Monday, October 3, 2011

Internship Lessons Learned (Awkwardly, of course)

The LGO internship is unique in the MBA world. In it, we are teamed with a partner company on a project bridging the business and engineering worlds, and the content forms the basis for a Master’s thesis. While these aspects set it apart, the internship is perhaps most distinguished by its 6.5-month length. Having now completed four of the six-and-a-half months, I am beginning to realize the benefits this affords us. The most important of these, in my mind at least, is that we are given the opportunity to manage a complex project from inception to completion. This differs greatly from a typical 2-3 month MBA internship during which students work on a small part of an existing project that more or less serves as a sales pitch to the students for post-graduation employment.

My internship with Amgen has already provided some great experiences. I am leading a team that includes members from process development, engineering, and manufacturing organizations, sitting in on strategy sessions with group leadership, and making presentations to Amgen executives. More importantly, perhaps, I am also learning lessons that I will take with me wherever I end up after LGO.

In the rest of this post, I’ll tell two stories that relate to one such lesson – properly extinguishing a small flame before it becomes a raging fire.

Story 1

At least I have a cubicle in my fortress.
As I mentioned in my last post, I sit at a receptionist desk near the entrance to my building. I see people walk in and out all day, but I’m mostly alone in my own little Fortress of Solitude. For the first month, it was actually quite a peaceful location. This changed, suddenly, after some work to the building’s air handlers over a weekend in July.

As I sat in my chair the following Monday, I noticed that something was awry. The silence was gone, replaced by a horrible rattling sound. This was not the kind of rattling that becomes white noise after a few minutes, but an aggravating, jarring sound that set my insides on fire and made me want to throw things.

The source, it turned out, was the heavy metal fire door five feet from my desk. Somehow, the pressure on the two sides of the door changed rapidly enough to cause the thing to shake back and forth in its frame. If you heard it for a few seconds, you might think there was an earthquake. If you sat in my chair for a day, you might think the world was ending (and I would’ve been ok with that).

MIT engineering at its finest.
Being an MIT engineer, I decided to do something about it. Being a geologist, the thing I did would have placed last at an elementary school science fair -- I tore off a piece of cardboard from a nearby box, inserted it into the strike plate hole in the door frame, and secured it in place with a wad of scotch tape. Miraculously, this actually worked. The sound was almost completely muffled, and I was able to work in peace again. End of story, right? Not quite…

Turns out, someone else took the correct approach and called Facilities to have the noise problem fixed for real. The maintenance guys must have come during the night, because when I arrived the next day, I saw their handiwork. They had installed a rubber seal around the entire door frame to eliminate the little noise that remained after my engineering masterpiece was in place. It did this quite well.  The problem was, it did only this quite well.  As soon as my tape lost its stickiness and the cardboard fell out, the true value of the seal was revealed --and that value was nothing.  The seal didn't do anything.  They might as well have done nothing.  The rattling was back to stay, and it was my fault.

To make this story even more tragic, the very day the rattling returned, an actual earthquake struck the area. It wasn’t big, but it was strong enough that most people on campus noticed. Just not me. The sound of the shaking door had overwhelmed my senses, and I missed the telltale signs of the quake – the only significant one to strike California during the internship. If only I’d done the right thing in the first place and called Facilities to fix the problem, this situation could have been properly resolved in a day or two. Instead, I missed an earthquake and have been stuck with replacing the tape on the cardboard every few days.

Story 2

Do you see me out there? Well, somebody does.
In my role as the building’s unofficial receptionist, I greet many people over the course of the day. Most people ignore my near-silent hellos, some smile back, unsure of who I am and why I’m talking, and a few strike up conversation. Most of these are your basic 'what’s going on this weekend?' type of deal, to which I invariably (and sometimes honestly) answer 'nothing.' So, I was surprised one day when a guy walked by and asked me about the soccer game I played in against his team. I politely engaged in a three-minute conversation about our game, and then he went on his way. This might sound perfectly innocuous, but, sadly, it wasn’t. Not only did I not actually play against his soccer team, but I haven’t even stepped on a soccer field since eighth grade. He mistook me for some other gawky-looking guy, and I felt too bad to tell him that he was wrong. I took a gamble that it would never come up in conversation again, but boy was I wrong…

Every time he saw me, which was almost daily, he asked me about my soccer team. 'Did you win your last game?'  'What time are you playing today?'  And on, and on. I wasn’t stupid enough to make up answers to question I clearly didn’t know anything about, so instead I decided to claim that a knee injury had been keeping me off the field. This, plus fake-talking on the phone and averting eye-contact (one of my core competencies) helped me avoid any substantial soccer conversations.

