Key Takeaways from Winter Quarter at Foster

I can’t believe that I am officially a third of the way through the MBA already. Time is flying by – I haven’t felt anything like this since Officer Training School. If the first quarter at Foster was all about academics and time management, then the second quarter was all about balance. You had to make trade-offs between coursework, career management, consulting projects for real-world clients, and extracurricular activities throughout the quarter. I’ll be honest, the internship search was my highest priority this quarter.

It’s been a real blur, but I found that writing helps solidify things in my memory. You can call this an ‘after action review’ of sorts, and I highly encourage you to try it out as well. Here’s what I learned:

Leading Teams and Organizations

Trust data and research first. If you read Fast Company, Forbes, or any other business magazine, you’ll see that there’s a ton of articles on the subject of leadership. However, not all of it is supported by data or evidence, and a lot of it is just conjecture on the part of the author. This class taught me to value information that is backed by some kind of data or research, and appreciate anecdotal advice for what it is.

Corporate/Competitive Strategy

Strategy is all about tradeoffs. As MBAs, we want to do everything to the best of our ability, but there’s never enough time or money to do it all. Companies can’t do everything or pursue every opportunity either, and this class gave us a way to figure out which tradeoffs to make.

Business Statistics

This was absolutely eye-opening for me. When I was in the Air Force, I spent a lot of time trying to learn as much about data analytics as I could, but I honestly didn’t know where to even start learning. This class demystified data analytics for me…it’s like the clouds parted and I could see the way forward. I found out that I love working with datasets and getting real insight from them. I was also really happy with both of the speakers we had. It’s very inspiring to hear companies talk about how they’re using exactly what we learned in class and applying it in real business situations.

Teamwork

I am so grateful to have had 6 people on my team this quarter. The internship search was in full swing from week one and never let up, so it was great to divide up the work so everyone could focus on interviews and applications. My team relied heavily on each other for support, and I can’t tell you enough how much that was needed this quarter.

Gratitude

My team implemented something very cool this quarter: gratitude. We started each team meeting by going around the table and listing three things we were grateful for. We did this to help build up each other’s resilience and also find out about what was going on with each other’s lives. While this took some valuable time from each team meeting up front, I think that in the end it made us a more cohesive team overall. This led us to have better discussions and make better decisions, and most days we ended up finishing half an hour early.

ApplyFailRepeat: Advice on the MBA Internship Search

Ahh, the MBA internship search. I wrote about this earlier in the quarter, and now that the Winter Quarter is ending I feel like I have more insight into the process. One thing my classmates and I are finding out quickly is to expect a lot of rejection, especially when you are a career changer. The above video does a great job of summing up the process of doing a lot of informational interviews and company research, applying for jobs, and then getting the rejection letter. It’s times like this that I really appreciate my fellow classmates who are going through the same process. One nice thing about having a small class is that everyone knows each other and is genuinely happy to hear when classmates get that internship offer letter, but the downside is that word spreads pretty fast. Failure seems much more publicized in our small community, which amplifies social pressure and anxiety. 

One thing I’m struggling with is trying not to follow the herd. I came into the Foster MBA program with certain career goals in mind, but it’s really easy to get caught up in what your classmates are doing. It’s a great time to re-read the letter of advice from Stanford. I didn’t understand it in the Fall quarter, but I definitely feel the pressure in Winter Quarter. Here’s the advice from the letter:

On Recruiting:

“Again, take it easy. Everyone who wanted a summer job got one. I ended up playing picky and landing my ideal job two weeks after the school was out. (Most others had jobs long before that.) If you want a non-traditional job or one that is very different from your past experiences, you may want to prepare yourself for a lot of rejections-something that you may not necessarily be used to. Summer jobs are much harder to find than permanent jobs, due to fewer spots. If you just keep in mind that you will eventually have a job, you can take chances and experiment with the summer job search. This could be a very valuable experience for the permanent job search.”

By now, I’d say at least 33% of the Foster Full-time MBA class of 2016 have at least one internship offer. Due to the nature of MBA internship recruiting, consulting firms and large companies like Microsoft and Amazon tend to recruit much earlier…and they take a ton of MBAs. It’s great to see so many classmates get picked up for these amazing opportunities, but you definitely feel the pressure if you’re looking for something different, or you’re failing where others are succeeding. 

I see some classmates panic and start applying to every available opportunity that comes up. I feel the same pressure as well. Luckily, re-reading the letter seemed to help, and I’m extremely grateful to get a lot of advice and help from alumni, second years, and classmates. If you’re struggling with this, I hope you re-read the letter and reach out.

