Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Corporate Strategy as a career; case interviewing

I came to Fuqua wanting to do strategy or marketing and that was as clear as I was in my head. I spoke to people around and one advice by an operations professor who I spoke to at the India GATE trip of students was particularly useful, even if I understand it well only today (and of course, I am still learning!).

Strategy requires a decent understanding of the industry that you work in. In the conversation, this was the only sentence and it immediately made sense. Now I look back and think I was quite ignorant to have not known this simple thing, but I figured if I was ignorant, maybe there must be others out there! :-D Strategy requires taking all the inputs that a manager gets from the environment, analyzing them thoroughly, thinking through all the consequeces and interplays, building simulations, analyzing competitor responses (this is crucial), analyzing impact on customers and brand due to that decision and so on. Each industry, of course, has its peculiarity, and that's what makes it tough.

Every one of us has seen industries, products, companies from outside. We sometimes miss the complexity and sometimes we wonder how it works (What was Bill Gates thinking when he bought DOS?)! Most often, if you think either way (something is too simple or something is unbelievable), there is of course, a middle ground. The things that make strategy complex are probably the following (and there could be more!); competitive environment, customer preferences, company's culture and capabilities (the 3 C's of marketing), supplier relationships, distribution channels, logistics and operations, product positioning and perception, price dynamics (competitive price or with premium) and so on. If you drill into each of these, you will get into the 'muck' of things and your decisions will closely affect each of these aspects of your company. So my take is (and take this with a pinch of salt) is that if you want to jump into strategy or an industry, make yourself 'ready' to talk about these things specific to that industry. If you have been a production engineer or software engineer or have been a pharma salesperson, you will know the answers to these difficult questions in your respective industries. But what if you want to switch or simply open up your options?

Consulting case interviews are a great tool for that. Before the consulting interviews, people practice doing 20-50 cases and they challenge themselves to answer these questions in an interview setting with friends and classmates. As you struggle through these questions, you start thinking deeper into these dynamics. Consulting is a big avenue for doing strategy work in the corporate. A lot of top consulting firms focus heavily on strategy of course. Their interviews are case-based precisely to gauge your understanding of business dynamics. In the case, they try to reduce the noise due to industry dynamics, but they do challenge you to think what might be true about that industry. It's a great experience.

A lot of corporates also hire people for their strategy team and from what I see so far, even General Management interviews for strategy have cases, though not as full-fledged as what consulting companies do. They want to see how you think and do you think of enough factors and understand the implications. So in my opinion, it is a good idea for a wide range of people to do consulting case preparations. And if you are coming from a non-business background (engineering, military, research, teaching and so on), it is especially helpful. I have seen people here who come out of a GM interview saying 'He gave me a case (#&#&##!!)! I have not really practiced cases, so I just managed that questions somehow'. After a bit of digging, it turns out to be a 'mini-case' where the interviewer asks something like 'if you are running a grocery store and Walmart comes an opens a store near you, what will you do?' or 'if you want to bring a new product to market, how will you go about identifying key factors and doing market research?'. If a person does a few cases, these questions can become really easy, but if you have never 'thought through' these things before, its tough, especially inside an interview room!

In fact, I would also like to take it a step further, that case interviews are good to practice even for some marketing interviews. Corporate world is full of ex-consultants and they love giving cases. Everyone in the corporate world wants to see how you can unravel a business problem. They also would like you to talk in a flow instead of struggling to come up with an answer. If they ask, 'what are some of the factors you would consider', you have to give some 10 factors one after the other, neatly knitting them into a sentence and without struggling to think of each 'aspect' that he or she is asking. Most often, people start rambling, repeating themselves, looking at that vacuum next to interviewers head to think hard about an aspect, freezing (believe me, all those things happen in an interview, but no one would like to admit of course! :-)) It's really as simple or as complicated as that and case interviews are a great way to gain that 'depth' and 'practice' talking about 'business aspects' in a confident manner and coherent flow. So if you think that case interviews are only for consultants, think again. In my opinion, 'case interviews' is just a fancy name for it; call it 'business aspects questions' if you like or 'my-job-simulated-in-half-hour'!

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Job in UK? Internship in the UK?