Then, one day, just as abruptly as they had started, the conversations stopped. Now, he was the one looking the other way and fake-talking on the phone. What had happened? Did he play against the bizarro me and realize it wasn’t actually me? I never found out. But what I did learn was that this whole thing didn’t have to happen. If I’d just said, “Oh, sorry, I don’t play soccer,” this would have ended before it had started. I tried to be nice and not hurt his feelings, but really that just made his inevitable discovery of my non-soccer playing even worse.

So, yeah, my experience at Amgen has already provided many valuable real-world lessons – lessons that I might not have learned if I didn’t have an internship long enough to bring out all of my flaws. I look forward to the next chance I have to head-off a potential problem before it starts…just as long as it doesn’t make someone feel bad about themselves!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A Day in the Life of an LGO Intern

The majority of the LGO class of 2012 is one month into the six-month internship that partly defines the program. This is a long enough period to have fallen into a routine and short enough that we are still able to look at things from an outsider’s perspective (it is also short enough that I'm not yet disillusioned, and long enough that I incorrectly think I know what I'm talking about). So, that's the frame of mind from which this post is coming. What follows is a description of a typical day in my first month at Amgen in Thousand Oaks, CA. Enjoy.

6:20 AM – The alarm goes off. For about 20 seconds, I have no idea where I am (why does it take so long to adjust to a new place?). I look out the window and see the omnipresent morning fog. Ah, yes. Malibu. Where else would I be? (When you think of MIT, you think of Malibu, right? I fit in so well here.)

6:25 AM – I eat my cereal while my four LGO housemates go through their own morning routines in silence. We like each other…just not at this hour. Occasionally, we grunt a good morning, or maybe it's just a grunt for grunting's sake.

6:45 AM – We distribute ourselves between two cars for the 35-minute drive to Thousand Oaks.
The drive includes an 800-ft descent over the course of a mile down our road, a short cruise along the Pacific Coast Highway, a stretch over a mountain pass with sheer drop-offs a few feet from the shoulder, and a race along “The” 101, an eight-lane highway. Conversation is kept to a minimum while we cycle through three static-y NPR stations to catch fragments of the news.

7:25 AM – I enter my building – a relic from Amgen’s more modest days – and walk three feet past the building receptionist’s desk to my desk. This is not an exaggeration. I literally sit next to the receptionist in the building foyer. My hope is that being relegated to this seat is the result of some kind of hiring frenzy that has taken away all of the usual intern spots, and not a
reflection of Amgen's opinion of my potential. Regardless, it has allowed me to fine-tune my greeting and secretarial skills. And all that gossip...

8:00 AM – 12:00 PM – I pick up where I left off on my internship project. Currently, I am mapping out the process development and manufacturing processes, along with the equipment used and data collected, for the four departments across four sites that work with Amgen’s drug product. The goal is to identify gaps between these areas and then come up with strategies for closing these gaps. So far, there seems to be a decent mix of engineering (assessing manufacturing processes and the design and function of the equipment) and management (developing business processes that include strategic and economic components).

12:00-12:30(ish) – Lunch. Amgen’s campus is part corporate headquarters, part country club, part sculpture garden. It has roughly one decorative fountain per employee. In short, it is amazing, and so we try to take advantage of this by eating lunch outside every day. The weather tends to cooperate -- I don't think there's been an afternoon in Thousand Oaks without a cloudless sky.

12:30-5:15 PM – I try to finish up my work for the day. There are occasional meetings with my boss or his boss, or with one of the project’s many stakeholders, but I mostly just sit at my desk and read/type for eight hours. This part of the project is not exactly riveting (I sometimes resort to memorizing the nutritional facts on my snack food or looking for additional flaws in the headshot on my Amgen badge just to break up the monotony), but I know that the excitement of using this information in strategic and awesome ways awaits me in the near future.

