Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Batmobile and race cars

It took a few days after a marathon 4-day session last week to sit down and post a summary of events. So here it goes.

We had a full-day corporate valuation training on Wednesday attended by a good number of class 36 and a few class 35 folks. Classmates who are looking at investment banking internships were quite happy with the session that would help them with their interviews. Continuing with the Impact Investing speaker series, we had a speaker over lunch to talk to us about different ways of looking at metrics for analyzing social impact from a market perspective. The Brazil committee met to discuss more about how to plan the visit, and solicit wider participation. The Wharton Business Plan Competition Phase II deadline was yesterday, so teams that wanted to meet face-to-face and discuss their submissions met and spoke about it. Folks neck-deep in their GCP work had separate meetings with their teams, chipping away at their tasks, one hour at a time. Few of us that are participating in the Global Investment Research Challenge had a quick pow-wow with our mentor Prof. Percival to get his advice on how we should proceed. We had two speakers come and talk to us about networking and how to go about doing it successfully. We had another speaker talk to us about charisma and how to make a good first impression.

Then of course there were the lectures - the reason why we were there in the first place. Percival gave us an extended session on discounted cash flows, with enough theater and script mixed in so we will remember what we were taught through all the drama. We had a couple of really interesting marketing classes where Bell and our TA Eric discussed Unilever's entry into the north-eastern Brazil market with a new low-cost detergent. Christian spoke to us about call arrival process modeling and how to estimate wait times and service times in a multi-server Poisson arrival model. We also started discussions on the Toyota Production System with a really cool French video about Citroen and their adoption of TPS.

We also had a flurry of applicants show up and attend sessions. This is the final stretch now, so I hope everyone has submitted their applications, or are close to doing so. It has been a busy month for me as well on this front. I have interacted with about 11 applicants so far, reviewing essays where asked to, responding to questions and in general providing them the same level of approachability and guidance that class 34 gave me when I visited Wharton last year and asked for help. So many of them are strong applicants and I hope they all make it in - class 37 promises to be one amazing class already!

Last weekend was also the deadline for my classmates to send in their applications for the Wharton Non-Profit Board Leadership Program. We had several classmates submit their applications already and are in the process of reviewing them. It was amazing to read about a completely different part of their lives that we seldom get to see in school and see how that motivated them to volunteer their time to help others. We hope to find the right set of nonprofits to match them with that can utilize their skills and interests the most, and from whom they can learn and benefit the most as well. We have a one day training program for all applicants planned for mid-Feb. Stay tuned for updates in the coming weeks!

As I read these essays from classmates, the essays of the new applicants to WEMBA and interact with my classmates looking into internships and career transitions, I cannot but help think about the Batmobile and race cars. Race cars are built to win - on race tracks. Every piece of their being is fine-tuned for that one act, to extract the last ounce of performance from them under challenging circumstances. The Batmobile on the other hand - a pure work of genius. Driving fast is only one of the things it can do. If you saw it parked outside your local supermarket while someone did grocery shopping, you might notice it because it looks different. But if it didn't, one would never know the things it was capable of.

Corporate life, to a great extent, seems to be similar. Through our undergraduate and graduate years, we are trained to excel at one specialized area. We get into jobs in that area of specialization, and before we know it, we're being fine tuned to excel at that one thing inside the corporation. Within a few years, we are all race cars ready to win races for our companies in that one area of specialization. But what if there were a few Batmobiles in there, that appear the same as race cars, but in terms of potential were vastly different? Where in the corporate world are there Batmobile detectors that beep when those exceptional employees walk past them and indicate to the management - behold! This is someone that you need to cherish and whose work scope needs to be expanded wider. In other words, how does a Batmobile - so used to its daily routine of winning races that it finds it as interesting as grocery shopping - signal to the outside world that it has potential that they cannot see? What in our corporate HR structure is made to detect these signals? One can learn about Hackman and skill variety and job design, but how does this get integrated into corporate business unit structures and career growth paths? How does one taken a specialist out of their "competency trap" and redeploy them into something else where they are untested but claim potential, or interest, or both?

All interesting questions ... and as many of us navigate the paths of career transitions, something to ponder about as we think about starting our own enterprises. Where would a Batmobile fit within your organization were you to build one?

Saturday, January 8, 2011


After three weeks of rest and recovery, Term 3 started for me this weekend. Many of my classmates took the Global Modular Courses offered locally as well as overseas in India and other countries. I heard from a few of them that the marketing class in India, as well as the product development class out here in San Francisco were quite interesting. Some of us had other commitments during the break and hence could not sign up for these – there is always next December to catch up.