Since I thought about doing an MBA, I had thought about the option of doing it from UK/Europe. In the end however, I came to Fuqua (for good reasons). However, ever since I came here, I toyed with the idea of interning in UK. I didn't know where to begin though. I did not have a work permit for UK, and even if there were ways to get it, would any company would process your work permit for a 3-month internship? Definitely not.

So in my free time (precious free time! :-D), I browsed around looking for options to do an internship in UK. There were many questions. How can I enter UK? How can I convince companies of my interest in UK? Is there a way for me to work in UK for 3 months and come back? How do I go about getting a visa without a job offer from UK company? It was a chicken and egg problem. Should I look for a company that might be interested in me first, get an offer, and then go to the UK consulate with that? Or should I first get some visa in which I can work and then go with that visa and look for an internship? The latter seemed more feasible of course. If I can pull that off, I can technically check the box "Have necessary work authorization to work in UK" and then of course, I get a level playing field for job opportunities in UK along with work permit holders and citizens.

So I looked around some more, found an appropriate visa, and succeeded in the process! And the least I can say is that I am THRILLED! Part of the reason I am thrilled is that I have been to UK before on visits and I love the country, its pubs, music, people, diversity, literature, culture! In addition to that, it is the fact that I am now technically eligible to work in the UK for up to 1 year! I still don't know how feasible it is to get a job in UK, but nevertheless, trying this option out was really really fun!

So here are the mechanics. I don't quite know where to start, so let me start at the beginning and give some background. UK has something called the Highly Skilled Migrant Program (HSMP). (If you know about this, hold on a second because this is not the solution to doing an internship there). This is a migrant program for people with certain set of skills that might be useful to UK. To read more about this program, you can visit:
"The programme is designed to allow highly skilled people to migrate to the United Kingdom to look for work or self-employment opportunities.... The Highly Skilled Migrant Programme is different from the work permit scheme because you do not need a specific job offer in the UK to apply."

So I guess you get the gist. What's more? There is something called the MBA provision in HSMP. Read:

"The 2004 Budget announced a new provision for graduates of 50 top business schools to work in the UK for up to 12 months on completing their MBAs. This provision is now part of the Highly Skilled Migrant Programme (HSMP)."

Needless to say, Duke University is part of this "list". So, in essence, after an MBA from one of these universities, you can apply for this migrant program and walk in freely into UK! But WAIT A MINUTE: It says "on completing their MBAs" above. So technically, you can't avail of this opportunity until you pass out of the program. I am looking for internship and clearly, I don't think this clause will help. Before I move on, here is a link that lists these universities and has more information about this clause:

(The only unfortunate thing is that there is no Indian university listed there, not even IIMs, so I hope UK government adds at least a couple from India) :-(


OK, so that was about the MBA clause of HSMP. And it is useful if you are interested in working in UK.

For internship, I explored the visa site and came across a visa called Working Holiday Maker. Under this visa, you can stay in the UK for up to 2 years and during your stay, to support yourself, you can work for up to 1 year. Here is a website with more information:

"You can stay in the UK for up to two years as a working holidaymaker, in line with the validity of your visa... You must intend to take work in the UK only as an incidental part of your holiday, so you must intend to spend no more than 12 months working, and to spend the rest of your stay on holiday."

Two important conditions (please check the above website for the exhaustive list) are that you should be from one of commonwealth countries (I know India is one of them) and that you should be between the ages of 17 and 30 to apply. The list of commonwealth nations is given in:

My idea was simple. I want to go to UK during summer and do my internship there to support myself. It is 3 months, it's a fantastic time to visit UK (I think, with the nice summer sunshine and weather!) The next question was to look at the Fuqua alumni list and see if I can get contacts in UK to apply for jobs. I found a reasonable amount of Fuqua alumni in UK and went ahead and applied for the visa.

I heard back from the consulate today and my visa has been approved! Now I can check that checkbox in job sites and hopefully will have a better chance. Here are the logistics: (Please note that these might change depending on your country of current residence. I applied from here in US and this is the process from here. From other countries, there would be of course slightly different procedures)

Cost: ~$200 (Again, in US at least, but it should be same everywhere I would think)
App. Fee - $162
If you apply by post:
Postal charge (for returning passport to you) - $12
Postage charge (to send your material to UK consulate by UPS/FedEx) - ~$20
Main documents:
US stay document (like I94, H1, green card etc.)
Bank statements to support your application and financial strength (3 months statement)

That's it!

