Saturday, March 05, 2011

A Problem of Scale and Scope in India

When one talks about growth, more often than not, there are two dimensions that people are really talking about. One is Scale and the other is Scope. Scaling up means doing more of what is being currently done. If you're a manufacturing unit, you create 10 times more of the same part. Scope is a bit trickier. Scope is about the variety of products or services. It is about defining the boundaries and answering what, for whom, when and other such tough questions. For example, it is deciding whether to design the part for a life expectancy of 10 years or 20 years. Or whether it should be launched in one country or many countries; whether it should fit into one particular tool or multiple tools across various industries, and so on and so forth.

Scale is almost synonymous with growth. But the problem with mistaking scale for growth is that it is a horribly narrow view. What I often like to say is that if you lose $2 on every unit, making 100 units will only leave you poorer by $200. And that is certainly no way to grow. It sounds simple enough. And yet, companies fall into this trap all too often.

To understand why that is the case, you have to understand Scope, the poorer cousin of Scale. Where Scale talks about bigger numbers, 'growth' curves that look like the trajectory of a rocket just fired, Scope is hard to pin down. People who talk about scope talk about unpleasant things. They talk using words like 'define', 'focus', or (God forbid!) 'limit' - none of which sound like growth words at all! In fact, one can be forgiven for mistaking 'scope' to be synonymous with 'reduction'. Contrast that with someone who is talking about bigger numbers, more units, support for 10 more file formats, bigger addressable market, entry into a new industry sector; and you can guess who comes out all smiles and triumphant from that meeting room.

If Scope can get an equal hearing alongside its flamboyant, adrenaline-pumping cousin, Scale, it can do wonders to business growth. It is not always obvious how and when Scope puts up its meek hand to speak (and is snubbed) or when Scale rears its ugly head (and everyone regales in its mathematical beauty). Here are some places to watch out for these two things:

1. Are you jumping to calculations too fast in your head? Of course, you always have to run a few numbers. But if number-crunching comes without taking what the numbers say to its logical conclusion, then something is wrong. For example, is setting a higher price for your product after adding a few features the right thing to do? Or is the optimum price that will drive volumes and maximize profit actually lower? Have you considered that? Or here's a really simple one; Are 20 features better than 10? Or a more nuanced one; Is Mac+PC support better than only PC support (2 is better than 1, right?). That last one is actually a scale solution being applied to a scope problem. It is a slippery slope indeed.

2. Does it all 'seem the same' sometimes? When building a screw for a car seems very similar to building one for a truck or a plane, think again! Are they really the same? Or are you looking at the problem through the Scale lens? Is your scope of business the car or the screw? As much as we would like it to be the case, the world is not made up of only the things that are supplied, but also the things that form the demand (and no, they are not the same). This is a topic that gets into marketing, and merits a blog post of its own - perhaps some day in the future.

3. Can something really be done in '10 minutes'? This is my favorite simply because I have seen it happen all of my professional life in one form or the other. The time to do something might be 10 minutes, but there's probably a host of other things that have to be considered before something is actually 'done'. Is it being done the right way or will doing it the 'right' way take not 10 minutes, but 2 days? Or just because it will take 10 minutes to do, does it mean it should be done? When will your team be able to get to it? If the answer is 'after these 10 other things, which will take about a week', there's not much point in saying 10 minutes, is there? The 10 other things actually create a scope problem, and you need a scope solution to arrive at the right number. We in the Indian software industry have been giving dumb 'effort estimates' to our customers for far too long, while they take care of prioritizing things and solving the scope problem. Do we even know a scope problem exists?

4. Is there something 'between the lines' that you are missing? This is a tough one to spot. Was there an implied context to the discussion that has somehow got lost in the last few minutes? If so, was it intentional or was it because the rocket-launching cousin, Scale just decided to take you for a ride? Doing a spot check and bringing the discussion back to its essence is vital before the horses run too far ahead. There should be no shame in doing that. Brainstorming is one thing, but what the writers on the benefits of brainstorming often fail to mention is the rigorous analysis meeting that comes a day later to put things within scope and cut out things that only served to squeeze out the creative juices. Not all meetings can be brainstorming, and thinking that some cool idea that came out of a brainstorming meeting is going to cut it in the real world is, for the lack of a better word, brainless!

Living in India these days is like living on steroids, or at least living amongst people who are high on steroids or drugs or something. Nothing less than 'anything is possible' is a fashionable thing to say. A discussion on touch-screen tablets quickly degenerates into a discussion about augmented reality, and how Google/Apple will bring it 'tomorrow' (Really? It took 30 years for computers to go from mouse to touch). Hiring a CEO for a start-up has become an exercise in finding the person with the biggest Rolodex for maximum lead-gen, and not about someone who can drive the company through a complex maze of tough choices. How many product feature discussions happen in a vacuum purely based on only 'neighboring' features, regardless of what users really want? There's cribbing about why the iPad does not allow phone calls. (Does just having a SIM card make iPad a good candidate for a phone? Or should we leave something out for 2012 also? ;-) Ok, that last bit was pure sarcasm.)

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for the go-get-it attitude. In fact, I love it. But I say we've been the intelligent engineers and number-crunching nerds of the world for far too long. I say we wake up and look around a little now and see what else is needed. And an intelligent discussion on the scope of our capabilities and the scope of everything we're building is definitely high up on the table. A discussion about 'scaling up' is meaningless (nay, dangerous!) without one on 'scoping it'.


Location:Pune,India

Saturday, May 23, 2009

My Three Big Takeaways from MBA

The one question that I get asked a lot is "what are the top 1 or 2 things you learned during MBA"? It takes a while to put your finger on what MBA gives you (at least it took me some time to figure this out). Blame it on the nature of the degree, it's vastness, and the nature of business itself (a blend of analytics, science and an art in many ways). So, if you were to ask me that question, following are the three things that I think you would learn in an MBA from a top school like Duke:

  1. How to cut through the clutter and gather information. I spend days on end reading, researching, validating, observing and thinking about information. This might seem trivial, but much of the information out there is based on shaky assumptions or is driven by wrongful incentives. Some are just downright inaccurate. Even when you are not looking for information actively, you see things around you in a different light. An otherwise great commercial on TV might start looking ineffective when you see it through your "MBA lens" or a downright irritating one will start making sense. A casual remark by a colleague about politics or life or celebrity will get you thinking about how people think and react to information. The courses in an MBA delve into fields ranging from philosophy to sociology to psychology, statistics and many more apart from the usual ones like economics, finance etc.
  2. "Managers ought to be good at skimming the cream from different fields of expertise and putting them together in many different and interesting ways."

    Which leads me to the next big takeaway.

  3. How to take a step back and structure information. Gathering information and being able to poke holes or criticize or appreciate the right information is one thing. Putting them together in a structure and template, drawing up patterns and getting your hands around what it all collectively is telling you is a very different thing. During MBA, you will learn how to structure information, how to put them together in models, how to drop or pick up relevant information, and how to make realistic assumptions for parts that are not available or not visible clearly. When you have to look at your industry, the economy, the competition and what have you, the way these interplay with each other and the amount of factors that you have to deal with can become mind-numbing. You might not get the right answer, but you cannot afford to have no answer! The real deal is to be able to gain insights from the information.

    Once, while doing a competitive analysis, I was taken aback by what came out of it. In an emerging field and a nascent industry, the companies I analyzed were taking six different approaches to running their businesses! It is very hard to predict how an emerging industry would structure itself, and you have to look at everything from regulatory environment to disruptive forces to consumer behavior and myriad other factors to be able to take a stance. Even if you believe you can change course during execution, you have to know how and when, and why! Time and again, I have seen people getting the individual pieces right, but still struggling with the comprehensiveness of it all.
  4. "For what it is worth, it's like getting one face of a Rubik's cube right. Solving the whole puzzle is a very different ballgame."
  5. How to present information. You can gather and structure information in the best possible way, but communicating the information to others is paramount. Business world is ridden with skepticism. There is attention deficit and information overload at the top no matter which organization you pick. When you walk into the boardroom with information and an analysis that you think truly provides a way forward for your company or your product, you have to be able to present that information really well. You need to have all the bases covered, and be ready for the tough questions that will follow. This is not about making your slides pretty. This is about carefully uncovering layer upon layer of information you have gathered and structured to create the right impact and convince the folks in that room. I have seen managers jumping from slide 3 to slide 10 and then back to 5 and so on in order to answer a question. I have seen them fumbling with their notepads and Excel sheets for the right data points - yes, during a presentation (you can guess how well and how long those meetings went!). So remember,
  6. "What you present is at least as important as what you have."

Of course, none of the above is exclusive to MBA. But they are fundamental to running any business. And sure enough, a good MBA will give you a shot at doing these three things - gathering information, structuring information and presenting information - really, really well.

(Truth be told, it is Feb 2011 as I publish this post. I wrote this post almost two years ago. I didn't publish it then, but I found it surprisingly relevant even today. This would probably be my last post related directly to MBA - as the MBA itself is not a big part of my life anymore. I do feel a bit silly posting it - just like how a school-time crush feels silly when you reach college - but it closes an important chapter nevertheless.)

