Sorebrek's Musings and Ramblings

In search of the holy grail of an MBA (class of 2008 hopeful), this space will hopefully chronicle the search and my other quixotic pursuits.

Thursday, September 30, 2004

Organization Leadership is a Noble Pursuit a.k.a Stanford Slogan

Back from the Stanford GSB song and dance in San Fran. Happy to report that I was impressed and enthused to take Stanford seriously although it is currently at the bottom of my list owing to the stretch factor. Onward to the review:

  • The event was at the GAP offices on Folsom, right by the Embarcadero. Apparently GAP is teeming with GSB alumni. In fact couple of the alumni panelists were from GAP and if memory serves, three out of the five alumni panelists were from retail.
  • Well-appointed room with much-needed cookies and drinks. So that was good - Stanford punked Kellogg on that front. The room however was only slightly more than 75% full, not any different from any of the other school receptions I have attended. So here is my wisdom on attending events that hitherto appear to be filled to capacity on the website: just walk in.
  • The format was: general presentation (by adcomm), alumni panel discussion, admission presentation by adcomm and more panel discussion with the adcomm moderating.
  • I liked the fact that the adcomm (a very articulate GSB grad herself) right at the start mentioned that in fairness to other potential applicants who may not be able to attend these sessions, none of the material presented or discussed would be other than what is publicly available in the brochure or the website. The reason I liked this upfront statement was that it pains me to see the verbal contortions that other adcomms go through to basically achieve the same purpose. With that one statement, the whole event from that point on seemed honest and professional to me.
  • Nothing new as far as what Stanford is looking for and hoping to inculcate: leadership with social responsibility.
  • The panelists were closer in personality to Kellogg alumni than to the Harvard ones. Very down to earth in a Californian way and frequently throwing sideway glances at the adcomm for signs of disapproval at any of the statements they were making. It was a nice touch to have one of the current second-year students on the panel. I guess it also had to do with the school being in the vicinity. Some of them were downright funny and engaging; no oratorical fireworks here but a bunch of articulate and well-adjusted people.
  • The one common thread that all the panelists seem to echo was access to world-class thought leaders, be it Warren Buffett or the prof who slipped out after class to drop in on Mr. Rumsfeld to advise him on the vaccination strategy to protect the country against bio-terrorism attacks.
  • I wish there was someone from the tech sector on the panel. I know that several GSB grads are top-dogs at tech companies all over the Silicon Valley. I could see that a good chunk of the audience were techies schlepping laptops from work, donning company t-shirts.
  • I didn't stay back to chat with the alumni; had to get some food in my hot, bothered, lunch-deprived stomach. Besides, since the average alumni experience was lesser than a year or two, I wasn't quite sure I had a lot of career questions they could answer. So I dodged fire-engines and abusive cabbies to head to Shalimar - great cheap eats, a curry house with seedy yet lively Tenderloin ambience.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Another rattler hits California

I was home this morning when I heard the bedroom door open on its own and just as I was about to dismiss it as a lost cat burglar or a draught from the open window, I realized that the windows were all shut and that there wasn't anything at home that might interest a burglar! More noises - pictures moving and blinds rattling. I always feel a little dizzy when a quake hits and this time was no different. Just as I was debating whether to step outside, the whole thing settled down. Turned out to be a 6.0 on the Richter scale. I suppose it wore down by the time it got to San Fran from its center in Parkfield, deep Southern Cal beyond LA.

Saturday, September 25, 2004

Three Blind Men and the Elephant

Ok, you asked for it. Here is another one of my aphorisms on the strange bedfellows that engineers, sales people and executives make.

Engineers think they create the products that define the company. In creating, they in their own reckoning are gods. However the average sales person’s line of thought is: If I don’t sell the #$@$ that you nerds produce, you geeks might as well be flipping burgers for a living. They are the pragmatists, the breadwinners. The executives think their vision IS the company: first there was light. It is inevitable that each of these groups differ and often with undesirable consequences for the organization. Often times, the executives are focused on what appears to the engineers to be touchy-feely nonsense. Executives view the engineers as necessary evil. Salespeople view the engineers as geeks disconnected from market realities and the executives as leeches living off their pragmatism.