Update 12/7/15: A few weeks after I wrote this, I accepted an offer to intern at Nike over the summer. That turned out to be the best possible result that I could have asked for.

What is Acquisition Management? (or, my answer to “what did you do in the Air Force?”)

A screenshot from the Air Force's Make-It-Fly mobile app. Funny, this actually sums up our job pretty well. (Courtesy of Air Force Recruiting Service) 

A screenshot from the Air Force’s Make-It-Fly mobile app. Funny, this actually sums up our job pretty well. (Courtesy of Air Force Recruiting Service) 

After a quarter in the MBA program, it’s been really eye-opening to see just how well being a 6X-series in the Air Force can translate into the civilian world. However, since there are so few 6X-series officers (development engineers, scientists, acquisition managers, financial managers, contracting officers, etc) in the Air Force, even members of our own service don’t know what we do.

I remember the day my recruiter told me that I was selected to be an Acquisition Manager. I almost turned the Air Force down because I thought I’d be using my engineering degree to order supplies, which is in line with what the Air Force’s career site advertises. My recruiter had no idea what it was, but eventually she got me in touch with an actual Acquisition Manager who was able to convince me to join.

8 years later, when I was looking to transition out, I was frustrated with the new military skills translators that thought that I know inventory management and purchasing methods. This is a shame, since this kind of information gets sent out to potential employers who use military skills translators to match veterans with potential jobs in their company. 

So hopefully this will help the ~4500 Acquisition Managers and Developmental Engineers out there, or anyone looking to understand what we do.

Weapon Systems, not Office Supplies

Based on military skills translators and the Air Force’s own career web site, it seems like we are some kind of office manager or purchasing officer, responsible for managing equipment and supplies. The truth is that we help develop and deliver the latest products to our users. These products could be a new satellite constellation, a new generation of bomber aircraft, upgrades to existing weapon systems…and so on. These products tend to be incredibly complex and could require years or even decades of development and investment before they can be delivered. Hundreds to thousands of engineers, scientists, financial managers, other professionals could be working on this project. There are government decision-makers at all levels of these projects, many of whom are military. 

What kind of responsibility do you have?

In short, it’s all about providing government oversight (“trust but verify”) and managing cost, schedule, and performance. We represent the American taxpayer and make sure that we are good stewards of government funds. We also represent the warfighter, to make sure that they can get the tools to do things better and potentially save lives. 

Why can’t you just let (insert contractor name here) do it?

There was an effort in the 90’s to decrease the amount of government oversight on these acquisition programs, but then this happened. The debate continues to this day and won’t be discussed much in this post, but let’s just say that being laissez-faire caused some major issues in the past.

But (Insert Contractor Name here) just does all the work, right?

For the most part, yes, and that’s why they get paid the big bucks. They get to turn wrenches, order parts, and do the fun engineering and design work. If there was no government oversight, they could probably do everything and deliver a working product without any issues. However, the Air Force isn’t buying office supplies here. It’s buying (or modifying) huge, technically challenging, innovative and state-of-the-art products, and things don’t always go according to plan. That’s where the government Acquisition folks can help resolve problems – whether it’s a technical or a business challenge.

In my role as an Acquisition Manager, I’ve had the opportunity to influence the decision-making process by providing information and recommendations to leadership. I also had a chance to develop my technical expertise by helping resolve complex engineering challenges, and also got a chance to develop my business expertise by leading major program/contract modifications. Like many jobs, it is what you make of it. 

However, like all large organizations, there’s a possibility that folks can get very comfortable and do as little as possible in their role. In Acquisitions, I’ve found that the majority of folks in the career field are motivated to do the best job that they can for the taxpayer and the warfighter, and anyone who isn’t will get sidelined very quickly. 

What Do they do, then?

We team up with engineers and contracting personnel to oversee the cost, schedule, and technical performance of a government product development contract. From the government’s perspective, we ‘own’ the product and are responsible for all decisions regarding it. We’re expected to be the expert on our product and an advocate for the product and our product’s customer. Particular job details beyond that vary greatly from product to product. We attend plenty of meetings to stay up-to-date on product development status, and whenever possible we watch the product get developed in-person. I was fortunate enough to be co-located with the Boeing Satellite Development Center for my first assignment, so I got to watch my product get built every day. 

When technical problems arise, we bring to bear a variety of government resources to help keep the product on track. We can leverage technical experts on the government side, government research facilities, and our own background to tackle engineering challenges. We can advocate for additional funding or schedule relief. 