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Teledora.com

It has been a long while since I posted anything on this blog. The second year is close to an end and there doesn't seem to be much more to write. I am not even in school right now. I am in India, in a different world altogether, working on a project of my own. Oh don't worry, I am going back in March to finish my courses! MBA meant a lot to me, and I figured I would do well to try something of my own during school. We have done enough case studies (believe me! :-)), but it was time for me to create and solve a case of my own... and it feels wonderful to create a problem of your own, analyze it and then try and solve it in your own style.

In any case, Valentine's Day is coming up and I am busy promoting Teledora.com through all the modern marketing channels available. It has been an interesting ride and I am so glad I took this up and executed it that it is hard to mention what I feel. I have spent endless days and nights thinking about Teledora. Not unless you catch hold of something new and try to do it will you realize how different the world of entreprenuership is. The amount of choices you are faced with are mind-numbing. I have no boss to tell me what is to be achieved. I have no CEO laying down the direction the product needs to take. At one point (and it still is the same to a large extent), the number of things I could have turned Teledora into was quite simply overwhelming. When you are leading through the unknown, how can you predict which strategy is best, going forward? The answer to that question leads to endless pursuit of data, thoughts and feedback from friends. The fact that Teledora could have been any of the 20 different things that I thought about, has been the most surprising part of this venture. Only time will tell if my choices were good enough, but it does feel wonderful to be truly on the driving seat for once!

I have had a pretty decent stream of visitors on this blog over the last couple of years. Going by the comments posted here, no one's probably hated this blog! I don't know when I would next post into this blog, but it has been a fun experience. This blog started as a way to keep my friends and family updated about my life in school. The blog description above (that hasn't changed ever since I started) talks about how the content here could change into something more serious. To be honest, I am quite taken aback myself! This blog has helped me keep my sanity through a life-changing experience.

Until we meet again.... check out www.teledora.com and hope you have fun recording your voice!

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Second year term 1

It's been a long time since I posted anything on the blog. It's partially due to lack of good content, but also because my laptop crashed at the beginning of this term and I am having to use the school's Windows machines to do everything from checking mail to finishing assignments!

Let me start with my electives this term. The courses I have taken in this term are Venture Capital and Private Equity, Hightech marketing, Macroeconomics and Corporate Finance.

It's a good spread in terms of breadth and here is my rationale. Fuqua MBA program, and at least some if not all top school MBA programs, are general management courses with emphasis on building leaders with broad skills that can be utilized in their careers that will span another 30 years. 30 years! And I am still not 30! One of the questions I asked the alumni who interviewed me for Fuqua was how do you keep yourself updated with new stuff after getting out of the school? He answered my question well - that's not important - but what is important is that this MBA is a kind of thing that you do once in a lifetime and it has to last a lifetime!

So my electives will span a spectrum of functions and industries: right now it's marketing, economics and finance. Pretty soon, I intend to cover strategy, operations, accounting (shudder!) and decision models. (By the way, if you plan to follow this path, be careful because every time a recruiter asks me any question like "where do you see yourself in 10 years" or "what are your long term career goals", my answer sounds wishy-washy incoherent stream of words... and I prefer it that way.)

Coming back to my electives; being from the software industry and the kind of exposure to finance I desired, venture capital and private equity fit in nicely. It is a subject that would interest the analytical person in you, the entrepreneur, the hard-nosed business person, all at the same time. It is an industry that is immensely interesting, and full of seemingly heroic stunts pulled by people!

Hightech marketing was sort of an obvious choice for me although I thought my MBA is becoming a little marketing-heavy. The core marketing course, then a couple of electives previously, an internship in marketing and now this! Well, some amount of Duke would rub off on everyone I guess, and it's just hard to avoid such great courses in marketing with very good faculty and research pool at Fuqua. In any case, I am glad I took the course, but I promise to cut down on marketing going further! :-) The course itself talked about the nuances associated with high tech, cutting edge products, be it in biotech or IT. We learnt models on diffusion of technology, forecasting and more traditional concepts like managing channels etc. in such products.

Macroeconomics is one of the courses that I came to MBA for! It sounds lame, but I was dying to understand global economics of countries, currencies and what not. Yes there was strategy, there was marketing, finance and the rest, but macroeconomics was something that you read about and wondered about a lot! The course turned out to be great and it feels good to be a little more knowledgeable and have more topics to talk about over dinner at home!

Finally, Corporate Finance. I just can't describe how useful this course was and how good it feels to understand the engine behind corporations. Great professor, fantastic course structure and team assignments that completed your understanding like nothing else!

We have our exams next week, the fall break, and then we will all be set for term 2! I know this post read like a forward for a horrible book, but it's hard to get your creative juices going sitting in a computer lab at midnight, even if Fuqua feels like home. (By the way, I have been brooding over the end of first year since summer and very soon, this will all be over. Three more terms and that's it! It really can't get any sadder - I have come to love this place!)

Saturday, June 17, 2006

So what do I do to get into an MBA school?

The title sounds so formulaic that it seems like I am almost giving in to the capitalistic clutter of dozens of books on "how to get into a top MBA". Am I really doing that? I don't know. Is there a formula? Obviously not.

These are some of the questions that I was faced with while applying to MBA and am asked regularly by prospective students. This post, as some others on similar topic, is a modified version of a mail that I sent to an applicant. The questions covered a wide gamut and I thought it might be worthwhile to make a post out of it.

How do I convince the school of my career interest?

There are mechanical/software engineers who claimed to want to do finance in Wall Street. There are lawyers who want to get into tech. marketing, nurses into consumer packaged goods. The list and possibilities are endless. However, there has to be something buried deep inside that motivates you to make such a shift.

I am sure the schools approach with an open mind about your interest and they have certainly seen more weird (and successful) cases than yours. Many people applying for MBA don't get in the first year that they applied. The whole process from first thinking about MBA, to preparing for GMAT, to giving it, to drafting essays, to polishing them, applying and then interviewing takes a couple of years for many. Two years is a long time to think about your motivation and your future career. If you think this sounds abstract, you have no idea how abstract life is for an MBA student. As students, we are actively encouraged to look at things from far above than we ever have. This is what a school is looking for - and let alone school - even your first employer is looking for answers to the same question. It's just the beginning.

Though there are no specific answers, I will try and get into some specifics. In thinking "Why MBA", think of your background, the things you did in college, school, and during work and see how they relate to your goals, whether changing career or not. For example, entrepreneurship requires successful interaction with varied kind of people in life - accountants, lawyers, govt. officials, engineers, managers, building contractor etc. It requires an inherent drive in you. Something that you did or put together completely on your own, regardless of how much support you got from people around you - you just went on. Marketing requires understanding business fundamentally at the level of consumers and their needs. It calls for exceptional teamwork skills. You are after all going to work with people from different divisions to get, launch and milk products out in the market. These are of course, just examples and neither exhaustive nor prescriptive.

So think of stories from your life that provide

a) a sound basis for your interest and
b) proofs or display of the underlying skill required for that interest, from your past life.

This seemingly simple process can actually be quite difficult to pull off. When you plan to make a change in your career, your transferable skills are the ones that will take you there. For example, it's hard for engineers (me being one) to detach and think at an abstract level to make a transition to investment banking or marketing. (Well, what an irony that engineers - the nuts and bolts guys - don't really understand the nuts and bolts of what makes them!) As you think of your transferable skills, there is really no alternative to introspection and almost brainwashing yourself into thinking that you are made for it.

Extra-curricular activities and community service
More than considering them as a "check" in a form, you should try and see what you got out of them. If you were involved in such activities, think why. What do you bring to the school from that experience? Can you tie your career aspirations and future to that? What aspects of your character and personality are attached to your involvement? To make that link (of these activities to your character), you will have to dig deep. You did it for some reason - only you probably don't realize it. Even if you did it only because your parents forced you into it, you would have definitely got something out of it. If you can start thinking on these lines, you can tie a nice story together that portrays your character.

Readiness for MBA
I guess every school has some form of assessing an applicant's 'readiness' for MBA. If they do not understand your short and long term goals, it means you fell short of articulating them. You are in the marketplace to sell an idea. From the time you think of getting an MBA, you need to keep narrowing your focus and building a good story. Talk to your friends and instigate them to challenge your thoughts. Let them poke holes in your idea of your future.

Here's a trick. I am a firm believer of healthy and intellectual discussions - sometimes even just for the heck of it! So when you are sitting at your favourite restaurant for dinner with your friends from office, challenge them about the work you are doing. Say things that are mildly provocative about the life you all are living. ("Doing R&D is hardly a life to live"! "I would rather sit at home than take one more sales call"! :-)) Well they might beat you up... but the more likely outcome is that they will retaliate verbally and you will have successfully instigated a discussion. They will challenge you, try to prove you wrong - all the while defending their own career choices. The more you discuss and argue, the more things will make sense to you. You will start getting more meaningful answers to your own questions and will be able to articulate them better. In the process, you will end up completely convincing yourself about your MBA. After a while, you won't be able to imagine not doing an MBA. That's readiness for MBA.