4:00 PM – We hit the "AmGym" (get it: Amgen + Gym = AmGym!!) for our daily workout. The place is incredible for an onsite company gym -- two stories, tons of weights and machines, yoga, pilates, and spinning classes, and free fresh fruit. We've actually all been pretty dedicated to working out thus far and are getting really beefed up as a result. Okay, I'm still as scrawny as ever and have to hide in a dark corner of the gym when using the 10-lb dumbbells, but I'm still enjoying it!

5:15 PM - We reassemble at the cars for the trip home. The afternoon car ride conversations are typically a little lighter and more relaxed. After all, we made it through another tough day at the office.

6:00-8:00 PM – Arriving home, we disperse into the evening for the next part of our routines. This includes running, surfing, climbing, eating, or just plain relaxing (this is what you're apparently supposed to do in California).

8:00-10:00 PM – Having finished dinner, we clean ourselves up, lament the end of another day, play a couple of games of backgammon (really), and go to sleep, dreaming sweet dreams of the adventures tomorrow's edition of the daily routine will surely bring.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

School Sports

Most of my previous posts have focused on the academic side of the LGO program, but to leave it at that would be to describe only part of the LGO experience. LGOs actually have quite a bit going on in the extracurricular world, too. There are clubs, social events, music, sports, and who knows what else. This post will look at just one of these -- the world of the LGO athlete. I'll touch on what I consider to be the four pillars of LGO sports, starting with the most important...
  • Intramural Sports - There is no better way to bond with your classmates (and to find out their true personalities). During the current academic year, the LGO program has had/will have teams or players in at least eight sports: flag football, hockey (more on this in a minute), basketball, softball, water polo, table tennis, real tennis, and volleyball. The existence of most of these LGO teams has been the direct result of one or two overly enthusiastic students (different ones for each sport), who are able to motivate an unsuspecting group of LGOs to play a sport in which they have no experience or skill. Such is the case with this spring's Water Polo team, which I was foolishly tricked into joining by being shown totally cool pictures like the one on the left. There is one sport, though, that has become something of a tradition among the LGO classes: Hockey.

    LGO hockey is one of those "perks" of being in the program you hear about as a prospective student. You are told great tales of epic games between utterly terrible teams, and you think to yourself, "I might not know how to skate yet, but I bet I could be the star of that team." At least, that's what I thought around this time last year. Then, upon lacing up the skates and trying to do something -- anything -- with the puck, you suddenly realize, "I'm actually really bad."

    True to tradition, the LGO '12 team was mostly dreadful at the start of the season. Our two players who had played previously looked like NHL stars skating around with a bunch of 3-year-olds on the ice for the first time. It would take some players about five minutes just to skate to the faceoff circle. It reminded me of watching Bambi try to walk on the ice, legs splaying in all directions. Fortunately, we played our six-game season in the MIT D-League, which should tell you something about the skill level we were up against. As bad as we were, we still managed to win a couple of games and come very close in a few others, including a tie against the LGO '11 team that had annihilated us in our first meeting. It was fun to watch everyone improve, and we left excited for next year and our match-ups with the LGO '13 team.

    [Note: Hockey was not all fun and games. As the picture on the left shows, the learning curve was not without its bumps. This is me, after I fell while practicing and broke my face. I now have some really nice titanium plates and a lot of people who think I'm an ultimate fighter.]

  • Working Out - The LGOs are a generally fit group of people, and we are fortunate to have some great indoor and outdoor options for keeping up our impressive physiques (see water polo picture above for accurate representation of LGO bodies). On campus, there's an older gym and pool relatively close to Sloan, and this is where many of us go to lift or swim. We we are feeling especially enthusiastic, we sometimes venture to the Z-Center on the other side of campus (see picture on right for mostly useless view of the exterior). The Z-Center is where the ice rink, indoor and outdoor tracks, an amazing swimming pool, squash courts, basketball courts, tennis courts, etc. are located. All of these facilities are free to students and are really quite impressive.

    MIT also offers a huge number of phys ed classes and fitness programs for very low prices. I've been thinking of taking the massage class just so I can get a back rub for half of the class time.

