Goodbye

I left the Warwick campus today. Much as I arrived: in the pouring rain.

And now I’m back in London, in my new home. A cheerful top floor of a pleasantly scruffy house down south. Lying on an unfamiliar bed, in the dim light of an dusky lamp, stone cold sober, thinking. And trying not to think too much about the one inescapable fact: I’m not going back there.

The richest experiences are rich precisely because they end quickly. A skydive, a jungle trek, even a month backpacking. You troll through the time taking action to take things forward. But the MBA had a community. When you’re working and studying in each others’ pockets and half the cohort lives a two minute walk away, you feel wanted, part of everything, alive, even in the most despairing moments late at night before an exam you know you’re not ready for. It wasn’t a year out; it was a life. And now it’s gone and I’m already missing it.

Lots to do, lots on the calendar. But the dreamy green campus is behind me now, and I’m sad. In just two week there’ll be another crop of bright-eyed MBA students using our Syndicate rooms, eating our doughnuts, sleeping in our beds. (And, if this year’s anything to go by, each other’s beds too.)

It was a great year. Thank you, Warwick University. Signing off…. now.

Bittersweet rush of a year in the classroom

The last roll call!

And just like that – it’s gone. The 14 courses of the Warwick MBA, all teaching now finished. Just last assignments and a dissertation to take care over the next couple of months. A final MBA party, hastily arranged, happened last night, and for a few beautiful hours everything was like September again.

And it’s been good. My only regret was I wish I’d … got into it earlier. I don’t feel I truly got the hang of studing and learning formally until Term 3; thinking back, terms 1 and 2 were nightmarish, winging it on worry and adrenalin. Trying to give the impression that you know what you’re doing takes serious energy, especially when you don’t.

But I’ve learned a few things about myself. I’m still a bad person, but perhaps a bit less bad than I was. And I realise now that I feel most strongly self-actualised when there’s something to push against, like deadlines and course timetables and people to let down. Exhausting and depressing it’s been at times, but it’s also been… awe-inspiring.

Ha ha. Me, who’s walked across deserts and sweated through rainforests, awestruck by a concrete college curriculum.

As an outsourced marketing guy I had essentially no obligations beyond turning a great headline, and that’s the trouble: working alone breeds megalomania. I spent the previous six years detached from reality. During this year I’ve gradually started the long trek back.

So: one of the three wishes almost done: build a relationship with the academic world. The other two I’m surprisingly confident about*, too. I came here not to earn a degree, but turn around a life that’d grown stale, and maybe knock off a few of the rough edges I acquired in six years alone.

I’m at the end of nine months of hard work, and all I want to do is go back and do it again differently. But then everyone would.

*Not telling you yet.

Sweet smell of … something

What a great surprise. Somehow I’ve passed all the Term 2 exams!

I expected to fail one and possibly three, given that a) I’m crap in exam halls, b) I’m not a finance guy, c) I’d deliberately chosen electives I’d find difficult (finance stuff), and d) I turned out to be the ONLY PERSON in the entire cohort doing FIVE of the bastards last term (three electives absolutely had to be on my list, which meant doing an extra one in Term 2 and one fewer in Term 3.)

And yet I’ve sailed through the rocky waters of the Examic Ocean. Not even ‘weak’ passes; only one score came a bit close to the wind, and on the assignments (the parts closest to reality) I’ve scored plenty, even in the finance stuff I’m no good at. Whooohooo!

Pleased that another quarter of this four-term MBA is done and dusted. But at the same time… a little disconcerted. Shouldn’t it have been harder than this?

I expected the numbers stuff to be hard; I don’t have a bad head for figures, I just know nothing about maths save an interest in concepts, so the algrebraic bond pricing derivative greek whatever has been hard work for me. And despite being a marketer of 15 years’ experience, I haven’t done well in ANY of the marketing courses this year.

As ‘soft scientists’, marketing professors don’t really want anyone whose experience was gained in the real world taking their programmes; it offends their sense of how the world ought to be. And it’s showed in my results: steady sixtysomethingpercents all the way through. (The stuff I wrote was perfectly valid marketing: it just wasn’t THEIR marketing.) But even so, those scores weren’t difficult to obtain.

I’d love to say I’ve been up until 2am every night studying, absorbing texts and case studies and burning away blood in the Learning Grid. But I just haven’t. (Except for the 2am mornings in the Learning Grid. But I’m a ‘night’ person by nature.)

