Friday, April 28, 2006

My Days At Columbia University Business & Journalism Schools

Today I got an emailed newsletter from Columbia University, asking for anecdotes and stories about alumni's and others' experiences at Columbia.

I had a lot to do today --- and if there is one thing I can focus on, it's procrastination. So, I set aside everything that is important, like taxes, a legal matter, a patent application, a new article to write and today's radio commentary to prepare... and wrote out a note to the Columbia folks. Like everything else, I wrote it as it is, my opinion, not glossed over, nor simply attacking. Enjoy!

Ironically, two aspects of my Columbia experience turned out to the opposite of what I had expected. And, there are two aspects of how Columbia changed me, or not!

I went on to change the world, in my own way, by founding the Internet -- in Pakistan. (Sorry, Al Gore!). Yes, I pioneered and established the first internet service provider in a developing nation with my own non-existent resources, with no government or private sector help, and also co-founded the top level domain, .PK, for Pakistan --- all no thanks to Columbia! Read on!

When I came to Columbia Business School, it had been ranked 13th (ouch) in the BusinessWeek cover story - I believe Journalism School was ranked #1 that year.

But, after two years at Business School, I was thrilled that the school was MUCH better than I expected. Almost 80% professors were better than I expected, 10% were GREATER than I expected (Kathy Harrigan and James Hulbert to name two) and 10% were... well, let's skip talking about them.

In the first five minutes of Prof. Hulbert's "Baby Marketing" class, I had a moment of clarity, and realized, I had been a marketer all my life and didn't even know it! :-) And, for someone who hates "Sales" and always equated Marketing to Sales, I fell in LOVE with Marketing - which became the center of all my 4 concentrations. (I was fortunate to have a full international scholarship, so I could take the liberty of taking courses non-stop, for 7-8 semesters, including summers).

It took longer than 5 minutes to fall in love with Prof. Harrigan as a teacher :-) , but, with her stellar reputation that I had heard, I had quite expected her to maybe live up to it, maybe not. She exceeded my expectations. For someone who had one of the courses requiring the most work, but had a waiting list, I applied for, and was fortunate to get her in TWO courses - in one semester! Talk about suffering a crushing load - but loving every minute of it. Since my work experience had been in a newspaper chain in Pakistan, that was close to a virtual monopoly, these courses helped me get a much better appreciation of things like competitive strategy. The best teachers at Columbia did not give me any answers - they taught me better what questions to ask. Thank you, Professor Harrigan, Professor Hulbert, Professor Sexton and others.

There were two or three courses for which I still think I should ask for my money back --- had I been the one paying for the courses. One was a Professor who, instead of teaching Statistics, taught us how to use the HP12C calculator. I swear, USING THAT is what he based the course on. I almost FLUNKED that course, because my Dad visiting NY bought me an HP 15 or 18 or 20 or some such model of calculator, where there was a slight difference in the buttons. Since the course told you WHAT buttons to press, I was getting answers that were, shall we say, astronomically deviant from the standard. Now, as you can see, from this, and other, sentences, and paragraphs, that I kinda, sorta, know how to use punctuation :-) . But there was this one Marketing Planning or some such course that the professor's only input on my submission was marking off paragraph breaks and commas. NOTHING was learnt in that course. Fortunately, the great teachers I had in other courses made sure Columbia Business School was a great experience for me.

The student body was far nicer than I expected - and the opposite of what BusinessWeek had described. Maybe they were all also smarting from that survey and being better people than previous classes' students had been. Additionally, having started in the January 1989 class, I can safely say that you are more likely to make lifelong friends in the smaller group that starts in January, than the much larger class in September. The students were smart, professional, intelligent, and made you feel proud to be a group that great. I learnt from the faculty and from my fellow students.

On the other hand, my biggest disappointment was in the courses I took at the Journalism School.

I am sure my few courses there did NOT reflect on the entire curriculum, faculty or student body. But, in the courses I took there, my fellow students, looked, and behaved, like high school dropouts. They would saunter into ongoing classes, plop themselves down with the expression of ennui, that only sees on the faces of 'oh-I-hate-being-so-special-and-rich' models purveying Ralph Lauren preppy-ware in the inside-covers of glossy magazines.

Perhaps I was just unlucky in what teachers I got there. I had a great gentleman teacher, a publisher of a newspaper, give a course that was quite boring and in which I literally learnt very little, but learning from him, about real life was somewhat useful. Though most students in that course did not much seem to care. They appeared to know they were all going to get great jobs because they were coming out of the #1 ranked J-school.

