Andrew Kneale

How business school has changed me

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May 062015
 

Two weeks from tomorrow, I’ll be walking across the stage at graduation having completed my full-time MBA at the Robert H. Smith School of Business. It has been a very positive experience. Ultimately, what I will take away from business school is a set of sound fundamentals in general management. The process, however, was more enriching because of experiences I’d had before my MBA and the personal and professional perspective that informed my participation. I’ve certainly changed – though it’s hard to put a finger on how exactly. Instead, let me outline some of the things that I see differently as a result (in no particular order):

  1. I’ve become more comfortable with data. My inclination is now for lots of it – more information upon which to base decisions. Part of this is due the various statistical approaches that we learned in the core curriculum. Part of it is practical – the fact that I can now use excel to work for me with equations and optimization.

 

  1. I can read the Wall Street Journal, or listen to NPR’s Marketplace, and understand most (if not all) of what is reported. An MBA gives you enough familiarity with each discipline of business to pull out the salient points, and enough practice with case scenarios to ask the critical questions on the way to forming an opinion.

 

  1. Having learned amongst a diverse set of young professionals, I have a better grasp of what my strengths are. Some of them have been surprising – they were things that I took for granted. Some of them have been newly refined as a result of the MBA curriculum.

 

  1. I could launch a business. While it’s not necessarily the direction I’ll be going in, I have many of the tools I’d need to start my own company and manage its growth.

 

  1. I have a strong network of future business professionals going into a variety of functions across many different companies. Should I need a sounding board, have a job opportunity, or want a future partner on a business idea, I have a pool of friends to ask (and I hope, who’d ask me).

 

  1. Finally, this is just the beginning of the learning. There is no way to remember the steps to every mathematical operation, the content of each lecture, or the lessons learned from the many cases we read and discussed. I know I’ll be continuing to read industry press and business school publications for many years to come to keep pace with new developments.

Being an MBA Graduate Assistant

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Feb 242015
 

One of the big parts of my MBA experience has been my Graduate Assistantship. During both my first and second years of business school, I’ve worked in Smith’s Marketing and Communications office (Marcomm) with Alissa Arford – Smith’s Director of Online Strategy – about 10-12 hours a week. Not only does the assistantship provide a generous contribution to my tuition and living expenses, but it has also been a nice way to use and expand my skill-set while staying connected to the working world.

My main responsibilities as a GA in the Marcoms office have been writing news stories for Smith’s website, conducting market research for new initiatives, helping to produce videos, and contributing to this blog (!) The video production has been particularly fun. While I had previously commissioned video pieces in jobs prior to business school, I hadn’t actually been part of the video-making process. These past couple of years I’ve had the opportunity to storyboard, get behind the camera, and capture the shots that we needed.

Many of my fellow classmates have GAs. They are either part of a financial award package, or an extra job that students take on to help with costs. It can be hard sometimes to fit a part-time job into the busy MBA schedule, particularly during the first year, but it’s definitely doable – and there are many different types of GA opportunities depending on your background and the availability across departments. MBA GAs I know do a variety of jobs ranging from working in the admissions office, to being a teaching assistant for an undergraduate class, or even working with the angel investor network in the DC area. I think it’s certainly been a positive experience for many of us.

Return on Investment – portfolio strategy and business school

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Feb 122015
 

With only a few months left in my time at business school, I’m trying to soak up as much knowledge as possible. I’m keenly aware that this is likely to be my last time in a formal educational environment. Focusing is not easy, however, as I am simultaneously looking ahead – and anticipating the pursuit of a new career this summer following graduation. So, my strategy has been to pick classes that I feel will benefit me personally and professionally.

One class that I’m particularly glad I chose is Capital Markets with Gurdip Bakshi.   I don’t know a great deal about investment finance, so I was hoping to learn more about money management. Capital Markets deals with short-term and long-term positions across different asset classes. Thinking about investment strategies I might pursue has been really interesting. Before this class, I can’t say I’ve ever gone home and started developing Excel spreadsheets just for fun!

The early part of Capital Markets has been all about optimizing portfolios. A simple way to do this is through the Sharpe ratio (maximizing return while minimizing risk). In a way, it’s a lot like the decision to choose to attend business school itself. You invest in an MBA degree that you believe will deliver a significant impact on your career, while minimizing the financial outlay and the impact of lost time in the job market. I, for one, am pleased with the return on my investment in Smith.

It’s All Coming Together

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Dec 022014
 

This week’s team assignment in Marketing Analytics with Jie Zhang was focused on the application of mixture regression models. Our task was to segment the European market for a global retailer, identifying the best regions for the company to launch its international expansion. It was a fun assignment, and very much in line with my interests.