We work closely with finance and contracting to manage the product budget. I’d say I spent 40% of my time working through technical issues, 40% funding/contract issues, and 20% doing other activities like government internal processes, additional duties, and other military responsibilities. Everything is done in teams, and we constantly communicate or provide information to internal stakeholders (management) and external stakeholders (ranging from the customer to Congress). 

So what Key skills do Acquisition Managers Need?

Cross-functional Team Leadership is the name of the game. You do all your work in cross-functional teams, with specialists in finance, contracting, engineering, and other disciplines. At the lower-mid level ranks, you need to use your soft skills (relationship building, building trust, emotional intelligence) to influence without any formal authority. We don’t have formal authority over the defense contractor outside of what’s stated in the contract, so ordering people around won’t get you very far. I’ve always worked hard to establish credibility early on, and build trust and nurture relationships with folks from all stakeholder organizations (and at all levels). These relationships become invaluable over the long term, and I think they are the primary drivers in job effectiveness. 

As far as hard skills, you’ll get most of what you need from the Air Force (program/project management, critical path analysis, etc). Having a technical background helps, but I found it’s more important to have a growth mindset and a willingness to learn, and learn quick. You don’t need to be an aerospace engineer to effectively lead a satellite program, but you need to be able to communicate what’s going on with your program to a variety of audiences. 

Note that this isn’t a be-all end-all list, typical military skills like general management, dealing with ambiguity, leadership, communication, and having a strong work ethic are all important as well, but just wanted to highlight what the top two are for this career field. 

So what kind of Entry-level roles do you fill?

Brand-new Acquisition Managers can go to System Program Offices (or SPOs, the units that are responsible for a particular product system, like the F-22 Raptor or the Atlas V Common Core Booster) and be put in charge of a particular subsystem or modification/upgrade program. In smaller SPOs, you might be responsible for an entire product line. This means that you get cost, schedule, and performance responsibility right off the bat, and you are given very little direction in how to achieve these goals. There are sets of internal/external government processes to manage, but I’d say the majority of your time will be spent working with the contractor and other stakeholder organizations, and breaking down barriers to progress. 

Acquisition Managers can also be assigned to research labs, where they will get to manage research programs. Similar to being in a SPO, but instead of working with a large defense contractor, you could be working with an internal research organization or with smaller contractors. Work is a little irregular, and depends a lot on the availability of research funds. Lots of variability here in terms of experience.

There are a variety of other options, to include a ‘career-broadening’ assignment where an Acquisition Manager gets ‘operational’ experience as a Maintenance Officer, Logistics Officer, Space Operations Officer, and so on, but they seem to be the exception rather than the rule. Some folks get farmed out to defense agencies like the Missile Defense Agency or the Defense Contract Management Agency, and some folks get to be on test programs and run/manage flight tests. The list goes on, but typically they all involve some kind of responsibility for a program to either develop or modify a particular product or technology. 

Is there a civilian equivalent?

There isn’t a one-for-one equivalent outside of the government, but there are many parallels with program management at major defense contractors. The next closest thing seems to be ‘product management’ – but the definition varies depending on the firm. Marty Cagan from Silicon Valley Product Group wrote a description of what makes a great product manager, and there seems to be a lot of parallels with this career field. 

Will they ever make a movie about Acquisition Managers?

Sometimes a movie can explain a career field better than any job description. Navy pilots have Top Gun, Air Force pilots have Iron Eagle, we have The Pentagon Wars. Yes, it’s a comedy. Here’s a clip: 

Winter Quarter – First Impressions of MBA Internship Recruiting

I will write a longer post when time permits, but I have some initial thoughts to share on the first several weeks of the Winter Quarter here at Foster.

It’s been a hectic three weeks, and very different compared to Fall Quarter. On campus recruiting is in full swing, with a lot of my classmates busy applying for internships and interviewing. Word spreads really quickly around here. Failures and successes get shared rapidly due to word of mouth. This creates some problems: it seems like your failures become public and other people’s successes create a social pressure on everyone else to succeed, to try harder next time. Luckily, the academic course load is lighter this quarter (except for that first week) but I do see many of my classmates get behind on coursework because the internship hunt takes priority. Coupled with the publicity of failure and other people’s success, this just builds more and more pressure to work harder on career management and let the schoolwork slip.

Social pressure isn’t anything new, but in the age of Constant Feed (see Tina Wells’ podcast on Entrepreneurship Thought Leaders) you’re continuously bombarded with other people’s highlight reels. MBA students are used to being successful and the social pressure to succeed is extremely high in a small community like Foster. Failure and rejection can cause huge blows to self esteem and self image, not because other people think less of you, but because you might believe that everyone thinks less of you.  However, do consider the possibility that everyone is too busy with their own problems that they don’t think positively or negatively about you.

