Monday, September 06, 2010

MIT Sloan Fellows: One semester down, two to go

Some thoughts about the MIT Sloan Fellows program, after the "boot camp" experience of the summer semester.
MIT Sloan Fellows  - E52
Back entrance to the old Sloan building (E52)
"Business doesn't follow the past, so at MIT you need to have principles that guide you going forward, even as conditions change."
- Professor Tom Stoker (15.024, Applied Economics for Managers)
"Your strengths are going to be a bigger hindrance over the next 15 years than your weaknesses. You have to look beyond your strengths."
- Dean David Schmittlein

About a week and a half ago, I completed my first semester at Sloan as a member of the Sloan Fellows Program in Innovation and Global Leadership. Before the fall semester starts this week, I wanted to review some of the learning (and unlearning) experiences I had at this remarkable school in this remarkable program over the summer, among some truly remarkable people. (Also, to be clear, while the summer term is intense and consists largely of quantitative subjects, in the fall and spring we shift focus to innovation, leadership, and globalization. There is also a tremendous amount of flexibility to choose electives elsewhere in MIT and at Harvard. For more information, see "MIT Sloan Fellows program: Soft vs Hard" and "First day of the spring semester")

The Sloan Fellows summer was intense. We weren’t eased into the program; we were thrown right into the deep end. Professor Tom Stoker, our microeconomics instructor, on the first day of class made it abundantly clear that we were in for a rough ride: “Our approach is to really shove you in the water,” he declared, adding that he was attempting to cram into a four-week long period almost the same class material that the two-year MBA students get over the course of an entire semester. That translated to about three hours of economics lectures/recitations per day, plus textbook readings, case reports, and group projects to handle almost every day after class and at home. Early in the summer, we also had to deal with Marketing, taught by Duncan Simester, as well as a “deep dive,” a group research and strategy project based on Wal-mart’s sustainability efforts. It was similarly intense, and had our team regularly working until 8 or 9 pm in E51, and often until much later at home.
"The challenge is to get the questions right."
- Professor Duncan Simester (15.809, Marketing for Managers)

In the middle of July, we shifted to a four-class schedule (Accounting, Finance, DMD, and Supply Chain Management), and that’s when things really got tough. It became very frustrating managing four classes in a condensed schedule, and the assignments and responsibilities piled up. At some point in late July, I accepted that my pre-MIT standard of getting As in everything couldn’t hold, because there simply weren’t enough hours in the day to make it happen.

Sloan Fellows program: A change in perspective

To cope, a change in perspective was required. I realized that the purpose of me coming to MIT was  not to get straight As. I came here to learn and transform myself. Keeping up with class, understanding concepts, and turning in assignments is certainly important. However, many other crucial learning takeaways extend to aspects of the program that aren’t even graded (I am thinking of group interactions and other learning experiences, which I describe below). A change in caffeine intake was also required -- I never drank coffee before, but at Sloan I’ve found it’s the only thing that can keep me going through a solid day of back-to-back classes.

To give you an idea of the summer schedule, here’s what I typically had to deal with from late July to late August in my day-to-day routine:
  • Getting up at 5 or 6 am, and catching the MBTA Commuter Rail into town about an hour later
  • After taking the Red Line to MIT, reading, studying, completing individual and group assignments at the Dewey library after-hours study room
  • Attending class from 8:30 to 11:45
  • Eating lunch and often simultaneously attending meetings (for instance, I belong to the class continuity committee, which meets Monday lunchtime)
  • Attending afternoon class sessions from 1 to 4 or 4:30
  • Taking part study group meetings, which on average lasted between two and four hours
  • Additional library time, before catching the subway and train home
The schedule was especially trying before the 15.511 Accounting exam on August 13. That week, I left home every day before 6 am, and didn’t get home until 9 or 11 pm. Once the Accounting exam was out of the way, the pressure lessened somewhat, except right before the finance exam on August 26.

Besides the school schedule, I had to achieve a work/life balance that accommodated my family. My young son cried on the first day when I came home late -- he was used to me reading a story to him before he went to bed, and I hadn’t been there for him. I couldn’t change my weekday schedule to make this problem go away -- assignments and group meetings didn’t allow it. But I did make a commitment to be focused on family on Saturday and most of Sunday, and on a few occasions to leave early from school on weekdays for some special family event.

