Grounds

May 1, 2008

The first year at Darden is wrapping up (exams are next week), and it’s become quite surreal. I look around at my classmates and wonder where the time went. Time is fleeting, and it is even more so as you grow professionally and personally… you seldom get a chance to pause and reflect. In fact, this is the best thing about blogging, and I thank you, my kind readers, for your interest and your moments of reprieve from your own busy lives.

Penn State University, where I completed my undergraduate education, is a beatiful campus. Campus is a key word. The University of Virginia does not have a “campus”. There are only the “grounds”. Another vocabularly outlier is the collection of terms used to describe classes of students. “Freshmen” are “first-years”, “sophomores” are “second-years” and so on. Sometimes I wonder if I’m at a world class business school or if I’m attending Hogwarts.

The analogy sometimes holds in class, as well, as what I can only describe as magic is used to show how we as future managers can hope to create value for various stakeholders. In particular, I have recently become enamored with the ins and outs of finance. I have no financial background at all, but I have really enjoyed my finance classes at Darden so far, and I have made an effort to schedule more finance classes next year. After almost a full year of specified and mandated curriculum (we did have an opportunity to schedule three electives in the last quarter of our first year), it’s quite interesting to have the opposite problem: too many choices. But I am happy with my selections. I hope to learn more magic next year. 

 Darden’s grounds are located on the northern end of the University’s grounds. In reality, the Darden School and the Law Schhol are seperated from most undergraduate areas of grounds, which we creatively call “main grounds”. This seperation is minor in real terms, as only a five or ten minute walk will close the distance. However, the distance sometimes seems longer. Often, Darden students feel like tourists when they visit main grounds… there just are hardly any academic or social reasons to make the trip. Main grounds stand between Darden and downtown Charlottesville, where many head for nightlife, but they too often are only a blur in the window of a taxi at the head and tail of an evening.

But the University of Virginia is a great school. Founded by Thomas Jefferson as his last major endeavor, the school has been a lynchpin of academic pursuits in the nation. Numerous scholars have studied here, including one of my favorites, Edgar Allen Poe. The McIntire School of Commerce was recently ranked a close second only to Wharton in BusinessWeek’s ratings of undergraduate business schools. The athletic teams are competitive in the ACC in almost every major sport. My twice-weekly swims in the pool at the Aquatic and Fitness Center are punctuated by the banners hanging on the wall asserting the swim team’s continued dominance in the ACC. Last weekend, Virginia hosted the ACC Lacrosse Championship Tournament (we lost to Duke in a close one). And last fall the football team turned in one of the best seasons on record, and Chris Long was taken second in the NFL draft on Saturday.

My connection to this institution is important to me, even though it exists only through my two-year MBA education at Darden. Thus, in our class elections a few months ago, I ran for the office of Darden University Judiciary Committee (UJC) Representative. UJC is a student-run adjudication committee that manages any disciplinary action outside of Honor violations. The Honor Code, so endemic to the University and our way of life, deserves special mention here. The Honor Code is an ethical framework designed and maintained by students. It is a self-governing institution that ensures that all students maintain integrity. The tenants are simple: do not lie, cheat, or steal.

However, there are many matters that are not Honor violations that must be adjudicated. These matters are often involving student breaches of criminal law, and thus any University sanction is incremental to any sentence the criminal justice system hands down. The UJC investigates these matters, presses UJC charges if necessary, and assigns counsel to represent both the compaintant and the accused. The complaintant could be any member of the University, but it is usually a representative from the office of student affairs. 

My position made me a UJC judge, so I am one of five people to sit on a trial panel during a UJC trial. My peers and I must decide first on the matter of guilt (if the accused has plead not guilty) and second on the matter of sanction (if the accused has been found guilty). The sanctions are to be educational, proportional, confidential, and in the best interests of the University. They range in severity from only a verbal admonition all the way to expulsion for extreme cases. I typically average 2 trials per week, which is a significant investment of my time.

However, it’s also one of the most rewarding things I do. Beyond the obvious benefit of connecting with the parent institution of Darden, it’s also an opportunity to work with a group of students from throughout the University that I would not otherwise have met. Students come from the Law School, the Medical School, the Curry School of Education, and many others. Most of the students are actually undergraduates, and it’s very fun to work with younger people in something that they take very seriously. Sometimes I feel it ages me a bit, but it also reminds me that although I am not 21 any more, I also have a few solid years of perspective and experience to share. Sharing perspective in a non-condescending way is a critical skill I know I will need in my future career.

I have enjoyed the experience enough that I have applied for and received an opportunity to be a second-year career coach next fall. This means that I will help a group of first-year students in their efforts to secure summer employment. Although I have a wealth of coaching and mentoring experience from my time in the Army (and I also benefitted greatly from the mentorship of others, as well), I feel strongly that this is an excellent opportunity to work with a very diverse group of very smart people. Darden only accepts very special students, and it will be my honor and privilege to work with a group of them next fall and winter. Also, I’ll receive class credit for my efforts :-).

I went running last week through main grounds… every time I do that, I find new nooks and crannies of the school that I didn’t know existed. I hope that my new connections to main grounds will be just like that… overturning stones I simply may have passed over in the past, and seeing what is underneath.

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Falling Short, Gracefully

April 14, 2008

I recently celebrated the one year anniversary of my decision to come to Darden, and it caused me to take a moment to pause and reflect on that decision. This anniversary coincided with the race for many things at Darden this year: the race to devise my bidding strategy for second year courses, the race to position myself in the clubs and leadership positions I want, and the race for financial aid. It is this last race that was particularly significant last week, when I discovered that I had fallen short in my bid to earn a prestigious and generous fellowship at the Darden School.