The Practise of Core Values

Another week and another reflection paper. For those who care to read on:

While core values by themselves are noble objectives and may often set the course for an organization, I cannot help but wonder how it relates to the organization itself. Let me clarify. Arguably, the people that it employs define an organization. If that were so, why is the practice of core values so far removed from most of the work force? While the recent trend is to have employees come up with a list of core values, it still does not address the implementation of these values:
  1. Most organizations start off with BHAGs (Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals) and core values, usually announced in some sort of all-hands meeting with much fanfare. Most middle managers are unable to translate these core values to departmental, individual and everyday activity. Grass root employees are on one hand encouraged to think loftily and on the other to act by the book. This dichotomy creates thinkers and doers. Thinkers come up with core values, doers realize that these values have little to no impact on their lives; cynicism sets in. Things soon get to a point where the ‘core value debacle’ turns out to be the kiss of death for productivity.
  2. Another mistake most organizations make is the classic follow-up error, i.e. the lack of any credible follow-up. Progress based on core values is never reflected upon. Even when it is, here is what usually happens: if it worked, it is attributed to the clairvoyance of executive vision, not because the entire company embraced the values. If it failed, our core values were misplaced; between the lines is also the inevitable message that you doer guys didn’t get it.
  3. Inconsistent emphasis is another problem when attempting to effect change via core values. In a company dealing in products with a life-cycle pattern, for example software that goes through design, development, testing and support, during the initial phases there is tremendous amount of activity defining the core values and feel-good expounding of vision. By mid-cycle, the core values are fading; nobody knows what if anything these had to do with their work. When reality a.k.a deadlines set in, core values disappears, urgency sets in and conformity to the old ways of doing things rule.
The danger is that over the years, core values have come to acquire a rather cynical aura. Employees are starting to see this as another means for the executives to divert their minds from existential matters such as compensation.

Approaching Fall

Another shifting season and yet another set of wishes relegated to the next year.

Another fading summer ... Posted by Hello

What was that REI radio ad about the number of summers we had left in our lives? I am sure that one sold a few thousand backpacks. Anyway, I am not sure if I will have the time to ruminate on the changing seasons next year this time. Might as well make the best of it.

Friday, September 24, 2004

The MBA Applicant's Lexicon

So you have been thinking about that MBA for a while and you have taken the next step, i.e. research your options. Excellent! Now what you really need is to talk the talk. Like any other sub-culture, the world of MBA applicants has its own jargon. Hopefully, this list will boot-strap some of the jargon-challenged newbie applicants out there. Readers are advised to treat the information provided in these pages as approximate and are encouraged to check with specific schools for the most up to date information. I do not make any claim to the accuracy or relevance of any of the information presented. That said, I will be updating this list on an ongoing basis with your help - corrections/additions/trivia/brick-bats/bouquets are always welcome.