The Sloan Fellows academic experience was different. Liberal arts-focused academic analysis tends to place a premium on solitary research, structured prose, and qualitative analysis. The summertime coursework at Sloan placed a premium on data, group discussions, math, quantitative analysis, and a slew of analytical frameworks.
"Lots of decisions made during meetings are based on intuition, and lead to bad outcomes."
- Duncan Simester (15.809)

For written assignments, faculty dispensed with the niceties of essays and standard research papers -- they wanted us to get straight to the point, and demanded bulleted lists, excel spreadsheets (fortunately, I wrote an Excel for Dummies alternative so that wasn't a challenge), and mathematical evidence to support our answers.

The math was difficult. Like many media people, I avoided math during my undergraduate years. After my career got off the ground, I eased my way back into math when I studied Web programming and completed a quantitative-based thesis for an earlier graduate degree. The Sloan Fellows program further required me to take a precalculus class before coming to Cambridge, and this experience helped me immensely with functions, graphing, and brute-force algebraic calculations in the homework and exams over the summer. Nevertheless, the Finance and Economics classes went beyond all of this -- calculus came up, and I was constantly challenged by unfamiliar mathematical notation.
"The principles learned here will apply now, they would apply in 1980, and they would apply 30 years from now."
- Tom Stoker (15.024)

MIT Sloan frameworks

The frameworks require additional description. A framework is basically a systematic way to analyze a business situation. For instance, the framework used to understand leadership is the “four capabilities” model that was developed at MIT. Frameworks are a new way of thinking for me, and I had to unlearn the ad-hoc methods of analysis that are commonplace in the news industry. Other examples include the Enterprise Architecture and S-Curve frameworks from our Supply Chain class. I am not sure I trust these frameworks completely, but I also haven’t had much time to use them beyond class assignments. It will be interesting to roll them out for real-world situations and and competitive analysis over the next few semesters.

Groups. The Sloan Fellows are a diverse bunch. We hail from dozens of countries and come from all sorts of industry backgrounds. But in many respects we are quite similar. We’re all middle-aged. We have all enjoyed successful careers. We’re all driven to succeed and transform ourselves. These factors, and the shared academic struggle over the summer, brought us together. Being with this cohort reminded me of earlier experiences in high-performance teams, in which everyone is smart and everyone is striving to put in the extra effort to be number 1. In situations like this, you feed off one another, you strive to succeed, and you try as hard as you can to accomplish great things and avoid letting down the rest of the team.

The discussions in class were positively electrifying. The faculty were great at leading and encouraged them. We all had our own examples to offer -- one example that springs to mind concerns a case in Professor Andreas Schulz’s Data, Models, and Decisions class (15.060), when we were talking about using a decision tree or some sort of optimization model for airline scheduling. Two of the hands that went up to offer insider perspectives belonged to a former jumbo jet pilot and a manager at a large Asian airline. And, for the most part, we were not afraid to offer our own views, even if they differed from those espoused by faculty and in the assigned readings.

These dynamics carried over to other types of groups: The sections (A and B, each consisting of half of the SF11 cohort), learning groups (seven or eight people working on the deep dive or class presentations) and especially the study groups. The study groups have just three or four students, and are chosen by the program office to get a good mix of backgrounds (if we were left to our own devices to choose study group teams at the beginning of the semester, many would probably make choices based on the friends they had made or national origin).

In all of the classes, reports and homework assignments are generally submitted by the study groups, which makes things a lot easier for faculty and their TAs (who have fewer things to grade) as well as students -- we can draw on the different skills and strengths of group members to handle various assignments.

We could also learn a lot from study group members who have deep industry backgrounds that are totally unlike our own. Rarely in our careers do we have opportunities to work closely with people from a multitude of fields and national origins, but in the Sloan Fellows program, we get to roll up our sleeves and collaborate and learn from this diverse group every day. It allowed us to understand business problems in a way that would not have been possible with any other group. This point was driven home very early in the summer, during the Wal-Mart deep dive, when it turned out that one member of my study group from South America had actually negotiated with Wal-Mart when they expanded in his country. He had an inside view into the way the company operated, and was able to add details that weren’t present in the case materials. The two other members of my study group were from East Asia and South Asia, and also had experience or analytical skills that helped put the lectures, cases, and frameworks into perspective and give depth and coherence to our submissions that wouldn’t have been possible had we been working separately. We also paid attention to the “five-year rule,” which emphasizes the experiences we have together outside of class and are far more likely to remember in the year 2015. These guys are my friends, and will be people I can turn to for advice as the program progresses and we prepare to re-enter the real world next June.