I fell short a year ago, as well. I had applied to only a very few select schools. My time during the application process was very short in supply, owing to the fact that I was still deployed to Ar Ramadi with my Army unit, and had other priorities to consider. Darden, by any definition, was a reach school for me. I first discovered the school while reading through a book I ordered from Amazon while doing my research in Iraq. My subsequent research turned up a plethora of solid feedback and testimonials. However, there was one school that was ranked higher to which I applied. This school is in the top three of most polls, and it is located in my home state, which was appealing.

I thought I knew what I wanted… or at least I had convinced myself I did while I completed the essays. Either investment banking or general management (the polarization of those two fields should indicate that I really had little clue at the time what my final plans are). Everything I read and everyone I talked to indicated that I should be sure that I have a cogent plan moving forward, and that I needed to communicate that to the schools during the admissions process. During my Darden interview (over the phone from Ramadi), I told the interviewer that I thought general management would be my focus, but that I would leave open the possibility that something would catch my attention, and my passions, and that I would like to have the opportunity to run with it. She assured me that this was fine at Darden. I told the same qualifying statement to my interviewer at the competing school a few weeks later, and it was not nearly so well received. And I didn’t get in.

I was already esctatic to have been admitted to Darden, and I was emotionally past the fallout by the time I received the decision. The first mailings from Darden had arrived, and there was little that could lift my spirits more while sitting on a cot in a bombed out building on Forward Operating Base Ramadi than reading about Charlottesville, the case method, the alumni network, and everything else Darden. I decided to give myself fully to the Darden experience, and that has since proven to be one of the wisest decisions I ever made. In fact, and this may just be a bit of Virginia-sweetened sour grapes, I have a distinct impression that I am happier here than I ever would have been at that other school, which will, in fact, remain nameless.

So, I missed the fellowship, granted by a very generous alum. But four of my classmates did receive the award, and are all friends of mine, and I can think of no one more deserving. I grew a great deal from the experience of applying. The self reflection and personal inventory of plans and passions were well worth the effort and the emotional risk. I was honored to have been considered among the finalists, and I know that I can put forth this effort toward a myriad of other merit scholarships offered for Darden students in their second year (point of fact, I am already enjoying significant financial aid, as do most Darden students, which is important enough that I cannot understate its value to the school and the community at large) and be successful.

At Darden, I have been able to find my way to the career that interests me most. It turned out to be consulting for the short run, and probably private equity for the medium run. The long run, well, is just speculation at this point, but at some point I would like to start my own business. I am very glad that I came to a school where I was allowed to figure that out along the way, without necessarily having to commit myself too early to something that I might turn out to hate later. I would not have made a good investment banker.

And so it is with everything in life: it’s not about the falls, it’s about how you pick yourself up after, and how you move on. That’s what says the most about you, and that’ s what’s made all the difference for me thus far.

Time management is a critical skill for business school. If you don’t have it when you arrive, you quickly obtain it. The first year at Darden is notoriously rigirous. But, to be honest, I found it to be manageable thus far. I held up well in through the first three quarters, as we pushed through the cases and through the new material. My learning team, probably my favorite single academic institution here at Darden, pulled together, buckled down, and honed our analysis of each case each night.

You learn some tricks along the way. At first, everyone worked for hours on every case and attended every social function and recruiting event. Then, one by one, we all realized that sleep is not an entirely voluntary part of life. My learning team decided to split the course load. We all read the cases, and each of us brought our own analysis to our learning team meeting, but we began to be less in-depth in our individual analysis. We assigned two people to each case, on a rotating basis, to thoroughly digest the material and put together an intuitive analysis. The “case leaders” were responsible for leading the rest of the team through their treatment of the work and would also teach any associated new skills required.

And I began to pare down the events I attended. I didn’t go to every party, every company briefing, or every networking opportunity. I became comfortable narrowing my focus to the things I wanted to do the most.

This worked well, even through affectionately named “Black November”, and even as the recruiting season picked up in the winter and the hours available became fewer and fewer. And then, after spring break, a funny thing happened.

There are more hours in the day. I don’t have class until 10 AM (I scheduled my first electives this quarter, and I took the opportunity to take the classes I wanted in a slightly later time slot). Recruiting is over. There are more reading days on Fridays, which means 3-day weekends.

But these hours couldn’t go unfilled. Just in time, a slew of opportunities to give back to the program and to the community popped up. The onslaught of student elections, club leadership elections, new club meetings, and general volunteer opportunities meant that I had to choose carefully what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to help, to give back to Darden and to the community in return for the good fortune I’ve received since coming to Charlottesville. As a first year on the verge of becoming a second year, this is certainly my obligation.

I wanted to choose quality over quantity. I wanted to do just a select number of things, and do them well. And I knew my tendency to overload. I thought I did a good job of scheduling and volunteering. But this coming week is pretty intense… the first real week where I will be tested in many of the new roles I now find myself in. I’m hearing two cases as a Darden Representative at the University Judiciary Committee. It’s essentially a group of students that adjudicate over student offenses and breaches of the standards of conduct. I like it because it’s an opportunity to collaborate with undergraduate students from UVa. The organization is mostly run by upperclassmen at UVa, and it affords me an opportunity to assume an advisory role while also serving as an experienced judge in disciplinary matters. Underage drinking is not as sexy as some of the courts martial I participated in during my military career, but the fact that I will be working with students who will shortly be leading in whatever organization they aspire to join is truly engaging and exciting.

But that’s going to add 6 hours to my week of cases and classes. I also have been elected as the Vice President for Fundraising in the Consulting Club. That will add 6 hours of meetings this week as well, as I help the other club officers under the leadership of the club president fashion our annual plan for next year. Out-of-class assignments in class will add another 4 hours of work, on top of individual analysis I must do on my own. Workshops for scheduling classes for next year will tie up another few hours, in addition to the time I should dedicate on my own to making sure I schedule the right classes to help me in my future career and match up with my passions. And I’ve applied to be a second year career coach, which is an exciting opportunity to help first year students in their career search efforts next year. The interview is this week.

