Monday, December 28, 2009

Why You Shouldn't Be Scared of TurboFin(ance)

Before the start of my first quarter, I had already decided that I wanted to take TurboFinance (FINC-440).  My decision was based on a few course recommendations that I had received from Kellogg alums, my desire to challenge myself from the get-go, and the realization that the number of courses I wanted to take far exceeded the number that I could take during my two years on Planet MBA.

I discussed the decision to take TurboFin at length with some of my classmates (particularly those that were on Twitter) who were also wrestling with the decision, and it seemed that everyone had a logical argument in favor or against taking the course.  I stuck with my decision, in no small part due to my stubborn pride, which is constantly whispering in my ear that I can do well in anything as long as I bust my butt, and I am happy to report that I made the right call (for me at least).

TurboFin is definitely a challenging class, but if you are willing to dedicate the time to it, then I think it becomes very manageable; like a lot of other activities at Kellogg, it boils down to trade-offs and priorities.  For example, if you want to ease into your first quarter, get involved in a lot of clubs and activities early on, or else have no intention of taking advanced Finance courses or getting the major, then it may not be the best choice for you.  Without the right motivation, I imagine that it would be pretty difficult to devote the right amount of time to the class, especially when you are managing it within a chain of other classes and activities.

The class begins at breakneck speed before easing into a fast, yet manageable pace.  The first week, we covered 7 chapters in the text book (roughly 170 pages of reading); this was enough to convince some students to drop the course.  Fortunately, we were provided with excellent lecture notes that summarize each week's concepts in 10-14 pages and are a great substitute for the textbook.  Some students relied solely on the lecture notes and referenced the text book only when they needed additional information on a concept.  Personally, I tried to read everything because I needed to reinforce the concepts, which were entirely new to me, as much as possible.  I didn't do this during the second half of the course, and I think that was a key reason that I ended up with a B in the course, although I went into the final with a solid A.

After that first week, we only covered one or two chapters a week for the next three weeks.  We had weekly HW assignments, that varied in difficulty (2-4 hours a week), and were completed in groups.  Although some people would argue that you should stack up your group with people that have strong finance backgrounds, I don't think that is necessary for doing well. Only one person on my team had come from a finance background, and they were pretty heavily involved with recruiting throughout the quarter. We still successfully handled all of the HW assignments.

At first, I was doubtful about how beneficial working on teams would be in TurboFin, but it ended up being extremely valuable in the course.  We worked on the HW assignments individually, and then met to discuss our answers and draft the group copy that we would submit.  We normally spent 1-3 hours working on the HW as a group, and much of that time was spent talking about the right way to approach/answer a problem.  I was pleasantly surprised by how much this helped my understanding of the concepts and how well we worked together.

We wrapped up the Finance I content after four weeks, and we were then given a take-home open-notes open-book midterm.  We had one week to work on the midterm; I worked on it in small portions over the course of 4 days.  The midterm was easier than I expected, though I was still a bit nervous about it when I turned it in.  Fortunately, I was able to ace the midterm.

The second half of the course is more conceptual than the first half, covering Finance II topics including the Efficient Market Hypothesis, perfect and imperfect markets, and capital structure considerations, such as the tax benefits of debt financing.  After midterms were over, I made the mistake of relaxing too much during the next week.  I didn't realize that the second half of the course was structured similarly to the first half; i.e. the first week covered 5+ chapters before easing into one or two chapters a week.  In addition, I got involved with multiple competitions, including some that I had very little interest in (FOMO), and I quickly fell behind on the reading.  I wasn't able to catch up until the weekend before the final, but by then, the damage had been done.  A last minute cram session wasn't enough to do well on the final, which was timed (2 hours) in-class open-notes open book, and I came away with a B.  I am pretty sure that I came in just below the line for an A, which makes it sting a bit more for me.