Lastly, I would say that perseverance is everything. There is no right age for MBA and people reach 'readiness' at different times. An engineer would find it harder to be MBA-ready than a financial analyst or salesperson. You will join school and might see someone much younger than you understands "business" better than you! That's the way it is.

The most important thing to realize is that there is no straight answer to anything in management - and indeed in MBA. Not GMAT, not interview, not essay, nothing can get you in by itself. It's all in the story! Try and make a story and talk to as many people as you can to expand, contract and mend your story as you go along. It's a very enriching experience.

And while you are at it, watch this interesting talk by Seth Godin to Google about marketing and making stories:

http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-6909078385965257294&q=seth+godin&hl=en

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Conducting a successful off-campus search: An Indian perspective

I know for most people, off-campus search is something that the "few others" do. Business school, that too a top-ranked one is supposed to have a career center that can take care of bringing companies, and so many of them, that you won't really have to go out of the school looking for a job. Most people think that way, I certainly thought that way, and I think it is natural to think that way. Here is the point of this post: As you join a business school, be prepared to go off-campus, because you will be doing off-campus searches... and a whole lot of it. The good news is, in hindsight, it is not really as daunting as it seems; it is a matter of applying some brute force, and then some... This is especially true in a good industry situation as today. (No idea how it would be or would have been during tough times, but I can only think it will be the same to a higher degree!)

Let me start with a short story.

A man walks into a low-ceiling office with rows of tiny cubicles shared by many people. He is wearing a badly-ironed white shirt and a trouser with straight pockets. He crosses over and at the end of the row is a desk with a receptionist sitting with papers strewn all over the desk, phone almost hanging out from her table. The man walks up to her and says "I am here for the sales executive interview from the newspaper". The receptionist looks up and gives a bored look, asks him his name and jots it down. Maintaining the same expression in her face, she points behind him. The man turns around and suddenly realizes that there is a small waiting area behind him, almost full with people!

He takes his seat, next to a stout, smiling bloke wearing a crisp suit who strikes up a conversation almost instantaneously. Within precisely 5 seconds, it is made abundantly clear that our protagonist is sitting next to and idiot! After what seems to be an eternity, the bloke's name is called out. He enters through a door and comes out smiling after a few minutes. He leaves the area, wearing a triumphant look on his face and waving a final goodbye to our friend. Our friend's name gets called next and he enters the office. It is a tidy little office, with brown wooden furniture and he takes the empty seat opposite a middle aged, unshaven man.

After what seems like a very productive interview, where our guy rattles off a series of stellar achievements from his college, prompting vigorous nods of approval from the man, the man finally says, "Look Mister, your achievements are really great and you are a great candidate for this job. However, I cannot extend you an offer". The expression on our man's face turns into disappointment and then quickly into quiet rage. He points at the man and says, "I see how it is! You are giving this job to that jerk, aren't you? Why are you doing this? Because he was recommended by someone you know? Because he has the money and the resources to pull strings?" In a fit of rage, he rushes out of the office, angry with the whole system, angry with himself to have even tried.

This is an all-too familiar scene from many Bollywood movies of the seventies, when movie makers finally came down to topics dealing with Indian masses from the elitist and westernized characters in the sixties movies. The dreaded word in that era was "Sifarish" (Recommendation, referral). It was how the bad guys and the un-deserving lot got their jobs. There was no place on this planet for the well-deserving, academics-cracking, outgoing and smart graduates.

The reason I bring this all-too-familiar and dramatic (maybe over the edge) scene is that all of us Indians have been brought up with these images in our mind. Reaching out to people to make relationships that might bear fruit later on in life is wrong. Asking a favor is accepting your inability to do it on your own! And getting a job through recommendation? Sacrilegious!

Life as a business school student will strike at the very foundation of this value system. No longer is the referred candidate a symbol of un-deserving, rich kid, who can pull his weight around and displace a perfectly meritorious candidate from a position that he was born for! That referred candidate is you, a perfectly meritorious, outgoing and smart individual. As one of my good American friends here said, "No one is going to give you a dollar 10 million business unless he knows you well". Knowing you is not knowing personally, but seeing your commitment to the professional relationship that you have developed with him or her.

When I started at Fuqua, my biggest frustration (and so of other Indians here and perhaps other communities as well) was how to get around this networking business. Many a time, you feel awkward about contacting someone and setting up a phone call to talk about his or her background and experience in the company. For the first two terms, many of us avoided the thing completely. It is extremely uncomfortable to make a connection with a stranger and then maintain it. Reaching out is probably one phrase you will hear again and again all through your recruitment season. The truth is, most of us Indians are not wired to do it. We rely in the old-style exams and objective interviews. Not any more.

A common adage here is that anyone here can do the job that you applied for! While that statement is definitely a stretch, there are two elements that this statement captures. One, there are defnitely many people who are very qualified to do that job. Two, your predisposition to do that job. It's not that anyone doubts your ability to do it, but are you really inclined to do it? Given perfect conditions, would you still pick that job? Or is it even one of the top 2-3 choices that you would make? Given the choices and options that an MBA from a top school has in front of him or her, will you stick around because you are really interested, or will you defect? What is it that you want to do in the long run that makes this job relevant to you?

What I have said so far is not schmoozing. It is simple, proactive relationship building. Schmoozing is not something that is expected of everyone (except banking, but I am not the expert in that. I am merely relating what I have heard). You certainly don't have to schmooze in order to do good networking. Networking is about relationships; genuine ones. As an Indian, ask yourself if you can strike up and sustain a decent conversation with a stranger... only remember the following: they don't know Cricket, you don't know (or don't care about if you are me) about Baseball or Football. You have a very sketchy idea about US geography and no idea about the weather here. Talking about family is a no-no, about friends is... nah... what else? Marketing and Strategy, it sounds stupid coming out of a first year student; Dhirubbhai Ambani, Amitabh Bachchan? nah... Quality of Airtel connection in your house? Your schooling? Booooring! You see where I am going with this.

There are things you can talk about: Travel, hollywood movies perhaps, ummm... help me out here, will you?

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

This is it. Last few days as an FY!

This is our last week of classes for this year. 4 terms, 9 months, 15 courses and upwards of 75 cases have gone by. I know I want to write something, but there isn't really much to write. I can talk about courses, but I guess I will do it later.

As I sit to write, I have no idea what to write about. I enjoyed writing all this while. Suddenly, it doesn't seem as much fun. I have become comfortable with the MBA life, have made friends here, know the ropes and things no longer seem surprising or even shocking as they used to! I wrote about parties, about singing, about courses that were so different from what I had learned so far, and about life at Fuqua that was so different from what I had been used to.

Suddenly, I am at home here. I am at an equilibrium again. Even the dreaded N-word seems to have lost its luster. We are the rising SYs now. I guess if you read from my very earlier posts to this one, you will notice that they have changed not merely in the topics, but also in their very nature. Fuqua Days! was about the life at an MBA school, the life of late nights, assignments submissions, classrooms, case discussions, parties, career planning, company presentations, seemingly unrelated and unconnected courses and diversity of students. Some of my recent posts have been quite off-topic, as I get on with my life here. Yes there are parties going on (as a matter of fact, almost a party a day with all the clubs wanting to exhaust their budget before year end), but they are always going on. I love it, but I am home.

I guess I will keep posting in my SY as well, but those will be quite different. I don't think they will be as dramatic as some of the posts so far. They will be about life of an SY (duh! of course) but what I mean is, they will be (and I hate to say this) more advisory than "you know what happened today". I hope that doesn't piss people off! :-) Maybe I will change the name of this blog to Fuqua Ways!

So here's my last post... for year 1.

There is one core course that we are still taking, and it's Strategy. It is one of my most favorite courses. The cases are great, the profs. are great, the class discussions are intense and the course structure is really good as well. This afternoon, we submitted our last assignment, a 15 page Consultant's Report on a company of our choosing. The company we chose was Federated Department Stores, the owners of Macy's and Bloomingdale department store chains. I had a feeling that choosing a retail company was good for analysis, a great way to learn about customer mindset, supply chains, competition, product and so on but I never expected this to be so enriching! The industry is tough, the competitors are varied, the customers are diverse and supplier, simply numerous. Imagine the playground that we got!

The electives I have taken in this term are both marketing subjects; Marketing Intelligence and Product Management. One piece of advice that I have is that if you are looking at marketing, take marketing electives in term 4. I have seen people take MI and Corporate Finance in this term. While that will have its benefits, taking marketing subjects helps you make a case while interviewing that you are indeed serious about pursuing marketing in your career. The other argument is that you are looking at GM, so a finance and a marketing elective serve you well, but then you should pursue GM in that case.

That being said, Product Management is a very pure CPG-type marketing course. The discussions are mainly qualitative, revolving around customer value, packaging, promotion, advertising so on and so forth. I can totally see people simply not interested in such a soft course. It was a great course for me in the following sense: It gave me a good insight into American consumers and consumer companies. The amount of thinking that goes behind a product's packaging or a simple advertising is simply amazing and this course gives you a lot to talk about. If you are not the brand type of person, chances are you might be disappointed. This course lives and breathes brand management.

