Business School: Two-Month Update

28 October 2014

It's now roughly two months into my business school experience. Before starting school, I blogged about why I decided to come here despite working in tech and wanting to return to tech after bschool. It's too early for me to have a verdict about the career-altering properties of bschool, but here's a glimpse into what the experience has been like so far.

Academics: Not the most important thing, but surprisingly time-consuming

So there's definitely the joke about how you don't go to bschool for the classes. The reality, though, is that HBS has managed to do something impressive: align the incentives so that everyone is motivated to come to class and do the work, while massively reducing grade-related stress.

HBS gives grades on a somewhat strange "tier" system, where 20% of the class gets the highest tier, 70% (yes, 70%) gets the middle tier, and 10% gets the bottom tier. In addition, for first-semester classes at least, participation is a large part of your grade. However, in an 80-minute class, there's no way you can get around to everybody! The fact that participation can't happen every class, plus the fact that participation is an inherently subjective thing to grade, plus the fact that 70% of the class is just going to get the "average" grade anyways, means that there's actually less pressure on achieving amazing grades (if that's what you wanted to do, at least).

Given that, how does the school still incentivize you to do the work? "Work" means reading the cases and thinking about the discussion questions, which occasionally will have some calculations involved. The strongest incentive I've found comes in the form of cold-calls. A couple times every class, the professor will randomly call on a student and ask a question; answering this question wrong is fairly publicly humiliating, so students are generally incentivized to avoid being unprepared.

What this means, amazingly, is that everybody generally reads the cases and comes to class prepared, which is great for fostering a class discussion. Cases do take time to prepare, however, so I've found myself spending way more time than I thought I would on homework.

Case studies: Fascinating and up-to-date, but not great for all subjects

I really enjoy reading cases. They are basically stories about some of the most interesting business scenarios in business, and there's a lot of great background information on various industries, geographies, and leaders. I think just having access to the library of cases that HBS publishes is incredibly valuable. I've also been very impressed by the number of recently-written cases that we discuss in class, which means that we do have cases about relevant and modern business situations, even from the tech industry.

However, even though case studies are really interesting, I'm not convinced that this is the best way to teach certain subjects. For example, I've learned concepts from our Finance class before (either from work or from undergrad), and I think many of the concepts might be better taught via a traditional lecture style. I'll definitely concede, however, that there are people who might better enjoy how the case method really emphasizes building intuition over knowing the technicalities of formulas.

People: Awesome

I've really enjoyed meeting my fellow classmates. There is an incredible diversity of backgrounds (it's not all finance and consulting!), and so much energy to meet others, to plan events, and to do things.

Some common character traits among my classmates which I really appreciate include: friendliness / being "nice" people, generally some level of extroversion, enthusiasm, curiosity, open-mindedness / acceptance, and willingness to discuss and debate.

Some character traits which you might expect to find at HBS but which I haven't really encountered: arrogance, aloofness, greed, and generally being a dick.

Campus energy: very high, sometimes frenetic

When you get 900+ young adults (to use the phrase generously) who you constantly empower to grow, to learn, and to meet new people, you're going to have some very active people. The energy level on campus is extremely high, and there is almost always something going on (interestingly, weekends are sometimes quieter than weekdays, because a lot of people travel).

Sometimes it just feels crazy; it's easy to pack your calendar in to have appointments back-to-back, and trying to schedule common time with a group of people is sometimes comically difficult.

One consequence of this is that I've really been forced to carefully manage my time and to think about what I want to prioritize. I'm not sure there's ever been a time in my life when I felt like there was so much I want to do, but just not enough time for all of it.

Socializing: The reign of FOMO

Yes, socializing is a big part of HBS. The school offers a lot of structure for this to happen, however. One notable way is by randomly assigning "sections". There are 10 sections of ~90 people each, and these serve as the academic unit (you sit in the same room with your section every day, and the professors come in and out) and social unit (aside from informal section events, each will also have elected Social Chairs who throw events to encourage section bonding).

A phrase which gets thrown around a lot here is FOMO, or the Fear Of Missing Out. With so much going on, it's only natural that you miss out on things; with so much going on, you also start to feel like something's wrong if you have some idle time. We've been advised again and again to let go of the FOMO and to prioritize our time (including some "alone time"), but that is a lesson that takes time to learn.

The message: Transform yo'self, fool

HBS is very big on "transformation". Mostly we're being transformed into the future business leaders of the world, and this message is often one that we joke about.

But really, this is a place where great personal change is possible. There's a lot of room to try new things, and more importantly, to fail with low consequences. There are hundreds of other students who are also eager to try new things, and there are so many opportunities, both formal and informal, to try your hand at leading people. With everything going on and everything that's expected of us, it's hard to imagine going through this two-year experience without changing in at least a few ways. How successfully this institution can simultaneously transform 900 students all into leaders, however, will be judged in time.

View of tech: The cool bubble everybody wants to join

Yes, everybody here is interested in tech and startups. This is an exaggeration, but I will note that a few of the biggest clubs on campus are the Tech Club and the Entrepreneurship Club.

In actuality, it would be reasonable to say that most people are interested in learning more about tech and startups, even if they don't want to land a tech internship or job. Interestingly, my impression is that most people here do think it's some kind of bubble, but that doesn't decrease their interest in it. This is, in some respect, kind of nice, because it's great to expose a group of smart, motivated people (who are likely going to hold positions of power in the business world in the future) to the tech world. Already we see that, in addition to learning about accounting and finance, we're learning about human-centered design thinking, iterating on ideas, and how the cultures at tech firms can be a big influence on success. It's not quite everyone learning how to code (though wow, that's a popular thing here too), but it's a positive sign nonetheless.

Impact on my career: Signs of trouble?

One question I got asked a lot before coming was whether I thought an MBA would really help me with a career in tech. I was a bit conflicted about this, and truth be told, if I had to bet on an answer, I would've said that an MBA would be a neutral factor on my short-term career. Some people flat-out told me that they thought an MBA would be detrimental to a career in product management.

The ultimate test of this is to see what internship and full-time job I land. But so far, the signs have been...mixed. A lot of the larger tech firms do come on campus to recruit...but mostly for business roles, not product management. There are other students coming from technical backgrounds...but many of them want to switch to the business side. There are second-years and recent alum who found internships or jobs in a PM capacity at a tech firm...but I see surprisingly few of them (given apparent interest in this role), and I don't know why.

This is a topic I'll have to monitor and post an update about later.

I've only been at bschool for around two months, but it feels like it's been a long journey already. A lot is going on, and my hope is that I leave here after learning something, meeting some great new friends, and yes, after being "transformed". More updates will be coming later!

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