The only genuine problem for me was all the group work an MBA entails; when you’ve been working as long as I have, some academic’s idea of what constitutes ‘group working’ tends to be both artificial and insultingly juvenile. On the POM course I felt like Kindergarten Cop. And a course packed with representatives of a single nationality didn’t help the time management aspect – or indeed the ‘diversity’ such courses like to trumpet.

(British MBA courses draw most of their cohort from the subcontinent these days, but for me, ‘Shout at each other excitedly at high volume until someone listens’ isn’t ideal academic practice. I came here expecting a degree course in the Western intellectual tradition, yet what I got was… Mumbai Central at rushhour.)

But that’s besides the point. I didn’t really swot or sweat blood from my forehead.

I just did what I always do. Opened a textbook the day before and… winged it. Which I’ve always been good at, too good at to stop. Winging it through life, on a feather-thin slice of cash and the ability to string a sentence together. I’m a fraud.

Or maybe I’m just fooling myself, and this is how everyone works.

I am scared to death of my Investments & Risk Management lecturer

I can’t believe it’s here so fast, but it is. My last module of the Warwick MBA is this week! And the lecturer is already scaring me shitless. What is this, Corporate Finance all over again? Another megabrained lecturer who I’m sure sneaks off at every break just to laugh at my incompetence with financial calculus?

Hell no. It’s worse than that.

This one’s got such a long CV I can barely believe she’s one person. She taught at Princeton, Oxford, and probably the InterGalactic Alliance of Extremely Clever People before Warwick; I’ve just been down her list of papers and most of them may as well be written in Latin. Whereas the Corporate Finance lecturer had a brain only moderately larger than that of Einstein, this one could have lectured Einstein and probably found reasons not to give him a pass. (“Think you’re getting out of that patent office anytime soon, Albert my boy? HUR HUR HUR HUR HUR HUR!!!”)

Investment & Risk Management requires Corporate Finance as a grounding, which means it’s going to be harder. Looking down the programme (I should possibly have started this more than 24 hours before the first lecture) there are long lists including things like Forwards and Futures, Derivative Swaps, Bond Portfolios (shaken not stirred) and enough greek letters to keep the Athens Post Office busy for months. Just how big IS their alphabet?

There’s a whole day on ‘Options’. I think my ‘option’ will be to sit with my head in my hands and sob quietly so she won’t ask me questions. Help!

I am quite pleased I could now hold a conversation with a CFA

Copy from an ad for the CFA (Certified Financial Accountant) institute: “If a CFA charterholder sits before you, she or he can evaluate undervalued and overvalued securities, calculate the values of callable bonds and puttable bonds, calculate alpha, calculate financial ratios used by credit analysts, analyze derivatives, alternative investments, taxes, pensions, inventories, and inter-corporate investments.”

It’s interesting to note that with the right electives, the Warwick MBA teaches you how to do every one of those things.

Database driven life

One of the really impressive things about Warwick University is its databases. Or more to the point, the way its databases connect to the student intranet and let me, slumped in my study bedroom, collect pretty much everything I need to write my assignments and dissertation.

Take just now. An article referenced in one of the readings for a Strategy module caught my eye. It’s not in the readings, although it’s a seminal article on the globalisation of business from the 1980s. This is probably a test: the course director may have left that article in plain view, referenced in the folder’s readings but not actually in the folder as a handout, in order to see which clever buggers would spot it and look it up.

So I look it up. A few clicks and searching into the library, the business section, and a subscription index. A search on author and title. And – within a second – it’s there: the full-text article, not in ASCII but an actual scanned page of the Harvard Business Review from 1983, complete with foxy-edged pages and the imprint of someone’s pen pressed too hard on a previous page a quarter of a century ago. Brilliant.

In the vastness of the Internet, I inhabit a more tightly-clustered node: an ordered space of indexed scholarship, given shape and form by subscriptions and module structure and the sheer buzz of a campus wired for desseminating knowledge. From my little room here, I’m wrapped in a warm, comforting coccoon of information plus the means to make sense of it.

I’m going to miss this place.

WBS scavengers

Long after nightfall, in the darkened halls of the Business School, the denizens of the MBA programme go hunting.

At intervals impossible to predict, they emerge from their dens, often in packs. Hollow-cheeked and glassy of eye, they seek only one thing: sustenance to carry them through the night’s project work.