I am hoping that with this visa, I can go ahead and apply to UK companies for internship. Most companies hire for internship with your long-term intentions in mind, so if you have JUST this visa, then they might say "OK you can work for us for 3 months, but if we like you, what next? We will have to process your work permit for UK once you pass out".... and that might not be necessarily what they want to do. Here is where the HSMP clause kicks in. If they like me and I like them, I can get the HSMP status and go and work for them! So this theoritically makes me as good a candidate as anyone else.

I am not even sure if I will apply for positions in UK, now that I have this visa. However, it is an option for me now. As I come across good companies and good roles, I would like to use it and just might spend my summer at a great country!! :-) Cheers mate!

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Leadership transition to FY

So the second year students are going to be here only for a couple of more months. I can't believe more than half our first year is already over! They said it will rush past like no one's business, and boy it did! We are already halfway past the third term and lots of interesting stuff happening around in school. The MBA Association elections are over and we have new President and Vice-President to lead the MBAA next year. For the rest of the term, they will work with current presidents to take over the reigns from them. The elections were held last week. Two of my ILE team mates ran for the post, but unfortunately lost. I do have an ILE team that's absolutely awesome. (ILE team, for those new here, is the 5-member team you get assigned to, to work with during first year). I am fortunate to have an ILE team that has my section representative and these two awesome people who stood for MBAA!

Many clubs are also now having their elections to select their leaders for next year. I guess I got a little influenced by my powerhouse of an ILE team and am standing for a couple of posts myself, though I don't think I can disclose what exactly here right now. (It's not really a secret, but Fuqua is a no-campaign environment for student elections and it would be inappropriate! :-)). We have some tough competition and spent half a day over last weekend working on something called the 'platform' for elections. It is essentially a 1-page 'advertisement' that is submitted to the current presidents and which is put up on the notice board for club members to see what the new leadership plans to do next year in the club. So it's fun! I know a lot of people are bogged with term 3 and internship search, but working on this platform was totally fun and we'll see how it goes in the next couple of weeks.

In addition to the club leadershp, there are 'fellows' programs who are selected by various groups in the school. The fellows are: Leadership fellow, admissions fellow, career fellow, executive fellow and marcomm fellows. Some are paid, and some of these are not, but they are all great ways for SY students to get involved. As far as I know, all of them are selected through and application and interview process. I don't know intimately about each of these, but but here is the brief:

Leadership fellows: They run projects throughout the school, that have to do with improving leadership in Fuqua. I think the projects are varied and have a lot to do with conducting activities, workshops, working with MBAA and administration to help with leadership initiatives across the business school. They also work with FY ILE teams and facilitate feedback and periodic reviews of the working of the team and iron out issues, if any.

Admissions fellows: AFs are involved in admissions process. A subset of them travel around the country to conduct information sessions. They also interview prospective candidates. It is supposed to be the more time consuming job, with 45 minute interviews and another 45 minutes easily to write the review of the candidate. The crunch times are terms 2 and 3 and it definitely is a cool paid position. The AF travel team traveled internationally this year, thanks to increased applications from Asia and the alums there struggling with the load!

Career fellows: Career fellows work with FY students. Their essential job is to review resumes, review cover letters and conduct mock interviews for FY students. While AF I think impacts the school on the outside, career fellow is a much more in-school thing. It is of paramount importance I think because it takes FY students through the whole job search and a lot of scope of really helping people out.

Executive and Marcomm fellows: I don't know much about these and Marcomm is a relatively new fellows program. Marcomm deals with external marketing and communication of Fuqua. The brand of a bschool is extremely important to it, and marcomm, I think is a great way for students to take part in controlling that to whatever extent. Executive fellows, again from the little I know, help organize the Distinguished Speaker Series, where top leaders from top companies around the world come to Fuqua to talk on a subject. We had some great talks this year so far by UPS, Deloitte and few more (I know those 2, coz. those are couple of the DSS I attended and really liked!). It's probably a great post for people who have passion for contacting and hearing from industry leaders!