    Off-campus there are a bunch of other options. Running along the Charles is extremely popular, and for good reason. The scenery is beautiful, the paths are easy on the legs, and it's right off the MIT campus. Many of my classmates also take short excursions to do indoor and outdoor rock climbing. We're also not too far from great skiing and hiking in New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine, and kayaking/sailing in the Charles or off the coast is always fun when the weather is nice.

  • The Boston Sports Scene - As a New Yorker, I can't even pretend to root for the Boston sports teams. In fact, I dislike the teams even more after being surrounded by their fans for the past few years. However, I have to admit that this city has a passion for their teams unlike anything I've ever seen, and it is enjoyable to be in that atmosphere. The MIT campus has a great location for local sports fans, as it is within walking distance of the TD Garden, where the Bruins and Celtics play, as well as Fenway Park, the home of the Red Sox.

    College sports are also pretty big in Boston (though not really at MIT), and we're right down the road from BU, BC, and Harvard.

  • Fantasy Sports - I couldn't write about the sports in my life without including the ones that aren't real. It might sound strange, but the LGO '12 fantasy football league was actually a great bonding experience for the subset of us that played, and I'm sure it will be a nice way to keep in touch while we're away on our internships next fall.
As busy as we are with school, taking the time to be active, especially when doing it with my classmates, has proved to be some of the most valuable time I've spent during this first year. Expect some short updates this spring as the Softball, Water Polo, Volleyball, and Table Tennis seasons get underway. And no matter how bad we are at any of them, at least they're not on ice!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Back to School

We are now a month into the Spring semester, so it's about time I talk about my classes. Since I never did this for the Fall semester, I'll add on some comments about those classes at the end of the post.

The Spring semester is the only semester that we, as LGOs, have full control over our schedules. For indecisive students, this means weeks of agonizing over possible combinations of classes. It took me about ten iterations of my schedule before I was satisfied (i.e., ran out of time). What I ended up with is six classes, totaling 59 credits. [Note: credits at MIT are different than credits at any other school, as far as I know. They include hours in class, lab, and doing outside-of-class work. So, my 59-credit load means that I should expect to do 59 hours of class-related stuff per week this semester. This is down from last semester's 64 credits.]

This semester, my classes are heavier on the Engineering end than on the Business end. In fact, I'm taking only two classes at Sloan: Finance I and Managerial Accounting. Here's my take on each so far:
  • Finance I: We have the option of taking this or Marketing, and I think that most people take Finance; this is particularly true of the LGOs. Also true is that most people take it during the Fall semester, since Finance II -- the next class in the series -- is a prerequisite for most of the interesting finance classes. As a result, the students taking Finance I this spring tend to be less-than-interested in going any further than they have to in finance. This is good news for us finance newbies, since there likely aren't any finance-whiz curve-busters in the class, as there were during the Fall semester. In terms of class material, Finance I is a lot of basic math and some slightly confusing concepts that get more intuitive once you see them enough. I am a big fan of addition and multiplication, so I think I'll end up liking this class.
  • Managerial Accounting: As the professor said, this class is not designed to make us into accountants, it's designed to help us avoid being made to feel stupid by the accountants we will eventually interact with. This is a class where the concepts are simple and math is even simpler. It seems like my grade for the class will be a function of the number of stupid mistakes I make, which, based on past experience, will be many. The professor is bizarre and hilarious, and he makes the potentially boring material a little less so. I am glad I'm enjoying this class, since we were told multiple times last semester by our Financial Accounting professor how critical the material in this class is for LGO students and anyone else interested in going into operations or general management.
On the engineering side, my classes are all pretty similar. That is, three of them are related to sustainability, while the other is on energy policy. Here are some more details:
  • Industrial Ecology: I had no idea what Industrial Ecology was until about the third class meeting. Turns out, IE is a way of thinking about industry using the frameworks normally applied to ecology. In ecology, one organism's waste is another's fuel; in industry this is rarely the case, and, as a result, we have an inefficient industrial world (lots of useless waste, pollution, emissions, etc.). This class helps us understand how to create processes and products that are more sustainable than the ones that are already out in the world.
  • Energy, Materials, and Manufacturing: This class has a ton of overlap with Industrial Ecology, but is a bit more general in its approach. The bulk of our grade for the class comes from our final project, for which most students perform a Life Cycle Assessment of two products or processes (e.g. using hand towels or a hand drier in the restroom) to compare the relative impacts of each on the environment.
  • Strategic Sourcing: This is a procurement class that normally should have little to do with the previous two classes, except that I was assigned to a project dealing with helping a food company assess the greenhouse gas emissions of their suppliers and products. Fortunately, the material I'm learning in the other two classes will help immensely with this project.
  • Energy Policy for a Sustainable Future: Probably (and unexpectedly) my favorite class of the semester so far. It's a small class, where we have a ton of great speakers who work on local, state, or national energy policy. The material is all new to me, while many of the other students have worked in policy previously, so I feel somewhat disadvantaged, but it's also helping me learn more quickly.
All in all, I'm satisfied with my course selections this semester. I've left myself with a hole to dig out of next semester in terms of my business school class requirements, but I will also have completely met my engineering course requirements by the end of this semester, so I should have a fairly normal course load next semester.

