Thursday, April 27, 2006

Conducting a successful off-campus search: An Indian perspective

I know for most people, off-campus search is something that the "few others" do. Business school, that too a top-ranked one is supposed to have a career center that can take care of bringing companies, and so many of them, that you won't really have to go out of the school looking for a job. Most people think that way, I certainly thought that way, and I think it is natural to think that way. Here is the point of this post: As you join a business school, be prepared to go off-campus, because you will be doing off-campus searches... and a whole lot of it. The good news is, in hindsight, it is not really as daunting as it seems; it is a matter of applying some brute force, and then some... This is especially true in a good industry situation as today. (No idea how it would be or would have been during tough times, but I can only think it will be the same to a higher degree!)

Let me start with a short story.

A man walks into a low-ceiling office with rows of tiny cubicles shared by many people. He is wearing a badly-ironed white shirt and a trouser with straight pockets. He crosses over and at the end of the row is a desk with a receptionist sitting with papers strewn all over the desk, phone almost hanging out from her table. The man walks up to her and says "I am here for the sales executive interview from the newspaper". The receptionist looks up and gives a bored look, asks him his name and jots it down. Maintaining the same expression in her face, she points behind him. The man turns around and suddenly realizes that there is a small waiting area behind him, almost full with people!

He takes his seat, next to a stout, smiling bloke wearing a crisp suit who strikes up a conversation almost instantaneously. Within precisely 5 seconds, it is made abundantly clear that our protagonist is sitting next to and idiot! After what seems to be an eternity, the bloke's name is called out. He enters through a door and comes out smiling after a few minutes. He leaves the area, wearing a triumphant look on his face and waving a final goodbye to our friend. Our friend's name gets called next and he enters the office. It is a tidy little office, with brown wooden furniture and he takes the empty seat opposite a middle aged, unshaven man.

After what seems like a very productive interview, where our guy rattles off a series of stellar achievements from his college, prompting vigorous nods of approval from the man, the man finally says, "Look Mister, your achievements are really great and you are a great candidate for this job. However, I cannot extend you an offer". The expression on our man's face turns into disappointment and then quickly into quiet rage. He points at the man and says, "I see how it is! You are giving this job to that jerk, aren't you? Why are you doing this? Because he was recommended by someone you know? Because he has the money and the resources to pull strings?" In a fit of rage, he rushes out of the office, angry with the whole system, angry with himself to have even tried.

This is an all-too familiar scene from many Bollywood movies of the seventies, when movie makers finally came down to topics dealing with Indian masses from the elitist and westernized characters in the sixties movies. The dreaded word in that era was "Sifarish" (Recommendation, referral). It was how the bad guys and the un-deserving lot got their jobs. There was no place on this planet for the well-deserving, academics-cracking, outgoing and smart graduates.

The reason I bring this all-too-familiar and dramatic (maybe over the edge) scene is that all of us Indians have been brought up with these images in our mind. Reaching out to people to make relationships that might bear fruit later on in life is wrong. Asking a favor is accepting your inability to do it on your own! And getting a job through recommendation? Sacrilegious!

Life as a business school student will strike at the very foundation of this value system. No longer is the referred candidate a symbol of un-deserving, rich kid, who can pull his weight around and displace a perfectly meritorious candidate from a position that he was born for! That referred candidate is you, a perfectly meritorious, outgoing and smart individual. As one of my good American friends here said, "No one is going to give you a dollar 10 million business unless he knows you well". Knowing you is not knowing personally, but seeing your commitment to the professional relationship that you have developed with him or her.

When I started at Fuqua, my biggest frustration (and so of other Indians here and perhaps other communities as well) was how to get around this networking business. Many a time, you feel awkward about contacting someone and setting up a phone call to talk about his or her background and experience in the company. For the first two terms, many of us avoided the thing completely. It is extremely uncomfortable to make a connection with a stranger and then maintain it. Reaching out is probably one phrase you will hear again and again all through your recruitment season. The truth is, most of us Indians are not wired to do it. We rely in the old-style exams and objective interviews. Not any more.

