Like the World Needs Another MBA…

I’m very happy to announce that after being almost five years in the works, I’m officially graduating from the University of North Dakota with my Masters of Business Administration on Friday, August 3rd.

When I first started my MBA classes back in 2002, it had been just over a year since I graduated from UND with my undergraduate degree. The thought of going back to school wasn’t all that exciting to me, but thanks to some complexities in how my employer was organized, I technically worked for NDSU. This meant I was eligible to take up to three classes per year for free from any college or university in North Dakota’s higher education system. This benefit seemed too good to pass up, so I took advantage of it as soon as possible.

A couple of years into the program, I found myself really digging my classes, and I started working harder than I ever did during my undergrad program. Suddenly, it became much more than the hoops I needed to jump through to get another degree to hang on the wall. I became genuinely interested in learning, and found myself devouring all sorts of business books in my spare time. I even took Intermediate Accounting I & II for fun — something particularly funny to me after I vowed to never again take an accounting class after finishing my intro classes back in 1999.

I actually took my last MBA class during the summer of 2005. Since then, I’ve been working on my final project, the so called Independent Study, off and on. This summer, I finally decided it was time to finish it up, and devoted several hours of research and writing time each night until I had a polished 28-page paper. I turned that in on Wednesday last week, and got my official approval on Thursday. As you can imagine, I’m ecstatic.

I absolutely loved being a student, but it’s great to have this chapter of my life wrapped up. Who knows — someday might I go back to college for another degree, but for now, I’m looking forward to spending more time with Casey and the boys, catching up on my reading, and hopefully playing lots of that Nintendo Wii I just earned myself!

Google Docs Rocks

I’ve been able to put more time into my independent study over the last few weeks. While that’s plenty of work for me, I’ve decided to do a little experiment during the process: dump Microsoft Word and instead write it online using Google Docs.

GoogleDocs.jpg

So far, I like Google Docs. A lot. I love being able to get to it from any of the computers I use, and it has all of the major functionality I need out of a word processor for a research type paper. It’s also got automatic saving, a revision history, and really good collaboration/sharing tools. So, when I want my advisor to give me some constructive criticism, I can give him access to view and comment from where ever he happens to be that day.

At this point in the process I’ve turned off all formatting options so I’ll avoid the temptation to tweak fonts and styles and instead concentrate on the content. I’m writing a good percentage of the paper in HTML editing mode, where I can directly modify the document’s source. I love the fact that documents are stored as plain old HTML instead of in some proprietary format like MS Words. It means that publishing to my website at the end will be very simple.

There are a few things I’d like to see changed/added to Google Docs that would make it even better:

  • Provide a way to show/hide comments (I haven’t found a way to do this yet)
  • Use standard HTML tags for bold and italic text
  • Give me a way to define a stylesheet for my document to I can take complete control over how my text elements look
  • Make it easier to add and manage footnotes and references

I’m Finishing my MBA

For the last four years (holy crap, I thought it was just three), I’ve been chipping away at my MBA degree at UND. While I finished my final course last summer, I still have one thing left: my independent study.

I actually started working on this final project in the spring of 2005, but delays soon set me back. I spent about nine months on something that I found very interesting and promising, only to hit a dead-end that August. My adviser and I quickly came up with Plan B, which involved extracting marketing data about edible beans from USDA food consumption surveys. Not nearly as exciting as my original project, but I was willing to do whatever I needed to finally graduate.

Fast-forward a couple of months. In my research, I found that the government had changed the format of their most recent survey, and removed a few pieces of demographic information that really limited usefulness of any marketing data we could get. This was right around the time when our son made his appearance into mine and Casey’s lives, so my December graduation aspirations soon faded.

Before I knew it, this year’s spring and summer semesters passed too, with my independent study still hanging over my head. I finally sick of it. I just want to be able to say that I have my graduate degree.

So, I’ve jumped back into my research and have started working on the “Shitty First Draft” of my paper/article. It’s not much (yet), but it’s a start, and right now that’s what I need.

Besides the intrinsic reward of graduating and finishing this project, I also have another good motivation: Casey and I both agreed that if I finish in December, my graduation present will be a Nintendo Wii system. I really want one of these things, so this is a great way to keep me focused.

November 16th is my first deadline, when a “Preliminary Approval of Thesis or Dissertation” form needs to be submitted to the Graduate School. I’ve got my target…

Thinking

After recently listening to On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins and Sandra Blakeslee and taking the Imagination course with Dr. Stamp here at UND, I’ve become fascinated with the human brain and how we actually think and work. Because of this, I get really excited when I come across some different way of working that takes advantage of how our minds work. What’s that? Yes, I do know that I’m a geek.

Anyway, here are a couple examples of what I mean:

  1. Getting Things Done: David Allen’s systematic approach for managing all of the “stuff” in your life. This awesome approach frees your mind from the clutter of trying to remember everything you need to get done in the various parts of your life. It’s really liberating to get things down on paper and instead use your brain for what it’s really good for: thinking
  2. Mind Mapping: Although I’ve known about the idea behind mind mapping for at least several years, I can honestly say that I didn’t “get it” until recently. A couple posts on the Creating Passionate Customers blog really helped me understand how our brains naturally make connections and associations between things, something a mind map does much better than a regular bulleted outline ever could. I finally had my “light bulb” moment when I used mind mapping to create and capture new ideas for my Imagination class. I’m now a believer!

