Sunday, September 30, 2012

The One "Free Play"

First things first -- congrats to Navid and Shelly!

Football fans are familiar with the concept of a "free play," but to anyone who's not, it's basically where the defense jumps, but the flag is thrown after the ball is snapped, and the offense can basically do whatever it wants...once.  A bomb to the end zone, a crazy reverse, or whatever else you can conjure up on the fly is fair game, because a) if you get a result you like, you can keep it, and b) if you don't like the result, you can just say "thanks but no thanks."  You'll accept the five-yard penalty, and it's just like it never happened in the first place.

As an aspiring entrepreneur in a b-school program, I think there's one time where you essentially get the equivalent of a free play: the summer between your first and second years.

Here's why:  Assuming you're in a two-year program, that time has to be used somehow.  The most conventional way to spend it is to take an internship with a firm you hope to eventually work for.  If that works out, that's a pretty sweet deal, as an end-of-summer offer for post-grad essentially winds you down into what could be one of the least stressful years of your adult life (work-wise, at least): a second year of an MBA program for someone with a guaranteed job offer in June.

However, sometimes things aren't so simple.  You might not be sure what you want to do, you might intern for a firm that doesn't give full-time offers until the next spring, or you might not be able to squeeze through the door in that round (the major consulting firms actually have fewer summer intern spots than they do full-time job offers to give MBAs).  Even better than any of those, maybe you have a business idea that's been marinating between your ears for a while.

By using that summer to launch, rather than dive straight for the corporate alternatives, you've limited your opportunity costs to "just" the money you could have made (admittedly, that could be substantial...though I would argue against that with a long-term view), the potential full-time offer you maybe coulda sorta gotten, plus the time you spent with your start-up...but as stated earlier, that time had to be used're not any closer or further from finishing with either alternative.

Let's say your idea takes off.  Well, awesome.  Need I say much more?  Not at this hour, I don't!

Let's say you wind up somewhere in the middle.  That's sort of okay, too.  You can keep developing it during your second year.  Maybe you build some decision points into the next 10 months.  Maybe you can keep it alive as a side entity while *really* paying your bills elsewhere.

Let's say it bombs.  Spectacularly.  You launch in late May, only to find that the market research you never bothered to do before has finally shown you the idea is a sure failure.  You never secure a revenue stream, let alone outside funding...and you engage in shouting matches with your co-founders regularly.  By August, you've vowed never to utter words like "start-up" and "venture" again.

Even with that third event node occurring, what would you really have lost?  Okay, yes, the money and experience from somewhere else.  But you're still fully in the game for fall corporate recruiting.  On top of that, there's no nagging voice in your head saying "What about the all-in-one Pandora/Facebook/Google+/Highlight proximity network social media gathering space streaming music loving file sharing website I could start in order to become the next too-cool-to-care billionaire?"

Nope, that voice would be gone.  And considering how annoying it might sound, the dollar value of its absence might even outweigh the summer internship pay at Bain.

Seriously, though, you'd also have a really cool story during interviews when you get asked, " did you spend your summer?"  You've got all kinds of lessons learned, new wisdom, and the "failed entrepreneur" merit badge to put on your sash.

I don't see ANY of those as being bad things.  Kind of like a toss to the end zone after the yellow flags land in the neutral zone, I'd even say it sounds like a no-brainer for those with the guts to make the throw. 

Thursday, September 27, 2012

They Don't Care How Much You Know...But They Might Want to Know You Care

I just learned that North Station has free wi-fi, courtesy of Dunkin Donuts.  I'm still not sure whether all corporations are people, but I know Dunkin Donuts is, and I'm grateful for its generosity.

One of the most rewarding aspects of my time at school so far has been getting to know the international students in our cohort.  I'm not quite sure what the total number is, but I'm guessing between 30 to 40 percent of the student body is made up of foreign nationals.  Major countries of origin are:  China, Brazil, India, Israel, Chile, and Japan, with some others scattered across the globe.

Since all of the international students took the pre-term classes back in August, I've had a lot of time to get to know them...and given my prior professional experience, I take a natural interest in the views and perspectives of people who have 'come of age' somewhere other than here.  For all the time I've spent studying issues surrounding the Taiwan Strait, for instance, it wasn't until this program started that I got the chance to sit down with a real live person from Taiwan to ask her opinion about cross-Strait relations.

Here's a funny observation about that: Every time I've seen an American student approach an international student with a story about [insert 'crazy and zany' story about 'wild and spontaneous fun' along the Great Wall or other famous symbol here], or try out some halting [insert name of language], it never seems to go over well.  I can see the eyes glaze over, I can see the dispassionate body language, and I can tell by the quick response in English that this isn't going to be someone's time to play Berlitz.