Friday started early for some of us that are participating in the Global Investment Research Challenge – we met on campus early before classes to strategize and divide up work for the fun ride ahead dissecting a firm’s financials. After two terms, the starting of a term feels like meeting long-lost friends after a while – was awesome to meet everyone again and get back into the cauldron that is the WEMBA program. This session we started with Terwiesch for OPIM, Percival for Corp. Finance, and several instructors led by Carl Maugeri on Management Communication. In two OPIM sessions we play-worked on two production lines – first a small assignment approving/rejecting mortgage applications as a line of 5 people, and then as a longer assignment bidding for contracts to build a circuit board that beeps and blinks based on how quickly a line of 5 employees can churn these out. Competitive juices were out in full flow as teams practiced how quickly they could insert the different components and move the product down the line to reach the tester at the end and be validated to be defect-free. Based on activity times we had to make bids on how low our selling price could be. The winning team in my section made 31 of these in 10 minutes with zero defects – hello, China, here they come!

The revelation to me for this term so far has been Prof. Percival. Not in my wildest dreams had I imagined that analyzing and contrasting the financials of FedEx and UPS over the past two decades would be presented as interestingly as a suspense thriller. The man should definitely go into theater. It was just fabulous sitting back and soaking it in – seeing how the numbers were just one piece in a larger context in which they were set. The focus of the course is value creation – and from the session we had, it looks like it is not just about the value creation happening in firms, but also within our minds about rethinking the rights and wrongs of earnings management and other shady but legal accounting practices. I’m sure I will spend more space on this course in the coming weeks, so will postpone further analysis. The Management Communication class promises to be engaging as well. It was great fun to be broken up into teams of seven and have an opportunity to address the team on a topic provided to us and speak for 3 minutes about it. We were videotaped and are to get a detailed analysis of how we did and recommendations for improvement during a 30-minute one-on-one meeting next session.

As if all this action wasn’t sufficient, we had two lunchtime speakers come talk to us about their work – one on impact investing and the other on issues that companies face as they go global. This was also the first session in the MBA program so far that one of the sections had a class as late as 7.15-9.15 pm.

Some classmates came with their significant others, some with their kids. It was great to see everyone relaxed after a good break and after having spent time with their families. It is difficult to get enough time during the term to do justice to all the relationships in our lives. It reminds me of stuff learnt during undergrad actually, if you will humor me – the Nyquist-Shannon sampling theorem. It states that if you sample a process often enough, you will be able to reconstruct it fully without any loss of quality even though you did not get to witness the entire process. Life during the MBA program seems like an experiment at disproving this. In the recent past theories, like compressive sampling have actually extended this further to say that for sparse signals (that have very little information in them over long durations) one can actually time the sampling at appropriate times, less frequently than the Nyquist rate, and still reconstruct with full fidelity. But unfortunately, not everything in life is a sparse signal. Catching up with friends during breaks might suffice based on how well one knows them, but time not spent with kids is memories that cannot be reconstructed with any other samples from life. One can only try to sample more frequently during breaks and see if one gets back any signal from times that one did not witness.

Timing seems to be a culprit in corporate behavior as well. As we are learning in the finance class, the artificial segmenting caused in a company’s life through splitting earnings reports into quarters causes the firms to move numbers across the divide to achieve their earnings estimates and manipulate public perception of performance. Clearly a 3-month sampling period seems to be insufficient to gauge how well a firm is doing. It will be interesting to see if the FASB comes up with stricter regulations around these earnings management tricks. OPIM opened our eyes to a different sort of timing – within production lines. For maximal performance of a team, the members need to work in lock-step, or achieve “line balance” as we were told. The takt time needs to be regular. It was also interesting to hear a professor use variance in VO2Max between students as an example for variance between people, just like variance in productivity. Terwiesch's got to be a long-distance runner.

In life, timing is everything. For those of you that are applying to the program, this is something to keep in mind. As you work on your essays and schedule your interviews, think about why you are doing an MBA, as well as why you are doing it now.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Global Consulting Practicum - SoyPro in Israel

For those who have not heard about GCP, here is the official home page. And below is my unofficial story...
What people have told me about GCP:
One of the most valuable experiences at Wharton, but it is a LOT of work, really a LOT. Think three times before signing up for it, think ten times before signing up for it during the first year. Since term three is the busiest term, adding GCP to it does not really help.
What I thought when I heard what people said:
No problem, it is only one term’s hard work. Of course I can handle it during term 3. Let me do it during the first year so that I can focus more on my career second year …
Well, the reality is: GCP spans two terms (not one!). During term two, we have to start building a team, writing up project application, bidding for projects, worrying about whether we will get a project, and finally, working on the engagement proposal before flying to Israel after Christmas. AND we are doing all these while preparing for three final exams for term two… Every week, we have a team meeting with the Israel student team, a team meeting with our project faculty (PF) and TA, and an internal team meeting; every three weeks, we report our progress to GCP office; of course, every day, we are searching for data for an unfamiliar industry, building the work plan and dealing with travel logistics to Israel. Wow, I really did not sign up for so much work before term three even started!
You do not think I am writing this to convince everyone not to do GCP, right? Of course not! Even though the work came much earlier and was a lot more than I predicated, every piece of work is accompanied with ten times more fun. Did I mention that I love Israel?