My latest discovery came late last night while I was working on my final concept for my class with Dr. Stamp, which I will be pitching later this afternoon. I was using the thesaurus at Thesaurus.com when I came across a text ad for a product called the Thinkmap Visual Thesaurus. Play around with the free version for a few minutes and then tell me that you wouldn’t choose it over a dead tree version. There is tremendous power in being able to see the connections between words. Simply awesome!

Good Reading

Somehow, I’ve managed to knock off a couple of books on my reading list in the last couple of months, dispite the fact that I’m always busy with homework and projects for the three classes I’m taking. Thankfully, the end is in sight: Only one test, one presentation, and two papers left until my semester is over!

One of the absolute best business books I’ve ever read is one I finished just last week: Jump Start Your Business Brain: Scientific Ideas and Advice That Will Immediately Double Your Business Success Rate, by Doug Hall, founder of the Eureka! Ranch. This book isn’t provocative like some other business books, but it is grounded in tons of research and data proven business truths. It will teach you the three most important things to consider in creating or revamping your product or service. My current class with Dr. Jeffrey Stamp, formerly of the Eureka! Ranch, introduced us to the exact system layed out in this book. If you want to come up with more ideas, better ideas, and ideas that will tip the odds in your favor, you absolutely must buy this book! You won’t regret it!

One book I picked up on Friday and am currently reading is called Freakonomics : A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, by Steven D. Levitt, Stephen J. Dubner. Let me just say that if you enjoyed Malcom Gladwell’s books, The Tipping Point and Blink, you will really get into Freakonomics. Steven Levitt actually makes the topic of economics interesting and fascinating. They stories the authors have collected are great!

Finally, I’m about 15 hours into the 19 hour unabridged audio version of Thomas L. Friedman’s “The World is Flat”. If you’re interested in learning about globalizaion and the challenges and opportunities it presents the United States, this is a must read. Mr. Friedman isn’t a technologist, but he also does a very good job in talking about the trends in technology that are “flattening the world”. He also manages to do a great analysis of Al Qaeda and what he calls the “suicide supply chain”

And now, back to work. Have I said yet that I will be extremely happy once this semester is over? Just two more weeks to go…

Flat World Update [4/29/2005 @ 2:30 pm] Last night Minnesota Public Radio hosted a speech by Thomas Friedman from the Fitzgerald Theater in downtown St. Paul Minnesota. In it, he discussed the major thesis of his new book, The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century. MPR has an audio and video stream available as a part of their Think Global collaboration series. Give it a listen!

Relaxing

Casey and I are at home tonight, just relaxing. We’re watching the Fighting Sioux play the Gophers in the Frozen Four right now. So far, it’s been a great game. We have a small buffer built up on our Tivo, so we’re not quite watching live TV. A few minutes ago we heard a big cheer from the frat house across the street, so we assumed something good was coming up. Sure enough, UND scored its 4th goal!

Earlier this evening I finished up my third class with Dr. Jeffrey Stamp, the new chair of UND’s entrepreneurship program. He’s a lot of fun, but more importantly, a great teacher. He even has a personal money back guarantee – if anyone in the class doesn’t end the semester believing it was the best course of their college career, he will personally refund the tuition paid for the class. As far as I can tell however, his money is safe.

It’s Funny Because It’s True

Although it seems that all I’ve been doing the last week is linking to Seth Godin blog entries (which may well be true), this post from today was too good not to comment on. Talking about the 119 Harvard Business School applicants rejected because they “hacked” a website to find the status of their application, Seth takes a refreshingly different perspective:

Plenty of hand-wringing about the ethics or lack thereof in this case (the media loves the turmoil) but I think a more interesting discussion is what a gift these 119 people got. An MBA has become a two-part time machine. First, the students are taught everything they need to know to manage a company from 1990, and second, they are taken out of the real world for two years while the rest of us race as fast as we possibly can.

When I read this, I almost fell out of my chair because I was laughing so hard. I wrote something in the same vain last week about a MBA marketing class I took several semesters ago. I couldn’t agree more – I’ve been feeling the exact same way recently. Now don’t get me wrong – I love the University of North Dakota and like and respect the professors of my MBA classes. I think the problem is systemic in most of this country’s business schools. Things are changing so fast in the world of business, I have no idea of what colleges can do, if anything, to turn themselves around so they are actually turning out graduates prepared for this scary new world.