However, when I have seen people really connect with international students, it's come from the conversation-initiator leading in with something very open-ended that blends honest curiosity with an appeal to the other person's experience or expertise.

In other words, "Tell me your opinion about what's going in Venezuela...I caught the news about Chavez's re-election campaign hitting a few snags" is an almost guaranteed winner (directed to a Venezuelan, of course).  Ditto for "Hey, what's up with the cartoon controversy in France?" or "Bibi really put the smackdown on our Iran policy.  Do you think he's frustrated with our lack of clarity?"

Those are all winners, provided the other person has the time and inclination to engage in discussion about said topics.

By contrast, a long recounting about one's zany and wild adventures in [insert name of country], or, even worse, opining about the true strength of the Chinese economy [or, say, Charles deGaulle's offense to NATO in 1966, or the merits of returning to the pre-1967 borders with respect to Jordan, Palestine, and Israel] just tends to neither win friends nor influence people.

When reflecting on this for a minute, I thought back to a quote I had heard once when I was training to become a teacher:  "They don't care how much you know until they first know that you care."  In other words, build rapport.

If that quote applies to teaching, an inherently didactic activity in which one person presumably does need to enable another to glean new information, I think it needs to be slightly altered for these real-world peer interactions.  As long as we're speaking about purely social contexts*, no one really cares how much you know, but they might want to know whether you care.  

And then I thought, why only apply this to conversations between U.S. and foreign nationals?  I think the applications are much broader...and years from now, I will almost certainly have forgotten whether a particular former banker or consultant made the most pithy and incisive comments in class.  Whether he was a good guy who enjoyed friendly conversation over a cup of coffee between classes, though?

That I might remember.

* I think if you're talking about professional or academic contexts, this doesn't really apply in the same way.  In other words, people might care what you know, and it might be part of your job to offer that up. For this entry, I'm referring to peer-to-peer social interactions with an academic backdrop...which really aren't too different from social interactions anywhere else.  

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Dog Is to Mouse As To...

I caught an interesting article today about how human intelligence, as measured by IQ tests, seems to be increasing with time.

This begs the important question about whether people are 'actually' getting smarter, or if their world is just adapting them better for things that IQ tests would measure.

If you asked people to talk about how a dog relates to a mouse, there are more people today who would say "they are both mammals" (the supposedly 'right' answer) than would say something like, "You use a dog to catch a mouse."

How, exactly, is that second answer 'wrong'?  I would say that it isn't, and I think there's an important principle at stake here.

I'll concede that intelligence probably falls along some sort of curve, while adding that 'intellectual curiosity' is somewhat correlated -- but NOT perfectly correlated -- with intelligence.  However, context matters.  A lot.  

Look at an MBA program.  There is a heavy, heavy dose of Microeconomics, Accounting, and Statistics.  I feel incredibly lucky that I was "flagged" as not having an Econ background undergrad, and therefore required to take a Microeconomics class this past summer.

That class helps me all the time.  It's easy to follow along, and even jump ahead, when you *sort of* know what's coming.  At the very least, when you're already familiar with things like consumer surplus, producer surplus, and price elasticity, you don't waste any mental energy wondering what some new term means, and consequently fall behind...just as the Cold Call Reaper reaches out with his sickle.

As for Stats, I studied enough over the summer to find my way around a normal distribution and most of the probability stuff we've seen so far (and yes, I realize it's only September).  Kinda sorta ditto for Accounting.

Still, more is better.  If it's "intuitive" to you whether you should first square differences from the mean and THEN weight the numbers by probability, as opposed to weighting by probability and then squaring distances from the mean in order to calculate a variance/standard deviation, then I'm guessing you've already taken some Stats.

One thing I've heard quite a bit during military training is that in pressure situations, people always revert down to their lowest-level, most-basic reactions.  That's why some of the training seems repetitive or redundant...that's the whole point.  A magazine change on the fly is something that ought to be muscle memory -- not something learned as lead is flying in your direction.

Basic MBA skills aren't that different.  The more you know when you FIRST walk through the door, the easier it will be...if you can help it, it's better NOT to learn how to convert z-scores to percentiles as tons of other things are flying at you.

So, if anyone finds this blog entry by searching for something like "How to Prepare for an MBA program," start by ignoring all the people who tell you that you can't prepare, or that it's all intuitive, or that it doesn't really matter, dude.  (The people likeliest to say that are probably ducks...gliding 'effortlessly' along the surface while secretly paddling like hell below the waterline).