But, even worse, was the course, taught by a lady who was formerly publisher of a well known magazine. The course in media management or something like that required a paper at the end of the term. Much that I would like to think I am brilliant (don't you think so? :-) ) I had expected serious critiques and suggestions/improvements to my "thesis" in that course. Instead, I got a paper marked out with 10-12 commas or semi-colons. I did not realize media management was that easy. No wonder so many magazines are suffering today.

This is not to say that this was wholly representative of the whole school and student body at the Journalism school, from where I met, and became friends with other graduates who are great professionals and intelligent, exciting people. It's just that my experience at #13 ranked B-school was light years ahead of what I saw at #1 ranked J-school!

Now, B-school was NOT perfect either. As I said earlier, I changed the world - no thanks to Columbia, or at least one particular part of it.

The worst part of the experience there was, and there is no delicate way to put it, the clueless management of the computer lab at the Business School, while they carried a haughty air that could have lifted the Hindenberg.

Yes, these are the people who swore by the worst-in-breed HP desktop machines (whose floppy drives could NOT read disks that had been formatted on any other BRAND of PC!) and had a Novell network, that was novel only in how frequently it was "down". These, bozos, I mean, geniuses, also LAUGHED when I went in there asking for an email account in January 1989! They actually LAUGHED, saying that email was for the nerds at engineering school, and not a business tool. Doh!

Columbia Computing was not much more visionary than that. As the records will indicate, I was the student from Business who had to pay $35 every semester out of my own pocket to have my email address ( ) while engineering students had them free. Talk about these people having no vision, and no understanding of where computers and email were headed. I had been in the USA less than a month and knew I could not live without email as a tool. They thought it was a toy or a nerd's accessory.

So, by their stone-age thinking, and we-know-better attitude, these people (whom I hope have long departed CU) did their best to turn me away from email ----

Fortunately, I was too stubborn. My (copyrighted :-) ) mottos in life are "If Anyone Can, 'I' Can" and "Change The World, Bit By Bit, Byte By Byte™"...

Not only did I get my own email address, I went on over the next 2 years to establish email for Pakistan - a country of 150 Million people with millions now on the Internet, no thanks to Columbia and B-school Computing managers.

But, fortunately, as a "serial entrepreneur" (whatever that means!), every day, I use critical thinking that my favorite Columbia professors taught me. Thank you, and God Bless You.



Tania said...

My days at Columbia... a round-about track to business school

I had originally intended to go to law school. However, a one-year internship while in college at the local District Attorney's office cured me of all desire and motivation to study and later practice the law. So what to do? Well, since not going to law school had never entered my mind until my senior year in college, I graduated with a murky vision of where to go next. So I landed my first real job at a bank in "credit school" and learned the art or science of lending money to those who did not need it (private wealth clients). Not a strategic move, but rather a job I fell into at a time when there was a recession and it was as good a place to start my illusive "career". So while there I agonized over my next step, after all law school had been eliminated as a possibility. So the logical step was business school, I mean where else would I go?

I asked others how they decided on which schools to apply to. Was it academics, the experience... what? At that time I talked to Imran about his Columbia days and the story he told me and the events that were set in motion as a result of that conversation have changed my life in the most unexpected way. After all, at that time, Columbia was not even on my radar. I was debating whether to return to Europe and go to INSEAD or whether to stay in the US and go to a US school. I decided the latter and had been researching the top 10 schools. Columbia Business School at that time was ranked 11th. But at Imran's suggestion, I visited Columbia, met with professors, met students, sat in on some classes, walked the campus and experienced NYC. I fell in love. It was THE school for me and the greatest selling point - NYC. So I applied to Columbia. I had no backup plan, much to the chagrin of my friends and family who thought I was taking too much risk applying to only one school. But it was the only school I wanted to go to and I was going to make it happen.... somehow. I didn't have some master plan, I just flew by the seat of my pants. Thankfully I got lucky! I got in. So off I was to Columbia, my next adventure.

My expectations arriving at Columbia were to study marketing. It seemed so cool, fun and so much more interesting than finance and besides I was dying to get away from my banking experience. Ironically, after taking several classes in marketing and finance, I discovered a lot about myself. I in fact, stink at marketing and am good at finance. Maybe I did learn something about finance as a banker and maybe my landing in a finance job could have been strategic if it had been deliberate.

I also found Columbia to be a humbling experience. Most, if not all, of the students at the business school are all top ranked students from somewhere else, but once at the same place you are competing with the best of the best. All my other schooling had been so easy, and Columbia, well it was ... hard, it was work and it was much more competitive than anything I had experienced before. And watching everyone vie for top spot was both interesting and a learning experience that helped me prepare for my next work adventures. Then there was the cultural diversity. Columbia is a school where they say what they mean and mean what they say with regard to cultural diversity. My fellow classmates were from all corners of the planet making for interesting and challenging debates over how much weight local / cultural norms ought to be considered in business decisions. Many a business case was used to drill this concept into our minds.