One other thing I’d like to say about the Sloan Fellows: I’ve never been around a group of people that is so determined to learn more about the environment around them. I think I am the only fellow in the current class who grew up in the Boston area, yet the newcomers -- Americans and internationals alike -- are continually putting me to shame in terms of the discoveries they are making and the activities they get up to on the weekends and outside of class. Deep-sea fishing. Sailing. Go-kart racing. Celtics and Red Sox games. Shakespeare in the park. Camping. One of the fellows made a mission of visiting a coastal town every weekend over the summer with his family, and as a result can now give better local beach recommendations than I can. This spirit of discovery made me realize how much I take for granted about living here, and has motivated me to get out more often.

MIT Sloan Fellows faculty

Faculty and instruction. Friends and former colleagues who knew me as someone who loved writing about networked technology, Chinese history, and virtual worlds may have trouble believing that I love the quantitative, theory-based curriculum at Sloan. But I do. This may seem dry on the surface, but once you get into the numbers and the theory, some very dynamic perspectives are possible. Over the summer, I particularly enjoyed Economics (15.024) and Data, Models and Decisions (15.060), which is a mixture of statistics and data-driven analysis and optimization techniques. I even found myself drawn to the topics covered in Supply Chain Management and Finance. It wasn’t just because of the subject matter, but also because of the faculty who taught the courses -- experienced researchers who were absolute leaders in their fields, and very skilled at engaging with the Sloan Fellows. Even for the subjects I didn’t quite take to (I was skeptical of the Marketing frameworks, and did not enjoy dealing with the details and rules required to master Accounting) I still appreciated those classes and learned a great deal, thanks to the talented professors who led them.

For all of the daily classes, we had teaching assistants. The TAs graded homework and tests, and also led "recitations," which are extra sessions to go over new concepts and work on problem sets. All of the TAs were knowledgeable (most are current MIT PhD candidates) but a few were standouts in terms of articulating and engaging with us. They will surely become excellent teachers.
"Teaching Sloan Fellows is like lion-taming... The instant you show fear, they will tear you apart."
- Prof. Andrew Lo (15.414, Financial Management)

In terms of pedagogy, before I came I knew that the daily lessons revolved around faculty lectures and in-class discussions (I had observed this during my campus visit in December 2009). Things that I didn’t expect were the heavy use of cases (mostly from the Harvard Business School) and the demand that students turn off their laptops during class.

The reason for the laptop policy should not come as a surprise. It’s impossible to completely concentrate on a lecture or discussion with an open Web browser or unread email on a computer screen. Nevertheless, some students couldn’t resist keeping connected, or using their laptops to follow along with the lecture slides (the powerpoint files were made available to us online, usually before each class session). A few faculty members cold-called people. However, this method generally faded within a few days -- we didn’t need encouragement to talk or keep up with the subject at hand; it was usually hard to get us to shut up!
MIT Sloan Fellows homework
The decision tree our study group made for one of our first assignments in DMD (15.060). 
I am a quick reader, and read almost every case and required reading before class. However, I know some of the international fellows had to struggle with a dictionary and lots of late nights to get through them. A few told me that they had trouble understanding what was being said in class, either because of unfamiliar non-American accents or colloquial expressions. However, I believe this issue faded after they had some time to acclimatize to the new language environment at MIT.

One other thing that I'd like to mention about the learning at Sloan: Outside of class, there are numerous opportunities to learn from guest speakers, faculty and researchers from other departments at MIT, various clubs or interest groups, and nearby business or science resources. I wrote about one of these special learning opportunities ("The missing constituency in climate change negotiations"). Other memorable events include listening to guest speakers (ranging from former fellows to CEOs who have grown billion-dollar businesses) and attending various networking events on campus and at the nearby Cambridge Innovation Center.

Downsides. The Sloan Fellows program isn't perfect. I’ve described a few of the problems above, but wanted to mention the following as well:

Lack of “soak” time: One of my American classmates first articulated this about a month into the summer session. MIT's “firehose” pace, accelerated in the compressed summer schedule, simply doesn’t allow much time to reflect on the things that we are being taught in class every day. People doing the two-year Sloan MBA don’t have it easy, either. They do, however, get some extra time to absorb and ponder the lessons from class.

Bad learning experiences: I have great respect for our professors and their methods of teaching, as described earlier in the sections on faculty and pedagogy. However, on rare occasion I had frustrating experiences in the classroom, related to the following three issues:
  1. Poor or suspect methodology
  2. Pointless activities
  3. Poor understanding of the audience
Issues #1 and #3 should be self-explanatory. For issue #2, think of a game thought up by a corporate H.R. department to illustrate “X” to new trainees, but ends up being redundant and/or a complete time-waster. To be sure, games were an important team-building exercise for the learning group and SF11 cohort at the beginning of the semester. But six weeks later I found myself in a special session, spending a half-hour making a model out of spaghetti and marshmallows to learn some obscure lesson about _____________. In my opinion, this exercise was utterly unnecessary.