Even during the busiest times in the Army, I don’t think I had this much on my plate at one time, in one week. But as I looked through my Outlook calendar, I realized that I can handle this. There will be some late nights, sure, but I can do this. I can work a case or two ahead, so that I have a buffer for the truly insane days. My friends on the UJC and in the Consulting Club will make the meetings this week worthwhile and sustainable. Somehow, even though I thought I already brought solid time management skills with me to Darden, this program and my classmates have made me better. And I know that will make me a better manager later.

My closing thought is with Mohammed Hamadani and his family. Hamadani (his nickname) was an interpreter for a unit that I was privlidged to be assigned to for the majority of my first deployment to Iraq. He went on countless dangerous missions with us. When I lamented that I had to wash my dirty uniforms by hand, he offered to take them home to his wife to have them washed in their machine. He and his family suffered through many threats to their safety for his service to the US military in Iraq. One of our other interpreters was gunned down outside his home, another was kidnapped. When the danger became too great, they fled to Syria. They applied for visas to every free country on earth. Repeated denials and increasing poverty motivated Hamadani to consider the unthinkable: heading back into Iraq to earn a living as an interpreter. I sent him an email, imploring him to reconsider. I told him to consider Sweden, which has been very friendly to Iraqis seeking asylum. But Sweden had a long wait list, and Hamadani didn’t have enough time.

Then, a miracle happened. My old commander pulled every string he could, and Hamadani’s visa application to the US, made possible by special government program, was approved. Thursday night, I received a joyous phone call from a very excited Hamadani. He and his family had safely arrived in Kansas, and were undergoing inprocessing. I offered to do whatever I could to help him with his move. But he already has all he needs, all he wants. His family is in America, a country that he has already served more than 90% of the citizens that call it home. And they are safe.

This week at Darden, our ethics class begins exploring sustainability and its impact on business in the global economy. Normally, ethics is a late-week class for me, but I had an opportunity (long flight) to read ahead over the weekend. As a Darden student, I know when you have these opportunities, you take them.

Reading the case and the technical notes on the “shades of green” prepared me to listen to a radio talk show that I tuned into on the drive home from the airport. The host spoke critically of last weekend’s “Earth Hour” event and former Vice President Al Gore’s recent interview on 60 Minutes. She was clearly skeptical of the idea that global warming is caused by human activity, despite mounting evidence and the growing concensus of the scientific community. There are still very viable theories that imply that the Earth’s rising temperature is a result of naturally-occuring phenomenon, and the climate change skeptics cling to these theories and espouse the old party line, which asserts that sustainability, particularly the kind that accompanies reduced carbon emissions, is expensive. It hurts the bottom line… it affect the competitiveness of our economy. It can only be achieved at the expense of economic growth. Why should we pay all these costs for something that is unproven?

And as I listened, it occurred to me that it doesn’t matter. The fact is, the case connected global warming and human activity may never be conclusively proven. But, by applying one of the first quantitative concepts I learned at Darden, the risk profile,  it becomes clear to me that we cannot afford to remain apathetic. All that’s needed to gain agreement from the skeptics is the agreement on the following:

1) The connection between human activity and global warming is uncertain.

2) If global warming exists and persists, the impact would range from (best case) a small improvement in the quality of life to a catastrophe (worst case).

Any net improvement from global warming seems pretty unlikely. The worst case, mass extinction and the end of modern human society, may be equally as unlikely. If a concession is made that there is a 50% chance that global warming is not linked to human activity (which is being very generous), we can expect that the remaining 50% is spread somewhere between no effect and catastrophic. The risk profile would generally look something the photo shown here:

Risk Profile

If we multiply all the probabilities by the associated costs (specifically, net present values) and sum the resulting expected values, we can get a handle on the expected risk.

The fact is that the downside risk is so high (the end of everything we know) that the expected overall risk makes the average cost incredibly high, regardless of the assignment of a significant probability to the increasingly improbable theory that global warming occurs naturally (or, even less likely, that it doesn’t exist). From ethics class, I know that this is a classic example of “Pascal’s Wager”, which postulates that one may as well be religious because it doesn’t cost much to be so, and the potential upside (heaven), and downside (hell) indicate the decision is easy (Freeman, 11).

But what of the cost of cutting our carbon emissions? If they are prohibitively high, perhaps they outpace the costs to society mentioned above.

Or not. According to a recent study by McKinsey (shameless plug), up to 40% of carbon abatement can be acheived with negative cost. That means that it actually makes money, folks. Here’s a clipping from the report, which I highly recommend:

McKinsey Carbon Curve

So, why this persistent and active skepticism? Where is this coming from? I have a few thoughts on the matter.

1. Carbon emission abatement demands collective action restricting individual behavior. This is counter to the rugged individualism that many skeptics believe drives us to improve ourselves, and thus society.

2. The “cost and competitiveness” stigma is prevalent among those who haven’t yet realized that there are ways to reduce carbon emssions without paying prohibitively high costs or affecting competitiveness.

3. The environmental agenda has become the domain of the left, and any ideals espoused by one political party, regarless of merit, are likely to receive significant criticism from the opposing dominant party.

4. Some people are just thick-headed and need to read more.

 So, happy Earth Hour everyone. And buy a high-milage car, please.

Now that spring break is over and the recruiting season is officially behind me (having accepted an offer for the summer) I thought it might be a good idea to share some of more memorable moments and experiences of the recruiting season.

