford GSB, Entry 17: Winter Networking, The Revolving Door, and Sundance

My experience with classes this quarter is VERY different from my experience last quarter. How so, you ask?

On the one hand, I have more classes than I had last quarter; but on the other hand, I find myself with a little more free time.

How is that possible? First, I was smart enough to select classes in such a way that I have only one class on Monday’s and Friday’s (in the morning) – this means I’m free all afternoon on both days. (Actually I wish I could really claim to be that smart – it just kind of ended up that way by accident, but now I see the wisdom of it). Secondly, the GSB doesn’t have classes on Wednesday, which means that I’m free that whole day (except for an occasional test like the Accounting midterm, which is coming up next week!). So three out of five days a week, I have mostly free days.

This comes in handy because part of the benefit of going to Stanford GSB comes from networking, and I didn't do any real networking last quarter at all. OK, OK – I’ll admit it- I’m sure I’m not the first GSB student to say this publicly – networking is not just “part of the benefit”, it’s probably the “main benefit”; the real reason why we’re shelling out so much of our own cash to go back to school is mostly because of the contacts and relationships we hope to make, academic and business.

This includes not only the relationships we develop while we’re here, but the very impressive (… drumroll please …) Stanford alumni network. As current students (and alumni), we have access to the GSB Alumni database, which includes management from pretty much every company in California. In my industry (software, VC, internet) this is what Maverick would call a “target-rich environment’ (Yes, I’m quoting from the movie Top Gun!)

Since we arrived in the fall, we’ve had several alumni of the program tell us that we should take advantage of this resource while we’re at Stanford. Lars Delgaarde (more on him later), a very successful Sloan alumnus, told us that almost all GSB alums will take a meeting with us while we’re students, but maybe not once we’ve graduated. Another alum told us to “use the student card” as much as possible, ‘cause we won’t have it for long.

Tick-tock. Amidst this background, I realized recently that the Sloan program is half-over, and I hadn’t contacted a single alumnus in the fall quarter. I'm starting to hear the academic clock ticking, ever so slightly off in the distance.

Slowly, the MBA2’s (second year MBA’s) are starting to get job offers and making plans for what they’ll do next. Though even in the MBA community there is some anxiety nowadays because of the weak job market. The management consulting and investment banking jobs that MBA’s jet off to in droves every year are suddenly much diminished in number, or not to be found at all! Tick-tock for them too.

For company-sponsored Sloans, this clock just means they’re getting closer to a promotion or some other job back in their companies. For the self-sponsored Sloans, many of whom have no source of income lined up after the program is over, it’s like a horror movie where you gradually realize that there’s something creepy out there watching you, and it’s gaining on you. Tick-tock, Tick-tock.

OK LOL, it’s not really that bad, yet. We are still having fun and I am enjoying my classes. But there is some strange sound in the background that I haven’t really been paying attention to that seems to get a little bit louder every week. Tick-tock.

The Revolving Door

What also makes this quarter different is that the classes are more interesting. That doesn’t mean that classes last quarter weren’t interesting in their own way (Economics turned out to be very interesting, and I learned more in Finance than I thought I did, and Modeling turned out to be kind of fun by the end).

But it seems like we’re talking more about real business issues than we did before. Or maybe I just think that’s the case, since I got to choose which classes I’m taking this quarter.

In my undergraduate days at MIT, I skipped classes pretty often. I’ve had that temptation here at Stanford many times, especially the early morning classes. But each time, I have to remind myself that the classes are interesting enough that I usually don’t want to skip them.

OK that’s not entirely true: I have skipped our 8:15 am Basic Accounting Class once or twice (hopefully the professor is not reading this blog!).

I've been thinking about it and maybe one of the reasons why the classes are more interesting is that we have a LOT of guest speakers.

Many of the professors themselves have led interesting lives (Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, teaches a class here at the GSB, and my VC and Entrepreneurship teacher, John Glynn, runs a VC firm as his “real job” – Glynn Capital) before teaching classes here at Stanford.

Recently, a Stanford alum told me about the “revolving door” here. A Stanford alum, upon leaving campus, usually gets a job, moves up in their organizations or starts a company, does well, makes lots of money, and then if he or she’s lucky, starts teaching a class here at Stanford (usually in the GSB), ending up right back where they started.

Speaking of revolving doors, this last week has felt like a revolving door of guests in all of my classes. I almost felt like I was at a conference, not at school. Since Last Friday, here is a sampling of the guest speakers that visited my classes:

David Placek, CEO and founder of Lexicon Branding, who visited our “How to Make Ideas Stick” class. I had never heard of Lexicon, but we read a case about them first. To put it simply: They chose names for things. What kinds of names? Intel hired them to find a name that could be trademarked for its chips (names like 486 and 386 could not be). They eventually came up with “Pentium”. Similarly, P&G needed a name for a new dry mop – Lexicon came up with “Swiffer”. The list goes on and on of popular names that we’ve all heard of (and some we haven’t). I found it interesting that this (naming and branding) was pretty much the only thing the company does. They have an entire process for brainstorming and choosing names – which includes things like phonetics and how different sounds affect consumers. Different. And Interesting.