This is their habitat. They know its every nook and cranny; they have made it their home. They work and play and sleep here. And at this hour, they know where food is to be found.

There’s always a company event or presentation evening going on in one of WBS’s lounges, and where these people gather, there is prey. The prey: leftover buffet. Sandwiches, cakes, and if you’re lucky some of those yakitori things or the chicken pieces with pepper.

It may be in the upstairs lounge, where the central terrace glows eerily in the spring moonlight. Or the hall opposite, where the strange coven known as the Alumni meet for their lunar rituals. Sometimes the MBA wing itself, although in this area the hunters are many and the land overgrazed; but venturing further afield, to the smaller rooms of the 3rd or even 4th floors, can yield rich pickings for the alert hunter.

The prey has been found: a consulting company presenting in a meeting hall. Swiftly and silently, the MBAs take their prey without a struggle, and slink back into the syndicate rooms from whence they came.

Back to skool

Term 3 begins! After a couple of weeks out of the classroom (but still mostly on campus), the last few modules are on the calendar. And it’s as if we’d never been away.

This term’s modules are differently flavoured: intensive one-week crammers rather than a lecture a week all term, and us fulltimers share them with visiting Modular and Distance Learning MBAs, all of whom seem equally great people. But the format? FOUR shorter lectures a day and project work (case study writeups and a presentation) in the evening, all of which is due this week. Twelve-hour days are the norm this week, plus a couple more hours doing the ‘further reading’ at home. I’m whacked already.

Other life events are happening apace, too. A work project in from Madrid and another from Paris which is probably going to involve a week over there; I’m also catching lifts to (possibly) two skydiving events over various weekends, to get in a couple of jumps between Strategic Brand and Risk Management modules in May. Not to mention Dreamforce Europe down in town, which I may have to cancel if the French are cool with my day rate. A student can hardly turn that down.

Strategising, skydiving, working for Spain, trips to France, talking to recruiters and visiting technology shows. My life’s coming back in a rush.

Building my MBA dissertation literature review

I knew the second half of my MBA would be easier. Still several courses to go, but the main thing now is my consultancy project and dissertation, which I’m doing on the connection between book value and shareholder value – in other words, the part of a firm’s value that can be vaguely attributed to ‘marketing’. But while a big job of doing stuff then writing about it isn’t the hardest thing in the world for me, it’s not quite as easy as I first thought.

The reason: it’s an academic piece, not an act of copywriting. Which means an important part of the work is finding where it fits into the broader intellectual universe: getting a grip on the landscape delineated by peer-reviewed journals and seeing where your ideas are best built.

It’s what one OB lecturer calls a “heading the cricket ball” problem. If your idea of playing cricket is to HEAD the ball being bowled at you, you’re unlikely to be regarded as as serious cricketer. Not only that, but your ‘innovative approach’ wouldn’t score you any points, and the whole activity would just give you a headache.

Which for a non-academic raises the question: which papers? Which textbooks? How do I know, when building my reading list, that I’m reading the right stuff?

Fortunately, I’ve found a shortcut that makes it easy.

One of the resources at WBS (what did researchers ever do without the Internet?) is a comprehensive database with searchable full-text articles from several hundred journals… with the number of citations attached.

Citations, not keywords, are the key concept here. If a paper in my multitude of search terms has been cited a hundred times by other authors, it’s a reasonable bet that paper is ‘significant’, a seminal work in the field. Following the trail of the papers cited in that paper make the method even stronger: most of the people citing that paper will also have read whatever papers it cites. By this process, I can quickly find the ‘core’ dozen or so papers relevant to the subject I was searching for. Which for a field like mine (brand valuation) tells me precisely where the needles are in the haystack.

In a way, this is doing a ‘manual google’ – the PageRank algorithm at the heart of Google uses precisely this principle to rank popularity of web pages. Who’s linked to you, and how many links you’ve got. I’m just doing it by hand. Some more whittling down to be done, but in just a day I’ve got ten papers that seem to lie at the root of this branch of marketing.

Sometimes, I could almost believe I’m smart.

Last of the BHBs

The last Big Honkin’ Binder – Investments & Risk Management – has just joined my bookshelf. And that’s it, complete in 14 volumes: The Warwick MBA on paper!