A common adage here is that anyone here can do the job that you applied for! While that statement is definitely a stretch, there are two elements that this statement captures. One, there are defnitely many people who are very qualified to do that job. Two, your predisposition to do that job. It's not that anyone doubts your ability to do it, but are you really inclined to do it? Given perfect conditions, would you still pick that job? Or is it even one of the top 2-3 choices that you would make? Given the choices and options that an MBA from a top school has in front of him or her, will you stick around because you are really interested, or will you defect? What is it that you want to do in the long run that makes this job relevant to you?

What I have said so far is not schmoozing. It is simple, proactive relationship building. Schmoozing is not something that is expected of everyone (except banking, but I am not the expert in that. I am merely relating what I have heard). You certainly don't have to schmooze in order to do good networking. Networking is about relationships; genuine ones. As an Indian, ask yourself if you can strike up and sustain a decent conversation with a stranger... only remember the following: they don't know Cricket, you don't know (or don't care about if you are me) about Baseball or Football. You have a very sketchy idea about US geography and no idea about the weather here. Talking about family is a no-no, about friends is... nah... what else? Marketing and Strategy, it sounds stupid coming out of a first year student; Dhirubbhai Ambani, Amitabh Bachchan? nah... Quality of Airtel connection in your house? Your schooling? Booooring! You see where I am going with this.

There are things you can talk about: Travel, hollywood movies perhaps, ummm... help me out here, will you?

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

This is it. Last few days as an FY!

This is our last week of classes for this year. 4 terms, 9 months, 15 courses and upwards of 75 cases have gone by. I know I want to write something, but there isn't really much to write. I can talk about courses, but I guess I will do it later.

As I sit to write, I have no idea what to write about. I enjoyed writing all this while. Suddenly, it doesn't seem as much fun. I have become comfortable with the MBA life, have made friends here, know the ropes and things no longer seem surprising or even shocking as they used to! I wrote about parties, about singing, about courses that were so different from what I had learned so far, and about life at Fuqua that was so different from what I had been used to.

Suddenly, I am at home here. I am at an equilibrium again. Even the dreaded N-word seems to have lost its luster. We are the rising SYs now. I guess if you read from my very earlier posts to this one, you will notice that they have changed not merely in the topics, but also in their very nature. Fuqua Days! was about the life at an MBA school, the life of late nights, assignments submissions, classrooms, case discussions, parties, career planning, company presentations, seemingly unrelated and unconnected courses and diversity of students. Some of my recent posts have been quite off-topic, as I get on with my life here. Yes there are parties going on (as a matter of fact, almost a party a day with all the clubs wanting to exhaust their budget before year end), but they are always going on. I love it, but I am home.

I guess I will keep posting in my SY as well, but those will be quite different. I don't think they will be as dramatic as some of the posts so far. They will be about life of an SY (duh! of course) but what I mean is, they will be (and I hate to say this) more advisory than "you know what happened today". I hope that doesn't piss people off! :-) Maybe I will change the name of this blog to Fuqua Ways!

So here's my last post... for year 1.

There is one core course that we are still taking, and it's Strategy. It is one of my most favorite courses. The cases are great, the profs. are great, the class discussions are intense and the course structure is really good as well. This afternoon, we submitted our last assignment, a 15 page Consultant's Report on a company of our choosing. The company we chose was Federated Department Stores, the owners of Macy's and Bloomingdale department store chains. I had a feeling that choosing a retail company was good for analysis, a great way to learn about customer mindset, supply chains, competition, product and so on but I never expected this to be so enriching! The industry is tough, the competitors are varied, the customers are diverse and supplier, simply numerous. Imagine the playground that we got!

The electives I have taken in this term are both marketing subjects; Marketing Intelligence and Product Management. One piece of advice that I have is that if you are looking at marketing, take marketing electives in term 4. I have seen people take MI and Corporate Finance in this term. While that will have its benefits, taking marketing subjects helps you make a case while interviewing that you are indeed serious about pursuing marketing in your career. The other argument is that you are looking at GM, so a finance and a marketing elective serve you well, but then you should pursue GM in that case.

