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.

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