Saturday, February 26, 2011

Be careful what you wish for ...

A facebook post by Michael, my classmate, inspired the title for this week's post. As the saying goes, you should be careful what you wish for, for you might get it. All of us that got into Wharton were made aware of how busy Term 3 could get, and yet it feels like we weren't prepared enough for it. As a hectic fortnight whizzed past before the previous session and we're midway through another one, it seems nostalgic to remember the time from a year ago when this was a distant possibility. Don't get me wrong. I love what I'm learning this term. Its a confluence of work, school and personal schedules that makes this term hard for me, whereas for some others its taking on GCP over and above Term 3 schedule that makes it harder.

Last session whizzed past tamely given all the excitement leading into it. Many of us were up late doing (or re-doing) the Webvan case for David Bell's class, and then doing (and re-doing) the discounted cash flows for the finance case. Sabre period 1 decisions had been submitted and we had different teams trash talking each other in good spirits.  I believe that one of the milestones that went relatively unnoticed is that the Webvan case was probably the last assignment that we get to do together as the original learning teams put together when we joined. I'm sure everyone one in my class has something to say about how awesome their team is as well as about how badly their team sucked on other attributes. I actually went back and read what I wrote in my Wharton admission essays about learning teams and what skills I bring to the table. It helps to have that thought out well and observe yourself as you interact with your learning teams and see how true your assessment of your skills were. This is a classic case of a constrained optimization problem where each team member has to optimize their time distribution over individual assignments where they are graded individually and team assignments where the team gets the same grade and everyone pitches in towards the work. People's perception of how good/bad their learning team members are, is often linked to where along this continuum those members chose their optimal distributions.

As we form newer teams to cooperate on projects like SABRE and GCP, its refreshing to work closely with other classmates and see the differences and similarities in their modes of operation. At the same time, terms like this where everyone is so busy highlights those in the class who make it worth the while to spend time at Wharton. There are several of these, but I shall just pick one to illustrate, while leaving his name out since he might prefer it that way. Not only does he take leadership in most of his learning team assignments, he always goes out of his way to help classmates with difficult concepts. His attention to detail is as good as his ability to make a jazzy presentation of the material he wishes to present. With a busy career and a busy personal life, its just incredible to see how he manages his time and manages to stay on top of so many things - definitely it has been a great learning experience for me. This post (like others by me) is influenced by what limited set of observations I get to make of my class, but I'm certain that there are several stars like this in my class, which makes school fun and inspirational.

Speaking of inspirational, as part of homework for these two weeks, we were required to record a 3 minute video as part of our Management Communication class based on the iPremier case where we needed to role play and convince the executive team at iPremier on what future course of action to take. Given that most of us did not prepare for it in time to use the recording resources back in school, it was interesting to watch the hodge-podge of video qualities, backgrounds, presentation templates and approaches from different classmates for this assignment. We were required to "create" a chart to aid us with our explanation, and this required that we invent some data and plot it the way we wanted to, to make our case. I didn't realize that inventing data to plot it in Excel to fit what I had in mind was so much harder than it sounded. Recording without an audience and pretending that there was one in front was not easy either. I've always had a hard time rehearsing for any presentations that I make, and sure enough that came back to hurt me this time as well. Its been interesting to read the materials for this class and learn formally how to be a better speaker.

As we hit home stretch for next session, the finance midterm looms ahead. Before that, we have our SABRE Period 1 decisions due tomorrow. Teams that did well need to remember to keep their eyes on the ball, and the teams that didn't .. well, need to get their act together and reverse their fortunes. The CFA GIRC team had our report for the Western regional finals due last week and the presentation happens in a few days time, so its been crazy scheduling that in the middle of other deliverables for school. It was a great learning experience about the semiconductor industry, performing public comparable valuation, DCF analysis etc. to the extent one could given the time constraints. Another illustration of the importance of being careful in what one wishes for, and being prepared to handle the consequences of realizing that wish.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Missing the forest for the trees...

This has been the longest lag so far between a session and an update about it. And rightfully so. This is probably the busiest two weeks in the program so far, without a single exam at the end of it.

Last session was over even before it began. We had our marketing case reports due for the elBulli case. In addition to coming up with interesting business ideas for Adria to ponder over, creative classmates such as my learning team buddy and superstar Arif used Adobe After Effects to create ads for a new restaurant that Adria could start in Barcelona. The fact that the ad was excellent could be summarized by the response from one classmate who thought that we had just downloaded that ad from the elBulli website! Thanks to our classmate Leo, we had two really engaging and inspiring speakers last session, the CEO of EmberClear and a parter from KPCB. Albert, the CEO of EmberClear, was amazingly articulate about the business case behind gasification of coal as the next incremental technology innovation in energy that will drive billions of dollars of business. He recommended that all of us look at incremental changes rather than totally radical ideas such as "cleantech".

Did I mention that we also had our first final for the Term? OPIM got done with a crisp, two-hour final exam from Christian. We also had our first session of MKTG 622, which is the marketing management strategy class. Patti Williams will be spending the next few sessions with us as we rattle our SABREs and learn the material by building a company. All the Wharton MBAs are divided into several worlds of 6 companies each. Each company is a team of 5 people and sells two brands of a particular product in its own world. Given a lot of market reserarch, production planning, sales, distribution, forecasting and other data, each team has to decide what its best strategy for growth is. The game is played over 6 periods of decision making where one uses a software called SABRE to fight it out. May the best team win!

Coming back to why these two weeks are hard. We had the first set of SABRE decisions due a few days ago. There are two cases due in David Bell's marketing management class and one due in the finance class. For the communications class we are supposed to read a case and record a video presenting a defense to the media about the situation presented. We are supposed to do this as teams of two, critiquing each others work, which is due for recording this weekend as well. Oh and did I mention that those of us that are participating in the GIRC investment research challenge have our reports due this weekend? And GCP folks have their Devil's Advocate round coming up soon as well. Those of us with busy jobs or kids at home can also bid goodbye to sleep for these two weeks. Would this explain the record turnout for our weekly lunch meeting in South Bay today where 10 of us showed up to commiserate over each others' predicaments.

In the middle of all this, it is easy to get bogged down in the details of the case materials presented. Be it SABRE, or the Webvan case in marketing or the New Heritage Doll case in Finance, there is much more data that what someone could potentially use in their analysis. In fact without getting some perspective from the conjoint study data and perceptual maps in SABRE, one can get lost navigating all the other pieces of information there. As part of the Webvan case, Prof. Bell uploaded a few of his interesting research papers for reference. For the engineer in me, it was fascinating to see how Bayesian spatiotemporal models and discrete time hazard models were being used to analyze how an online retailer such as Netgrocer could have increased their customer base. Again, lots of data, lots of math, but a few key intuitions that guide the analysis.

So term 3, at its midpoint, seems to be about sifting through the muddy waters of detail to arrive at key insights. About not missing the forest for the trees. For data obsessed engineers such as myself, it seems to be about seeing data as a means to an end, not an end in itself. At a more philosophical level, it is about seeing where the trees of coursework and homework fit within the larger, more beautiful forest of life filled with the cheer of near and dear ones, Valentine's Days, chasing toddlers and smiling newborns.