During my undergraduate education, I rested easy with the knowledge that my post-graduate employment was assured. As my friends sweated out their recruiting efforts (attending job fairs, dropping resumes, shaking hands, preparing for interviews, etc.), I could relax, knowing that my ROTC obligation included a guarantee of employment as a military officer for pretty much as long as I wanted it (which turned out to be 5 years).

So, the result was that, prior to this winter, I hadn’t had a real job interview since… well, I landed a job selling shoes at a local shopping mall when I was 19. Somehow I knew that that wouldn’t exactly serve as quality experience for the rigor of consulting interviews. So, I took advantage of the myriad of resources available at Darden to prepare for my interview experience: mock interviews with Career Development Center (CDC) reps and experienced second-year students, workshops, InterviewStream (online software/web-cam tool that lets you practice your interviews and review your performance), and lots of practice with my fellow first-year students.

I’m happy to report that it all worked… I received several very appealing offers from great firms and companies. However, there were some interesting moments I’d like to share. These are some of my favorite experiences, ranked in no particular order (names have been changed to protect the innocent):

1. CDF Consulting: Mike, as you know, we really place a high value on quantitative skills at CDF Consulting, and we noticed that during your undergraduate education, you received a poor grade in a math course. Can you reconcile this for us?

Me (thinking): Oh my God, really? REALLY? That was, what, 8 years ago? How do I answer this? Should I tell them I partied too much and skipped too many classes? That I was 19 and somehow underestimated a class called “Vector Calculus”? Who would have guessed that would be hard?

Me (saying): I appreciate the opportunity too address this. I overscheduled coursework that semester and I was working too many hours in a part time job. I learned an important lesson about prioritization during that experience, and you can see that in subsequent semesters my grades in even more complex quant courses improved dramatically. Additionally, I am performing very well in my quant coourses here at Darden, including Decision Analysis and Finance.

Afterthought: I handled this one fairly well, but my surprise (and horror) at having an 8-year-old grade pulled off my transcript and put before me must have registered on my face. I didn’t receive an invitation for a second-round interview with this firm.

2. Beer-Jamison Thompson Consulting: No offense, but you look young. How do you think you’ll handle working with much more experienced managers when you’re in a consulting capacity?

Me (thinking): MONEY!

Me (saying): That’s interesting, because I ran into the credibility gap problem in the military quite often and early. I came into a job where I was 22 and was, fresh out of college, responsible for leading 40 Soldiers. Most of my subordinate leaders were many years older and were experienced. I learned very quickly that the most important thing was to focus on implementing change as needed without insulting anyone or coming across as condescending. Taking ownership of the problem, instead of assigning blame, is the attitude… simply saying “we” instead of “you” made a lot of money, and I think it would help with experienced clients as well in a consulting role.

Afterthought: I was ready for this one, and I nailed it. I was not offended at all (in fact, it was a happy boost to my ego!), and it gave me an opportunity to share a part of my experience that would conceivably help me in my next career. I received an offer from this firm.

3. Oversmell Consulting (email): We found your credentials impressive, but at this time, due to the highly competitive process, we have made our selection for the next round and will not pursue further interviews with you at this time.

Me (no kidding): This is interesting, not because this is what we call a “ding” email, telling me that they’ve decided to forgo further consideration of my candidacy, but because I never even interviewed with this firm. After receiving other offers, I dropped my interview with this firm, in an effort to give my slot to an alternate. Nonetheless, they decided to “ding” me… I guess it truly wasn’t meant to be.

Darden (and all the resources that comes with Darden) really prepared me for most of the curve balls I saw during recruiting. For all these crazy ancedotes that I have (and only the top three are listed here), there are many, many more that I’ve heard about from my fellow classmates. Sitting on an accepted offer at Spring Break is a great place to be, but the effort isn’t truly over until the last classmate and friend has also secured a good offer. It’s the least I could do in return for all the help I’ve received this winter.

Hola from Costa Rica

March 10, 2008

Last week marked the end of the third quarter for Darden’s first-year class, and as such, it was a week of exams. First-year finance? Monday. First-year global economics? Tuesday. First-year strategy? Wednesday. See a trend here?

To the outsider, Darden’s exams require a little explanation. First, all exams are take-home. You pick them up in hard copy (or, in a new trend, they are emailed to you to help reduce our carbon footprint) after 8 AM. You then have five contiguous hours (snack and bio breaks still count in your time; printing, thankfully, does not) to complete the exam. After you’ve finished and printed your output (which frankly is often the most stressful part of the exam, as printers always seem low on toner and paper and just plain on energy during exam week), you walk (run) to the library to turn it in by 2:00 PM (2:59 PM). The deadline is actually 3 PM, and half of the first-year class can usually be seen at a trot moving toward the library after 2:30. Technically, 8 AM to 3 PM is 7 hours, but you can only use 5 hours of that time on actually doing the exam, a constraint that is limited only by the honor code but that, in my observation, is strictly adhered to across the board. Although the exams are take home, many students will reserve a study room, or take them to the library or an empty classroom. I do take my home; I find the walk to be a good way to clear my head before I get started, and I like having my workspace set up on my dining room table. Take-home means that it’s open book and notes, which sounds great, but the exams are carefully designed to really push you in the given time, so time management is critical. You can’t expect to learn along the way in a five-hour exam… you’d really better know it before you get started and resort to your references only for the details (CAPM formula, unlevering your beta, etc.).

All in all, exams are actually a pretty decent time at Darden. For once, you get to focus on one subject at a time, and you’re finished at 3 PM when you turn the exams in. And, this time, we headed off on spring break once our final exam (Decision Analysis) was completed.

Many students take advantage of Darden’s highly recommended Global Business Experience (GBE), which is a sponsored trip (you actually get course credit) to a foreign country to attend a business school class there by day and enjoy the city/country by afternoon and night. Darden offers first year trips to Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Czech Republic, Spain, and some others. Second year trips can include South Africa or China (second-years get two weeks for spring break, which facilitates longer trips).