Now, as promised earlier, I'll quickly write about my Fall semester courses, most of which were required as part of the MBA first-year curriculum. Those required classes were:

  • Communication for Managers: One of the two "soft" classes of the Fall. A lot of the analytical-minded students despise classes like this, but I actually enjoyed it. It gave me many opportunities to practice doing something I normally hate doing -- talking in front of a large group of really smart people -- and forced me to get comfortable in those situations. There were some useful writing exercises that I found beneficial, as well.
  • Organizational Processes: The other "soft" class. The material was very similar to the things I had learned in an undergraduate Social Psychology class I took many years ago, but with a business-oriented spin on it. Most of the workload for the course was in our consulting project we did in our groups with a local company of our choosing. The projects allowed us to assess a change or initiative at the company using the three organizational "lenses" we were taught in class. It was a rewarding experience for my team, and I think many other teams felt similarly.
  • Financial Accounting: My favorite class of the semester. The material wasn't exactly riveting, but the professor was great and kept us all awake with his frequent cold-calls. I think I got cold-called every class for a period of about five weeks, until I finally pre-empted the calls by actually raising my hand (I guess that was the professor's goal). The class gave us experience reading financial statements and interpreting the information inside, something I had absolutely no experience doing before this.
  • Economic Analysis for Decision Making: This class, also known as Microeconomics, had a lot of potential because of its interesting material, but the professor was young and inexperienced, and he wasn't able to convey things as clearly as we needed him to. Many of my classmates ended up hating the class, but I guess my stupid optimism allowed me to see past the professor's flaws and enjoy the material.
I also took two elective engineering courses:
  • Sustainable Energy: A great class that covered just about every basic topic within the field of sustainable (and unsustainable) energy. The best part was that the professor didn't try to teach all of the material himself. Instead, he deferred to MIT's many experts in the various fields we covered. We heard from MIT's solar guy, wind gal, energy storage guru, etc. It was the perfect class for someone like me who is interested in energy but didn't have a lot of the necessary background knowledge. It was not good for anyone looking for a class on advanced energy topics, including one of my LGO classmates.
  • Modeling of Electric Power Systems: As you might guess from its name, this was my hardest class of the semester. We used an unfamiliar (to me) programming language to build optimization models to simulate electricity generation and distribution decisions at various time scales. I learned a ton about the electric grid, but I was in the class with a bunch of Ph.D. students who are writing their dissertations on this stuff, so I was the dumb kid in the class. I get the impression that this happens to almost all LGOs at some point during their time at MIT; I was just hoping that I'd make it through my two years without having this experience.
That's it for this post. In upcoming posts I'll cover the LGO sports scene and admitted student decision-time.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Plant Trek, Internships, and Interview Fest

Plant Trek
It has been a surprisingly busy winter break for the LGO '12s. Despite getting nearly seven weeks off from school, we have managed to squeeze in quite a bit of action, primarily during the past three weeks. This started with the annual first-year tradition of the Domestic Plant Trek. I won't write too much about the trip here, since Patrick (one of my classmates -- and my roommate for the two-week trip) has one on the LGO page. Additionally, Braden wrote a blog post at the start of the trip, and a few others will likely post in more detail over the coming weeks.