Technically, each of these binders has cost £1500 (or at least what they represent: the 14 courses making up the degree.) I wonder how fast the payback will be once I get back to the real world? Not that ‘the real world’ is a place I’ve ever spent much time in…

One Hundred Years of MBAitude

Yikes! The MBA qualification is 100 years old today! This calls for a celebration. What shall I do, my Strategic Brand pre-reading chapters or my Strategy & Practice case studies?

What I want to know is, did those first 33 guys at Harvard in 1908 (the class of 1910) have the same trouble with Corporate Finance? Probably yes, although I bet there was less Modelling & Analysis, Excel being somewhat pre-alpha at the time.

Wait a minute – they only studied THREE courses?!! What kind of sleepwalk-through, revise-on-the-bus, wing-it kind of degree is THAT?!!

Despite which, only eight completed the course, a 76% flunk rate. No wonder the Wall Street Crash happened just nine years after they graduated!

Hail to the BHB

There are a lot of Big Honkin’ Binders on the Warwick MBA, but nothing seems to blunt the thrill of opening a new one. And I’ve just collected another one in prep for Term 3.

Creaking the fresh spine open for the first time offers near-orgasmic excitement. The immensity of readings and pre-readings, the case studies, the structure of tabs and sections and Assessment criteria. Term 3’s courses are shared with the part-time MBAs – taught in intensive one-week modules rather than spread over a term – but the binder metaphor thankfully remains as the guiding collective noun of each course, heavy and plasticky and beautiful.

These Big Honkin’ Binders are, of course, a major selling point for the Warwick MBA: they’re ‘giving us something’, weight and heft to the knowledge offered. Looking back at the BHBs from Terms 1 and 2, I’ve made each one mine: covered in Post-Its, notes in margins, filled-in boxes and printouts hole-punched and bound into context by my own hand. These binders are now part of me.

Just as a handwritten letter on 160g watermarked vellum means more than a text message, these binders are worthy containers for the riches of a top MBA, even if much of the course material and interaction happens in electronic form. And I’d bet that even when laptops have the same contrast, clarity, resolution and portability as a sheet of paper, these binders will still be around.

Post mortem: Strategic Advantage

Executive Summary: hard part’s over!

OK, so there are a couple of assignments to do before end March, but the Strategic Advantage exam – two essays, two hours – was a pleasant finish to exam week. Not too rushed, took a five minute holiday in the middle, managed to shoehorn a Porter’s Five Forces diagram and the distinctive assets pyramid in there. Had 10 minutes spare at the end so I thought I’d add an Appendix with the Value Chain! And why not. (Appendices are cool.)

And now the first half of my MBA is over bar the resits, oops, I mean bar the shouting. Today is the last day the 80 of us will be together as a cohort, sharing a core of content: from this day forward, we go our separate ways, into diverse electives and project/dissertations.

In some sense, I’m already missing it.

Hands in pockets against the not-yet-Spring weather, I wander the emptying campus of what I’ve come to know as ‘my’ university.

University House, a beautiful chunk of geometric white angles and a soaring four-storey atrium that’s become one of my favourite places. Coffee in the cafe at the Arts Centre. The card entry gates of the library. The short walk down the curving road, assorted buildings of the university becoming denser like scattered foothills. The humid humanity of the Sports block. The gangrenous 1960s wasteland of Humanities. The soaring new engineering buildings. Somehow, it’s become home.

I continue drifting in the damp gloom. Back to where it all started: the collection of white cubes on Scarman Road.

Silently I walk down the now-hushed corridors of the business school. The coffee nook. The printer corner. The syndicate rooms. The student lounge. Remembering all the moments of the last six months: the frustrations, the late nights, the syrupy fog of breaktime doughnuts and the clacking vooosh of the coffeemaker. The conversations, the headaches, the scribbles on whiteboards. And the laughter. Amid the toil, there was a lot of laughter.

All these moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.

Time to say goodbye.

Post mortem: Modelling & Analysis

Executive Summary: Starting from a poor quality dataset with high STEM, the SD of a 50% probability reduced with a positive effect on the Confidence Interval!

MAM is one of the really hard MBA courses – building and interpreting Excel tools that optimise or maximise KPIs for business – and everyone’s been dreading this one. Oddly, I found it strangely do-able.