I am quite keen on career fellows program, AF, and Marcomm (though I don't quite well know the role much yet). Marcomm will probably have an information session soon that will give us an idea. It is probably not very easy to get into one of these. There seems to be fair amount of competition for these 'fellowships', probably more than club activities. They are quite prestigious I believe and maybe also probably because some of them are paid positions.
One thing that really catches my attention is that things move so fast here! We are about 3 months away from end of year and things are already happening! I signed up today for help with Blue Devil Weekend, the admissions weekend of Fuqua in beginning April where all the prospective students come and Fuqua shows them what it is!! :-) I was not able to attend BDW when coming to Fuqua, but it is supposed to be a weekend long party, true Fuqua style and some great activities for the incoming class. Beginning term 4, we will have new presidents of MBAA, new leaderships for all clubs, the second years would probably already be 'checked-out' of school! :-) We would be tumbling over to replace them! Wasn't it yesterday that I was sitting at Geneen, listening to some of the speeches by SYs and administration welcoming us to Fuqua and what not?! :-)

In case you are thinking what happened to partying at Fuqua, I am running over to one right now and will catch you guys later!

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Of career switchers and job search

This is a loaded topic in all sense of the word. The internship search by FY students has started in full swing. A certain percentage of the class has been placed already and the rest of us are looking. Needless to say, it is a time of uncertainties, anxieties and frustrations.

They come in various forms. Some people are walking away with multiple offers, some have interviewed with many companies but without success, some have resorted to off campus searches and yet others have not even got calls from companies for interviews, and some are slamming brakes on their existing pursuit to look for jobs in areas that they did not originally plan to work in.

This is a particularly difficult topic to cover. Emotions are running high, the career management center is trying to keep up, but no amount can really be sufficient. Come to think of it, placing 426 students in jobs is probably a pretty huge task. On top of it, international students (i.e. w/o work authorization for US) find even lesser options, as many companies would rather stick to people with auth than muck their hands with lawyers and papers. It is true that you don't need work auth to do internship, but these companies after all, do plan to hire you after internship. So it matters.

So how bad is it for international students? Where I am looking from, it's not easy. Maybe tomorrow, I will look back at it and say that it was part of the game. In the end, I guess people will get placed more or less where they want. When I say more or less, it's statistics, isn't it? But people are more than a data point. There will be people who get internship in areas they don't really want. And it is especially tough for career changers. A guy coming from engineering and wanting to go to (my favourite :-)) Wall street has a hard time justifying his contribution to the company. A corporate finance aspirant was asked "What work will you do as part of our team when they are deciding on whether to take up a project or not?" As a background, taking a project requires one to do financial analyses like Net Present Value (NPV) and others. Truth be told, I have no clue what else.

Now I am not looking at Corp. Fin. but I hope to learn more about this in some elective, but that is the point. I can afford to say that, but if you are a career changer, it requires a hell of a lot of dedication. You better know what you will be doing. To me, that doesn't sound easy and I am not that much of a career changer. It's not possible to change careers just like that. You can't just walk in to an MBA and walk out a new man. My advice? If you want to shift to finance/banking from engineering, catch hold of an accountant, cost accountant, CFO or local banker friend and shadow that person. Get to know what he or she really does. If you can't do that, (or even if you can) shift to business newspapers and try to understand stuff there. Non-switchers can wait till they get here to start learning their subjects. Career-switchers need to "re-wire" themselves sooner than later. I have seen some career changers succeed and some slamming brakes (at least for internship) and a major part of the difference is in their general awareness of the new area of work that they aspire for. I don't mean to belittle people's efforts here and make enemies. I am sure there are other factors, but you will face some hard questions in the interview and you better be prepared. And this preparation is not overnight! (Like I have my opertions mid-term on the day after and it's gonna be overnight for me!! :-D) You need to think like the new person, read newspaper regularly and be able to argue, defend and discuss those new topics like they are your own. You HAVE to want to do it.