Marketing Intelligence is widely regarded as a must-take course for everyone in Fuqua. It's almost a core course in that respect. It goes behind the scenes of marketing. Analysing data, gaining insights, making hypothesis, driving conclusions and taking decisions, all based on information that you gather from your consumers, test markets and market research agencies. It is a good mix of quantitative and qualitative discussions. One of the profs. John Lynch, is a world renowned researcher in this area and his experience and expertise just shows as he teaches. All in all, very well-balanced, useful and enriching course.

This reminds me of something - It's almost 2 and I have an 8 AM MI class! I better get some sleep, I have a feeling John is going to cold call me...... (Life story of an MBA!)

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Good day for me!

I went out on stage, wearing 1950s style Tuxedo with a bowtie and belted out "Johnny B Goode" by Chuck Berry! The occasion was Fuqua Idol and the contestants were students. You have to believe me when I say this. The talent that students bring to school is simply amazing! I just don't have a word for it! One after another, they came and they sang absolutely amazing songs and you had to sit there and think, "What the hell are these people doing in a business school?" People sang some of the most difficult songs, Whitney Houston, Jewel, Bee Gees, Michael Jackson and more! It was something to remember. Oh and I forgot to mention one important thing! Tina (Attagirl) did my makeup, and my hairstyle was like the Elvis Presley one!

From what I hear, our batch is extra enthusiastic. I have heard this couple of times over the last one year. Last fall, when all of us were new to school, the number of applications that went in to fill cabinet positions was apparently crazy! SYs were blown away and had to create special rules for filtering coz. they could not even interview everyone who applied! But yesterday was something else! Singers, guitar players, drummers, it is inexplicable! People loved my song, but I didn't win the idol. I didn't even come close actually, but what can I say, I am in good company!! :-D

Lately, I have increasingly started thinking about the group I am part of today! Picture this. First, you pick one thing you are good at. You know you are good at it because people have told you multiple times that you are good at it. They encourage you and you nurture your strength, bask in its glory for a while. It is a magic wand that you use and things work out and you feel exhilarated! It gives you a high that can't be explained! Then it kinda gets boring, so you push yourself hard and try to do something else. You crack a couple of exams and interviews and stuff and you make it to a place like Fuqua. There, you meet many people who have struggled the same way you did.

As you settle down among the new group of people, you realize one fine day that the very strength that brought you here is not unique any more! You don't feel special any more... Well not for a while at least. You pick one skill of yours and you will see at least 10 more people having the same exact thing! It's uncanny! Well there are exceptions. Let me take an aside for a moment to explain. Yesterday afternoon, as I walked through the Fox student center, I saw an FY student playing a speed chess game with students. He is apparently a chess Grand Master or something. Students sat there with chess boards in front of them. This guy walked around playing them, one by one. As I walked past them, I thought to myself, "This guy (I happen to know him a little; He is a Russian, what do you know!!) must be feeling like he is on top of the world. At that moment, he must be like the most powerful man on the planet!" OK maybe not the most powerful, but pretty darn good, right? Later I heard that he defeated all of them! Not too surprising I guess. And I guess it is hard to admit 10 Grand Masters at Fuqua to "normalize" them, but I am sure that some day this past year, he must have had similar thought about some aspect other than chess where he felt he had something unique that has been snatched away from him.

What do you do now? You can't but feel helpless! Thankfully, the course and six week terms keep you away from thinking much about it, but it's still there. So you do something that comes as the most natural response. You try to innovate into a new niche! You work hard and build a new strength! You try to do something that would make you special again. But do most people do that? I guess that's what ambition is! They try their best at least. It's probably an addiction to be unique. It takes time and it takes considerable effort, but that's what you work on, over and over again! And each time you do this, you are evolving.

I say all this because we are pretty close to finishing off first year and a new batch is going to join the schools of their choice. "I closed my eyes in September. I opened it and it is April." But a lot of things happened in between. Studies was part of it. Of course I learnt a little bit of marketing, a touch of strategy, managerial effectiveness and economics, but it is the people that I met, the people that I felt envious of, the people that I never knew existed on this planet and the people that made me boring that I learnt the most from. I think the school that can make you the most boring is the best school to go to!

There is another piece of news. When I was rehearsing the song in Geneen [Auditorium], I felt the phone vibrate in my pocket, but I let it go into voice mail. When I checked, it was a call from a company I interviewed with that morning. It's marketing and it's telecommunications devices and I am thrilled! Later in the evening, I sang a song in front of the school, all dressed up and groovy!! :-D Yes, it's been a good day for me, but in way more ways than just getting an offer or singing a song! It's the realization that I am in good company (no pun intended)!

Friday, April 07, 2006

The Blue Devil Weekend and MBA Games Weekend

This has been one crazy week! We had 3 big assignments due in 3 subjects and all of them due on Thu and Fri, so you can imagine! Term 4 is elective term for people who did not exempt any courses and you work with new people. It's great to get to work with some new people, but thankfully, it's good to know that the other people are as good as others in your section.

Last weekend was Blue Devil Weekend, where a bunch of admits from all over the country (and some from outside) landed in droves to Fuqua to see what Fuqua is all about! As far as I can tell, BDW was being planned since Janurary and was probably one of the biggest event for the school and for the admissions. It was awesome to meet the new batch and I hope most the people I met would join us in August! Some admits put together videos, there are pictures, good times overall! We partied at night and they sat through some sessions during day time (hopefully not too boring, lest we scare them off!)! I wasn't here for BDW last year, so I have no idea what they must have gone through! ;-) But it's hard to believe that we are wrapping up first year (Half an MBA??)! One of my new Strategy team mates said it best, "It's like you closed your eyes in September. You opened it, and it's April"!

(OK I left the post at that a few days ago and am picking it up from here)

After a relatively quiet term 3, this term is proving to be quite the opposite! I guess everyone is rushing to get one last streak of partying done before they leave for summer or for a long time, or the new leadership is in full form. After BDW at the beginning of this month, we had MBA games the next week. Unfortunately, I could not manage to attend the games (had a bad headache and stuff) but I did attend the Friday kick-off event right after the Fuqua Friday. Fuqua Vision had put together a great show for visiting students from many schools. The ones I remember are Michigan, Ivey, Wharton, Harvard, Stern, Tuck and UNC... and then some more. The teams from these schools (including Duke) had to perform a cheer and a panel of judges gave prizes for the top 3. I think Ivey won the first prize and Wharton 2nd. I don't remember the 3rd prize, but I remember Tuck put on a great show! The Fuqua Vision then took over and it was one of the best FV shows I have seen!

In case you are wondering what Fuqua Vision is, it's a club that takes the day to day stuff from student life and puts up skits, shows and parodies once every term, at the end of term, and at important events like BDW, MBA Games and such. Apart from being a fun show where we make fun of ourselves, it's also a great medium of feedback to the administration from the students! Staplers don't work in the lab, be assured someone somewhere is putting together a nice little jingle and skit to make a point! Now it's a different story that we oftentimes get the dean, admissions head and professors participating and those shows are runaway hits! Who wouldn't like the dean playing Gandalf from the Lord of the Rings and the admissions head playing the Queen. No kidding!

It's amazing how these students take time out to put such grand shows, but we sure know how to make fun of ourselves! Now that's what we do on normal days, but having students from so many schools was too tempting for the FV crew I guess! FV made fun of all the schools, including Duke (of course, it's student run, what do you expect?! ;-)) The spoof on Tuck was awesome!! I wish I could go to the events and stuff, but anyway.... There is more coming! ;-)

This week, we have Fuqua Idol! I guess you guys guessed what it is. It's a year-end show put up by the Fuqua Music club. I don't quite know how many participants there are, but I know moi is one of them! ;-) I am singing an old rock n' roll song, but I won't let the secret out so soon... :-) We'll see how it goes. If I'm spared by the audience and I live to write about it......

Sunday, March 26, 2006

The evolution and potential of Cuban music

This is from my paper on the origins of Cuban music and what makes it so powerful. I wrote this as part of the Cuba GATE course, so this has nothing to do with Fuqua as such, except that I got this opportunity to explore Cuban music while I am here! To all the music lovers out there...


As we sat outside at a plush restaurant in Havana one sunny afternoon, three musicians, wearing colorful Hawaii-style shirts, started playing what struck me as traditional Cuban songs. What caught my immediate attention was the simplicity of the music. With two guitars and a pair of maracas (1) and use of vocal harmonics, they were able to convey a variety and depth that makes Cuban music so enticing. After listening to a few songs, there was no mistaking their talent. Needless to say, when the lead singer approached our table with a CD, I grabbed my opportunity and bought their recording for ten pesos. As I was exiting the restaurant, I proudly showed the new addition to my collection to our tour guide and he congratulated me at making a good selection. Little did I imagine that this local album would become one of the most precious items in my collection.

One week later, I took the help of a new singer friend, and burrowed through numerous Cuban CDs, looking for authentic Cuban music that could tell a story about Cuban music as it evolved, and I bought music albums covering Jazz, Trova and Son Cubano (2). Long after we returned from our trip, the music I heard in Cuba was ringing in my ears and these albums became part of my regular hearing. It is one of the richest forms of music I have come across. This tiny island boasts of a tradition of music that is old and cross-continental. The roots of Cuban music is in Europe and Africa. Cuba was a Spanish colony for many centuries and like America, imported a lot of African people as slaves. Both these cultures brought music with them and along with Jazz music from America in the early 20th century, formed what is the Cuban music of today.