Here is some real, no-kidding advice that will help you land on your feet once things start rolling.  Study as much Statistics as possible.  Khan Academy and workbooks from a bookstore are good starts, but ideally, take a class (it will force you to apply your learning and stay on pace).  Next, study as much Accounting as possible.  If you find yourself starting to say things like, "Well, isn't it obvious that dividend payments shouldn't impact Net Earnings?" then you're on the right track.  Keep going.  And last, learn as much Econ as you possibly can.

Think of it this way....all the knowledge in those areas you walk in with through the front door on Day One is like armor.  It will get chipped away over time, but the more you start with, the better. Knowing how to calculate cross-price elasticities won't really make you smarter than your former self, just like the guy who says dogs and mice are mammals isn't really any smarter than the guy who says dogs are for hunting mice.

...But it'll sure make your life a lot easier. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Hey, You! Call 911

I got my CPR training from a Navy Corpsman, Chief Raniowski.  Chief Ski is an awesome guy and was an awesome teammate.  He lost an eye in Fallujah (non-combat) and came home from our deployment early in 2006.  I was sad to see him go, and was thrilled to see him back in Virginia Beach, still his same upbeat, highly-motivated self.

Anyway, when 'Ski trained a group of us, he stated that we should NEVER just yell out "Someone call 911!" during a civilian situation emergency.  Without just leaving it at that, he asked why that might be sound policy.  I remember not having a clue.

The answer, he said, is that in any group situation, no one is certain to take on the role of that 'someone.'  It's more effective to point directly at a particular person and state in the loudest, most authoritative I-am-in-charge-now tone of voice, "YOU -- Call 911 RIGHT NOW!"  If that person freezes up or runs away, you can choose someone else.  You get the idea.

I never forgot that lesson.  

I since spent another six years on the active side, including lots of time overseas (3 of the past 6 Christmases...seriously), and I know that when you're delegating within a small group, you need to get a l'il specific.  Because when you don't, there's ambiguity.  And ambiguity leads to mistakes which can lead to...really bad days for really good people.

Fast forward to today, where I had some frustration regarding group dynamics during a Core meeting.  Our seven-person "Core" team that handles a lot of group projects, meets regularly, and works as a tiny sub-unit within our 70-person cohort (6 x cohorts per class, total).  They are all great people and come from a widely diverse background set of professions, educations, and places in the world.  I enjoy all their company individually, and I would also say we get along well as a team.  If anyone was guilty of rocking that boat a bit today, it was me...and here's why:

Our last two projects were basically "crowdsourced."  No one was really in charge, everyone threw in a little something, and they got done.  However, the process was imperfect -- there was role confusion, deliverable confusion, and we wound up submitting the last edit of the document.  When the stakes are low, that doesn't really matter.  But there's something inherently broken about that...just imagine a system in which whoever had tabs on something last would determine what it said (Congress?  Memos to Fortune 500 CEOs?  Newspaper editorials?)  Also, that doesn't factor in that someone's "edit" may have warped the English language to the point where clauses become sentences, verbs disappear, and implied intent changes.  Or that tasking "somebody" to do something becomes less effective as available free time diminishes...the busier you are, the easier it is not to be that 'somebody.'  No shocker what happens in these scenarios (regardless of time, place, or circumstance)...20 percent of the group winds up as the sled dogs with some heavy rucksacks on their backs, with the other 80 percent seeing 'no problem at all' with the arrangement.

So I piped up today to say, "This worked okay up to now, but the model is kinda sorta broken.  It might be wiser to appoint one single person as the project lead for each of these things.  That person can delegate, collect everything, sort it all out, draft it into a coherent whole, and then "own" the document.  People would be able to recommend whatever changes or edits they want, but that person (who would of course rotate each time) would run the show, control the edits, and submit the final deliverable."

This went over like the proverbial turd in a punchbowl.  I'm not entirely sure why -- was it because I was being the Domineering Military Guy? The Grumpy Old Man?  Even worse than outright disagreement was the extremely awkward silence that followed this proposal.  Honestly, I would have given anything at that moment for someone to just say, "I don't like your idea, and here's why..." followed by something thoughtful and rational.  Instead, I got a group of six staring at their shoes.

And since I like to think I "know when to fold 'em" I just took my cue to shut up and move along.

I thought about it a lot on the train ride home, and much like the protagonist in a business case, weighed my two basic options:

(1) Stand up, puff my shoulders, flex my chest, and declare "I'm in charge here," knowing the benefit would be more efficient outcomes and a leadership void filled, but at the risk of alienating the entire group and ripping apart the team dynamic; or

(2) Choose the 'strategic backslide" option, in which I simply let go a little, let the system be broken and chaotic, and just embrace it.  After all, Christmas is three months away -- it will eventually get here no matter what (again, military experience comes through...I'm familiar with how to conceptualize difficult but temporary stretches of time in my head).  This could lead to some short-term frustrations, but is better for group cohesion, and ultimately might lead people to come around and realize why "somebody will just do it" isn't the right answer at work, at home, or anywhere else (unless you're sure not to be 'that somebody' in which case it's not so bad...just ask anyone who litters or vandalizes public spaces)...