David Burke, Makena Capital – who used to be one of the key players managing Stanford’s endowment. Stanford’s endowment is one of the largest in the country (at something like $8 billion, second only to Harvard’s endowment, if memory serves), which means they are one of the largest investors in the country. He spoke to us about how Stanford (and now Makena, which he started with with colleagues from Stanford) makes decisions about investing in Venture Capital funds (since this was for my Entrepreneurship and VC class).

Naveen Chopra, VP Corporate Strategy at TiVo – In our marketing class, we had a case on TiVo and how it could position its products in the marketplace when they first came out with their innovative product. Today of course they have fierce competition from cable operators like ComCast and have to adjust their strategy. After discussing the case, our professor introduced Naveen and he talked about some of the challenges that TiVo has faced and how they’re being addressed still today.

Rick Arney, Barclay’s Bank. In my class on currency trading, we had the managing director of investment strategy for Barclay’s Global Market Strategies Group – i.e. their currency trading group stop by. He talked to us about the currency markets. One interesting fact that I remembered: The currency markets are completely unregulated. There is no SEC. Another: the currency markets today are in a state of turmoil that is off the charts.

• Speaking of the SEC, in our accounting class we had our first visitor this week: Julie Erhardt, Deputy Chief Accountant at the Securities and Exchange Commission. Not only is she a Stanford alum, but Julie was in the Sloan program,which made for an interesting discussion. Much of her role consists of working with other countries SEC-equivalent agencies.

Lars Delgaarde, CEO, SuccessFactors. Lars is a CEO of SuccessFactors, a software company he founded after graduating from the Sloan program a few years back. When he started the company and bought some existing technology, it had been difficult for him to get VC’s to invest in his idea; after a few years he built SuccessFacstors up to over $100 million in sales and one of the most successful software IPO’s over the past few years. Lars spoke about culture and what kind of culture he built at SuccessFactors.

Matt Harris, co-founder of Village Ventures. We learned of a group trying to innovate the long-unchanged world of Venture Capital. They started with a very small fund in Williamstown, MA, and came up with the idea of supporting VC funds in non-traditional places -i.e. not Silicon Valley and not Boston. Since then, they've established relationships with 16 funds in different cities across the country and the UK, espousing their unique strategy. I found this interesting because I've been thinking about the VC industry myself and wondering if there aren't other models than the popular Silicon Valley model. This is an interesting one.

All of these speakers came in a single week, and in just the classes that I’m taking. Granted, this was a particularly busy week (we don't have this meany speakers in our classes every week), but even half of these speakers would still make for some interesting classes.

And this doesn’t include the numerous optional speakers and presentations that were going on during this same week at the GSB, which always has a lively calendar of events! Now you have a glimpse of what it's like taking classes here at the GSB.

Sundance and other events

I was going to write about the GSB trip to the Sundance film festival two weekends ago, and the Chinese New Year’s party we had last weekend, both of which I attended. I should also mention the Australia day events (the GSB is an international place), the Sloan Ski Trip to Tahoe this weekend, both of which I didn’t attend.

But it’s getting late, and guess what, I haven’t done any networking in the past few days…so it’ll have to wait until the next entry.

Tick-tock. Tick-tock.

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Saturday, January 17, 2009

Stanford Busines, Entry 16: Winter Quarter, Report Cards, and Musharraf

The Winter Break
After scattering to different parts of the world for Christmas break, we finally started our second quarter in early January. While I travelled to Boston and Pakistan, some of my colleagues travelled to India, Japan, Europe, Kazakhstan, and to various countries in South America.

A few stayed on campus and explored the San Francisco area; some went skiing at Lake Tahoe, which is a very popular thing to do in the Bay Area. There is a Sloan ski trip scheduled there in a few weeks .

Many of the MBA’s went on organized trips to different parts of the world. It is part of their requirements that they take an international study trip at least once a year; some of them fulfilled that requirement over the Winter Break, going to places like India, Vietnam, Malaysia, and several countries in Africa. Some of the MBA’s are going to do their trips over Spring Break. The Sloan program has it’s own study trip during Spring Break – our East Coast Study Trip.

Report Cards.
Over the winter break, we got the grades for our classes from the Fall Quarter.
Grading at the GSB doesn’t consist of a normal A-F grades, nor even numerical grades.

It consists of the following: H (rarely given, stands for Honors, I think; for students who do extremely well; I think it’s up to the instructors discretion whether anyone gets this grade; HP (High Pass; for those who do well in a class; typically I think this ends up being something like 20% of the class), P (Pass; for those who pass the class, this is 50% of the class), LP (Low Pass; this is for the bottom 20% of the class), and a failing grade (I don’t remember the letter, but it’s not F). From what little I know, the H is rare, but the failing grade is even more rare. I.E. if you completely *#!!-up, then you might fail a class.