The African influence in Cuban music is primarily in three important ways: the singing style, the percussions and the musical form. The African singing was nasal and was the case for a long time and became one of the characteristics of Afro-Cuban music. Later on, it became embedded in the form of vocal harmonics and in portions in modern day Cuban songs. The second significant impact that was also clearly observable was the unique use of percussions. Like many eastern music forms such as Arabic and Indian music, percussions and rhythm form an integral part of melody in Cuban music. The African slaves lacked string and wind instruments and necessity being the mother of invention in this case, the African slaves made innovative use of percussion instruments to form their melodies. This was further enhanced by clever use of syncopation (3). Finally, with respect to the form of the Afro-Cuban music, the typical structure of a Cuban song is based on a call and an answer. The vocalist starts a song by a call to the people of the village and the people answer him or her.

With increasing integration of Spanish invaders into the Cuban society, string and wind instruments became more available and the spirit of the Cuban people took the form of melodies in these instruments. The work of slaves in the sugarcane farms in Cuba parallels the work on cotton fields by the slaves in America and the birth of blues music. The Cuban slaves were well-fed because work on sugarcane farms required energy and strength, but it was a tiring job, much like work on cotton fields in the middle of the day. This fueled creativity and the Cubans took to Spanish instruments, and this is one of the most discernible portions of what we know as Cuban music today.

However, in the modern day, what makes Cuban music even more interesting is the Jazz influence from America. This was the final and one of the most important influences in the formation of today’s Cubano music. Today in Cuba, you can find Jazz that is significantly more melodic, like that of José Miguel Crego (4), but what is even more interesting is that the typical Latin American salsa and rumba rhythms are interrupted by Jazz-like formations. A classic example of this interesting feature is the mixing of solo piano or trumpet from time to time into what is largely Latin American rhythms of Maraca (5).

The American trade embargo on Cuba has significant ramifications for Cuban music. America has traditionally been the most influential market when it comes to music and cinema. Though many of the rock n’ roll bands of the 60s came from the United Kingdom, their success was considered complete only when they made a mark in the US market. The embargo, which is nearing 50 years, has essentially kept Cuban music out from this mix, and considering the pace of innovation in music in the last half a century, the face of music today would have been very different. On the other hand, much of the Latin American music is only picking up now and Cuba can still play a significant role in this very interesting evolution.

Cuban music largely served the local market all through the initial decades of the Cuban revolution in 1959. In the mid nineties, a phenomenon called the Buena Vista Social club came into being (6). It all started with Juan de Marcos González, who sought to bring together generations of Cuban and Afro-Cuban musicians and record an album (7). This was a huge success and Cuban music started getting recognition and acceptance all over the world. This was further fueled by the relaxation by Cuban government in the nineties to allow Cuban musicians to emigrate and spread the music outside. Today, musicians are increasingly traveling abroad in search for acceptance.

Musicians from outside world are also finding interest inside Cuba. The recent concert by Audioslave in Havana was a huge success and was attended by over 60,000 people. According to my singer friend who happened to sneak into the VIP section, it was loud and it stayed on in the minds of people for a long time. The concert a few months later by Air Supply was dull. It is little wonder that musicians wanting to sell inside Cuba will need to break into long established and extremely rich Cubano music culture.

The biggest barrier for outside music in entering Cuba, in my opinion, is overshadowing the essence and richness of the Cuban rhythm. This was more than evident in our interactions with Cuban people. We went to Havana clubs with a group of graduate students from the University of Havana. When a particularly popular hip-hop song started playing, one of the students turned to me and said, “I don’t like this song. The beat in this song is loud and boring and you just can’t dance to it, you know.” I understood immediately. It will take a whole lot more to move a Cuban to your rhythm.

(1) http://www.music-with-ease.com/maracas-pictures.html
(2) For more information on these forms, please read http://www.danzon.com/eng/history/cuban-music.htm
(3) Syncopation: A shift of accent in a passage or composition that occurs when a normally weak beat is stressed.
(4) http://www.soycubano.com/pena/musica/grecoi.asp
(5) http://www.ahinama.com/maraca.htm
(6) http://www.worldmusiccentral.org/article.php?story=20030418170803562&query=Juan%2Bde%2BMarcos%2BGonz%25E1lez
(7) http://www.jmk.su.se/global02/annalena/buena/cuba/histclub.htm

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Cuba GATE: Where I became a rock singer!



Shivesh singing 'sweet child of mine' with a band in Cuba!



Joanne helps with the bridge!

Opening the gates to Cuba

21 students went to Cuba over the spring break as part of the Global Academic Travel Experience (GATE) course at Fuqua. We spent about 8 days there, 6 in Havana and 2 in Varadero, a resort town. This is one trip that is going to stay on in my mind for a long time. Not only was it a very welcome break, it was also a trip where we learnt a lot and I personally learnt a lot about Cubans as well as Americans. The only two international students on this trip were me and a Japanese friend of mine. The trip was fantastic and I made some great friends in this trip. We have to submit a paper on our trip this week, elaborating general experiences, learning and observations as well as a specific topic of research, which in my case, is music.

As we reached Havana on a sunny afternoon, it immediately reminded me of Bombay, as I saw it in movies in the 1960s. We drove around the malecon, which looks identical to the Marine Drive in Bombay, with wide pavements and people sitting on the parapet wall separating the beautiful ocean from the city. It was not even close what I had expected, which was a backward city with narrow roads, age-old cars, visible poverty on the streets and generally dirty. Havana turned out to be a beautiful city with great historic structures and architectures, wide roads and generally, very clean. At places, the architecture was bizarre, telling tales of its turbulent past and influences from around the world.

One of the striking features of old Havana was the different color combinations of its buildings. No two buildings matched in color, but moreover, even the colors of windows and doors did not match the building color. So you would see an orange building with blue windows and doors and the building adjacent to it would be green in color. I wondered if this was because these buildings were from different era, or simply a matter of choice. I quickly learnt that it reflected the true nature of the Cuban culture, colorful, vibrant and full of contrast.

From there began our journey into one of the most vibrant countries I have visited and it reminded me again and again of India. Of course, Cuba holds a big mystery within due to its troubled relationship with US for almost half a century, and that only made it better as we tried digging to understand it. There are posters of Fidel Castro and Ernesto 'Che' Guevara almost everywhere, indicating that the government has a strong hold on businesses, media and many aspects of Cuban life. It's hard to draw a picture in mind of a country sitting at a five star hotel and traveling in luxury buses with the best guides, but many people have claimed that Cuba is stuck in a time warp. That would almost make anyone think that Cuba has stopped developing since 1959, when Fidel came to power. Is it true? How backward is Cuba, if at all?

We met government officials, businessmen, intellectuals, artists, scientists and local people. Perhaps the most insightful meeting we had was with a professor and editor of a magazine called Temas (Themes). This magazine is one of the avenues of expression for people and for them to discuss important issues in the society. The professor talked to us about Civil Society and what constitutes civil society. Churches, NGOs, media, unions etc., all come together to form civil society, which works with the state to guide the society to the right direction. As he spoke about Temas and the largely Marxist concepts of intellectuals engaging other intellectuals in debate to come to a decision for the common good, I couldn't help but think about Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky. My understanding of socialism is very limited, but I learnt an alternative way of governance. Cuba today reminded me of India in the 80s, when I was a boy, saw the only news channel run by the government, co-operative societies for crops production, huge barriers to entrepreneurship through licenses and virtually non-existent MNCs or MNCs that came as JVs. So is Cuba stuck in a time-warp? Yes, but the time-warp is in not nearly as remote period as we think. The fall of the soviet union was a big blow to the Cuban economy, and marks the failure of socialism and communism all over the world. It is no coincidence that countries like India opened up their economies and started a slow, but marked movement towards globalization in the 1990s. Cuba started doing the same in 1993 in their so-called 'Special Period'; the main difference is that it is still trying to keep both sides alive in its parallel economies of two currencies, one for tourism (convertible peso) and one for domestic industry.

For an average American entering Cuba today, the policies might seem so different that it will be easy to say that Fidel has betrayed Cuba. Has Fidel betrayed Cuba? He is a dictator, no doubt, but if you look a little deeper, Cuba has problems quite similar to India. I keep coming back to India because I see so many parallels that I am almost certain that most of Cuba's problems have hardly anything to do with the totalitarian regime, and more due to an age-old failed system of economy and governance, socialist policies and communism. In the face of capitalism and globalization, these systems did not stand a chance, and in my opinion, will be wiped out of the face of the planet.

