First Quarter in Review

Fall at the University of Washington. Nov 10, 2014.
Fall at the University of Washington. Nov 10, 2014.

So how was the first quarter at Foster?

Well, I wrote my thoughts down about the one-month point, but then I got a little overwhelmed with after-work commitments that made me re-evaluate the way I spend my time. Since then, I’ve had some time to disconnect my brain for a while and reboot. It’s been everything I expected and more, with a couple of tough lessons learned along the way. You really come out of this as a different person…it’s like you gain an elementary understanding of how to speak a new language: the language of business. 

Coursework: 

The courseload is supposed to be the heaviest in the first quarter. Everyone takes the same 4 (and a half) classes: Marketing, Strategy/Microeconomics, Accounting, Finance, and Professional Development. We had a different Finance professor this year (the regular first-year professor was on sabbatical), so the workload was a little different from what the previous year experienced. This class was focused on giving students a very deep, qualitative understanding of the key concepts, but I would have liked a little more math to balance it out…but that’s probably just the engineer in me speaking.

I came into this quarter with the expectation that you could just skim the assigned readings and get by, but in a small program like Foster, the odds are pretty good that you’re going to get called on in class. Some classes (like Strategy) really stressed the use of cases to teach critical thinking, so you really needed to think about “what happened” in the case and “why did it happen.” I would have liked to have small team case discussions, but there was never enough time for that. Which brings me to my next topic:

Teamwork:

Expect a lot of teamwork in the first quarter. Expect teamwork and collaboration to take longer. One key takeaway I got from this quarter is this:

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

I definitely noticed that there was a relationship between the amount of effort our team put into something and the grade (and quality of feedback) received. Expect between 12 and 20 hours of work for the first real team project, the marketing memo. My team spent a lot of time up front to understand the problem and get everyone on the same page, and then to collaborate on the solution. A consulting background would have been great for these cases, because we didn’t really have a framework for managing all the work that we had to do. We used the marketing framework that we were taught, but we didn’t have a common problem-solving structure to guide our decision-making. I remember being really frustrated in Officer Training School when they taught us their 12-step problem solving process, but now I understand why they made us use that. A common framework would have saved my team a lot of time and deliberation…there were times when we were paralyzed by lack of data, over-analysis, and indecision. 

I’d say the courseload required 80% team assignments and 20% individual assignments. We had a few large projects in Marketing and Strategy, and a lot of smaller team projects in Accounting and Finance. We ended up dividing and conquering on the smaller projects, where one team member took the lead on an assignment and walked the rest of the team through the solution. 

Grades don’t matter:

“Grades don’t matter.” We were told this over and over again so that people wouldn’t stress out and implode during the first quarter. It’s important to maintain perspective on grades and focus on getting to know your classmates, but there should be a caveat: “Grades don’t matter, but you still need to learn and challenge yourself.” Some people can pick things up very quickly and don’t need to read books or show up to class to learn the content. We have our share of CPAs, CFAs, and other professionals in the class that take to some of the classes like fish in water. Some people need to have team discussions and talk to other people to learn. Some people need to study alone. Figure out how you learn best and be sure to communicate that to your teammates. Be open to learning from your teammates, and be open to teaching them a thing or two if you’re strong. 

I’m continuously impressed by some of my classmates. I think the ones who know the most ask the best questions in class, because they don’t ask questions to show how much they know, but rather to further their understanding. They are humble enough to know that they don’t have all the answers, and they still have a lot to learn. They’re still finding ways to challenge themselves, and you can’t help but respect that.

Career Exploration:

I went into this quarter with a ‘breadth and depth’ approach: I tried to go look at a variety of career fields (CPG Marketing, Entrepreneurship, and Data Analytics) but ended up just spending most of my time on the Entrepreneurship part. Part of this was due to the back-to-back Startup Week/Entrepreneur Week events in October, and becoming the co-chair for the Business Plan Competition. I was able to go to the MBA Veterans Conference and look at CPG companies, and it was very enlightening. Unfortunately, this was around the same time as that huge first Marketing project, and October ended up being exhausting. A lot of my class got the flu around that time as well, probably due to a combination of a lack of sleep, a lot of stress, and the change in weather. 

I’m very grateful that I set some career priorities before the quarter began. It’s very easy to get caught up in different career fields and career opportunities that come up. You see a lot of your peers who are passionate about certain career paths (my class seems to be very Marketing and Entrepreneurship focused), and you can’t help but get infected by it. The problem is that this can cause you to start getting pulled in too many directions as you get deep into informational interviews and career events. There just isn’t enough time to look at everything, so stick to your plan and focus on what you can accomplish realistically. 

Time Management:

This is key.  If you can’t manage your time efficiently in the beginning, you run the danger of falling behind and just continually ‘catching up’ every week. I set up some systems before school started, and I was able to stick with them for the whole quarter. I stand by my app recommendations – I’m still using all of them this quarter (Sunrise and Todoist every day!), with some new additions that I’m trying out. I believe strongly in doing a lot of up-front planning in between quarters, focusing on execution during the week, and doing weekly reviews with yourself. Unfortunately, I didn’t properly plan out physical exercise and nutrition last quarter, so I’m looking for good ideas for 2015. 

Team assignments will take up the most of your time. Try to protect your free time around mid-October and early November so you can devote enough time for it and not kill yourself. It’s very tempting to overcommit in September once you think you have a good feel for the courseload, but always leave yourself free time to do the things outside of school that make you human.

Clubs:

A little disappointing. Clubs are entirely student-led and student-driven, so you’ll notice that some clubs are really crazy active and put on big, well organized, and well led events. Some clubs haven’t done a single event yet. This isn’t a big issue because our first quarter was just a landslide of opportunities anyway, but sometimes you are left wondering why some clubs charge exorbitant fees and then don’t even organize a single event. These organizations are incredibly useful if used correctly, but I recognize that it takes a tremendous amount of effort to get things done with groups of equally-busy peers. If you’re considering a leadership position in a club (or even doing any extra activity), be very protective of your time and realize your own limitations as a leader and as a person. On the other hand, if you’re considering joining a club, understand how much time you’ll have to actually attend their events.

Would I do it all over again?

Yes.

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