If you know me pretty well, you might've been able to guess that I chose Option 2.  If there were lives on the line, or heck, even shareholder value or company profits on the line, I would NOT be so complacent.  However, I thought long and hard about it (between Wedgemere and North Billerica, anyway) and came to the conclusion that a few typos on a case solution, and some last-minute, unneeded panic are not worth the risk of upsetting the apple cart.

As I was walking through Gallagher Terminal, I bumped into a very close friend:  a Ph.D. holder who lives on one of those cool row houses on Cabot Street (they are amazing on the inside, trust me) and teaches at LHS.  He is a remarkably wise man, and when he offered to drive me home (actually his wife drove) by way of McDonald's on Plain St., I told him about the issue I came across, but without the decision info.

His answer almost gave me goosebumps:  "Greg, you're a Captain.  These people around you are all extremely bright, but they're a bit younger than you and they've never really led anything.  Your job at this point is to back away, take on a role as more of an observer, and just jump in when you think it's absolutely necessary.  Sooner or later what you're saying [about delegation, clear roles, and a 'deliverable owner'] will become obvious.  You need to let that happen on its own."

Then, I walked through the door and talked to my wife (as the days keep stretching and stretching on both ends, that's becoming more of a novelty).  She could tell I had something on my mind, and I explained the dilemma, along with the fact that I was more frustrated by the (lack of) response to my proposal/explanation than to the original issue that it sprang from.

She listened to everything, thought about it for a second, and then said the exact same thing that Julio did.

My Lesson:  Sometimes it's extremely important to take a step outside of whatever bubble you're in, take a breath, and get your bearings.  

Monday, September 17, 2012

Come, All Ye Generalists?

I'm very glad I read Philip Delves Broughton's "Ahead of the Curve" as well as Peter Robinson's "Snapshots from Hell" before jumping aboard the b-school train.

Both started business school when they were 31.

Both were from very non-quantitative "poet" backgrounds (Broughton wrote for a newspaper in London, Robinson wrote speeches for President Reagan, incl. 'Tear Down This Wall...')

Both have that writer's knack of observing and capturing the funny things around them while still maintaining a tone that conveys seriousness and sense of purpose.

Broughton's and Robinson's memoirs both describe the feeling that sets in when they get to elite business schools only to find lots of doors slammed in their faces.  The expectation was that they would show up, learn "how to do business" and would soon be Captains of Industry who chomped on cigars, set golf dates for three p.m., and left early on Friday to beat the traffic to the Hamptons.  What they both found, however, was that many industries aren't so welcoming to people who haven't been there and done that before.

The major exception so far is management consulting.  Every other career presentation, industry panel, or even interest club meeting has reinforced the idea that whatever *it* is (Private Equity, Venture Capital, Healthcare, Investment Management, etc.), it will only seek out those who already came from it.

This leads to some important questions:  (1) Then what's the point of b-school for those people anyway?  If you factor in opportunity cost of lost wages, they're forking over 400k or a lot more (depending on how you count it, and whether you include retirement benefits and projected raises) for...their old desk back?  More pressing for me is (2) What about those of us who came from somewhere completely different?

In come the Big League consulting firms, whose pitches literally say, "It's okay to be a generalist.  If you are a smart, intellectually curious person who likes to solve problems and work in teams, and doesn't mind some unpredictability and long hours, we want you.  We want to offer you a nice salary [2.5x what a Captain makes] and if you can hack it after four or five years, you can then manage the new MBA hires and do even better."

It's no surprise, then, that I'll be *rushing* several of those places to learn more.  Consider me intrigued.  I am also intrigued about Operations jobs with big, well-established firms.

As for alternatives beyond that, though, in comes a shoulder shrug and blank stare.

A big part of me wonders if there's some smoke-and-mirrors going on with the whole Catch-22 about industry and experience.  Could it just be a way for insiders to stay inside and protect their fiefdoms from knuckle-dragging party crashers who did other things with their lives after hearing Pomp and Circumstance several years ago?

To arrive at that question, I thought about the types of jobs I've either done or been around (thinking of civilian equivalents here) for the last 7 years.  Yes, there's jargon.  Yes, there's a training hurdle to overcome.  But the basic core skills that would make someone good sound a heckuva lot like what the Consulting Bigs identified (intelligence, work ethic, people skills, intellectual curiosity).