That being said, Product Management is a very pure CPG-type marketing course. The discussions are mainly qualitative, revolving around customer value, packaging, promotion, advertising so on and so forth. I can totally see people simply not interested in such a soft course. It was a great course for me in the following sense: It gave me a good insight into American consumers and consumer companies. The amount of thinking that goes behind a product's packaging or a simple advertising is simply amazing and this course gives you a lot to talk about. If you are not the brand type of person, chances are you might be disappointed. This course lives and breathes brand management.

Marketing Intelligence is widely regarded as a must-take course for everyone in Fuqua. It's almost a core course in that respect. It goes behind the scenes of marketing. Analysing data, gaining insights, making hypothesis, driving conclusions and taking decisions, all based on information that you gather from your consumers, test markets and market research agencies. It is a good mix of quantitative and qualitative discussions. One of the profs. John Lynch, is a world renowned researcher in this area and his experience and expertise just shows as he teaches. All in all, very well-balanced, useful and enriching course.

This reminds me of something - It's almost 2 and I have an 8 AM MI class! I better get some sleep, I have a feeling John is going to cold call me...... (Life story of an MBA!)

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Good day for me!

I went out on stage, wearing 1950s style Tuxedo with a bowtie and belted out "Johnny B Goode" by Chuck Berry! The occasion was Fuqua Idol and the contestants were students. You have to believe me when I say this. The talent that students bring to school is simply amazing! I just don't have a word for it! One after another, they came and they sang absolutely amazing songs and you had to sit there and think, "What the hell are these people doing in a business school?" People sang some of the most difficult songs, Whitney Houston, Jewel, Bee Gees, Michael Jackson and more! It was something to remember. Oh and I forgot to mention one important thing! Tina (Attagirl) did my makeup, and my hairstyle was like the Elvis Presley one!

From what I hear, our batch is extra enthusiastic. I have heard this couple of times over the last one year. Last fall, when all of us were new to school, the number of applications that went in to fill cabinet positions was apparently crazy! SYs were blown away and had to create special rules for filtering coz. they could not even interview everyone who applied! But yesterday was something else! Singers, guitar players, drummers, it is inexplicable! People loved my song, but I didn't win the idol. I didn't even come close actually, but what can I say, I am in good company!! :-D

Lately, I have increasingly started thinking about the group I am part of today! Picture this. First, you pick one thing you are good at. You know you are good at it because people have told you multiple times that you are good at it. They encourage you and you nurture your strength, bask in its glory for a while. It is a magic wand that you use and things work out and you feel exhilarated! It gives you a high that can't be explained! Then it kinda gets boring, so you push yourself hard and try to do something else. You crack a couple of exams and interviews and stuff and you make it to a place like Fuqua. There, you meet many people who have struggled the same way you did.

As you settle down among the new group of people, you realize one fine day that the very strength that brought you here is not unique any more! You don't feel special any more... Well not for a while at least. You pick one skill of yours and you will see at least 10 more people having the same exact thing! It's uncanny! Well there are exceptions. Let me take an aside for a moment to explain. Yesterday afternoon, as I walked through the Fox student center, I saw an FY student playing a speed chess game with students. He is apparently a chess Grand Master or something. Students sat there with chess boards in front of them. This guy walked around playing them, one by one. As I walked past them, I thought to myself, "This guy (I happen to know him a little; He is a Russian, what do you know!!) must be feeling like he is on top of the world. At that moment, he must be like the most powerful man on the planet!" OK maybe not the most powerful, but pretty darn good, right? Later I heard that he defeated all of them! Not too surprising I guess. And I guess it is hard to admit 10 Grand Masters at Fuqua to "normalize" them, but I am sure that some day this past year, he must have had similar thought about some aspect other than chess where he felt he had something unique that has been snatched away from him.

What do you do now? You can't but feel helpless! Thankfully, the course and six week terms keep you away from thinking much about it, but it's still there. So you do something that comes as the most natural response. You try to innovate into a new niche! You work hard and build a new strength! You try to do something that would make you special again. But do most people do that? I guess that's what ambition is! They try their best at least. It's probably an addiction to be unique. It takes time and it takes considerable effort, but that's what you work on, over and over again! And each time you do this, you are evolving.