  • Adcom – variant: adcomm - Admission Committee Member or Admission Officer. Adcoms design class profiles, scrutinize applications, make acceptance decisions, market their schools at MBA fairs and receptions, respond to applicant questions on online forums and on a one-on-one basis where necessary.
  • Alums – Shorthand for business-school alumni. Most alumni are eager to share their b-school experience with prospective applicants. They offer a largely unequivocal perspective of the school vis-a-vis the adcoms who may tend to offer a relatively biased or textbook opinion.
  • Application – The application holds together the rest of the documentation submitted by a b-school applicant. It is an objective view of the applicant’s candidacy. Most schools these days have online applications, sparing the applicants the agony of paper forms. Applications are submitted with an application fee, usually in the $200 range for US schools.
  • Class of 2xxx – Indicates the matriculating year. For instance, if a candidate was to turn in applications by Fall 2004, on acceptance she would start attending school in Fall 2005. Assuming that she is in a two-year program, she would matriculate in Fall 2007. She would therefore be a Class of 2007 applicant.
  • Consultants – The high stakes game that the MBA application process is, there has been an emerging trend of engaging admission consultants to assist in the process of applying to business school. Consulting services range from simple essay editing to the full-service treatment running from GMAT preparation to rejection analysis and feedback.
  • Consulting – A popular job choice for MBA graduates, Consulting comes in many flavors ranging from Management/Strategy Consulting to Technology Consulting.
  • Ding – The dreaded ‘D’ word. A candidate dinged by a school has in other words, been rejected by it. However, a ding is not the end of the world since candidates may re-apply to the same school in another term.
  • Essays – The Bermuda triangle for otherwise spectacular applications, essays need to be treated with kid gloves. While the GPAs and GMAT scores indicate the candidate's ability to take academic punishment, the essays determine who the candidate really is as a person and if she is a good fit for the school. Admission officers expect you to pour your heart and soul into the essays. In the words of an admissions officer, your essays should illustrate “where have you been, where are you and where are you headed”. Candidness and honesty are appreciated. Failed applicants tend to forget that while they have written a dozen or two essays, the typical admission officer has read a few thousand. Schools typically ask for 3 to 4 essays (Kellogg – 4), but others like IMD (17) may ask for more.
  • European MBA – As opposed to the American MBA, which is typically a two-year program, most European MBA programs run for a year. Besides international applicants, several US applicants choose European MBA programs due to the better international perspective that they offer.
  • Executive MBA – For those professionals who did not need an MBA to ascend the corporate ladder, the Executive MBA offers a late-blooming opportunity to a formal business education, albeit one of a shorter duration and relatively higher expense. Most Executive MBA programs require employers to sponsor candidates.
  • GMAT – Graduate Management Admission Test – Conducted by the GMAC, Graduate Management Admissions Council, the GMAT is considered to be one of the toughest standardized tests out there. It consists of verbal and quantitative sections and is scored out of 800. Newbies run the risk of over-emphasizing the GMAT, thereby neglecting other parts of their application. They are better advised to seek a score in line with the average scores at the school(s) to which they are applying. Candidates with not-so-spectacular GPAs are better off with a better-than-average GMAT score.
  • GPA – Grade Point Average. International applicants may not be familiar with this form of grading since it is most prevalent in the American college education system. It is a student’s past academic performance usually graded on a scale of 4. It is another one of the objective criteria besides the GMAT that adcoms use.
  • H/S/W – The holy triumvirate, i.e. Harvard, Stanford and Wharton. While rankings are very subjective and often fickle, these schools enjoy tremendous brand recognition. H/S/W/K/C is another variation where the ‘K’ stands for Kellogg and ‘C’ for Chicago. A fellow applicant from India once mentioned: "Harvard and Kellogg pass the mom test".
  • I-Banking – A popular job choice among MBA graduates, I-Banking stands for Investment Banking. I-Banking has several dimensions to it including corporate banking, trading, analysis etc. I-Banking careers are typically the highest paying careers for MBA graduates at least in the short run.
  • Interview – Schools interview prospective candidates to assess in person, various aspects of the applicant’s candidature. While some schools such as Kellogg interviews every applicant, others interview by invitation only (e.g. Harvard). Still others strive to interview all accepted candidates (Sloan). Some schools arrange for interviews by alumni if you are unable to make the trip to the campus and treat these as equivalent to interviews on campus. There are exceptions to this rule too. For instance, MIT Sloan sends its admission officers from city to city to conduct interviews. A few schools that are not very competitive in terms of rankings do not interview at all. A typical interview could last anywhere from 10 minutes (UC Berkeley Haas part-time) to a whole day (IMD).