I decided not to go on a GBE this year… I may take one of the longer trips next year. This year, I am going on a GSE (Global Surfing Experience) to Costa Rica’s west coast (Tamarindo Beach). I’m taking surfing lessons from a guy named “Flash” and eating at a bar under my room that has an open view of the Pacific. The breeze is wonderful, the scenery is great, and the people are very friendly. The dollar still stacks favorably against the Colonaes (local currency) so everything is affordable. Best of all, the water is very warm (no wetsuit needed) and the waves are stellar (6 feet plus). I guess I just decided to leave class… in class, at least this week. Last night I went to a local rodeo, which was beyond authentic. I was one of only maybe two dozen foreigners there out of thousands of people, and the cervezas were cold and the tequila flowed freely. Our guides from the hotel made sure we didn’t eat anything too risky or throw ourselves into the ring. “El Toro es Guapo”… basically, respect the bull. It was a great time. Tonight we’re having a bonfire on the beach and we’ll get to meet other guests. I’ve already made some great new friends on the trip. I highly recommend Tamarindo and Witches Rock… when the plane lands at Liberia and you get off and see that the entire airport is contained in a series of what looks like picnic pavilions, you’ll know you’re in the right place. Sometimes life gets busy and coming to a place where the pace of things just seems slower is what is needed to refresh the soul. I hope to bring not only a bit of sunburn but also an improved sense of well-being home with me in a week.

 Well, I’ll leave you for now, my next lesson is in an hour and I have to make sure I’m ready for the instructor’s shouts: “Paddle, Mikey, Paddle!”…

Thank you notes unsent

March 1, 2008

 

Gratitude is a fickle feeling. We feel it genuinely in a rush, but in truth, it usually fades quickly. In order to capture the moment of gratitude before it vanishes, we often take the formal step of writing a thank you note to the person or entity that inspired it. Beyond the social etiquette requirement, actually writing a quick note of thanks for a deed done on one’s behalf is a way to mitigate the fleeting nature of gratitude.

                In full disclosure, I was rather lousy at it as a child. Christmas and birthday gifts were gratefully received, but the response was usually a hasty thank-you phone call I honestly saw only as a temporary impediment to full enjoyment of the gift. High school graduation was very much a turning point in many respects, and it was at this time that social maturity began to force my hand… quite literally. People were not merely giving gifts, they were giving their true best wishes, their goodwill, and, quite frankly, a pile of cash that would have taken me weeks to earn at the job I had at the time (bagging groceries).

                So now I’m a committed thank you note writer. As I left the Army and prepared to enter Darden last summer, I reflected on those who had helped me get to this point. I realized that a number of very important teachers in my life, particularly those who made a very important impact during my primary and secondary education, had heretofore been thankless for their efforts. After some research into contact information, I wrote my notes. In the replies I received, I found a sincere note of interest and a sense of happiness that things were going well.

As the summer internship recruiting season has wrapped up, I have found myself with the good fortune of choosing between several appealing offers. After some research and careful consideration, I chose to join McKinsey this summer. It’s worth noting that I am not alone at Darden with an offer from a top quality consulting firm. This recruiting season was a banner one for Darden students interested in consulting. Primarily, I think it’s appropriate to credit the dedication of Darden alumni, second year students, members of the consulting club, and the Darden Career Development Center. But some of the credit must go to my fellow students in the first year class. We practiced and drilled together extensively prior to interview season, and we shared tips and tactics we learned along the way. This broadening of knowledge isn’t really surprising though… it’s really inherent to Darden’s collegial culture. True, the selectiveness and practical constraints of the firms in question meant that some of my friends and classmates didn’t receive a consulting offer. But we as a cohort collectively share the result of this inevitable outcome as if it happened not to one of us, but, rather, to all of us a group. Of course, we look forward to helping everyone find a fitting offer next year.

                With multiple offers, I had to share some bad news with companies and firms that I really liked. I had to tell them I had decided to go a different direction this summer. I made a few select phone calls, and then I sat down with a stack of thank you cards. The time and money invested in the recruiting process by these companies, in many cases motivated by the best intentions of dedicated Darden alumni, certainly called for a few moments of my time to capture and display my gratitude before it faded in the light of my excitement for this summer’s opportunities.

                This deed done, I looked forward to a scheduled visit to the office where I’ll spend the summer. I was scheduled to make the trip last weekend, but weather intervened and the trip was postponed to this weekend. I rescheduled the flight for Friday morning, departing from Charlottesville at 6:45 AM. Cognizant that this was a reading day (meaning I normally would have no classes and would probably sleep in a bit), I set two alarms to pull myself out of bed by 5 AM to make the flight.

                I woke to no alarms, and my watch read 6:40 AM. Panicked, I leapt from bed. Now what? I had obviously missed the flight… I considered my options in a flash, and decided I would pay for a ticket at my own expense on the next available flight, and that I would probably have to travel to Richmond (a 1.5 hour drive away) to make it to the office in time to make the trip worthwhile. I went to my computer to look up the phone number for the airline. My browser was still open from the night before, showing the flight status. I refreshed the screen. The 6:45 AM flight that I had missed… was cancelled. I hadn’t missed it after all. A small miracle, given that the weather was fine outside and was also fine in New York. I called the airline, and they scheduled me (at no expense… the flight was cancelled, after all!) on the next flight from Richmond. I would have to hustle to make it, however, given the drive.

                The drive was torturous. Construction, an accident, and the accompanying heavy traffic in Richmond put me at the airport only 30 minutes before departure. After checking in, I ran to security, and was stopped cold. The line was long and barely moving. It seemed everyone else had flights leaving soon too, and the frustration in the air was palpable. I took a deep breath. A monitor nearby indicated that the flight was delayed by 15 minutes. I realized that it would be close, but that I would probably make it.