In my business ‘modelling’ means making a prop for a photoshoot, so I was expecting performance to be, er, somewhat sub-Distinction level. It’s an ‘open book’ exam (you’re allowed to bring in notes) so last night I formulated a survival strategy: take in some model answers, whip through the 15 essay-type questions doing all the ones similar to my models, and leave the ones I just don’t get (*cough* regression and sensitivity *cough*) to the end. Ultimately, although I know I didn’t max out more than two or three questions markwise, I felt good enough about enough of them to feel pretty sure I’ve passed this one.

But as an aside: do WBS lecturers have informal competitions as to who can put the weirdest businesses in question format? The businesses that’ve appeared on exam papers this week include a chicken-breeding magazine, a maker of bicycles built for four people, a company making tapestries of witches to hang in your kitchen (it had a capacity of 15,000 a year, but who on EARTH would buy such a thing?) and a china tableware company that suddenly decided to go into industrial air filters. Are these guys laughing at us or what?

Post mortem: Marketing Strategy

Executive Summary: FINALLY an easy one. Let’s face it, if I found an exam with ‘marketing’ in the title difficult I’d need to seriously re-evaluate my life.

Two essays from a choice of eight, both with elastic subject matter I can fit a number of possible diagrams to to show I DID listen in class. There’s something for everyone here. One of my essays, though, ends up being based on my personal experience of segmenting history (geographics, demographics, then psychographics) rather than an amalgam of slides presented; I’m unlikely to get a high mark for it but at least the examiner will find it interesting. This is the first exam I know I’ve passed, and in such exams it’s good to have a little fun.

However, one thing’s really annoying me: the way people TALK in the exam hall, before, after, and even during the exam. They just won’t shut up. Mouths are twitching long before all papers have been collected; basically at the first possible moment they think they can get away with it. Why do so many people lack the self-discipline to stay shut up for just TWO FUCKING MINUTES longer?!!!

Post mortem: Management Accounting

Executive Summary: AARGH! Have I crapped out on TWO of the bastard exams? Management Accounting was a nightmare! Maybe I’m just not cut out for this MBA stuff.

What’s worse is the course wasn’t all that bad: lots of numbers, obviously, but unlike Corporate Finance the concepts of budget-flexing and activity-based costing are mainly commonsensical. Yesterday afternoon I concentrated on variances, since it’s the area I was weakest on, and was determined to choose a ‘variances’ question in Section B today. Of course, there was NO BLOODY VARIANCES QUESTION.

Let’s just say I now know why the Ops Strategy elective has so many people in it: it’s non-examined…

Anyway, the exam starts badly. The Hall’s warmer than yesterday, in the same way the surface of the sun is warmer than an ice cube, but the atmosphere’s a bit locker-room since there’s only one GIRL around (admittedly the one is a hottie, but I don’t function well in 30:1 male dominated situations.) And the paper is REALLY REALLY DIFFICULT.

WBS to MBAs: Ha ha, thought you were starting to enjoy yourselves, did you?

Five choices per question, and every choice A-E is plausible; there’s no knocking aside of obviously wrong choices to increase your chances of guessing correctly. Every question, EVERY question, needs either a detailed act of memory or copious calculation to get right. I doubt I even got 50% here. The essay-type question is easier (maybe, just maybe, I picked up a few points) but there was still very little opportunity to bullshit.

And what you really need in an exam is bullshittability.

What’s odd is that Management Accounting is a bullshittable subject. It’s a lens created by accountants to present a company’s operations in a certain light: it’s as much a strategic and political tool as a reporting mechanism. That’s its whole reason for being. Set people certain targets, contextualise their department in a certain way, demonstrate the method by which advantage is gained, and you’ve got people gaming the system. If you can get them to game it the way you want, you’re onto a winner. You might even make money.

But when the game gets turned back on the gamer – i.e. in an exam – the bullshittability vanishes. Where Corporate Finance yesterday felt borderline but possibly passable, I’m pretty sure quite a few people (including me) will be getting resit invitations (or worse) in the next month or two. Not good.

Exam hell: cold turkey

It’s hell not being able to have a glass of wine until THURSDAY. Especially after discovering I am the one person in the 80-strong cohort doing FIVE exams this week. Combination of doing an extra elective this term, plus all my chosens being assessed by exam rather than assignment. I’m the Man.

Hey, if it isn’t hurting, it isn’t working. Management Accounting tomorrow; time to snuff those variances.