However, I will quickly say that the Plant Trek was an amazing experience, during which we completely immersed ourselves in everything LGO. We spent nearly every day touring facilities of partner companies (UTC Pratt & Whitney, GM, Ford (not a partner), Boeing, Amazon, Dell, Amgen, and UTC Hamilton Sundstrand), roamed the streets in every corner of the country as large packs at night, and enjoyed each others' company everywhere in between (when not desperately trying to catch up on sleep wherever possible -- see picture on right for a typical sight on the plane rides). Stay tuned for more on this from my classmates.

This past week, while still recovering from the plant trek, we faced an endurance challenge unlike anything most of us have experienced before: "Internship Fest." This was a three-day event in which the first-year LGOs engaged in a speed dating game with representatives from partner companies that are offering this year's internships. In my case, I had 15 20-minute interviews in two days; most others had more.

This rapid-fire interview approach was tiring for both interviewer and interviewee, with both bleary-eyed and on the verge of delirium by the end of each day. Sitting in the LGO office area, I heard a number of interesting stories of exhaustion-induced screw-ups, such as:
  • Forgetting which internship the interview was for
  • Remembering the internship, but using the wrong company's name
  • Interviewee answering a completely different question than was asked
  • Interviewer and interviewee staring blankly at each other for two minutes
I scheduled most of my interviews for early in the day, but I did have a couple of late-afternoon spots, and I nearly lost it right at the start of one of them. Here's what happened: As I walked into the room, I started to take my suit jacket off -- not because I wanted or needed to, I just did it (think: Steve Lyons [see video below], but less embarrassing or revealing). So, rather than do something smooth like continue to take it off and sling it casually over my shoulder, I abruptly stopped and jerked it back on. The interviewer couldn't help but notice my awkwardness and was nice enough to tell me that I could take it off if I wanted to. I mumbled back something weird like, "I don't even know what I'm doing," and we got underway with the interview. Yup, I go to MIT. Interestingly, it turned out to be one of my better interviews. Go figure...

The interviews themselves varied quite a bit from one to the next, and even from student to student with the same interviewer. Typically, the interviewer started in one of two ways -- by asking me to quickly run through my resume or by letting me ask questions about the internship (the latter approach always led to a few terrifying moments of wondering if I had asked about the correct internship). Some interviewers then asked a few typical interview questions, such as "what are three words you would use to describe yourself?" or, "what was a achievement you were proud of?" I liked these questions because I knew the answers. What I didn't like were questions about the company or the internship (e.g. "What do you know about us?" or, "What is our industry's biggest challenge and how can we overcome it?" or, "Why would someone with your background be a good fit for this internship?") As I stumbled through my answers to these questions, I couldn't help but wonder what the interviewer was thinking. Were they embarrassed for me? Did they feel bad, like they had just run over a cute rabbit with their truck? Or, in the least likely case, were they impressed with my improvisational prowess, deciding on the spot that I was their top choice? I'll never know.

Now that the interviews are over, the next step is to rank the internship projects in our order of preference. Simultaneously, the companies are doing the same with our names (a most frightening thought). Then, in a very-MIT procedure, all of this information will be plugged into an algorithm that will spit out the optimal combination of students and projects, and that's how we get matched for our internship. No offer letters, no decisions, no guarantees, just a paired ranking system. In an ideal situation, a student will be every company's number one choice and will know that she will match with whichever internship she ranks first. In the real world, no one will have this luxury. We are likely to get something in our top 5, but that's not even a certainty, especially if everyone likes certain projects more than others. So, for now, it's just a game of wait-and-see...

Interview Fest
For all of the perspective students coming in for Interview Fest over the next few days, congratulations! It's a great accomplishment to have made it this far in the process. In case you haven't already looked, two LGO '11s have put together great posts on the interview process, so check them out (see Kacey's blog and Derrick's blog). Also, Adam Markus (the "Graduate Admissions Guru" I have linked to previously) does a nice job breaking down the MIT Sloan interview style. I will just quickly add this reminder: know yourself. Remember why you're doing this, and tell that story in as compelling a way as possible. Know your best and worst moments and be prepared to talk about them. Know your application and essays and use the interview to build on them. You want your interviewer to finish the interview convinced that you are the perfect person to add to the LGO class of 2013. Good luck!