Once we’d crunched the numbers, we had a clear preference for particular geographies. However, we also found that we had more questions than answers. For instance, what was the competitive landscape? Were there potential barriers to entry? How close should the test regions be to ensure a low cost supply chain? What kinds of regulatory and macroeconomic issues would we be dealing with in certain countries? And, of course, ultimately – was this going to be a positive net present value project? These and many other questions were raised as we attempted to pull together our conclusions and recommendations.

The kinds of issues we were identifying were out of the scope of the assignment, and we didn’t have the data to hand to address them. But, it occurred to me … as second years, we’re starting to pull together the learning from all our classes; and, as a result, the way we approach business problems has changed completely.

The Three Types of MBA Classes

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Nov 182014
 

In my opinion, there are three types of classes you should take as an MBA: required classes, classes that you’re particularly interested in, and classes that scare you. The first two are obvious but it’s the last category that I think is overlooked, and yet perhaps the most important of all.

One of the reasons that I came back to business school was to better understand the way in which financial decisions are made in organizations. I was looking forward to taking decision analytics courses, finance and accounting – not necessarily because I enjoy the subject matter, but because I recognized how important it was to my future success. The introductory Financial Management course, in particular, was eye-opening: I’d never understood that the value of money moved across time, or that the price of a share was tied to the income statement of a firm. Learning new subject matter was hard, but it was incredibly rewarding.

Because of this experience, I decided to take Financial Valuation in the second semester of the first year. I was a little bit nervous, to be honest. The idea of going beyond the required finance curriculum, and taking a class designed for students on a finance track (which I am not), felt like it could be a mistake. Luckily, I found it to be the most beneficial class of my MBA experience to date. Professor Dalida Kadyrzhanova’s class allowed me to build upon my introductory finance knowledge and stretch myself – ensuring that in sum, I will retain a great deal more about finance when I leave the program.

Ever since this experience, my policy has been to take one course each term that scares me – a course that I know will stretch me, make me work particularly hard, and for which a portion might actually go over my head. It’s served me extremely well and has ensured that I am extracting the maximum value out of my MBA. I’d certainly encourage others to do the same.

Oh, to be a First Year MBA

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Sep 262014
 
My Colleagues Ashish and Nikki meeting at our first-year orientation

My Colleagues Ashish and Nikki meeting at our first-year orientation

It’s easy to get used to being a first year MBA. The curriculum is exciting and new, you have a great support network and a new set of friends, and there are a ton of events and activities in which to get involved. The internship search is a chance to reinvent yourself, and most people use every ounce of time they are afforded to reflect on the next steps in their career. And then you hit the second year. There’s a stark contrast in the approach – the name of the game now is to leverage your internship experience and newfound MBA skills to acquire that job that you’ve been seeking. The reflection is over, and it’s time to capitalize on the degree in which you’ve invested. It’s a different kind of pressure, but it’s pressure none the less.

The class of 2016 look, act, and talk just like we did a year ago. They have many of the same aspirations and concerns, and yet they bring a new burst of energy to the MBA community. As I’ve spoken about previously in my blogs, the Smith full-time MBA program is small – we have about 200 students in total between the two classes. So, each year, the personality of the community shifts, but the collaborative culture remains. It’s great to have that new energy from the first year class. Their enthusiasm serves as a reminder of why each of us came to business school in the first place, and those familiar (but distant) long nights in the case rooms show us just how far we’ve come over the last 12 months.

It does make me slightly envious though, even as I look towards full-time roles with great enthusiasm. The first year of your MBA is a special time. I can see that now, and it’s a bitter-sweet feeling.

 

Image Credit:  Anthony Richards – Smith School Office of Marketing and Communications.

Second Year

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Aug 292014
 

And just like that … it was the second year of my MBA. The past few months have been a whirlwind, so here’s a brief catch-up of what I’ve been up to:

  • Early May: we wrapped up exams, and sent off the class of 2014 in style, complete with a final banquet and other Smith MBA traditions. Being such a small community, this is an important occasion and everyone gets involved – including the administration.
  • Late May: I participated in a Global Business Project consulting trip to China. Four other MBAs from various schools and I provided market analyses to a large hotel company to help drive their international strategy.
  • June – August: I spent my summer interning in New York, living on the Upper East Side of Manhattan with two fellow Smith MBAs.
  • Mid-August: The first years have arrived! Since I was on the orientation planning committee, I spent some time on campus working with faculty and staff, organizing and implementing orientation programming.
  • This week: It’s back to class. This term, I’m taking three really interesting courses – Games of Strategy and Decision Making, Financial Restructuring (mergers and acquisitions), and the Global Economic Environment. Should be fun!