I began my MBA classes in the fall of 2002 not because I needed an MBA degree to advance or to get a new job, but because I was curious and interested in learning. At the time, I was about a year into my job with EduTech, and I was a solid information technology guy. I got my undergrad degree in Information Systems in 2001, I loved computers and technology, and I had no desire to do anything else. That was the case until my “awakening” late last spring. While I had been reading blogs for about a year and a half before then, they were mostly war and political blogs. I started reading the weekly Carnival of the Capitalists and then began regularly reading several business blogs. Then, one day, on one of them I read a blurb about a new book coming out by a guy named Seth Godin called Free Prize Inside: The Next Big Marketing Idea. I found it at the local Barnes and Noble bookstore, took it home, and loved every second of it. I realized I really enjoyed this new perspective on business and wanted to hear more. Next I found a book at the library called Creating Customer Evangelists: How Loyal Customers Become a Volunteer Sales Force, and read it over Memorial Day weekend. I was hooked.

In the ten months since then, I’ve read a ton of business books in my spare time, gotten a subscription to Fast Company, increased the number of business blogs I read, and started listening to Audible business books and Brain Brew on NPR. I firmly believe I have learned more by doing those things than I have in all of my MBA classes. I do have one class coming up after spring break, however, which I believe will be the single best college class I will ever take. It’s called Creativity in Innovation, and will be taught by Dr. Jeffrey Stamp, the idea guru who created Baked Lays, among other things. I had a chance to hear him speak a couple of times several weeks ago and found him fascinating. I don’t know what UND did to get him on staff, but I can’t wait to learn from him!

Feeling: Depressed, Frustrated, and Hungry

I just got my butt kicked this morning on my Intermediate Accounting II exam. I honestly don’t know what happened – I read the chapters, did all the assigned problems, and spent the weekend and the last two nights studying my brains out by doing and redoing both the assigned problems and the problems in the Problem-Solving Survival Guide. When I went to bed at 1 AM last night after finishing my studying for the night I was feeling really prepared and confident about the test today. This morning after I was ready I studied the notes I made on a few index cards and was prepared to ace the thing. Or so I thought.

I believe my problem was mainly one of time. I was simply not able to get everything done (well) in the one hour we were allotted. After having three hours plus for Intermediate Accounting I tests, one hour just doesn’t seem like a lot. About half an hour into it, I became flustered when I realized I had a lot more than half of the test left, which didn’t help as I tried to get as much done as possible. In the end, there was probably 1/3 of the test that I either didn’t get done or where I had to guess. Ouch.

I wouldn’t feel so bad if I hadn’t put any effort into studying for this thing, but I worked my butt off. Everyone who knows me knows that I’m a hard worker, and I just feel that how I did on this exam doesn’t come close to reflecting my knowledge of the subjects covered (revenue recognition and tax). Plus, I feel like I’m doing everything right on the studying/preparation side of things, so it’s not like I can just start reading the book and doing the problems. I’m already doing that and more!

So anyway, it looks like I’ll be spending the rest of the semester trying to work my way out of hole I’m currently in. If there is anything positive about what happened with today’s test, it’s that at least I’m not alone. I talked with several classmates afterward and overheard others talking, and it appears that we’re all feeling pretty much the same way. Hey everyone! Welcome to the bottom of the grade scale!

Still Alive

In case anyone was wondering, yes, I’m still alive. For some reason this week seems especially busy, so I haven’t had time to post anything yet. Needless to say, things and going great! Between work, my MBA classes, and my own reading list, I feel like I’m absorbing more knowledge now than in any other point in my life. It’s really really awesome!

This weekend looks to be particularly busy. I’m headed to the 11th annual College of Business and Public Administration (BPAC) Business Conference here at UND. Then, I’m heading down to our Fargo office for several staff meetings, only to take part in the First Annual Ethics Seminar tonight and tomorrow morning. I have an accounting test to study for tomorrow afternoon and then Casey and I are going to the Steven Curtis Chapman, Casting Crowns, Chris Tomlin concert here at the Alerus Center. Fun stuff!

Update @ 10:40 AM 3/4/2005: Above, I forgot to mention all the blogs I read. They are a great source of knowledge from people a lot smarter than me, and they’re all free. That’s right, free. You can’t beat that. You can find all of the blogs I read at my public list on Bloglines. Happy reading!

One Month Already?

I’ve been a bad blogger! I just realized that today is exactly one month since my last post here. Needless to day, I’m still alive. Looking back, November was pretty busy, although I didn’t realize it as it was happening. Here’s a quick summary of what I was up to:

  • Developing a major web-based application at work (still working on this one)
  • Gave a presentation on wikis, blogs, and professional development to the NDSU ITS staff
  • Intermediate accounting (and lots of it)
  • Took a trip down to the Twin Cities with my wife and my parents to meet my sister, brother-in-law, and our new nephew when they returned from Russia
  • Spent Thanksgiving weekend relaxing with the family
  • Metroid Prime
  • Half-Life 2

I’m actually really enjoying my web dev project at work, which I will probably write about in more detail in a later post. It’s been challenging, often frustrating, and very rewarding. As for my Intermediate Accounting class, it has gone surprisingly well. I actually understand many of the intricacies of accounts, balance sheets, income and cash flow statements now, something I never would have thought four or five years ago. The best part: only two days of class and one final left!

In all honesty, I didn’t have much desire to sit down and write lately. I feel somewhat refreshed now though, and am planning to spend some time detailing a few of my recent experiences and ideas. It’s good to be back!