So what do you do? I wrote earlier about the possibility of Grit being a factor towards success, but I’ll save the writeup on improving resiliency for another post. In the meantime, I think being open about what you’re working on and struggling with is important in a small community like this. Your classmates are going through the same pressures, even the ones who are perceived as having a lot of success in the internship hunt. I find that talking about your career aspirations and the hurdles you’re overcoming can be therapeutic, and helps you shape your story a little better. Resume work and company research are important, but I think it’s even more important to talk to people about your career goals and really practice telling your story.

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.

Opportunity Costs

option from Flickr via Wylio
© 2006 Bill Ohl, Flickr | CC-BY-ND | via Wylio

  The Full-time MBA Class of 2016 at UW is a little over two months into the MBA program and we have finals next week. It’s been a good run so far, but the fear of missing out is going to ramp up again next quarter.

  When you choose to go back to school, you sacrifice your time and the wages you’d be earning from another job. This is an explicit opportunity cost that my classmates have calculated to some degree. There’s also the ‘fear of missing out’ (FOMO), which we get from social media news feeds.  

  But as a MBA student, there is one more source of FOMO: the never-ending parade of optional activities and opportunities that present themselves to you.  There are meet-the-firms, independent study (consulting) projects, speaker series, case competitions, and networking events competing for your attention. If you’re in a student club (or two, or three, or eight), then you have club activities to attend or organize. You have the various centers (consulting, entrepreneurship, global business, etc) that host a ton of events and need your help. You have opportunities with career management to improve your public speaking skills, review your resume, practice your interviewing, etc. And this is all just for the business school. UW has a ton of events happening all over campus that could be interesting to you. Outside of the University, there are a ton of events happening in Seattle, too. Oh, and there’s the job hunt to worry about, too!

  At some point, you’ll have to prioritize your time around the activities that mean the most to you. You can try to overload your schedule, haphazardly going to each and every event that you might be interested in, so that you can find that one thing that will get you that dream job you’ve been hoping for. Do you feel pressure to go to as many events as you can, to maximize the effect of your shotgun approach? 

  This can certainly work, but remember why you decided to go back to school, and what you want to get out of it. Is it a network? Is it an education? Is it a job? Just make sure you’re not attending events or agreeing to meetings that don’t add enough value to you. You need to learn how to say no. Remember that there’s an opportunity cost to going back to school, and there’s an opportunity cost to pursue one opportunity over another. You’re going to have to consciously make tradeoffs. 

One Month at Foster

  So it’s been just about one month into the full-time MBA program at the University of Washington Michael G. Foster School of Business, and we have a moment to relax.  So what is it like?

  The actual coursework itself is manageable, but keep in mind that I’m a little biased.  I took some online accounting courses from Oklahoma State and I have a technical background, so the quantitative stuff has been pretty easy for me.  The qualitative stuff (i.e. marketing, strategy) is pretty easy to understand at a high level, it’s not rocket science.  I’ve been pleased overall with the quality of the education…our professors are all very good at engaging the class and, well, teaching.  Assignment grading and the course workload are pretty fair, I don’t have any complaints.  It’s not at all like undergrad at Berkeley where the curve lies around a C- average.  If you’ve been in the military and been through a deployment, this is way, way easier.  If you’re disciplined about how you use your time and manage your energy, Fall Quarter will be a breeze!  

  I made myself a little busier by attending a lot of extra events like Entrepreneur Week and Seattle Startup Week.  I’ve met a lot of great people through these events, and heard some inspirational stories.  I also went to Chicago for the MBA Veterans Conference and got to meet representatives from a lot of great companies and got some interview practice.  Loved being able to reconnect with some old Air Force buddies out that experience, to boot!

  I also get to be a co-chair for UW’s Business Plan Competition, which will be a great opportunity to meet a lot of people in the Seattle startup community, and stretch my event marketing/planning skills!  Last time I had to do some serious event marketing was for the launch of an Air Force/Boeing satellite.  It’s times like these where I’m really grateful to have been a part of so many random additional duties and projects in my career…while they were great for Officer Performance Reports, they also helped develop some great transferrable skills and experiences. 

  My favorite thing about this program is still the opportunity to work alongside a great set of amazing people who really want to learn and change their lives.  The core MBA classes teach a ton of useful information, but that’s just a small part of the equation.  It might be a little cliche, but I feel that a ton of my growth comes from hearing other points of view and learning from the other students here.  But that’s what I came into this program for – not just to learn the hardcore skills of business, but to expand my thinking and get to know people outside of the military.  It’s so tempting to just find people who are really similar to you, but why limit yourself?