Saturday, January 26, 2013


I was just assigned a task to find what the average cost for an MBA is for the class of 2015 for both CMU and on average. I'm supposed to use human sources right now to get this information (so sending me to a calculator won't work).

For those who have been accepted or are applying this year, could you please tell me how much you expect your MBA to cost and what you think your salary would be when you graduate? I'm good with multiple estimates, for example:

- My MBA at Tepper will cost me $110,000
- My MBA at UT:Austin will cost me $70,000
- If I become a consultant at graduation, I expect my salary to be $115,000
- If I become a product manager at graduation, I expect my salary to be $80,000

Please don't include opportunity costs in the estimation, but feel free to add non-salary compensation, like bonuses.

This would be super helpful, thank you!

(This is an exercise in networking, so feel free to contact me via email at jharty (at) tepper (dot) cmu (dot) edu if you don't want to post a comment or just want to generally email me for requests - I also have a segment about keeping track of any time someone asks me for information :))

Scale ratings aka how I can't be impressed.

About a year before I left my organization for my MBA program, a new directive passed down from the C-Suite: performance ratings had to be toned down. It seems like nearly everyone had super star employees; but the company wasn't performing like a superstar, so there must have been some sort of disconnect.

It turns out that the problem lay in the system. Like nearly every performance rating system out there, an employee was evaluated on a 5-point scale, with 3 being "performs as expected" and 5 being "performs extremely well" and 1 being "company is better off buying energy-saving lightbulbs than paying for this person to sit on FB all day." It turns out that nearly every department was rating their employees as 5s. The next round of evaluations, after this directive (plus other incentives - I think there was a limit on how many 4s & 5s a manager could give out, and he/she had to justify it), showed just how average everyone truly was since there were a lot of 3s.

This behavior always puzzled me because 3 is pretty self-explanatory - you did what your job requires you to do. A 5 should be a very rare occurrence.

Now, in some of my classes, we have to provide feedback to our teammembers in the form of an evaluation like this. To my surprise, the first time I did this, teammembers decided to give everyone 5s, regardless of the work. Again, a 5 indicates superstar performance, while 3 says "performs as expected." Second time around, I learned, and told everyone that I use the 3 as my baseline number - i.e. you do as expected, you get a 3. Go above and beyond my expectations, and that's when we get into the higher numbers. Thankfully, other people ascribed to this schema and also rated people with 3 as the baseline.
Now I'm in a class where we're constantly evaluated by our team members. I just had to provide a feedback form where there was a scale of 1-9 indicating our impression of a teammate: 1 is very negative, 5 no impression, 9 very positive. I rated people around the 5-7 mark; I can't say I had an immensely positive impression on people in my group. I went to check my own feedback report, and my average score was 8.53! Immediately I felt bad for the people I reviewed: they would walk away with my scores with a different impression than what I had intended.

Why do people think the baseline number for an evaluation is always the highest number? Especially when, in this case, our scores are aggregated and therefore anonymized?

My theory on this stems from the American education and grading system. I was a TA for an OB class in my undergraduate degree from the U.S. I was tasked to write up a quiz, so I did - according to how my degree program in Australia would do it. The Professor thanked me for the good job and said that the A students would get this, the B students would pass, but the C students would not do so well. I needed to simplify it so that the C students would easily pass the quiz.
In a conversation with another student this year, he remarked that the Australian university grading system was more flattering than the American system. In order of increasing magnitude, we have: 3- Low Pass, 4 - Pass, 5 - Credit, 6 - Distinction, 7 - High Distinction. Most students in the bellcurve fell in the 4/5 bracket; I had only ever seen less than 10 HDs per class I've been in, which weren't small by any means. He pointed out that a 4 seems less like a failure; whereas getting a B or a C seemed like a failure in the U.S. system.

So it seems like everyone is on the A basis and then gets dropped down, rather than starting from a C basis and working their way up (which is what I'm used to). I think this mentality of assessment (since school is the first and most frequent place we've ever had this kind of feedback) is what drives people to rate other people very highly without true consideration of what that 5 really means.

(Speaking of which, Tepper's grade basis is an A-; the CMU graduate schools all use B as the level of acceptable work for a graduate student with an A as the measurement of outstanding performance above and beyond what was expected.)

Monday, January 21, 2013

CMU Culture

I opened up my inbox today to receive a campus-wide email inviting CMU students to discuss the "culture" of CMU in response to an article that was posted in the (undergraduate) newspaper, The Tartan.

It turned out that a student committed suicide in December which triggered this particular article and subsequent discussion on the culture of CMU.

The author felt that CMU has a culture of stress and hard times, that the heavy workload on the student has caused many to feel depressed to that point of suicide. A number of people called out in support of that, feeling that the workload is too much for one person to bear. Tepper also has adopted this culture.

I'll admit, when I first read it, I was scornful. These kids came to CMU knowing it was an academic environment, not a "party" school, and yet complain because they can't "switch off".