So what did Fidel do right? Definitely couple of things in my opinion. Cuba has a modest infrastructure, has a stellar literacy rate (97%), which beats even the US and is supposed to have great healthcare. These are not mean achievements considering a strong embargo and antagonism from the neighboring US. We visited a biotechnology research center in Havana and the gentleman we met there was one of the most bright and humorous person I have come across. He introduced us to the various researches being done in a string of facilities across the country. In a country that is run by intellectuals, this comes as little surprise. Soviet Union had cutting edge research establishments and India, thanks to its Nehruvian socialism of 50s and 60s, also boasts of world class research and teaching establishments like the IITs, IIMs, IISc, BARC and many more. Cuba is no different. These are direct consequences of intellectuals running your country. It is still a completely different issue if this is sustainable or even fair to you as a citizen.

US slapped a trade and travel embargo on Cuba in the year 1962 and the embargo is still in effect. As it stands today, only three countries voted against the U.N. resolution calling for the US to end the Embargo, The Marshall Islands, Israel, and the US of course. During the Cold War era, US and Cuba had a fallout and in the age of strong polarization, Cuba became a Russian ally. As is often the case with politics, there is no point in discussing who was right, who was wrong, or even what was cause and what was effect. Did alienation from US led Cuba towards USSR or did the communist policies of Cuba led US to take strong actions against it? I don't know the answer, but what matters today is that the embargo does not make sense. However, I can understand that US cannot lift the embargo from Cuba without losing face. During the last 4 decades, US has built an image of Cuba as a country drowned in troubles due to the dictatorial and totalitarian oppression. Of course, if I might say so carelessly, dictatorship comes with its fair share of oppression, but from what we have learnt in this trip, Fidel doesn't seem to have squeezed his people to pocket money for himself.

There is significant discontent with the archaic policies of Fidel, but there doesn't seem to be a very concerted dissident activity in Cuba, just small groups spread here and there. Given these dynamics, everyone seems to be waiting to see what will happen after Fidel. Fidel has appointed his brother as the Vice President, who can constitutionally take charge after the President, but only time will tell what happens. The US will play a large role (wanted or unwanted) most certainly in the decision and will probably get a good excuse (or valid reason, depending on your perspective) to lift the embargo. What will it mean for Cuba? How is the embargo affecting Cuba today?

US likes to say that the embargo is successful and that it is cornering the Cuban government. In reality, that's hardly the case and Cuba has almost rest of the world to play with. Of course, not having a huge market such as US for tourism and trade means a lot for a small country like Cuba, but it certainly didn't topple any governments in the past and is certainly not going to in the near future.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Our platform for Music Club presidency



Our beautiful and colorful platform for the music club presidency!!

Saturday, March 04, 2006

More 'stuff' (& end of term 3)

I have so many things that I have been thinking to write about that I didn't really have a better title. Of course, it has been a busy time, with term 3 'n all. There are courses, elections, interviews, fellows programs, spring break, GATE trips, and then some more stuff.

Term 3 is over, there is one more final exam on Monday. I wrote earlier about the courses, Operations, Managerial Accounting and Decision Modelling. We are done with MA and DM so far. MA was a subject that was extremely boring and at the same time, very useful for general managers. We learnt about cost accounting in an organization, which means how the many costs incurred by an organization are allocated to the different products that they produce and all the challenges associated with incentive schemes, transfer pricing, peer interactions etc. associated with it. Decision Models is an awesome subject, and you learn tools that help you make complex decisions and optimize your actions. Operations was operations, so throughput time, inventory, queuing etc. Both operations and DM had a particularly great course structure. Term 3 had some really useful courses for managers in general.

The elections for most clubs and positions are over. Pallavi and I stood for Music club and General Management Club (GMC), and lost both! :-( But we lost to worthy competitors and it was fun to sit and make the platforms for these elections and to think through ideas that we would have liked to implement next year. The experience itself is so great that I recommend that every student should stand for at least 1 presidency. It helps you think through a lot of stuff that were done last year and what could be done and improved next year. Anyway, so that was on elections. I have applied to couple of fellows program and have interviewed for career fellow. I am looking forward to those roles as they seem very interesting and something that can be quite satisfying to yourself.

There is not much to write about internship search and interviews, and while that might seem surprising, it's just that it's going on as a process on the side! The market is looking up from last year we are told and that does seem to be the case. Companies come and companies go, and you get excited about the role for couple of days as you research and you apply to the positions, then you give your interview and wait for results. There is nothing really much to write about it, if you know what I mean!

Spring break is coming up and I am going to Cuba!! The Global Academic Travel Experience (GATE) trips are a great way to explore new countries that you are interested in for whatever reason. This is one of the trips where every time I say I am going to Cuba on GATE, the standard response is, "Cuba!? Why Cuba?" The only way I can answer that is to point people towards the speech given by Steve Jobs of Apple at Stanford, "Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish" and his concept of 'connecting the dots'. Cuba seems like an interesting place, great music and a great way to learn another aspect of US foreign policies. I can't say what 'hard' stuff I have learnt, but I leave for Cuba on Tuesday and hope to have a great time there, meet some government representatives, business men and artists. Maybe this dot will connect somehow to my life and career in future.

One interesting thing that I wanted to cover was something called a 'plant tour' organized by GMC this term to help with the operations course. Some of us signed up to go and visit a manufacturing plant nearby and see how they apply the operations concepts we learnt in classroom in real life. The company we visited was Eaton, a car parts manufacturer and the experience was simply fantastic! We saw a small 'thing' called 'Lash adjuster' that goes into the car's engine and releases the right amount of fuel into the engine. We saw how two basic tubes were cut to size, the metal being ground and heat treated, and so many more small operations that led to final assembly of parts to make a part that's the size smaller than my palm and is supremely important to the working of a car. I can almost understand now why some people are so passionate about operations. It's so interesting to see a product coming out of an assembly line!

So that's the stuff that we have been up to here and it's been a very different term from the last two. I can't quite explain it, but for me, it was a cakewalk after term 2, though there are people who found term 2 quite alright (I don't know which planet they are from!! :-)) The fact that we are finally well settled into our lives and have made some friends also helps. But I have to put in the word that term 2 was stuff that ghost stories are made of! We were roaming the corridors of the school like a bunch of zombies and I thought about 'Snapshots from Hell' by Peter Robinson on more than one occasion. I still maintain that if you are a person who has not taken any kind of accounting course at all in life, take a basic book-keeping course before coming to Fuqua at least (I am not sure how it is in other schools, but something tells me they aren't going to be much more forgiving either! ;-)) You will be thankful for your decision many times over! 6-week accounting is your worst nightmare come true.

Anyway, I digressed, so let me come back to the topic. But oh right! We don't have a topic, do we? Well, so term 3 is over. I liked to say that we are a 'quarter of an MBA' at the end of term 2, but for the end of term 3, I don't have a fancy name; just that things are cruising along, term 3 was a little light on extra-curricular activities overall too. It was the old leadership's last term and I guess they were tired too. The new leadership is all set to take over the clubs in term 4, and the SYs have put their feet up (in all the sense of the phrase! :-)) I wonder how it will be next time this year! Sad, sad, sad...

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Corporate Strategy as a career; case interviewing

I came to Fuqua wanting to do strategy or marketing and that was as clear as I was in my head. I spoke to people around and one advice by an operations professor who I spoke to at the India GATE trip of students was particularly useful, even if I understand it well only today (and of course, I am still learning!).

Strategy requires a decent understanding of the industry that you work in. In the conversation, this was the only sentence and it immediately made sense. Now I look back and think I was quite ignorant to have not known this simple thing, but I figured if I was ignorant, maybe there must be others out there! :-D Strategy requires taking all the inputs that a manager gets from the environment, analyzing them thoroughly, thinking through all the consequeces and interplays, building simulations, analyzing competitor responses (this is crucial), analyzing impact on customers and brand due to that decision and so on. Each industry, of course, has its peculiarity, and that's what makes it tough.

Every one of us has seen industries, products, companies from outside. We sometimes miss the complexity and sometimes we wonder how it works (What was Bill Gates thinking when he bought DOS?)! Most often, if you think either way (something is too simple or something is unbelievable), there is of course, a middle ground. The things that make strategy complex are probably the following (and there could be more!); competitive environment, customer preferences, company's culture and capabilities (the 3 C's of marketing), supplier relationships, distribution channels, logistics and operations, product positioning and perception, price dynamics (competitive price or with premium) and so on. If you drill into each of these, you will get into the 'muck' of things and your decisions will closely affect each of these aspects of your company. So my take is (and take this with a pinch of salt) is that if you want to jump into strategy or an industry, make yourself 'ready' to talk about these things specific to that industry. If you have been a production engineer or software engineer or have been a pharma salesperson, you will know the answers to these difficult questions in your respective industries. But what if you want to switch or simply open up your options?

Consulting case interviews are a great tool for that. Before the consulting interviews, people practice doing 20-50 cases and they challenge themselves to answer these questions in an interview setting with friends and classmates. As you struggle through these questions, you start thinking deeper into these dynamics. Consulting is a big avenue for doing strategy work in the corporate. A lot of top consulting firms focus heavily on strategy of course. Their interviews are case-based precisely to gauge your understanding of business dynamics. In the case, they try to reduce the noise due to industry dynamics, but they do challenge you to think what might be true about that industry. It's a great experience.