  • MBA fairs/tours – International, multi-city events to which b-schools send their adcoms and alumni to market their programs and field questions from prospective applicants. Newbies, more than applicants well into their application process, tend to benefit from these rather crowded events. Recently, some top schools have been giving these events a wide berth.
  • Part-time MBA – variants: Weekend MBA, Evening MBA – Professionals interested in furthering their careers with help from an MBA education, but at the same time loathe to sacrificing a full-time job, take up part-time programs at local business schools. The mathematically gifted amongst us would by now have guessed that part-time (MBA) plus full-time (day job) does not quite add up. Often they don’t, resulting in high dropout rates and ulcers.
  • Rankings – Business publications such as BusinessWeek, The Wall Street Journal and Financial Times publish rankings of business schools in the US and the rest of the world. Rankings are an aggregate of several criteria applied by the ranking entities. Newbie candidates tend to be enamored by rankings while ignoring the fit, i.e. the schools they would best fit into and thereby derive maximum benefit from.
  • Re-application – A rejected-candidate may apply for a subsequent round of applications. However, this attempt needs to be bolstered by changes to the applicant’s profile to increase the chances of acceptance.
  • Reception – Business schools organize international, multi-city information sessions, which they expect more serious candidates to attend. Receptions are not advertised as much as MBA fairs/tours. They offer an excellent opportunity to talk to alumni and to network with fellow applicants in a relaxed environment.
  • Recommendations – variant: recos – While the application and essays tell the story as recounted by the applicant, recommendations offer the adcoms a third perspective on the applicant. The recent trend is for schools to seek a recommendation from the applicant’s immediate supervisor. Academic recommendations are becoming passé, increasingly so in proportion to the number of years out of a formal education system.
  • Resume – variant CV (Curriculum Vitae) – No surprises here. Most schools expect a current resume to be submitted with the application. They also prefer little to no overlap between material in the resume and the essays while maintaining a consistent theme across the whole application.
  • Rounds – Schools accept applications in several rounds. US schools typically accept the first round of applications in fall, second round in winter and the third round in early spring. Most schools claim that the chances of acceptance in round 1 and 2 are the same. There are exceptions to this rule; for instance a Sloan adcom recently spelt out Sloan's preference for round 1 applicants. Waiting until round 3 is almost always a bad idea since most of the seats are already taken.
  • School Visit – Most schools encourage prospective applicants to visit the campus. A typical campus visit consists of an information session, tour of the campus, lunch with students (complementary or dutch (Stanford)) and a class visit. Serious applicants use a school visit to gauge their fit in a particular school environment.
  • Student Profile – Most schools publish a profile of the most recently admitted class. This consists of statistics such as the average GMAT score, age, salary foregone etc. However these are statistical averages and should not by themseleves discourage applicants from applying to a certain school.
  • VC Firms – Venture capitalist firms; firms that fork out the money for fledgling companies with economically viable business plans (I don’t know any more). Recent trends among MBA graduates suggest an increased interest in VC firms.
  • Waitlist – Schools place borderline candidates on a waitlist. As an example, MIT Sloan typically receives around 3,000 applications for 319 seats and waitlists 208 applicants. It eventually accepts about 15% of those on the waitlist. Schools with low yield percentages place a greater number of candidates on the waitlist.
  • Yield Management – There is anecdotal evidence that schools take specific actions to increase their yield percentages. This is especially true for schools that are neither in the top 10 ranks nor in the second tier. So, if a candidate is top 5 material, there is a fair chance that the school may not accept her since she will most likely opt for the higher-ranked school and thereby hurt the lower-ranked school's yield percentage.
  • Yield Percentage – Percentage of accepted applicants who eventually enroll. High-ranking schools such as Harvard (85%), Stanford (83%) and Wharton (75%) have high yield rates. Yield percentages fall pretty steeply towards the latter half of the top 10 programs (e.g. Chicago at 58%). Yield percentage is not a true indicator of what a school has to offer; it is more of an indicator of applicants' desirability for a particular school.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Fedex & MBA