                After pulling my belongings from the belt (coat, jacket, backpack, luggage, belt, shoes, wallet, boarding pass, laptop, and baggie with liquids and gels) and shuffling them into their respective places, I dashed off to the gate. I boarded the flight just in time. As the flight crew prepared to separate from the jetway, I began to relax. I might actually make this weekend happen, after all. And then, a flight attendant at the front of the plane called my name.

                “Michael Murphy?” she called.

                “Yes, here,” I called back, a sinking feeling in my stomach. What else could go wrong? Was I being bumped at the last minute? Would they pull me off the plane?

                “You forgot your computer. You left it at security,” she said as she strolled to my seat and handed me the worn Darden bundle laptop.

                “Oh… oh,” I stuttered, “th-th-thanks. THANK YOU!” The realization of how bad my weekend could have been dawned on me. Exams are next week, and all my old casework is on my laptop. And I never back anything up.

                I don’t know the name of the person at security that found the laptop sitting on the belt, unclaimed. I don’t know who it was that decided to open it, boot it up, and see my name on the login screen (I don’t have it listed anywhere physically on the machine). I don’t know who the ticket counter person was who looked up my name (frankly, quite a common name) and found which flight I was on. And I don’t know who brought the computer to the plane and gave it to the flight attendant. But they all saved me from a very, very bad weekend and probably a bad week as well. Also, Darden bundle laptops ($~2000) carry a warranty that covers everything… spills, drops, meteors. But they don’t cover theft or loss.  

                Sometimes the greatest measures of gratitude go to those we don’t know… those who go above and beyond their everyday duties to keep the world a better place for all of us, and especially for the absent-minded among us. For these people, the thank you notes go unsent. But our collective human commitment is to do the same for others when given the opportunity. In a way, I suppose that’s even better.

Staying in shape to stay sane

February 25, 2008

Darden is great, but it is also really draining. The workload, while not exceedingly complex, strikes me as quite heavy in volume and so different from what I did before (I wasn’t exactly designing a company’s optimal capital structure before; I was a military officer). The recruiting events, blissfully easing up only very recently, are frequent and require your committment in order to build your future career. I also feel a need to give back to Darden and the community, so I frequently pitch in when we’re hosting admissions events or conducting a charity event. Even the social events, fun as they are, can exacerbate the situation by compressing the time you have available for all the other demands on your time. Weekends become crowded with cases, studies, social events, and, of course, a number of oft-delayed errands.

 Although a spring break vacaction to Costa Rica is drawing very near and is looking really good right now (oh man), it’s important to have some small daily time to yourself. For me and for many other students at Darden, it’s physical activity that sets me free and clears my mind.

Many Darden students participate in intramural or pickup sports. Most of us participate in Darden “Cup” events, which are competitive events held between sections. Many other students hit up the North Grounds Recreation Center, which is the high-quality, fully equipped gym next door to the Darden grounds.

For me, it’s a combination of things that help. In my youth, I was very happy to spend the day playing video games or watching TV. When I entered the Army, I was quickly intiated into a world of daily fitness training. What at first was an irritation quickly became a very personally fulfilling and enjoyable activity. I especially began to enjoy running.

At Darden, the initial toll of the workload diminished the time I had for running. I also wanted to get to the gym to do some strength training, but it was so difficult to find the time. When the third quarter began after the New Year, I made a resolution. I wanted to be in shape by spring break. It is surely a coincidence that I’ll be on a beach that week 🙂

The combination keeps things interesting. I run every other day or so, and I keep it to 3-4 miles at a quick pace in the interests of time. As the weather keeps many of these runs a cold proposition, I often head indoors. After tiring of treadmill workouts, I’ve taken my workout to the Aquatic Fitness Center (AFC), about a five minute drive or a fifteen minute walk from Darden. They have an indoor track. 10.5 laps equals a mile. To my amazement, I’ve held up fairly well on the track surrounded by undergrads. For some reason, it’s more fun to run when you’re surrounded by others… I don’t know why. Somehow having someone in front of me keeps me focused and even makes me run a little faster. I do my strength training there as well… there’s plenty of equipment, which means that it’s easy to get in, work out, and get back to work fast.

Since I’ll be surfing during break, I started swimming about a month ago. The AFC has an olympic-sized swimming pool. It’s really cool to walk out of a locker room and onto a pool deck under a banner emblazoned proudly with ACC Swimming championships. I had no idea Virginia was so competitive in swimming. And, as a student, I get to use these same facilities almost any hour of the afternoon!

The first time in the pool was a real eye opener. After a struggling through a few raggedy laps, I pulled myself out of the pool, light-headed. I had no idea why I can run for an hour without a problem but for some reason ten minutes in the water almost killed me. I realized I had a long way to go.

So I’ve picked up the workout pace. I’ve traded a few runs a week for more swimming, and I’ve added a few laps to each workout. I’ve also started concentrating on form and breathing. It’s funny how on the first lap of the night I can swim almost half the length of the pool without coming up for air, and by the last lap I need to breath after almost every stroke. But progress has been steady, and I know it’ll pay off when I get on a board in a few weeks.

Fitness is a lifetime committment to yourself and your loved ones. It is the greatest gift you can give yourself. But it is so hard to find the time, the energy, and the motivation to go sometimes. Darden offers a lot of challenges. The military did as well. When I was in Iraq, when I needed time to think or reflect, or just to clear my mind and gain some human perspective, I hit the gym. It’s so cool to be able to bring that same experience into this new and challenging environment. The pounding of the pavement, the slick feel of the water, the beating of the heart. It all keeps me grounded, gives me back my human condition, my perspective.