I can't stress how unusual it was to experience such issues at Sloan. But when on the rare occasions that they came up, they left a very strong negative impression. Fortunately, the feedback loop at Sloan is taken very seriously, and I hope that if enough of us flagged the problems, they will be noticed and addressed in future sessions.

Sloan’s mission statement: On the first day of the program, Dean Schmittlein articulated a very fine mission statement for Sloan: to create principled, innovative leaders who will make the world a better place. Unfortunately, I think there’s a lot of disconnect between the stated aim to make the world a better place, and the goals of students and their future employers.

I was inspired by this mission statement, and ultimately hope to make the world a better place, either as a start-up founder or innovative corporate leader. But at the same time, I have to acknowledge that self-centered reasons drove me to business school, and will sometimes guide my decisions going forward.

I also have to ask: Of the scores of recruiters from Wall Street, consulting firms and multinational corporations who are invited to campus every spring, how many of them really care about making the world a better place? I point out these issues not to criticize the Sloan mission, but to recognize that it may not always be aligned with the goals of students and employers.

MIT bureaucracy

I have nothing but great things to say about the Sloan Fellows program office. They are very adept at managing and evolving the program, and listening to our concerns. I wish I could say the same for other departments in the MIT bureaucracy.

MIT Medical is perhaps the most prominent example. Most of us depend on it, and have to pay extra fees for our families to be covered. However, while MIT Medical's walk-in services are good, the organization has significant problems when it comes to back-office processing of insurance paperwork and medical records. For instance, despite repeated phone calls and in-person visits to the main facility in building E23, it took months for my family to get health insurance cards, which are critically important for services such as emergency room visits. I've also heard that scheduling doctor's visits with MIT's PCPs can take months, which is enough for a minor ailment to progress to something significantly worse.

I have observed problems with other centralized services, albeit on a smaller scale. Many of the issues relate to technology issues, poor communication, and reactive (as opposed to proactive) handling of potential problems. Not surprisingly, when things do go wrong, it usually falls back on the fellows to correct them.

The textbook cartel. Complaints about greedy textbook publishers and ridiculous textbook prices are not new, but I was disappointed to find that many of the textbook readings at Sloan could be actually regarded as optional. Our economics professor basically said this on the first day of class. Unfortunately, this was after I had purchased the $130 text. I also found that the finance text ($220) and accounting text (also depressingly expensive) had lots of extra detail, but were generally redundant in terms of the main lessons that our instructors were trying to impart in the lectures.

On the other hand, the DMD text was reasonably priced and very useful. It even contained cases that let us avoid buying an expensive “course pack” loaded with licensed HBS cases. It’s the only text I am keeping for future reference.

That’s all I have to say about the summer semester. If you’re interested in learning more, I suggest reading some of the following blog posts, as well as checking out some of the videos I recorded throughout the summer, describing my Sloan experience.
I’ll be returning in the fall with more blogging and videos, and may even do a fall semester wrap-up in December or January ... if I have the time.


  1. Ian - all i can say is your blog is invaluable to people like me who are looking to come to the program. Thanks for putting this up.I think its great.

  2. I agree with ECLS, this was a very insightful blog post.

    Some advice...skip the caffeine and stick to raw almonds and pistachios. Though you're wired and alert after a couple of shots of espresso, your ability to focus, learn, and retain information hasn't necessarily improved. Instead (or in addition to) the caffeine, eat a handful of *raw* almonds ~1 hour or so before you need to crank out some serious work.

    Why: Omega-3 fatty acids, like those found in nuts like raw almonds, produce seratonin, which can be thought of as a chemical that improves the conductivity of electrical signals and thus more synaptic firing in the brain. More synaptic firing means more brain power, improving learning and focus. Melatonin, which is produced when eating foods like turkey or pasta, has the opposite effect, where you feel sleepy and lethargic. Perhaps that explains the adage that Italians are lazy, it's not their fault, they just eat too much pasta ;).

    As a test, eat a handful of raw almonds around 9pm, you'll find that you won't be able to sleep the entire night because you're brain is fired up and ready to go.

    Indians and the Japanese historically have altered the diet of school children during midterms and finals, where omega-3 heavy foods like almonds and fish are consumed in greater amounts.

    Another tip: increase the height of your chair, where you sit much higher (or above your work) while studying or in class. This psych's you out and you feel more dominant and empowered. Sitting lower (or below) your work has the opposite effect. It's a nice trick when dealing with employees or during negotiations too, where you need to have an upper hand.


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