If you haven't already seen this on TV, now is the time:

Btw, it turns out that Fred Smith's business paper on Fedex may not have actually been graded a 'C' as is commonly believed. He doesn't remember what the grade was, just that it wasn't great and that the paper wasn't well thought out. He attributes the 'C' myth to the common man's disdain for authority. Check out his interview on Fortune.

Harvard Chat

Today seems to be chat fest day. I cannot even begin to tell you how boring the Harvard chat on BW was. So I won't. Ok, I promise to say just this one mean thing and no more: I hope they have a concentration in ambiguity: no minimums grades/GMATs, no special ability/achievements, age no bar, background no bar, no nationality/ethnicity/gender considerations - we just roll some dice and flip a coin to break ties :-) Will someone please stop this charade and say it out load - "look we are not really priveleged to discuss that" or "that is part of our secret recipe in figuring out who's out and who's in". I wish introspection and candidness was not just a one-way expectation.

Sloan Chat

Following the Sloan chat as I blog this (Cannot help but wonder if blog was a verb three years back). Some observations:

(1) Oddly enough Sloan does not seem to be asking the "Why MBA? Why Sloan?" questions in their essays. Rod Garcia's (adcomm) advice is to address these in the cover letter.

(2) What if your GPAs are less than desirable? "Taking recent college-level courses in accounting, microeconomics and calculus (if you have not already taken these courses) will help offset less-than-desirable GPAs especially when supported by a good GMAT score".

(3) Why doesn't Sloan emphasize or ask about community involvement? Apparently they do care; their line of thinking is that if you really were into community involvement, you would automatically reflect that in your application. Rod also advises against 'collecting activities'. That one got me thinking. I was reading the transcript of an interview (quote: ” I’m not technical; I’m a golf major”) with Scott McNealy* yesterday. Scott was immersed in all sorts of sporting activities and he talks about how they boarded up a pond in summer so they could play ice hockey in winter. The theme of his Harvard college essay was on equating sports with life. You guessed it right; he was accepted. He eventually went on to Stanford GSB for an MBA. Passion shines through and I am sure most of us have one besides the lust for lucre :-) It is just that we don't think it is significant enough. Then there was the story of the chicken farmer who got into Harvard ... perhaps I'll talk about it another day.
(*For those of us who don't know who Scott McNealy is, he is the Chairman, CEO and co-founder of Sun Microsystems, one of the most admired companies in the Silicon valley).

(4) What about applicants whose grading system would show them in poor light if converted to the 4.0 GPA system (case in point, non-IIT Indian universities)? Apparently there is a Sloan adcomm person who has been reading applications and following the rankings of Indian universities for 20 years! Don't convert to the GPA system; rest assured that they will figure it out.

(5) Garcia clearly indicates a preference for round 1 candidates! This is a marked difference from other schools who at least in theory say that R1 and R2 are equivalent in terms of evaluating an applicant.

A transcript of the chat session should hopefully be up on the website in a week's time (no point clicking the link before that).

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Kellogg Reception

My first B-school reception. I was more than happy for the opportunity to talk to alums in a less rushed environment. Swoops and Aregon23 have written excellent reviews on the event. Go check 'em out!

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Depends vs. halitosis

Happy to report that the festivities of the "World MBA Tour" run by have come to a close as far as San Francisco is concerned. Turned out to be quite the circus that I was expecting it to be. It wasn't much of a surprise though, thanks to Dave's post on the LA leg. Some observations are due:

1) Most adcoms seemed to parrot the same set of responses (often to the same questions asked over and over again and sometimes even otherwise). Well, the other side of the argument is that it appears that most people showed up with no background research other than the BusinessWeek top-10 list and a burning ambition to break into the big league. I think can understand how mind numbing it is for the adcoms taking these questions; but once in a while when a decent question did come up, the answer inevitably started with a depends. I am leery of any reply that starts with the much-abused expression.

2) My advise to future visitors to such shows would be to track down the alums and pass on the adcoms. The alums are relatively untrained in dealing with the MBA-seeking hordes and in their enthusiasm, might reveal things adcoms won't go anywhere near. Besides it is very insightful to understand how their thought process led them to seeking an MBA in the first place.

3) Avoid the Kaplan sideshow if you can. This is a hard sell and I don't like it one bit that I am paying to sit through their ad pitch. If I were to do it under duress, I would rather they pay me and make it an absurd amount while they're at it. However, it appeared that mine was a minority opinion since the halls were apparently packed. IMHO, if you really must partake of the Kaplan wisdom, it is freely purveyed on a weekly basis at your local Kaplan center within a 10-mile radius of wherever you live, even if that happens to be a mountain cabin in rural Montana.

4) The big dogs figured out early on that this was not worth their while. Harvard, Stanford, Columbia and Sloan were notable absentees and sorely missed by attendees. Wharton was well staffed although the crowds looked like the ones thronging Grand Canyon vista points during long weekends. Chicago and Michigan had dignified presences - two/three adcoms, no alums however; neither of them much of a crowd-puller. I am surprised. Humanity flocked in great waves around the solitary, rather frail-looking Kellogg adcom taking urgent sips from her water-bottle with her back pinned to the table and nowhere to go. Not a place I want to be in for 4 hours fielding questions from the hungry hordes.

5) Based on third-party reports, the b-school mock lecture was impressive. Rock-star prof from Haas on corporate ethics.

6) I went around and said hello to the underprivileged names, unsung and rather deserted. Turned out to be a better experience than the quickie advice-fix the bigger names were giving out. Most were warm if not grateful and it was worthwhile talking to them about rank-mania and how they saw it from their side of the fence. I urge you to do the same if you're attending in a different city.