Now, I just need to work on getting more sleep 🙂

Better Late than Never

February 25, 2008

Please note that this is a historical post moved from my old site. This was originally posted on February 15th, 2008. 

It’s been about two months since my last post, and there’s very little excuse for that kind of delay. To all of my loyal readers, I offer my sincerest apology. Between the drought of new Mike Murphy blogs and the now-ending television writers strike, there must have been a real lack of interesting, inspired content out there… right?

Okay, so it’s been a wild ride. First, after the end of the second academic quarter at Darden I ran off to San Francisco for a “job trek”. A job trek is essentially a coordinated event in which a group of b-school students travel together to a particular geographical area and look at job opportunities there. In particular, we were looking for internships in the high-tech industry. We also checked out some great consulting firms. We started with Google, whichc had a fantastic campus and an understandably interesting atmosphere. We then checked out Broadcom, eBay, and Yahoo! (I guess Yahoo! isn’t really a smiley place right now, but I digress). I really liked the city… very cool area.

After returning from the job trek I headed home for Chirstmas. Christmas with my family was fantastic, of course. I had a great time. After Christmas I headed to Vegas for New Years. Some of my old Army buddies and other friends got together for the holiday. This was my first time in Vegas, and it was awesome. I loved all lights and sounds of the strip. We checked out the Blue Man Group show, and I lost a little money, hehe. We spent New Years eve at the Hard Rock Casino bar, and went onto the roof to check out the fireworks over the strip. UVa was playing in a bowl game with Texas Tech, so I made a small wager at the sports book for UVa to beat the spread. Unfortunately, since I’m a complete amateur, I misread the spread on the ticket and assumed the outcome (UVa losing by 1) rendered the ticket a loser. I left it and caught a flight home, but when I opened a paper on the plane and checked out the line in the sports section, I was suprised to find that the ticket had actually been a winner. My hasty call to my friends, who were still in our hotel room, resulted in somone collecting the prize. I received a phone call a few hours later, thanking me for breakfast and cab fare to the airport. Awesome.

After returning from Vegas I headed straight to Charlottesville to begin practicing for interviews. I was pleasantly surprised and grateful to receive about ten interview invitations, including a number of top notch consulting firms. I was primarily interested in consulting for four reasons: first, it’s a people (client) business, and I enjoy relationship-based collaborative environments. Second, it’s team-based, and I really enjoy working on small teams to effect big change. Third, I really like problem-solving, and that’s what consultants do: they solve problems. Last, and definitely not least, consulting is an adventure… projects typically are only a few months long, and then it’s on to a new project and a new challenge. Thus, it’s a great place to get a breadth of experience in a short amount of time. In this way, it’s similar to the case method that dominates the curriculum at Darden. Each day at Darden, we come into class to tackle three distinct business cases. With each case, we put ourselves into the role of manager or consultant, and apply a new technique to solve a problem. It could be determining the valuation of an initial public offering in Finance, dissecting a statement of cash flows in Accounting, determining how to shift a corporate culture in Strategy, or conducting a competitive analysis in Decision Analysis. For a student with no real business background, the case method is the best thing going to get a wide range of practical experience in a short period of time while honing new skills. Consulting is just an extension of this logic.

Consulting interviews are rather demanding. Typically, a consulting interview consists of a few “fit” questions to determine how well-suited a candidate is for consulting and how well they’ll fit into a particular firm’s culture, followed by a case. The case portion is usually a real business problem, and you talk through how you would approach solving it. At some point, there’s often some data interpretation and some basic calculations must be completed to reach a viable conclusion. One of the hardest things in preparing for case interviews was preparing for the math. Calculators typically aren’t permitted, so it’s necessary to do basic math by hand. This can sometimes be a bit tedious and even a little intimidating. After all, how long has it been since you’ve last done long division? Doing it efficiently in front of an interviewer watching your every move requires a bit of practice.

I spent countless hours practicing with my classmates. We used a lot of sample casebooks to help eachother prepare. I practiced with students who, like me, have never been in a case interview before. In addition, I practiced with a few students who had a consulting internship last summer, as well as with a few of our career consultants. Darden gave us a lengthy break (until late January) to prepare for interviews.

I never would have been able to land interviews with these firms immediately after leaving the Army. I would have slid just below their radar. I owe Darden a great debt for not just giving me a great business education and helping me develop a network that will serve me for many years to come, but also for providing excellent career services, helping me reach out to recruiters and position myself for the best possible opportunties. In a small effort to start giving back, I have volunteered some time to show prospective students around during their visits to Darden, and I’ve reached out to a few military applicants to offer personal assistance with their admissions process.

All the work and practice paid off. I had several successful first round interviews, and was invited to second round interviews with a number of firms. After a few weekends of flying to different offices to conduct second round interviews, I received several great summer internship offers. In most cases, these internships pay nearly double my Army salary on a monthly basis, which is quite humbling. More importantly, all of these offers provide an opportunity to learn more about consulting in general, and whichever firm I end up with in particular. At this point, I am favoring one offer over the others, but I feel it’s best to withhold my decision from the blog (which is published on the Darden portal, after all) until I make my decision known to all of the recruiters and interviewers that have been so helpful and supportive through the process. I can say, however, that it is looking very likely I will end up in the greater New York area for the summer.

Classes have ramped back up, and, amazingly, the third quarter is almost halfway over already. It’s flying by, and with recruiting activities winding down, I am free to focus on my classes. I’m spending a lot of time working on Finance (FMP), Decision Analysis (DA), Strategy (STRAT), and Global Economies and Markets (GEM). DA is proving to remain my favorite class, as we’ve jumped deep into competitive analysis. Given that I am generally clueless in Finance, I am really learning a lot in that class as well. Until a week ago, I had no idea what a “future” was, now I’ve learned how businesses can hedge against rising fuel costs by purchasing futures options in the market. I really like how much I’m learning in that class… and the case method works surprisingly well in this context.