In the end though, I'm really glad that I took TurboFin.  The course is very well designed, Professor Braun is fantastic, some of the material that we covered was eventually repeated in my Accounting and Managerial Decisions classes, and I was able to make room for another elective while positioning myself to get a Finance major.  Furthermore, I learned more from TurboFin than I did from any of the other classes that I took last quarter. Given that I was able to survive TurboFin, I am fairly certain that anyone else can as well.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Neighborhood Business Initiative Recap

Good luck to all of the 1st round Kellogg hopefuls!  It was around this time last year that they started releasing decisions, and it looks like they are doing the same this year based on the 2012 students that have already begun joining the Consulting Club.

Back in September, when my inbox was getting flooded with recruiting emails from all of the clubs at Kellogg, I applied for the Neighborhood Business Initiative (NBI), "an organization at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management that provides pro-bono consulting services to non-profits and socially-minded entrepreneurs."  Although I hadn't heard of the club before coming to Kellogg, I was drawn to it because of my interest in consulting and non-profit organizations.

The first thing that I had to do was decide if I wanted to be a "Team Lead" or "Consultant."  I thought about applying for the Team Lead role, but after some thought, I ultimately decided to go in as a Consultant.  At IBM, I had already been the Team Lead on several projects, so I didn't think that I would benefit as much from rehashing this experience.  After getting that out of the way, I selected a set of projects that I would like to work on from the 20 or so that were available.  The projects were labeled by function (Marketing, Strategy, etc), so I used that to narrow down the list and then selected based on the organization/project descriptions.

A few weeks later I was assigned to my first pick, and I learned who was on my team.  There were eight of us; a Team Lead, a 2nd-year mentor, and six consultants.  The majority of my teammates had some form of consulting experience under their belt, and I didn't realize what a great team I had been assigned to at the time.  We met immediately to meet each other, discuss logistics, and set expectations.  A few days later, we received our project proposal and met with our clients for the first time to discuss the project.

The client wanted the project to be much larger in scope than what we could handle in 10 weeks, so we had to scale it back, focusing on what we considered to be the most pressing issues.  We divided the work into 3 workstreams, Value Add, Pricing, and Sales Process, and assigned 2 consultants to each one.  I ended up on the Sales Process team, which I enjoyed thoroughly.

We spent the first 4 weeks or so gathering and analyzing data from the client and outside sources.  During this time, I was dedicating at most 2-3 hours a week on the NBI project because of all of the other items (group projects, papers, corporate meetings, HW, etc) that were demanding my attention.  When the midterms rolled around, I started to feel uneasy about the NBI project; we hadn't made much progress at all, and I was afraid that we wouldn't have any substantive recommendations to make at the end.

Just as I was starting to get concerned, everyone kicked it up a notch and started pouring more time into the project.  I met with my partner right after midterms, and we came up with a pretty comprehensive initial set of proposals for the selling process that we would then spend 3 weeks refining and modifying based on survey and interview data that we had collected.  From this point on, I was spending about 8-12 hours per week working on our proposals and the presentation.

In our team meetings, we starting presenting our ideas to each other, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that the team was able to openly criticize ideas and have honest, constructive debate that led to a lot of improvements in our final set of proposals.  We spent 3 weeks alone discussing the pricing proposals and the merits of recommending a high-price low-volume vs low-price high-volume model.  This kind of debate was refreshing, because I was able to hear what each person's reasoning was for supporting a particular strategy, and that helped me consider the situation from viewpoints that I had previously overlooked.  We were still wrestling with this decision a week before we were scheduled to give our final presentations.

Our Powerpoint presentation quickly grew to a 70-page "book" that contained our findings and proposals, explanations of the models that were built to determine the value-add and pricing components, and the data that we had collected from the target audience.  A few days before the last meeting with the clients, we spent an additional three hours late at night refining the deck and proofing everything.  I was very impressed with how the presentation eventually turned out, and I felt confident that we had put together something valuable for the client.