I say all this because we are pretty close to finishing off first year and a new batch is going to join the schools of their choice. "I closed my eyes in September. I opened it and it is April." But a lot of things happened in between. Studies was part of it. Of course I learnt a little bit of marketing, a touch of strategy, managerial effectiveness and economics, but it is the people that I met, the people that I felt envious of, the people that I never knew existed on this planet and the people that made me boring that I learnt the most from. I think the school that can make you the most boring is the best school to go to!

There is another piece of news. When I was rehearsing the song in Geneen [Auditorium], I felt the phone vibrate in my pocket, but I let it go into voice mail. When I checked, it was a call from a company I interviewed with that morning. It's marketing and it's telecommunications devices and I am thrilled! Later in the evening, I sang a song in front of the school, all dressed up and groovy!! :-D Yes, it's been a good day for me, but in way more ways than just getting an offer or singing a song! It's the realization that I am in good company (no pun intended)!

Friday, April 07, 2006

The Blue Devil Weekend and MBA Games Weekend

This has been one crazy week! We had 3 big assignments due in 3 subjects and all of them due on Thu and Fri, so you can imagine! Term 4 is elective term for people who did not exempt any courses and you work with new people. It's great to get to work with some new people, but thankfully, it's good to know that the other people are as good as others in your section.

Last weekend was Blue Devil Weekend, where a bunch of admits from all over the country (and some from outside) landed in droves to Fuqua to see what Fuqua is all about! As far as I can tell, BDW was being planned since Janurary and was probably one of the biggest event for the school and for the admissions. It was awesome to meet the new batch and I hope most the people I met would join us in August! Some admits put together videos, there are pictures, good times overall! We partied at night and they sat through some sessions during day time (hopefully not too boring, lest we scare them off!)! I wasn't here for BDW last year, so I have no idea what they must have gone through! ;-) But it's hard to believe that we are wrapping up first year (Half an MBA??)! One of my new Strategy team mates said it best, "It's like you closed your eyes in September. You opened it, and it's April"!

(OK I left the post at that a few days ago and am picking it up from here)

After a relatively quiet term 3, this term is proving to be quite the opposite! I guess everyone is rushing to get one last streak of partying done before they leave for summer or for a long time, or the new leadership is in full form. After BDW at the beginning of this month, we had MBA games the next week. Unfortunately, I could not manage to attend the games (had a bad headache and stuff) but I did attend the Friday kick-off event right after the Fuqua Friday. Fuqua Vision had put together a great show for visiting students from many schools. The ones I remember are Michigan, Ivey, Wharton, Harvard, Stern, Tuck and UNC... and then some more. The teams from these schools (including Duke) had to perform a cheer and a panel of judges gave prizes for the top 3. I think Ivey won the first prize and Wharton 2nd. I don't remember the 3rd prize, but I remember Tuck put on a great show! The Fuqua Vision then took over and it was one of the best FV shows I have seen!

In case you are wondering what Fuqua Vision is, it's a club that takes the day to day stuff from student life and puts up skits, shows and parodies once every term, at the end of term, and at important events like BDW, MBA Games and such. Apart from being a fun show where we make fun of ourselves, it's also a great medium of feedback to the administration from the students! Staplers don't work in the lab, be assured someone somewhere is putting together a nice little jingle and skit to make a point! Now it's a different story that we oftentimes get the dean, admissions head and professors participating and those shows are runaway hits! Who wouldn't like the dean playing Gandalf from the Lord of the Rings and the admissions head playing the Queen. No kidding!

It's amazing how these students take time out to put such grand shows, but we sure know how to make fun of ourselves! Now that's what we do on normal days, but having students from so many schools was too tempting for the FV crew I guess! FV made fun of all the schools, including Duke (of course, it's student run, what do you expect?! ;-)) The spoof on Tuck was awesome!! I wish I could go to the events and stuff, but anyway.... There is more coming! ;-)

This week, we have Fuqua Idol! I guess you guys guessed what it is. It's a year-end show put up by the Fuqua Music club. I don't quite know how many participants there are, but I know moi is one of them! ;-) I am singing an old rock n' roll song, but I won't let the secret out so soon... :-) We'll see how it goes. If I'm spared by the audience and I live to write about it......