The Israel SoyPro project was not our team’s first pick, but I have to say that I felt really lucky that we did not get our first pick! Now, I realized that GCP is not about the nature of the project, it is about the people and the consulting process. I am not deeply passionate about soy beans but later I found myself laughing with our teammates, each holding an Edamame (immature soybeans in the pod) in hand taking a picture in a Japanese restaurant in Israel. All I have to say is that accept any project you get, surprises will come during your journey, especially from the people you are about to meet and the country you are about to experience.

Winter might not be a good time to travel to Europe or Asia, but winter is great in Israel. It was in the 70-80’s when I floated in the Dead Sea and soaked myself in the mud. The beaches in the Dead Sea or Tele Aviv are just amazing: blue in color and quiet with healing power. Masada and Jerusalem are about the culture and history of this amazing country. Even though I am not religious, it was just fun to listen to the ancient stories, walking the old city and taking pictures of art, food and architecture. I had the best hummus, kebab and falafel in the world, the best. The coffee, wine, fine dining, and sleepless energy made Israel a lively city. Wow, food is really just yummy: lamb spareribs, chicken pate, gnocchi, bread, pomegranate juice and dessert. Of course, it also gifted me with several lbs in weight – it certainly did not help to watch “eat, love, pray” on the way to Israel. I constantly asked myself: when did I start to feel guilty of enjoying life (aka food)?

A lot of work. I arrived two days early for sightseeing knowing that once work starts, there will be no time for break. We worked from 9am to 10/11pm every day. But of course after work, we ate together, took a taxi to hotel and fell right to sleep. Exciting discussions happen every day – it is so much more existing to argue in person than on the phone-, but we are making rapid decisions. Many stakeholders gave us many feedbacks towards different directions, but we have 100% liberty to decide whether to incorporate their feedbacks. We are perfectionist when it comes to work. The biggest satisfaction is when the client said “I am very positively impressed by your proposal” with a big smile. It was only the first victory, but it meant so much to all of us.

I cannot remember how many times our Israeli team members or our Wharton team members told me during the week in Israel: “I feel so lucky that I am on this team (and not on the other team ).” We first met on the phone every week for more than a month and we became friends; we then spent a whole week together under one roof and we became best friends. We are also very lucky to have no-nonsense project faculties (PF). Our PFs taught us so much about consulting in real life and shared so much of their personal experiences with us that we really felt connected with them.

The road ahead:
While we still have 4 months’ work in front of us and I might change my perception about GCP during the tough journey, I felt confident that I will be back to Israel one day to visit my dear friends there.

- Pardon any typos or grammar errors. Jetlag is my excuse. :)

Sunday, January 2, 2011

A new year, a new term

Its hard to believe but we are 1/3rd of the way through! This week, we start term 3, and it is going to be one hectic term.

It was a good break between terms; for some of us, it was a chance to spend some good time with family; for others, it was GCP travel; for some, its going to be week long modular courses.

Some of us spent time doing investment research on a company as part of the CFA Institute's Investment Research Challenge. While the report is not due for another seven weeks, the break offered a good opportunity to do some background data mining. Personally, it provided me an opportunity to get to know the Lippincott library better. While we are based in San Francisco, and don't have physical access to the library, the online access more than makes up for it. In a span of days, I was able to collect 100s of articles, forecasts and research reports. When I couldn't find something I needed, I just emailed the librarians, who actually ran queries for me, and returned some very interesting search data. Amazing!

Lan mentioned in her post about the last minute dash to get the PRiSM assignment done. She got done before our group :) Some of us sat past closing time (and convinced Larry to keep the campus open) so that we could have a shot at submitting our assignment. The assignments are tough by themselves; working with study team dynamics adds another dimension to the assignment. (For the non-WEMBA reader: the PRiSM assignment requires us to model the ability of individuals to repay their loans, based on multiple parameters that could impact credit-worthiness. Its a huge multiple regression for the statistically inclined).

If the past is any predictor of the future, the professors will keep us on our toes, the discussions ought to be just as mentally stimulating, and the classroom interaction just as fun.