....But wait, doesn't that capture just about anything?  Save for things that require truly specialized advanced knowledge that takes all of the above PLUS years of very specific schooling (say, a neurosurgeon), something that requires a high level of raw intelligence plus industry familiarity (software engineer), or something that requires rare physical and mental endurance (a Navy SEAL), I don't think most jobs deviate too far from the way the Consultants laid it out.

I attended an "MBA jobs in healthcare" panel today where I heard the same saw about prior experience.  I'm just not seeing it.  I don't see how ONLY someone who had 2-4 years of exposure to that sector after college could then work in the Budget Operations office at a hospital, or how ONLY someone already from that world could go work on the Marketing side of the house for big pharma or a hotshot bio tech firm in Kendall.

In fact, those are precisely the types of jobs for which I would imagine someone's success level would correlate with the skill sets I heard in the "it's okay to be a generalist speech."

This will all be interesting to see as it unfolds (summer internship and job search for our class).  In the meantime, I just got an e-mail on the train ride home with an invite to a McKinsey event later this month.

It's already on the calendar.  

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Time to Throw the Luddites a Bone for this One?

There is a pending court decision involving Apple that has me pretty fascinated.

I won't pretend to understand the legal intricacies, or even the finer details of the case in question, but the 10,000-foot view is this:

1.  18 year-old kid walks into Apple Store on 5th Avenue in NYC.
2.  Kid uses the super-advanced check-yourself-out system that allows customers to enter the store, buy and pay for merchandise, and leave, all without interacting with an Apple employee.
3.  Store employee chases him down on the street, saying he stole the headphones.
4.  Kid says he did NOT steal headphones; he thought he had used the system properly.
5.  Apple is sticking to its guns, and this thing will be decided by a court.

Here's why this is so interesting:  Several stores that are eager to expand convenience options for consumers, and shave down cost margins anywhere they can, have implemented "self check-out" systems in various capacities.  Most of the ones we've seen at huge retailers or supermarkets involve several registers, all being monitored by one live employee and, of course, eyes in the sky working for Loss Prevention.

The major problem is how we determine who should be responsible when something goes wrong.  Personally, I side with the consumer -- if I haven't been trained on a specific piece of equipment, how can you expect me to use it right?  If "whoops" my thumb was over the UPC as I scanned it, well, silly me I wasn't really sure what I was doing.  If a UPC had been visibly altered, well, silly me, I didn't notice when I took it off the shelf (maybe the LP cameras could offer another point of view, depending on their coverage quality).  If that expensive and bulky item I had on that bottom, flat part of the carriage didn't make it through the scanner, well, sometimes I'm absentminded like that.  Could there be an "acceptable loss" threshold at which that cost is counterbalanced by the labor cost savings and the additional revenue from customers who appreciate the convenience?

I just can't quite see how the kid with the headphones can be proven guilty in this, and I wonder what implications it will have on self check-out systems.

On a slightly separate note, my observational history shows me that people are very good at correcting mistakes that count against them, and not so good in the other direction.  If an employer charged someone 10 vacation days for a 5-day honeymoon to Bermuda, what do you think the chances are that the employee would work with HR to correct the error?  Now ask yourself the same question, with the 10 and the 5 reversed.  What are the chances now?  Who do you think always insists out loud to no one in particular that "it all evens out anyway" -- your friend who is always loaning money out, or the one who is always borrowing?

Believe me, I love people.  If you know me (as in, outside of the online realm), you probably already knew that.  But maybe it's because I love them so much that I know when to expect certain things...and what they might do when they're "not entirely sure" but they "think" that whiz-bang device in the Apple Store was really working.  How much diligence do you think most people would apply to be absolutely certain?

This will be an interesting one to watch.  

Friday, September 14, 2012

Smarterer and the Future of Work & Education

Jennifer Fremont-Smith came to talk to us today about the entrepreneurial life.  She made a lot of great points about the pros and cons of taking that plunge, and I have notes...but for right now I want to just write a quick entry about the phenomenal concept behind her start-up, Smarterer, and what I think it means for the education bubble we keep hearing about, and for the American worker of the future.

Smarterer is a way to benchmark skills.  It uses tests, with questions crowdsourced to its users, and a fancy algorithm that I can't understand -- and don't care to -- in order to give users a quantifiable score in a skill, whether it's HTML5, PYTHON, Excel, or Brazilian Portuguese.

This is awesome. 

Anyone who has ever looked at a resume has wondered what it means when a person uses the "Skills" line to call himself "Proficient" in Excel.  I believe that I am, but really, my Excel skills are very limited compared to most of my peers.  But what about Spanish?  I say I'm "Proficient" in that, which to me means that I can watch a dialogue-based Mexican movie with no subtitles and laugh at all the funny parts.  To someone else, though, "Proficient" might involve cerveza, muchacha, and Donde esta el bano?  