Challenges to Doing Business in Brazil

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Apr 182014
 
Professor Paulo Prochno addresses a group of students about the challenges to doing business in Brazil

Professor Paulo Prochno addresses a group of students about the challenges to doing business in Brazil

Paulo Prochno paces in front of the lecture hall.  He freely admits that he can’t keep still when he’s giving a talk – particularly when he’s speaking about a subject that he’s passionate about like his home country Brazil.  It’s Friday, and it’s been an exhausting week, but Prochno’s energy is infectious and he’s got my attention.  He’s speaking to a group of students over lunch about the Brazilian market – challenges, and opportunities.  “Mainly challenges, but I’ve put some opportunities in at the end so you don’t go away depressed,” he says.  It’s part of a series on the barriers to doing business in the emerging markets – a subject I’m keenly interested in – held at the Smith School by the Office of Global Initiatives.

This is a typical end to the week at b-school.  As an MBA, amidst the case study analysis and the model building, you get to work with great faculty who are not only experts in their field, but accessible.  They’ve chosen a community-driven business school in Smith because they enjoy the engagement with students.  As the department of Management and Organization’s Prochno takes us through a whirlwind, 40 minute introduction to the Brazilian market (there will time for questions too, of course) he cites his colleagues and friends’ work, and you know you’re getting the kind of insights for which numerous companies looking at accessing the Brazilian market pay him a pretty penny.

Brazil has strong domestic companies such as Petrobas and JBS, and owns major MNCs like Anheuser Busch Inbev, Burger King and Heinz.  Its growth in GDP is fueled by the consumption of its growing middle class, Prochno explained, but the sticking point for some time has been the volatility of its interest rates.  The root cause is a problem with supply – a particular kink in the growth model which drives up the cost of labor, and puts pressure on interest rates when talent and other resources are scarce.  So what is the solution?  Lack of infrastructure, need for tax reform, and efficiencies are all possibilities.  If companies can withstand the volatility, there are significant opportunities in infrastructure building, growth in credit, process efficiency, and consumer products.  That is, if they can also navigate the cultural nuances of doing business in Brazil – including the importance of personal relationships, formality, and the famous Brazilian “flexibility”.

All in all, it was a fascinating talk.  I’m continually impressed by the expertise that we have in all corners of Van Munching Hall – whether it be professors that I have for core and elective classes, or professors whom I’m lucky to catch for the odd Friday presentation.  Professor Prochno is teaching Global Strategy next year, so I’m looking forward to taking his class.

UPDATE 4/30/14:  Paulo Prochno’s talk is now available on Youtube.  Check it out below!

Operations – Part 1

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Apr 112014
 

You join the line at the Department of Motor Vehicles and you see there are 20 people ahead of you.  You watch to see how long it’s taking to process each patron, make a quick calculation – 20 people at 3 minutes per person – and think to yourself (or perhaps aloud) “I’m going to be standing here for an hour!”  This, in a nutshell, is Operations Management, one of our last core classes of the MBA experience.

Dr. Zhi-Long Chen, our professor for the course, is in many ways a typical Smith MBA professor – an expert who is excited about his subject and able to communicate difficult concepts to his students (trust me, the concepts do get much more complicated than the DMV example).  I’m not concentrating on supply chain here at Smith, but it is a fascinating discipline.  How do you reduce waiting times, minimize cost while maximizing efficiency, and above all – how do you construct a process that allows you to bring in the most revenues possible?

We’ll be dealing with all these questions, and more, when we kick off a week-long operations management simulation later this term:  Littlefield Technologies.  In it, we’ll manage a plant which is processing raw materials, producing electronic systems, and managing inventory.  The simulator was designed at Stanford University, and is used by its MBA program – among other programs in the country.  We start on April 25th, and it should be a really interesting (and fun) experience.  I’ll let you know how my team does later in the term.

Passing the Torch

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Mar 252014
 

We’ve only been in the Smith full-time MBA program for 9 months, and already the torch is being passed from the second years to our class.  Before Spring Break, we elected a new MBA Association President and set of Vice Presidents.  Now the leadership of the various clubs and associations is also in transition.

While I recognize that student elections conjure up images of study body campaigns in high school and undergrad, these positions are serious business.  Firstly, the MBAA serves as the voice of the full-time program (there are also associations for the part-time programs and the MS population.)  This includes providing the Dean of the Smith School and his executive leadership with feedback about the student experience, and participating in the process of continual improvement.  One of the things that I like most about Smith is that this contribution is taken very seriously.  The full-time MBA program at Smith is a small, but strong community – in part because of the tone set by the administration.

Clubs and associations also provide a vital role for MBAs.  While you can learn an incredible amount in the classroom, clubs provide a link to the various industries that we speak of every day.  They provide an opportunity for self-improvement, learning and exploration.  The effort that club leaders put in is directly correlated with the benefits that the students in the community receive.  It’s a system of reciprocity that makes the community engaging, and the experience a lot of fun!  I’m very glad to play a small part of it as the incoming President of the Emerging Markets Association.  There are many other students, if not all, that contribute.  And that’s why the passing of the torch is so important:  it’s passing on the responsibility to grow and foster the MBA community at Smith that we know, appreciate, and wish for in the future.