In the Sloan Program, many of us haven’t been “graded” by a teacher in over 10 years, so this was a novel experience. Still, it didn’t stop us from approaching our professors when we thought we’d gotten a grade less than what we deserved. I heard that we became known as the class that quibbles with professors over grades.
How did I do? Well, I like to think of myself a poet-quant hybrid, able to do well in quantitative and qualitative subjects, but I was up for a rude awakening. In my quantitative classes (Finance, Financial Modeling, Economics: all of which were our “core” 4 unit classes), I did very well! I guess my engineering background paid off after all.

In the “softer” classes which were less quantitative, I did not so great. These were generally our 2-unit classes, which lasted less than the whole quarter such as: Organizational Behavior, Strategic Leadership, Negotiations, etc.
The biggest surprise to me were the embarrassingly low grades I received for my papers in these soft subjects. This was even more surprising (and embarrassing) since I haven’t done a single math problem since college, but have basically been a writer and a leader in the years since – having written several books, lots of articles, and led multiple organizations!

As Scooby-Doo would say, Yikes!

In the fall, we had sessions to help the poets learn the quantitative subjects, called: “Finance for Poets, Modeling for Poets”. These were mostly about how to think about doing the problems that the professor was likely to ask in exams and problem sets. Maybe we need a “Writing papers for Quants: How to think like a Stanford professor’s grading assistant”. I’ll be there!

The New Quarter.
We started the Winter Quarter at the beginning of January. The academic school year at Stanford consists of three quarters (plus the summer quarter, which is optional for most grad students). From what I can tell, the Winter quarter is actually the shortest quarter, going for only 10 weeks.

Coming back to campus felt a bit like a homecoming. It didn’t take long to get settled in again after our brief several hour orientation on the Monday after New Year’s Day.

This quarter is very different for the Sloans. This is because we’re not spending all of our time in a single classroom with our fellow program members. We only have two core classes (Accounting, with a beginner and advanced version, and Marketing. As a result, we are only fully together as a class in Marketing.
The rest of our classes are electives, and these are the classes that make Stanford what it is. We take our classes with other Sloans and with MBA2’s (second year MBA students). None of the first year MBA’s are allowed to take electives yet so we haven’t had any classes with them.

Electives that I’m taking this quarter include Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital, How to Make Ideas Stick (about marketing messages which are sticky), and International Financial Management (about currency trading). I know some classmates who are taking all entrepreneurship-related classes (there are a lot at Stanford), and some who are taking all Finance-related classes, but most have a mix of the two.

The Sloan program is structured so that most of us take 5 classes this quarter and then 4 classes in the final quarter, or vice-versa. Many of us decided to take 6 classes this quarter, but quickly discovered that the amount of reading and work associated with 6 classes probably wasn’t worth it – most of us who did that ended up dropping one of our classes.

Classes with MBAs
The main difference in taking classes with MBA2s? The professors expect us to be more prepared and to have always read the cases. There’s a lot more cold-calling in MBA classes than Sloan classes. By cold-calling, I mean when the professor just calls on someone randomly and asks them about the reading. The way to avoid being cold-called is to hold up your hand, volunteering to discuss the case. Of course, that supposes you’ve read the material!

I think the most useful skill for me at business school has been the ability to read very fast – rather skim and get the key points of a case. Many of the cases are 12 pages long – of course you don’t need to know every detail of the case, just the broad strokes, and this usually suffices as long as you have the case with you during classes.

Much of the non-financial classes are case-based. Stanford offers a mix of case-based classes (which was pioneered and is in vogue at Harvard) and lecture-based classes (which tends to be done at many other business schools). Many of our classes combine case and lecture, which is pretty effective method overall.
In any case, it’s nice to finally get to take classes with the folks that we’ve been wandering around the corridors of the GSB with.

Musharraf Visits
Former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf visited campus this week and gave a talk. I wasn’t able to stay for the whole thing, but they did say it was unusual for a former foreign public official to speak on campus so soon after leaving his post.

He spoke primarily about terrorism and extremism, based on his understanding of Pakistan and the region. He compared it to a Tree, with terrorists being the leaves on the tree, and terrorist organizations being the branches. Simply getting rid of the leaves, or trimming the branches, won’t get rid of terrorism. The roots, the root causes, which include poverty, illiteracy, political alienation, and extremism, all need to be addressed. He gave a history of Afghanistan, particularly over the past 20 years and spoke about how the traditional structures that held it together as a nation disintegrated during the 10 year jihad that Pakistan and the US started and fueled there against the soviets during that time.

He went on to answer questions from a professor and subsequently from the audience. I didn’t stay for this part, but do like the fact that we’re getting people like him coming to campus regularly.

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