But it was after a second read that I realised that the article was not blasting the culture, but rather the lack of support services available for students who are overwhelmed by this paradigm shift. It made me wonder why some people would be so distressed over the workload. We have had, in my year at least, a couple of people drop out mid-program because the stress was too hard to bear.

I mentioned in a post much earlier on that I had developed a level of humility by being in this class of highly intelligent people - I had these expectations built of myself that I would follow what I did in undergraduate: be the top of the class and get straight A's in everything. The first couple of weeks showed me that that probably wasn't going to happen, since grades are assigned on a curve. It devastated me, leading me to believe that I wasn't good enough, but I was so determined to prove I was that I spent every waking moment working on this stuff. Eventually, I realised that I didn't need to prove myself in this regard and I became a lot happier. I still worked, but I didn't despair on my (supposed) lack of ability. I no longer needed to be "perfect". This mindset later became really essential in the internship recruiting season because my value was held up against other people. I took rejection as a positive thing - "there were others who were a better fit" - than as a negative - "I wasn't good enough."

Just over the weekend, I was given an article to read which outlined a woman's research into people's mindsets: some people have the mindset that ability in inborn (you're either have it or don't), and others believe that an ability can be learned. Those students who have the former mindset despair in the face of failure, because they believe it's a reflection on their lack of an ability. Those students in the latter - it's best summed up in a quote that I wrote down and posted on my wall:

 "Those with learning goals take necessary risks and don't worry about failure because each mistake becomes a chance to learn."

To me, everyone who comes to Tepper has to adopt this mindset. I know a few people who still have the fixed ability mindset, and they've managed to alienate people with some of their coping strategies (like overwhelming arrogance). A couple of others, like I said, dropped out. But you can't fail at any subject at Tepper unless you really try, and even then I think it's very very difficult, and so a large majority of us have now embraced the mantra "grades don't matter" and subsequently take classes for the joy of learning. Putting the expectation of being the top of the class will lead to the dismay and depression - and, as it turns out, CMU doesn't have very good resources available if a student does go down that path.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Week 1: Capstone

Over the Winter Break, I went back home to Australia to visit my family, introduce my partner to both family and country, and took a small trip to the Whitsundays to snorkel the Great Barrier Reef. During that time, I (purposefully) turned off my phone and email and rarely bothered to check my social networks. It was a switch-off from the last 1.5 years - no internship to worry about, no interview preparation, no networking, no worrying about loans.

It was thus I came back to my penultimate mini, relaxed, refreshed, and a tad disappointed*.

I'll post another entry in a couple of days for my usual end-of-mini elective summary, since obviously I had neglected to do so during the break. But my mini 3 is pretty easy. The only difference is is that I have a semester-long class that covers both minis and my capstone course (which also covers the two minis).

The Capstone course is meant to be the final jewel in your MBA crown, the summation of all you've learned in your degree program put to good work. Since I'm in a Track, my capstone is significantly different from what the "regular" students study (coincidentally, it also made me ineligible for the Germany-based capstone, where you spend 5 weeks travelling around Germany). It's called "Designing and Leading a Business" and it's with those in the Entrepreneurship track. Ideally, you take a product and make a business out of it. For those in the Technology Leadership track, the expectation is to be something that is technical, like hardware, software, whatever. We are also supposed to work in small groups.

The groups and the projects were already decided on by us at the end of last mini before the break. I was going to continue working on an entrepreneurial venture that I had tackled in a class in Mini 1: the facial-tracking software that was used in Avatar was a product of a CMU-faculty member who works for Disney, and we had decided that a good application of this technology would be in the video game industry (Disclaimer: this actually wasn't my idea! My team decided this). Ultimately, we decided that the inventor should open up his own studio and provide the motion capture services, similar to how Weta does. I had to leave the project after 1 mini, and two teammembers continued it through. However, when it came time to revisit the project to take it back up again for Capstone, the previous team said that the inventor had lost interest in the project and was unwilling to take it anywhere.

My team - consisting of a good friend and I - went to speak to our Track advisor about our predicament, since neither of us were willing to continue with a project that would go nowhere. A few ideas were thrown around, all of them based on one or both of us joining an existing team with their business idea/product. Then the professor mentioned a project of his called Livehoods. This technology had already been investigated as a business idea by another team in the Mini 1 class, and I remembered their presentation - they had concluded it was good for urban development. The concept seemed boring to me, and I wasn't too enthused, until I had heard that that team had pulled it together somewhat last minute for the class. The professor proceeded to show us emails from parties who were interested in using the technology and talked enthusiastically about the possibilities beyond basic marketing. I started to get a lot more interested. To cut a long story short, determining the business possibilities for Livehoods is now my capstone business project! Ideally, we want to go beyond targeted advertising (which is the easy answer) to something more exciting and useful.

It should be an interesting challenge in the weeks to come! We'll be working with students from the school of Computer Science, so this should be fun.