And who's to say that anyone is fibbing?

If an employer needs someone who can really work some Excel magic, would I be misrepresenting myself with the "Proficient" description?  You can ask that question to a thousand employers and a thousand would-be employees, and my hunch is that you'd get about two thousand shoulder shrugs.

I'll admit, I haven't spent enough time on the site to know much more than the basic concept.  One thing that Fremont-Smith said that threw me off was that the certification tests on Smarterer were very short (as in, like, 10 questions or so).  But for the sake of this entry, the big takeaway ought to be the concept itself.  

Every day, we are hearing about the "higher education bubble" and the questionable return-on-investment for advanced degrees (and sometimes, for Bachelor's degrees too).  I'll even admit that I've come around quite a bit on this...when I first heard people bring up issues of appropriate courses of study and degree levels, I thought it reeked of the whole "slam-the-door-behind-you" problem (in other words, I saw it as a bunch of elitists giving advice about higher ed that they would never dish out to their own offspring).

Now, I really wonder whether people should pursue advanced degrees that don't advance a clear career path (in other words, going for an MD to be a doctor, a JD to be a lawyer, an MBA to get into management consulting, etc.)  I also wonder whether it's reasonable for people to major in Sociology and somehow expect the world to fall at their feet on graduation day....and I really would advise a close family member to very carefully consider choice of major, weighed against future employment prospects.

Anyway, back to the pin that could help prick this bubble:  If people could distinguish themselves with demonstrable skills, rather than degrees that don't serve a clear purpose or show that a certain threshold was met, they wouldn't need to throw themselves into permanent hock thinking it was somehow a wise career move.  Just think back to that line from Good Will Hunting about a fahkin education for $1.50 in late fees at the Pollard.  Or something like that.

Screw the people on both extremes w/respect to pedigree (those who use it to sneer at others, as well as those who carry chips on their shoulders so large that they can't let basic, easily searchable facts about access and cost get in the way of their opinions).

I'm not saying Smarterer is manna from heaven, the greatest thing since sliced bread, or any such hyperbolic thing...yet.  I don't know enough about the fine details and the uniformity of the standard.  Maybe the answers to those questions will even become someone else's better mousetrap.  But I am saying the concept is exactly the type of thing that can truly democratize post-secondary education, make job seekers more employable, and help hirers sift through resumes to find the people they really need, quickly.

Maybe someone will develop an app that can link needed skills, as listed by employers, with tests and prep material available on the site.  Maybe that will be a big first step in resolving the apparent paradox of people marching in the streets to complain about a lack of available jobs, and employers letting positions go unfilled as they complain about a lack of available, skilled labor.

Who can argue against that sort of future?   

Thursday, September 13, 2012

MBTA Academy

"We must remember that one man is much the same as another; and that he is best who is trained in the severest school."  -- Thucydides

No one actually asked me this, but if they did, I'd say the best part of the whole back-to-school experience is the schooling itself.  I can avoid the "hic-a-doo-la" fun events (that's a Family Guy reference that I'll explain in more depth at another time), and it's easy to do so because I have a family back here.  Even on a relatively *short* day, I'm leaving home a shade before 6 a.m. to return around 8:30 p.m.

But as I've written about earlier, that's not wasted time, because the commute is spent either reading or walking (two of my favorite activities, both of which I plan to keep up until my time here runs out).  As for the learning and the classes, they are nothing short of awesome (and the setup makes me wonder why more undergrad classes aren't taught in a way that encourages participation and puts a fear into everyone that they might be called upon unexpectedly...but again, another story for another day). 

One major advantage I have is the commute to North Station each morning.  The way I use it reminds me of something a friend's Dad said about going through Parris Island in the early 1950s.  "Here I was...this city Jewish kid from Queens who had never picked up a rifle before and barely knew which end the bullets came out of mixed in with a bunch of country boys who had grown up doing this stuff.  And guess what?  I outshot all those guys.  And I did it because I just listened to everything the [Gunnery Sergeant] said, word-for-word.  Those other guys thought they knew it, so they just blew it off." 

You might be able to guess where I'm headed here, but as someone coming from a non-consulting/banking/accounting background, who didn't have a Quant-heavy undergrad experience, I am starting off a tad bit behind.  But with fifty uninterrupted minutes each day, each way, plus the occasional EZ Ride (the blue buses down Nashua Street from right outside Red Auerbach Way) and the occasional LRTA Big Green Machine on days I don't feel like walking, I have lots of time to study those things.  And to read the Wall Street Journal, something we get told to do all the time but almost no one actually does. 