A lot of corporates also hire people for their strategy team and from what I see so far, even General Management interviews for strategy have cases, though not as full-fledged as what consulting companies do. They want to see how you think and do you think of enough factors and understand the implications. So in my opinion, it is a good idea for a wide range of people to do consulting case preparations. And if you are coming from a non-business background (engineering, military, research, teaching and so on), it is especially helpful. I have seen people here who come out of a GM interview saying 'He gave me a case (#&#&##!!)! I have not really practiced cases, so I just managed that questions somehow'. After a bit of digging, it turns out to be a 'mini-case' where the interviewer asks something like 'if you are running a grocery store and Walmart comes an opens a store near you, what will you do?' or 'if you want to bring a new product to market, how will you go about identifying key factors and doing market research?'. If a person does a few cases, these questions can become really easy, but if you have never 'thought through' these things before, its tough, especially inside an interview room!

In fact, I would also like to take it a step further, that case interviews are good to practice even for some marketing interviews. Corporate world is full of ex-consultants and they love giving cases. Everyone in the corporate world wants to see how you can unravel a business problem. They also would like you to talk in a flow instead of struggling to come up with an answer. If they ask, 'what are some of the factors you would consider', you have to give some 10 factors one after the other, neatly knitting them into a sentence and without struggling to think of each 'aspect' that he or she is asking. Most often, people start rambling, repeating themselves, looking at that vacuum next to interviewers head to think hard about an aspect, freezing (believe me, all those things happen in an interview, but no one would like to admit of course! :-)) It's really as simple or as complicated as that and case interviews are a great way to gain that 'depth' and 'practice' talking about 'business aspects' in a confident manner and coherent flow. So if you think that case interviews are only for consultants, think again. In my opinion, 'case interviews' is just a fancy name for it; call it 'business aspects questions' if you like or 'my-job-simulated-in-half-hour'!

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Job in UK? Internship in the UK?

Since I thought about doing an MBA, I had thought about the option of doing it from UK/Europe. In the end however, I came to Fuqua (for good reasons). However, ever since I came here, I toyed with the idea of interning in UK. I didn't know where to begin though. I did not have a work permit for UK, and even if there were ways to get it, would any company would process your work permit for a 3-month internship? Definitely not.

So in my free time (precious free time! :-D), I browsed around looking for options to do an internship in UK. There were many questions. How can I enter UK? How can I convince companies of my interest in UK? Is there a way for me to work in UK for 3 months and come back? How do I go about getting a visa without a job offer from UK company? It was a chicken and egg problem. Should I look for a company that might be interested in me first, get an offer, and then go to the UK consulate with that? Or should I first get some visa in which I can work and then go with that visa and look for an internship? The latter seemed more feasible of course. If I can pull that off, I can technically check the box "Have necessary work authorization to work in UK" and then of course, I get a level playing field for job opportunities in UK along with work permit holders and citizens.

So I looked around some more, found an appropriate visa, and succeeded in the process! And the least I can say is that I am THRILLED! Part of the reason I am thrilled is that I have been to UK before on visits and I love the country, its pubs, music, people, diversity, literature, culture! In addition to that, it is the fact that I am now technically eligible to work in the UK for up to 1 year! I still don't know how feasible it is to get a job in UK, but nevertheless, trying this option out was really really fun!

So here are the mechanics. I don't quite know where to start, so let me start at the beginning and give some background. UK has something called the Highly Skilled Migrant Program (HSMP). (If you know about this, hold on a second because this is not the solution to doing an internship there). This is a migrant program for people with certain set of skills that might be useful to UK. To read more about this program, you can visit:

http://www.workingintheuk.gov.uk/working_in_the_uk/en/homepage/schemes_and_programmes/hsmp.html?
"The programme is designed to allow highly skilled people to migrate to the United Kingdom to look for work or self-employment opportunities.... The Highly Skilled Migrant Programme is different from the work permit scheme because you do not need a specific job offer in the UK to apply."

So I guess you get the gist. What's more? There is something called the MBA provision in HSMP. Read:

http://www.workingintheuk.gov.uk/working_in_the_uk/en/homepage/schemes_and_programmes/hsmp/mba_provision.html?

"The 2004 Budget announced a new provision for graduates of 50 top business schools to work in the UK for up to 12 months on completing their MBAs. This provision is now part of the Highly Skilled Migrant Programme (HSMP)."

Needless to say, Duke University is part of this "list". So, in essence, after an MBA from one of these universities, you can apply for this migrant program and walk in freely into UK! But WAIT A MINUTE: It says "on completing their MBAs" above. So technically, you can't avail of this opportunity until you pass out of the program. I am looking for internship and clearly, I don't think this clause will help. Before I move on, here is a link that lists these universities and has more information about this clause:

http://www.workpermit.com/uk/hsmp/mba_provision

(The only unfortunate thing is that there is no Indian university listed there, not even IIMs, so I hope UK government adds at least a couple from India) :-(

PART II

OK, so that was about the MBA clause of HSMP. And it is useful if you are interested in working in UK.

For internship, I explored the visa site and came across a visa called Working Holiday Maker. Under this visa, you can stay in the UK for up to 2 years and during your stay, to support yourself, you can work for up to 1 year. Here is a website with more information:

http://www.workingintheuk.gov.uk/working_in_the_uk/en/homepage/schemes_and_programmes/working_holidaymaker.html?

"You can stay in the UK for up to two years as a working holidaymaker, in line with the validity of your visa... You must intend to take work in the UK only as an incidental part of your holiday, so you must intend to spend no more than 12 months working, and to spend the rest of your stay on holiday."

Two important conditions (please check the above website for the exhaustive list) are that you should be from one of commonwealth countries (I know India is one of them) and that you should be between the ages of 17 and 30 to apply. The list of commonwealth nations is given in:

http://www.ukvisas.gov.uk/servlet/Front?pagename=OpenMarket/Xcelerate/ShowPage&c=Page&cid=1006977150124

My idea was simple. I want to go to UK during summer and do my internship there to support myself. It is 3 months, it's a fantastic time to visit UK (I think, with the nice summer sunshine and weather!) The next question was to look at the Fuqua alumni list and see if I can get contacts in UK to apply for jobs. I found a reasonable amount of Fuqua alumni in UK and went ahead and applied for the visa.

I heard back from the consulate today and my visa has been approved! Now I can check that checkbox in job sites and hopefully will have a better chance. Here are the logistics: (Please note that these might change depending on your country of current residence. I applied from here in US and this is the process from here. From other countries, there would be of course slightly different procedures)

Website: http://www.visa4uk.fco.gov.uk/
Cost: ~$200 (Again, in US at least, but it should be same everywhere I would think)
Split:
App. Fee - $162
If you apply by post:
Postal charge (for returning passport to you) - $12
Postage charge (to send your material to UK consulate by UPS/FedEx) - ~$20
Main documents:
Passport
US stay document (like I94, H1, green card etc.)
Bank statements to support your application and financial strength (3 months statement)

That's it!

I am hoping that with this visa, I can go ahead and apply to UK companies for internship. Most companies hire for internship with your long-term intentions in mind, so if you have JUST this visa, then they might say "OK you can work for us for 3 months, but if we like you, what next? We will have to process your work permit for UK once you pass out".... and that might not be necessarily what they want to do. Here is where the HSMP clause kicks in. If they like me and I like them, I can get the HSMP status and go and work for them! So this theoritically makes me as good a candidate as anyone else.

I am not even sure if I will apply for positions in UK, now that I have this visa. However, it is an option for me now. As I come across good companies and good roles, I would like to use it and just might spend my summer at a great country!! :-) Cheers mate!

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Leadership transition to FY

So the second year students are going to be here only for a couple of more months. I can't believe more than half our first year is already over! They said it will rush past like no one's business, and boy it did! We are already halfway past the third term and lots of interesting stuff happening around in school. The MBA Association elections are over and we have new President and Vice-President to lead the MBAA next year. For the rest of the term, they will work with current presidents to take over the reigns from them. The elections were held last week. Two of my ILE team mates ran for the post, but unfortunately lost. I do have an ILE team that's absolutely awesome. (ILE team, for those new here, is the 5-member team you get assigned to, to work with during first year). I am fortunate to have an ILE team that has my section representative and these two awesome people who stood for MBAA!

Many clubs are also now having their elections to select their leaders for next year. I guess I got a little influenced by my powerhouse of an ILE team and am standing for a couple of posts myself, though I don't think I can disclose what exactly here right now. (It's not really a secret, but Fuqua is a no-campaign environment for student elections and it would be inappropriate! :-)). We have some tough competition and spent half a day over last weekend working on something called the 'platform' for elections. It is essentially a 1-page 'advertisement' that is submitted to the current presidents and which is put up on the notice board for club members to see what the new leadership plans to do next year in the club. So it's fun! I know a lot of people are bogged with term 3 and internship search, but working on this platform was totally fun and we'll see how it goes in the next couple of weeks.