So, what’s next? I have a few weeks of classes left, and then it’s time for Spring Break! My trip to Costa Rica has been locked down. I’m going, and it’s going to be great… I have an intermediate surf lesson booked for every day I’m there.  In preperation for the trip, I’ve begun replacing half of my runs with swims at the Aquatic Fitness Center. I can’t wait.

I hope everyone is well out there, and I hope to be a little more prompt in my next posting 🙂

Mayflies get One Day

February 25, 2008

Please note that this was a historical post moved over from my old site. This was originally posted December 15th, 2007. 

Mayflies spend their entire lives underwater, dodging predatory fish and trying valiantly to live until adulthood. Their lives range from several weeks to several years, depending on the specific species. But all species have one thing in common: they get to fly for one day. On the last day of their lives, they reach adulthood, their new wings become functional, and they manage to leap from the water and take flight. They see a whole new world that had never before exisiting for them. After mating on this day, the Mayflies die, and they cycle repeats itself.

There is a great deal we can learn from the noble mayfly. We, fortunately, have more than one day. But sometimes the concept of maybe living as if we only had one day left is worthy of our consideration.

I received a call from an author that is writing a biography about a friend of mine that passed away in Iraq almost exactly a year ago. After confirming he had the blessing of my friend’s family, I was anxious to help tell the story of this remarkable individual. And so it all poured forth. I told of the jokes, the professional disagreements, the “off-line” conversations that centered upon a mutual frustration at the organizational inertia we felt we were sometimes fighting. When our unit arrived in Ramadi in 2006, we were inheriting the most dangerous city in the most dangerous province in the most dangerous country in the world. Our commander, desperate for a solution to the bloody stalemate that had prevailed for the past several years, decided wisely to change tack and began speaking with some who had been bitter enemies only a few short months before. My friend, Travis, was the critical face man for this effort. Fluent in Arabic, educated and experienced regarding Arab culture, and committed to the opportunities afforded such an effort, Travis forged relationships with tribal leaders. He won them over one at a time… some through kind conversation and gentle persuasion, others through the clever use of fear of being rendered irrelevant to an emerging movement. Irrelevance is a dishonor worse than death for an Iraqi tribal sheikh. And young, willing men began to swell the police ranks. My job, far less glamourous and far more “nuts and bolts”, became much harder as I struggled to find a way to get them all processed and trained. Our units provided resources they really couldn’t afford to get the job done, as if everyone collectively saw the vision at the same time… that this was the key to breaking the stalemate in Ramadi, the key to turning the tide on Al Qaeda in Iraq. This vision was Travis’ vision earlier than any of us, save maybe for COL Macfarland, our commander.

On December 6th, 2006, Travis and two other friends, Megan and Vincent, were killed on a mission to show a western reporter a new, fully functional police station in what was one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Ramadi. The perpretrators of this crime were soon apprehended, largely as a result of the help from Iraqis who had come to call Travis a friend. A few weeks later our commander presented our strategy and the emerging success to a congressional delegation. Shortly thereafter, a new “surge” strategy was announced. Now, there is growing agreement that this strategy was successful. I think this is probably largely true. However, I think this strategy has been successful because of a successful proliferation of the techniques used to pacify Ramadi across the entire nation of Iraq. This fundamental policy shift from focusing on fixing and empowering the bumbling central government to focusing on empowering local authorities and partnering with them to drive out the real enemy, Al Qaeda in Iraq, permitted a successful surge effort to largely succeed.

The unit that replaced us in Ramadi came with fresh minds and energy, and they took the success there to a higher level than we even thought possible when we left. I’ve received photos of fixed streets and cleaned neighborhoods, new schools and functioning generators… even a 5K race being run by young atheletes on a street that I can only remember as a good place to go if you wanted to get into a firefight or worse.

As I spoke with this distinguished author about this story, it came back in a cold rush, particularly events of Dec. 6th, 2006. We owe it to all we’ve lost, either in the military or in the normal course of life, to take the lesson of the Mayfly and apply it to our own lives… to live each day like it could be our last.

Exams wrapped this week at Darden, and the first semester drew to a close. The reality that one-fourth of our effort has been expended hit hard upon exhausted students. It was a challenging few months, particularly the last few months. And more challenges remain, clearly, as the recruiting season really heats up in January and we begin to interview and vie for exciting internships that hopefully become exciting careers. I felt pretty confident about my performance on all of the exams. However, there were a few that I just couldn’t tell… I could either have nailed them or I could have completely shanked them. We’ll see in a few weeks. The last exam was operations, and I felt very good about that one. I finished in record time, and had time to make the entire process of my thinking explicit. I had a chance to refine my responses. Upon submission, I began talking to some friends about their impressions. Through the conversation, I realized that I had made one critical mistake that made every response on my exam incorrect. It was small and simple, but I had failed to annualize weekly figures in all cases. An email conversation with the professor placated my concerns… I would not be significantly penalized for such a small yet consistent mistake. Happy, I began to plan the details of my winter break in greater detail now that the break itself became imminent.

I’ll start the break by taking off to San Francisco for a few days to visit technology companies and consulting firms in the bay area. Then I’ll spend Christmas with my family in Cumberland, MD, and spend some of my time trying to apply some of what I’ve learned at school to the family business. Then I’m off to Vegas for New Years… sure to be my coolest New Year’s celebration since Paris in 2004-5. At some point, possibly upon my return from Vegas, I’ll shoot down to Florida to see my Dad and stepmother Pat, and then I’ll come back to Charlottesville for a week of interview drills before we start again. Wow, it’s going to go fast.  But then, it always does.

Ask the mayfly.