And why not?  Because they're (busy x 3). 

Again and again, I'm seeing this stuff paying big dividends.  I am in there each morning, Game Face on.  I'm not "That Guy" in the sense of trying to dominate a section, but when questions come up, particularly involving outside general sort of issues, I'm not gun-shy, either.  When I don't understand the Monty Hall probability, instead of nodding along, I ask.  When I still don't understand the concept, I use YouTube (and now I do get it, thanks to the British folks who brought us the video below).  Beefing up on Statistics with COOP-purchased workbooks means that when I hear "Greg, why don't you walk us through this one?" I can actually do it, whereas if I had just tried to learn the concept being discussed as it was being discussed I quite frankly would not have been able to. 

I haven't gotten into the Clubs yet, but I'm going to ease my way into that as the schedule settles out somewhat.

For now, I'm just happy to be in the environment that I'm in.  Somewhere in the back of my mind I know that there's a real world, and there's debt, and there might be an inverse relationship between the *safety* of a job choice and the limitless set of options that currently feel like they're on the table. 

But for right now, all of that can wait.  I'll just keep being a 17th-grader. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Your Bigotry Isn't My Bigotry!

I had just begun this break from Econ and Accounting reading to check e-mail, scan headlines, and do a local "tour de blog" when I caught something on about two Republican Senators (Inhofe and Wicker) drafting legislation that would ban same-sex marriage ceremonies on military bases, as well as excuse military chaplains from having to perform said ceremonies if they desired not to. 

As for the second part, I don't know the legal side of it well enough to write about it (if chaplains could do the same for a heterosexual couple, that makes it tricky...but people could always find another chaplain).  As for the first part though, I OBJECT

Much like "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" -- something imposed ON the military, but not coming FROM the military, this type of stuff makes our armed forces look like a bunch of reactionaries.  This is NOT coming from us.  This is coming from someone trying to USE us to score political points.  If there is some type of outcry among veterans abouts same-sex ceremonies happening on their installations, I have not heard about it:  Not last year in Afghanistan, not at Fort Hood, not at Fort Dix, not at Fort Devens, and not with the 17 fellow veterans in my program who I see on a daily basis.  We've got way too much else on our minds

What gives these guys the right to "protect" us from something that we may not need protection from in the first place?  For what it's worth, I looked up their bios (Inhofe did not serve in the military, Wicker did four years as a USAF JAG and retired O-5 in the Reserves).  I guess technically it shouldn't matter anyway -- this is still just garbage. 

Still, does it make me want to leave the party I finally went ahead and joined back in April after a decade of "Unenrolled" time following my first few years of adulthood as a D?  No.  Not any more than Abu Ghraib makes me want to leave the military...which it doesn't.  In fact, it just emboldens me to stick around and believe that there's a better way to do things in this region.  I can have my Brown and my Baker without my Romney and hope to see people like our former platoon leader get elected at the State level in Augusta. 

And to the Dixie-whistlers Wicker and Inhofe, I pose this question: "Who asked ya?"

No one, that's who

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

If All the Sidewalks Were This Wide...

Lowell has done some great things for cyclists lately, to include not only putting bike lanes and "sharrows," but also allowing for bicycle parking in city garages

Both steps make the city more bike-friendly.  I have given some thought to a bicycle purchase lately, but find myself going back to either taking the LRTA or using my leather, all-weather personnel carriers, mainly because of all the crapola I'm carrying and the perils of biking. 

If I could bike on the sidewalk, that would change things, but biking on the sidewalk is against the rules.  Every day, I see people breaking that rule in Lowell, Boston, and Cambridge, but it doesn't make me want to join their ranks.  As for biking on the road, I find it harrowing enough trying to "pedestriate" (no, it's not a word) through certain tight spaces.  As for biking across the Longfellow Bridge?  Fuhggeddaboutit. 

So yesterday, I had to stop and take notice of a special "Bikes Only" section of the sidewalk running from Kendall towards Central along Vassar Street.  The picture below can speak the words better than I could try to do, but I'll just acknowledge here that this wouldn't really be an option in most urban spaces.  Still, it's pretty awesome:


Tuesday, September 4, 2012

But Ain't That America?

During an Operations simulation/game designed to show us how badly -- and how quickly -- supply chains can become screwed up, even in the face of constant consumer demand, I sat next to a Qatari classmate.  She is an observant Muslim who wears a hijab in public.

I asked her whether she had lived in the States prior to starting her MBA, and she replied that she had finished her last two years of undergrad in Boulder, CO.  "I really liked it there...I had a great time," she said, before continuing on that, "Everyone was great to me, but they kept warning me that 'this wasn't the real America.'"