The final presentation was scheduled to go for an hour on the Thursday before finals with about ten representatives from the client organization present, including its President.  I would be presenting for about seven minutes, and I was excited about the opportunity to practice public speaking one final time in the quarter.  We ended up spending two hours going through the presentation, discussing our proposals with the clients, and listening to them discuss the issues that we were raising with each other.  We were ecstatic with the final results and relieved to successfully conclude our NBI project (it can be stressful at times).

Back in Evanston, we met for celebratory dinner and drinks at Pete Miller's.  With all of the stress off our shoulders, we were able to relax, chat, and have a good time, recounting our experiences for the quarter, funny stories from our past, and portions of our presentation.

I forgot to mention that although I had a great experience with NBI, some of my classmates did not. It definitely seems that there are people that end up on both sides of the spectrum (great vs crummy) with their NBI experience.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Business Strategy is over

I took the Biz Strat final earlier today, so I'm officially done with my 2nd class at Kellogg. Although I've heard mixed reviews about this course from my classmates, I really enjoyed it, in part because it gave me a nice set of tools for performing a quick analysis of business issues, which are normally presented in articles on WSJ/NYT. Whereas before I'd read an article about a business situation and end at "Oh. That's interesting," now I'd probably try to put it in the context of added value, value creation, positioning, etc.

The other reason that I enjoyed the course was because of Professor Mazzeo, who is extremely animated and involved in his lectures. You can immediately tell from his classes and accessibility how interested he is in the topic and in teaching in general; for example, last night he was on campus answering questions in the Loud Study Room, and he has a Twitter account for highlighting interesting articles, which he would pull into our discussions from time to time.   He is also kind of a bad ass, periodically giving business insights in magazines, TV shows, and radio programs.

The course was organized around weekly modules of 2 classes, with one class for lecturing on the current topic and the other class for discussing a case that pertained to the topic.  My only criticism for the course was regarding the case discussions; I wish that there had been more debate amongst classmates on differing viewpoints for the cases.  We rarely had cases where people drew a line in the sand and rigorously debated 2 sides of an issue.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

My Blogging Classmates

A while back, I made the mistake of removing the active blogger list from the side column in an effort to clean up the site's design (I'm a minimalist). As a result, I stopped keeping up with their blogs, because I'm not tracking their updates any other way. That was a huge mistake, because they are all excellent writers, and they provide additional perspectives on the Kellogg life that are normally written umpteen times better than my own accounts.

I finally took the time to restore the list. If you haven't stopped by their blogs (on the right ----> ), I highly recommend it.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Re: Leadership at Kellogg

Whew, it has been a long time since I've been able to sit down and type one of these up. The good news is that I have a lot of things I want to write about; the bad news is that if I don't find the time to do so soon, I'm likely to forget all of them.

I wrapped up my NBI project, which I am certain I'll write up a more detailed account on, last week with a 2-hour presentation at the organization's headquarters. My team put together a huge 70-slide deck containing our analysis, findings, recommendations, and supplemental data (simulations, survey data, etc). I also finished the last of my HW assignments, projects, and papers, so I now only have 4 finals left before I wrap up my first quarter at Kellogg! I'm in the middle of cramming for "Finals Frenzy," and it looks to be a difficult week, but that isn't the topic for this here post.

Instead, I wanted to quickly address a misconception that I've heard from a few applicants during the past couple of weeks on Leadership at Kellogg. Basically, there are a lot of opportunities to develop leadership skills here, but as far as I've seen, you will rarely, if ever, have formal authority over anyone (or a team). Instead, you will be working with groups of classmates that are all pretty much equally qualified to be the "leader." In these situations, you have to find a way to work together with your teammates to arrive at the best possible solution or successfully plan and execute something, and if you think that you have the right answer, it is up to you to convince the rest of the team. This is a lot harder than it seems, and I think it is representative of the situation you are likely to find yourself in most often throughout your career.

Not the most thrilling post, but finals are looming large and I have to get warmed up again.