In addition to the club leadershp, there are 'fellows' programs who are selected by various groups in the school. The fellows are: Leadership fellow, admissions fellow, career fellow, executive fellow and marcomm fellows. Some are paid, and some of these are not, but they are all great ways for SY students to get involved. As far as I know, all of them are selected through and application and interview process. I don't know intimately about each of these, but but here is the brief:

Leadership fellows: They run projects throughout the school, that have to do with improving leadership in Fuqua. I think the projects are varied and have a lot to do with conducting activities, workshops, working with MBAA and administration to help with leadership initiatives across the business school. They also work with FY ILE teams and facilitate feedback and periodic reviews of the working of the team and iron out issues, if any.

Admissions fellows: AFs are involved in admissions process. A subset of them travel around the country to conduct information sessions. They also interview prospective candidates. It is supposed to be the more time consuming job, with 45 minute interviews and another 45 minutes easily to write the review of the candidate. The crunch times are terms 2 and 3 and it definitely is a cool paid position. The AF travel team traveled internationally this year, thanks to increased applications from Asia and the alums there struggling with the load!

Career fellows: Career fellows work with FY students. Their essential job is to review resumes, review cover letters and conduct mock interviews for FY students. While AF I think impacts the school on the outside, career fellow is a much more in-school thing. It is of paramount importance I think because it takes FY students through the whole job search and a lot of scope of really helping people out.

Executive and Marcomm fellows: I don't know much about these and Marcomm is a relatively new fellows program. Marcomm deals with external marketing and communication of Fuqua. The brand of a bschool is extremely important to it, and marcomm, I think is a great way for students to take part in controlling that to whatever extent. Executive fellows, again from the little I know, help organize the Distinguished Speaker Series, where top leaders from top companies around the world come to Fuqua to talk on a subject. We had some great talks this year so far by UPS, Deloitte and few more (I know those 2, coz. those are couple of the DSS I attended and really liked!). It's probably a great post for people who have passion for contacting and hearing from industry leaders!

I am quite keen on career fellows program, AF, and Marcomm (though I don't quite well know the role much yet). Marcomm will probably have an information session soon that will give us an idea. It is probably not very easy to get into one of these. There seems to be fair amount of competition for these 'fellowships', probably more than club activities. They are quite prestigious I believe and maybe also probably because some of them are paid positions.
One thing that really catches my attention is that things move so fast here! We are about 3 months away from end of year and things are already happening! I signed up today for help with Blue Devil Weekend, the admissions weekend of Fuqua in beginning April where all the prospective students come and Fuqua shows them what it is!! :-) I was not able to attend BDW when coming to Fuqua, but it is supposed to be a weekend long party, true Fuqua style and some great activities for the incoming class. Beginning term 4, we will have new presidents of MBAA, new leaderships for all clubs, the second years would probably already be 'checked-out' of school! :-) We would be tumbling over to replace them! Wasn't it yesterday that I was sitting at Geneen, listening to some of the speeches by SYs and administration welcoming us to Fuqua and what not?! :-)

In case you are thinking what happened to partying at Fuqua, I am running over to one right now and will catch you guys later!

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Of career switchers and job search

This is a loaded topic in all sense of the word. The internship search by FY students has started in full swing. A certain percentage of the class has been placed already and the rest of us are looking. Needless to say, it is a time of uncertainties, anxieties and frustrations.

They come in various forms. Some people are walking away with multiple offers, some have interviewed with many companies but without success, some have resorted to off campus searches and yet others have not even got calls from companies for interviews, and some are slamming brakes on their existing pursuit to look for jobs in areas that they did not originally plan to work in.

This is a particularly difficult topic to cover. Emotions are running high, the career management center is trying to keep up, but no amount can really be sufficient. Come to think of it, placing 426 students in jobs is probably a pretty huge task. On top of it, international students (i.e. w/o work authorization for US) find even lesser options, as many companies would rather stick to people with auth than muck their hands with lawyers and papers. It is true that you don't need work auth to do internship, but these companies after all, do plan to hire you after internship. So it matters.

So how bad is it for international students? Where I am looking from, it's not easy. Maybe tomorrow, I will look back at it and say that it was part of the game. In the end, I guess people will get placed more or less where they want. When I say more or less, it's statistics, isn't it? But people are more than a data point. There will be people who get internship in areas they don't really want. And it is especially tough for career changers. A guy coming from engineering and wanting to go to (my favourite :-)) Wall street has a hard time justifying his contribution to the company. A corporate finance aspirant was asked "What work will you do as part of our team when they are deciding on whether to take up a project or not?" As a background, taking a project requires one to do financial analyses like Net Present Value (NPV) and others. Truth be told, I have no clue what else.

Now I am not looking at Corp. Fin. but I hope to learn more about this in some elective, but that is the point. I can afford to say that, but if you are a career changer, it requires a hell of a lot of dedication. You better know what you will be doing. To me, that doesn't sound easy and I am not that much of a career changer. It's not possible to change careers just like that. You can't just walk in to an MBA and walk out a new man. My advice? If you want to shift to finance/banking from engineering, catch hold of an accountant, cost accountant, CFO or local banker friend and shadow that person. Get to know what he or she really does. If you can't do that, (or even if you can) shift to business newspapers and try to understand stuff there. Non-switchers can wait till they get here to start learning their subjects. Career-switchers need to "re-wire" themselves sooner than later. I have seen some career changers succeed and some slamming brakes (at least for internship) and a major part of the difference is in their general awareness of the new area of work that they aspire for. I don't mean to belittle people's efforts here and make enemies. I am sure there are other factors, but you will face some hard questions in the interview and you better be prepared. And this preparation is not overnight! (Like I have my opertions mid-term on the day after and it's gonna be overnight for me!! :-D) You need to think like the new person, read newspaper regularly and be able to argue, defend and discuss those new topics like they are your own. You HAVE to want to do it.

So much for career changers, but let's look at some functions. Marketing and GM by far seem the most difficult roles for international students. Getting marketing in CPG for example is tough. And it makes sense. It is difficult to adapt to the native 'marketing types' suddenly for someone coming from outside US. While it is true that 'the marketing types' are outgoing and can speak beautifully to the extent that their creativity finds a fantastic outlet in their personality and speech, it is not just English. Some Indians here, for example, have better English than some Americans. It is much more than that. Familiarity with the culture, society, 'lingo' (if you remember Joey's 'How 'a you dooin'? I just can't say it that way!:-)), priorities, touch points, pain points. The list goes on.

Now there are some functions in marketing that are more open for various reasons. (And I am hoping desperately that they are). The only concrete example I can think of really is market research. There is Customer Relationship Management (CRM) and back office sales operations that I am hoping are fairly indifferent to nationality coz. I am just so interested in them. Both require analytical ability, a lot of comfort with data mining and ability to draw conclusions from data. That doesn't look like it needs one to be of any nationality or origin really. Well, we'll see...

General Management is a whole suite of things. Here, the explanation of why it is difficult for internationals is, I think, simply because many companies are fairly traditional and don't really need a big dose of international students. It's not a great reason, but I am yet to find one. It may be that American nationals make great general managers themselves. Or the companies just don't want to get into processing visa and stuff. These sound reasonable, but who knows what each company is thinking. There is a bunch of functions under GM like Leadership Development Programs (LDP), operations & supply chain management, strategic planning and finance and accounting roles. Corporate Finance role is quite open to everyone (again, just numbers and data) and others are somewhere between marketing and consulting.

Consulting and banking companies don't really seem to care. And those are probably the toughest to get in for various reasons. Consulting companies interview differently. They give you problems to solve in 25 mins (called cases) and if you do well, they take you. Cool stuff. Banking companies I don't really know much about, but from what I see, most of them require you to schmooze with them, you need to either have a finance background or you better be a cat at following finance columns of business magazines and papers. That was what was all the career changer stuff was about, so I won't get into it again.

Of course, I hope you understand that none of the above are hard and fast rules. There are no rules here. There are incredibly smart people here who pull off stuff you can't even imagine, and this is just a teeny-weeny thing called internship. To put things in perspective, we students wouldn't even be discussing it much (or at all) in a couple of years, I guess.

Addendum: I added this comment to another post and it relates to this. Since it is 2 fat paragraphs, I thought I will paste it here too:

Good luck for your results on Duke interview. I am glad my experience helped in your interviewing. Regarding the internship search, my thoughts relate to general job search for an MBA student. The two key points I want to get across is that if you want to change careers, start early and if you are an international student and have limited exposure to US society, you might have to find an entry into certain functions through different paths. I have known interns who got into brand management in a US CPG company and found themselves a little out of place. That is a reality that most applicants will face, so I just want to make you guys aware of it. Both these facts are regardless of you getting business education or anything particular to any business school. There are a lot of opportunities coming our way, and it depends on how seamlessly you can fit in. There is nothing to be freaked out about! :-) I am sorry if I painted a rather gloomy picture! :-)

To take my example, I came here with strategy and marketing in mind, and that's what I still want to do. In fact, I find myself more of a fit into some functions of marketing whereas earlier, I was inclined very much towards strategy. Overall, I would suggest exploring the strengths of schools and fit during the application process; the rest depends on individuals themselves. As far as marketing is considered, I found Fuqua fantastic. The Marketing Club is super-active, the profs. are very well known and really good and I think I have seen more companies in Fuqua campus than I could ever imagine! Anyway, I will stop my rambling and hope I have been able to answer some concerns.