Not really knowing how to interpret that, she next spent some time working in Austin, TX.  Guess what?  In Austin, she got the exact same response, along with the 'real America' line.  At this point, we were both laughing a bit, and I explained to her that there are many people in Texas who would dispute any statement about any place in Texas not being the "real America."  But on she went.

Prior to coming to Cambridge, she had spent time in Washington, DC, guessed it -- people were exceedingly friendly, but cautioned her that this was also not the 'real America.'

By the time she got to talking about Cambridge, it was no shocker that she had heard the same thing here.

We didn't get to talk much more about it, but I thought this was pretty fascinating.  Yes, she had spent time in university and government towns, which are admittedly a skewed sample of the overall national population.  But before we get too carried away in those towns' other-ness, I'll refer back to what the Pakistani visitors who came to Lowell and Andover said this summer (it felt remarkable to them to feel so 'unremarkable' walking in places like Main St (Rte 28) or Merrimack Street).

The common thread in all the places the Qatari student had visited was that people were not only welcoming/friendly, but they felt the need to pre-emptively apologize for the 'other' or 'real' Americans who would not be so nice and wonderful.  Fascinating.

In light of that, is this country a xenophobic place?  You're damn right it is, I would say.  I would say the U.S. is xenophobic in the same way that I'd say democracy is a bad form of government or that capitalism is a bad economic system...all technically true until you wield the comparison tool.

The perspective that comes from serious time spent living abroad helps to shape that opinion.  Not that I condone ANY form of xenophobia (not even doing a double-take towards someone who looks *foreign* at your local Wal-Mart), but to really get a sense of perspective, YOU might try walking down the street in Karachi, looking exactly as you currently do.  Now try that while wearing an outward symbol of your religion.

And beyond condemnations of people in the 'flyover states' who you've never met, you can help in your own way to affirm American values of openness by treating people who come from other lands as individuals.  Just as it's wrong to leer or glare at people, it's not right to exoticize them, either.  Unless someone is really doing things that are "awesome" or "amazing" every five minutes, lay off on the superlatives a bit.  Don't refer to garb they wear as a "costume."

And don't feel the need to constantly offer unsolicited apologies for the ignoramuses among you who haven't memorized the Five Pillars of another religion, or learned how to find the Persian Gulf on a map.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Modern Medicine: Thanks and All That!

I was walking up Cambridge Street on Beacon Hill last week when I saw Doctor Derrick Lin (MEEI) coming down the street with some coffees in his hand.  I wouldn't miss the guy for anything -- after all, he performed surgery on me less than two years ago that helped save my life -- so I called out to him with a friendly hello.

After we exchanged some pleasantries and caught up a bit, he mentioned that a story we had helped to film at Mass Eye and Ear had aired on a local news channel in Tennessee.

The story mainly speaks for itself, and if you're a long-time reader of the blog, you're probably familiar with it.  If you're interested in the medical side, I'll point out that one of the mysteries involved the absence of HPV (Human Papilloma Virus).  All my pathology samples were negative, which is doubly unusual:  First, most people carry some form of HPV; but second, nearly all oral cancer patients do (two strands of the virus in particular).  In fact, Doctor Lin has literally performed thousands upon thousands of these surgeries, and only two patients have ever been HPV-negative.

One of my best friends dug up this medical journal a while ago which showed a study linking alcohol intolerance with squamous cell carcinoma.  Sure enough, I really did experience the 'single nucleotide polymorphism' described in the article (I am alcohol allergic/intolerant) but wasn't born that way.  What it means is that what someone might process as a harmless byproduct (acetic acid) is broken down by someone 'missing the enzyme' as acetaldehyde, which is, well, highly carcinogenic.

Still, to all the MD/PhDs over in the West End, that's so much mumbo jumbo.  Seriously.  As I wrote about after Adam Yauch died, no one really has any clue why ANYONE develops cancer.  People try to find these linear causalities (i.e. Remember the time you breathed in those chemicals near that lab?) but they are grasping at straws.  As Malcolm Gladwell might say, they're confusing puzzle and mystery. | Nashville News, Weather

Watching the clip brought back a lot of memories, as does my daily commute, which takes me past the Yawkey Center twice each day and across the Longfellow Bridge as well, with a clear view of Mass Eye and Ear. Most of all, I am grateful to say that the system worked for me -- from the guy in Winchester who took the biopsy to the tech at Wright-Patt who saw the disease to the lady at Hanscom who gave me the MGH/MEEI referral to the professionals at MEEI who decided to take extra lymph nodes rather than radiate to the General who decided to take a risk by letting me deploy, everything really came together.

And yes, every day is a win, and all of those wonderful things.  Provided, of course, I don't ever take all of that for granted.