7) It was interesting to see the globalization of the business of the MBA. A school each from China and India showed up. At the Chinese school, try as I might, I could not break into the inner circle to ask questions. I gave up and managed to wriggle my way to the ISB (Indian School of Business) table and had a mildly-interesting conversation about ISB's perception of Indian hai-guis (not very kindly so it seems).

8) Ask tough questions, you've got nothing to lose except your ignorance. I did not. On retrospect, I should've. However, please remember that tough does not equate to rude or stupid. So "what is the weakness of your school" does not qualify. I actually did hear that one; couldn't bear to stay around for the answer.

Saturday, September 11, 2004

Sufference of the Human Condition in the Valley

A largely unmodified version of a free-form reflection paper I wrote for a class I am taking:

(Be warned that it was written 5 hours before a 9AM class and comes with all of the accompanying weirdness typical of the hour.)

Applying to business school and evolving responsibilities at work had me reflecting, rather absent-mindedly (read, in the shower) about the state of technical organizations and their strained relationship with their employees. Last weekend forced me to organize some structure around these issues that I contend with on a day-to-day basis. I have always worked in Fortune 50 high-tech companies where we were told that the biggest asset of the company walks in the door every morning and leaves every evening, i.e. the employees; which makes the whole discussion more poignant. Why so? It is established common business-sense from the days of the smoke-stack economies that if you wanted to stay around, you need to protect your assets. Unfortunately, I am left with the overwhelming impression that there is a clear departure from this age-old wisdom in the tech-industry. Granted that these are not immovable assets like buildings or real-estate do make things complicated; however there is simply not enough effort, except knee-jerk attempts, to understand and retain the assets.
In such an environment, it is unenviable to play the role of a manager, especially a cross-functional manager. I have tried to list some typical challenges faced by people managers:

ECONOMY: Since the economy cannot talk back, at least not very vociferously, we can point fingers at it immediately. Seriously, the crests and troughs pattern of the recent economic times has put a lot of pressure on the average employee’s mind. Fear of retrenchment, salary cutbacks, end of soft-benefits (read free-lunch), loss of immigration status; the list goes on. Most employees on the receiving end are hunkered down in what they think is the best way to weather out a passing storm. Employers themselves have unfortunately not assuaged the concerns; rather, there is every indication to the contrary.

HUBRIS (or rock star syndrome): If I came out of MIT with a PhD in Computer Science at age 22, my manager must be a dim-wit if he is still pushing paper. And what is all this talk about business objectives? The only reason a feature needs to be added to the product is because it is so challenging that I am the only one who can do it without one's brains dripping out of the ears. It has nothing to do with what the customer wants.

WIN-WIN approach to management (I Win and then I win again): Whatever happened to old-fashioned leadership? It is the day and age of every man, women and child for themselves. During the roaring 2000s managers were applying top-notch thought on organization and leadership to a stock-gorged labor-force. Then irrational exuberance turned into calculated self-preservation. Not the best possible morale booster for the grass-roots employee.

CYNICISM (or yeah right with the eye roll): My observation is that cynicism is not only inevitable but is also accelerating. The amount of time it takes to curb a newcomer’s enthusiasm has fallen quicker than most dot-com stocks. Before you know it, the bright kid out of school is quipping about the state of the company and killing time wall-papering his cubicle with Dilbert strips.

The list could go on, but the thread that runs through is a clear lack of leadership that should have held steady during times of crises. Managers in the tech industry need to wake up to the reality that some things never change, for instance old-fashioned leadership.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Chat season is here

With fall comes chat season. and BusinessWeek are both lining up chat sessions with ad comm members from several top schools.
Wharton (9/15)
MIT (9/23)
UCLA (9/28)
Haas (10/11)
HEC (10/18)
CMU (10/27)

Wharton School (9/9)
Stanford (9/13)
Harvard (9/23)
Chicago (9/27)
Kellogg (10/13)
INSEAD (10/20)

Upcoming events in the SF Bay Area

World MBA tour comes to town on 09/14. I wonder how this will shape up to be - a stampede? I hope not. But it does not look very promising conisdering that the event would run from 5PM to 9PM.