So much for career changers, but let's look at some functions. Marketing and GM by far seem the most difficult roles for international students. Getting marketing in CPG for example is tough. And it makes sense. It is difficult to adapt to the native 'marketing types' suddenly for someone coming from outside US. While it is true that 'the marketing types' are outgoing and can speak beautifully to the extent that their creativity finds a fantastic outlet in their personality and speech, it is not just English. Some Indians here, for example, have better English than some Americans. It is much more than that. Familiarity with the culture, society, 'lingo' (if you remember Joey's 'How 'a you dooin'? I just can't say it that way!:-)), priorities, touch points, pain points. The list goes on.

Now there are some functions in marketing that are more open for various reasons. (And I am hoping desperately that they are). The only concrete example I can think of really is market research. There is Customer Relationship Management (CRM) and back office sales operations that I am hoping are fairly indifferent to nationality coz. I am just so interested in them. Both require analytical ability, a lot of comfort with data mining and ability to draw conclusions from data. That doesn't look like it needs one to be of any nationality or origin really. Well, we'll see...

General Management is a whole suite of things. Here, the explanation of why it is difficult for internationals is, I think, simply because many companies are fairly traditional and don't really need a big dose of international students. It's not a great reason, but I am yet to find one. It may be that American nationals make great general managers themselves. Or the companies just don't want to get into processing visa and stuff. These sound reasonable, but who knows what each company is thinking. There is a bunch of functions under GM like Leadership Development Programs (LDP), operations & supply chain management, strategic planning and finance and accounting roles. Corporate Finance role is quite open to everyone (again, just numbers and data) and others are somewhere between marketing and consulting.

Consulting and banking companies don't really seem to care. And those are probably the toughest to get in for various reasons. Consulting companies interview differently. They give you problems to solve in 25 mins (called cases) and if you do well, they take you. Cool stuff. Banking companies I don't really know much about, but from what I see, most of them require you to schmooze with them, you need to either have a finance background or you better be a cat at following finance columns of business magazines and papers. That was what was all the career changer stuff was about, so I won't get into it again.

Of course, I hope you understand that none of the above are hard and fast rules. There are no rules here. There are incredibly smart people here who pull off stuff you can't even imagine, and this is just a teeny-weeny thing called internship. To put things in perspective, we students wouldn't even be discussing it much (or at all) in a couple of years, I guess.

Addendum: I added this comment to another post and it relates to this. Since it is 2 fat paragraphs, I thought I will paste it here too:

Good luck for your results on Duke interview. I am glad my experience helped in your interviewing. Regarding the internship search, my thoughts relate to general job search for an MBA student. The two key points I want to get across is that if you want to change careers, start early and if you are an international student and have limited exposure to US society, you might have to find an entry into certain functions through different paths. I have known interns who got into brand management in a US CPG company and found themselves a little out of place. That is a reality that most applicants will face, so I just want to make you guys aware of it. Both these facts are regardless of you getting business education or anything particular to any business school. There are a lot of opportunities coming our way, and it depends on how seamlessly you can fit in. There is nothing to be freaked out about! :-) I am sorry if I painted a rather gloomy picture! :-)

To take my example, I came here with strategy and marketing in mind, and that's what I still want to do. In fact, I find myself more of a fit into some functions of marketing whereas earlier, I was inclined very much towards strategy. Overall, I would suggest exploring the strengths of schools and fit during the application process; the rest depends on individuals themselves. As far as marketing is considered, I found Fuqua fantastic. The Marketing Club is super-active, the profs. are very well known and really good and I think I have seen more companies in Fuqua campus than I could ever imagine! Anyway, I will stop my rambling and hope I have been able to answer some concerns.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Interviewing for MBA schools

So I had to give someone some advice on interviewing for MBA recently. Frankly, I thought I had some material there that I can use in my blog and would hopefully be a little useful too to people. So here it is, what to expect and what to prepare.

MBA interviews are fun... if they go well. Otherwise, you kick yourself and say 'Damn that question was so basic, I can't believe I answered it like that!' Welcome to MBA.

Here are a few tips and things that I found useful.