Overall I was very impressed with the professors at Columbia, in particular the finance and strategy courses. My favorite courses, Global Strategy taught by Executive in Residence Ehud Houminer and "Baby Finance" by the legendary Bruce Greenwald. I learned new finance concepts, but most of all, I learned what tools to use in certain situations and how to more effectively use my time by ignoring "noise". This was part of identifying the critical path" a phrase that developed new meaning and became our mantra. A valuable skill in this day and time where we are constantly being bombarded by useless information. There were some finance classes though that the word "challenge" does not begin to describe. Debt Markets comes to mind. Day one of class, the professor tells you that if you do not have investment banking experience you will not do well in his class.... What??? Stubborn, so I stick it out. And the final exam, worst nightmare. I can answer only 3 out of 5 questions, but I guess the majority of other students must not have had investment banking experience either and were obviously just as, or more stubborn than I was, and I end up with a "B" for the course. Yes, I thought it was unbelievable too! And one of my marketing classes, yes I was clueless, but the professor utterly lacked inspiration and was unable to rally the class. Other than these few courses that lacked vigor, the courses were interesting, challenging and definitely stimulated thinking outside the proverbial box.

I had also done the analysis early on (first semester really) just like a good economist (my undergraduate specialization) that the incremental effort required to obtain the "A" grades had diminishing or marginal returns versus time spent and therefore I was better off to just aim primarily for the "B" and spend my now freed up time enjoying the greatest city in the US. Columbia was a time of my life where I worked incredibly hard, but also played hard. I was also fortunate in that I made the most incredible friends - so incredible that we still get together annually 10 years later and it is like we never left... And when people ask me, what did you think of Columbia? I answer, "I learned, I met great people, I made friends for a lifetime and I had FUN". The latter, I have found in talking with fellow MBA's, not usually associated with an MBA experience. In fact, I had so much fun at Columbia that I rank it amongst one of the most incredible experiences of my life. To this day, Columbia represents not just an MBA or stepping stone to bigger and better things, but memories of friendships, fun and laughter that will last a lifetime.

Imran Anwar said...

Tania, glad that my encouraging you to consider Columbia worked out so great for you. And, making great friends, and enjoying the greatest city in the world is a a huge bonus. I call Manhattan the center of the Universe (though, I seem to recall something from some space/time book, technically the way the universe expands, every point can be considered the center.... but, I could be wrong....). Manhattan really is as close to the center of the Universe as a place can be. Which also relates to something you mentioned about Columbia but I feel is also a huge part of coming to, living and MAKING it in New York. New York City is both a ego-boooooosting and humbling place..... it is such an incredible place that if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere, so making it in NY gives you that feeling of being something special :-) .... yet, almost every other person who comes to New York City from elsewhere is equally driven, smart or brilliant, it can be very pleasantly humbling to see that though you are such a hot shot incredible unique brilliant person, the city is full of people who can easily exceed your best abilities, thereby helping you keep your feet firmly on the ground when the ego-mania makes your head get stuck in the clouds. :-)

Thanks for the comment.


Lieve said...

All hail Columbia! Many people seem to perceive an MBA as a degree for money grubbing far right wing conservatives. Luckily, Columbia attracts a diverse student body and has been known to have left liberal socialists. After all, Columbia's location on the upper west side is just north of what many perceive to be the greatest bastion of liberals in the US. It takes all kinds.

Liberals, conservatives, and money grubbers... Well, my MBA enabled me to learn some skills while working with the smartest collection of people I've ever encountered in one place. (And I currently work at an world renowned university!). The work we did was difficult, inspired, meted out after sleepless nights, brilliant and sometimes just plain old flat wrong. It was the ability to work with a group of people that made the difference for me, that really provided the education experience to inform my current professional success. I have to admit, Imran, that I can only use an HP12C calculator.

And sure, there were some losers. Their egos were overpowering, their insecurities hung in the air as they recounted tales of corporate glory on Wall Street. Often these, but not always, were individuals who had the vision and drive to have a positive effect on the world, whether this be bringing the Internet to a foreign country, being a CFO of a non-profit, or an investment strategist.

And for all these MBAs, these money grubbers, these heroes of corporate halls, lets face it, we all have moments, fleeting, that we are also losers.

All hail the losers!

Imran Anwar said...

Long Lieve The Loser(s) :-) There oughta be a club. ;-)

Tania said...

You mean there is no CLC (Columbia Losers Club) yet?