- THE most important question perhaps is 'Do you have any questions?' The reason is that this question shows a lot of things. With one stroke, you can show curiosity, understanding, maturity, 'readiness' to do MBA, future plans, thinking style and so on. Here is my take on it. Ask day to day stuff. Don't ask about hi-fi things. Ask things like how is the school committed to alumni learning, what is a typical day at Fuqua (one always starts with 'There is no such thing as a typical day at Fuqua', but then talks for 5 mins! :-D), how are the leadership opportunities there, how international is the curriculum and the MBA experience at the school, what is the global recognition of the brand, what are the most active and influential student clubs in the school. Ask these questions enthusiastically and inquisitively. I also think being inquisitive and curious can be very genuine by itself even if you are faking it. You want to join this school, so hell, you are curious about all this basic stuff. In one of my MBA interviews, I asked the alumnus about some new exotic research initiative in the school. Turns out it was too specific and too high-flying and irrelevant a question to ask. I thought I was smart and this question would show my research on school activities, but it doesn't work that way. It essentially had the same meaning and depth as... 'blah'.

Preparation: I would suggest take a small spiral notebook (I say spiral coz. I just so love those!) and write down 4 why mba, 3 why us, 4 strengths, 3 weaknesses, 3 qualities you bring to school (*), 1-2 accomplishments, 1 difficult conversation (this might be important, gave negative feedback in performance appraisal for example), 1-2 motivated people example, 1-2 led people, 1-2 failures, 1 taken risk, 1 disagreed with supervisor, 1 handled a difficult subordinate, 1 had impact somewhere (maybe organization, school, community), 1 took initiative. There is no need to think of so many stories. You can reuse stories, but try not to use same story for more than 2-3 of the above. Writing so many points is painstaking (3 weaknesses, are you kidding me?), but you have to put in the effort. The best part is that you don't have to think of exotic stuff. Be basic about these. Simplicity here will simplify your interview a lot. (Yeah, that was some statement to make!)

(*) What you bring to school. This is very important, don't think hi fi stuff, just tell what you bring from your experience; project management, people relationships, sales insight, leading people, business perspective with strong engineering foundation, ability to identify with engineering and technical people etc. etc. The simpler you keep it, the better.

- Also think of a club you want to start. I personally hate this question coz. I think it can be easily practiced and anyone can fool the interviewer, but if it's out there, it's out there. It could be 'guitar appreciation club' or something. My personal take on this is that it doesn't even have to be a new club. Business schools have too many clubs anyway. You can even say you would organize a music show under the music club in both years and put in a framework so people will do it even after you leave the school. You can give it a name and add a person in the music club cabinet to organize it so it becomes a permanent feature of the school. Now how about that! Use a similar example and you are done. See what I mean when I say it's not really a good question? Anyone can say that and fill airtime.

Be prepared for an estimation question: Estimate the size of the squash ball market in India. You can start from top-down; how many cities, how many squash court clubs, membership in each club, how many balls a week per member etc. etc. If you are fairly analytical, you should be able to handle this. The key is to be systematic and push yourself to make ridiculous assumptions and move on quickly. I was asked a similar question and I got an answer like some 20,000 balls a year! Yeah right! I still got in at the school though! Your assumptions can be wrong, your approach can't be as long as you get the approach. (That was some statement to make again!)

One last big thing, don't lean back on the chair! :-) Not all the time at least. I know I am like that, I like talking comfortably. So you are a top school, I am a confident guy and am here to share my ideas. That's perfectly the attitude (in my not-so-humble-I-guess opinion). But showing enthusiasm is important once you have crossed other hurdles. I have realized that curiosity is a big tool to show enthusiasm. I interviewed for Fuqua sitting on a cane-and-cushion couch at a golf club in Mumbai. The table was a low tea-poy and we were sitting outside looking over at the course. I realized that I was leaning forward because of an orange juice on the table at the time I was asking questions about the school to the interviewer. I am no shrink or mind reader to say what happened, but it somehow makes sense. Or does it? Maybe I'm nuts! Anyway, forget that, take the first statement in this paragraph metaphorically if you want. But just be curious during the interview, like you have already got in and now are deciding whether to select the school or not yourself.

A lot of the above would be based on my personal style I guess and need not apply to many of you. But hopefully it gives you an idea of what to expect in the interview and one way to go about it.