Teaching at IIMB: Mid-term review

IIMB has a strange policy. They are not allowed to have classes tomorrow on account of it being a national holiday so they shifted tomorrow’s concept to today, indicating a complete lack of appreciation of the concept of the long weekend. Anyway, since I didn’t have any other plans for the day or the weekend I decided to not request for a slot change and went anyways. This was my eleventh class out of twenty.

I expected the attendance to be rather thin today, but the class surprised me with more than three-fourths of the registered students turning up (on par with most sessions so far). And despite the class being at 8 am in the morning, none of them slept (at least I didn’t notice anyone sleeping). That is again on par with the course so far – more than halfway though the course and I’m yet to catch a single person sleeping in class! Maybe I should take some credit for that.

The class before today’s was about ten days back (long gap due to mid-term exams), and that day I had a minor scare. I had formulated a case that involved solving the Newsboy Problem (now politically corrected to “Newsvendor model“) as a sub-step in the solution to the case. Having worked out the sketches of the case solution the previous night I went to sleep hoping to work out the full case before I went to class. And my brain froze.

So it was 6:30 on the morning of an 8am class and I wasn’t getting the head or tail of the newsboy problem despite having known it fairly well. Decided to have cereal at home rather than go to SN to give myself more time to read up and understand the model. And my brain refused to open up. Yet I made my way to class, hoping I could “wing it”.

I didn’t have to, for the class exceeded expectations and solved the case for me. One guy popped up with “newsvendor model”. Another guy said that we could consider a certain thing as a “spot price”, thus eliminating the need to make any assumptions on costs. Then we started working out the model on Excel (remember that this is a “spreadsheet modelling” course). And the time came to implement the newsvendor model. And my brain froze in anticipation. “How do we do this?”, I asked, trying to not give away my brain freeze.

“We calculate the critical ratio”, came the chorus (sometimes I dispense with the politeness and order of people raising their hands and speaking in order). “And what is that here?”, I asked. “B6/(B5+B6)” came back the chorus. And then when I asked them how to impute the ordering level based on this, the chorus had figured out the exact way in which we should use NormInv to determine this. The troubling bit of the newsvendor problem having been thus solved, I took control and went forward with the rest of the case. And my respect for the class went up significantly that day.

Later in the day I was relating the incident to the wife, who I might have mentioned is an MBA student at IESE Business School in Barcelona. “Oh my god, your class is so quant”, she exclaimed. This is a topic for another day but perhaps due to the nature of the admissions procedure, students at IIMs are definitely much much more quantitatively oriented than students at B-schools elsewhere. Yet, IIMs don’t seem to be doing much in terms of harnessing this quant potential which should be giving their students a global competitive advantage.

And coming back to my class, they’ll be sitting for placements starting the 9th of February. If my class is a representative sample (it is most likely not, since I’m teaching an elective and these people expressed interest in learning what I’m teaching, so there is a definite bias), this seems like a great batch at IIMB. So I encourage you to go and recruit!

 

Dressing up in residential schools

As  I was getting ready this morning to go deliver my lecture at IIMB, the wife expressed surprise at how casually I was dressed (I wore jeans, a (collared, “formal”) t-shirt and a hoodie). “In my business school all professors wear suits”, she said. My mind went back to the time when I was a student at IIMB, trying to remember what professors wore. While they were generally dressed more formally than I was today, no one wore suits – the only one who wore a blazer every day was easily the worst professor who taught me at IIMB!

I was thinking about why I don’t feel like dressing formally while going to IIM. And then I thought of the students, and realised that with the odd exception, I’m easily much more formally dressed than most of my students. When students turn up to class in track pants, professors have no incentive to wear anything close to a suit!

And this is not a new phenomenon. Back in my time too, close to ten years ago, people would wear track pants and other articles of clothing you might describe as “home wear” to class (Not me, though. I don’t wear track pants. As a rule. But I remember making it a point to wear shorts to all my final term examinations). So I started thinking about what it is about IIMB that makes people wear “home wear” to class. And I realised it has to do with the proximity.

IIM Bangalore is a wholly residential campus, and the student accommodation is a short walk away from most of the classrooms. In the second year, thanks to electives time tables are such that there is a good chance of having long breaks between classes, so you go to the academic part of the institute for only one class.

When you are going to a classroom that is only a short walk away from where you live, and when you go there only for one or two classes, it doesn’t feel like you’re “going somewhere”, so you don’t see any point in dressing up. Moreover, most of the people you meet in class are people you share a hostel with – these people would have seen you in your pyjamas anyway, and seen you get sloshed all over L^2 during one of those parties which I’m told are not so common nowadays! So there is no good reason for you to dress up! And you come to the class in pyjamas!

The wife’s B-school is not residential, and people live a few kilometres away. Very few pairs of people would have seen each other in their pyjamas, and the distance means people are “going somewhere” when going to a school. And so people dress up (and by that I mean they really dress up!). And when students are well-dressed, the professor wants to show off his superior social standing, and thus wears as formal clothes as he can – which usually means a suit!

Again I’m talking from small number of data points – I’ve lived in another residential institution (IIT Madras) – and that too was famous for its rather muted/horrible dressing sense. It’s a pity/mercy (depending on the way you look at it) that us IIMB people manage to well cover up our generally bad dressing by wearing suits at interviews and PPTs and other public events!

Day 1 of teaching at IIMB

As I had mentioned yesterday I’ve started teaching at IIMB. Some thoughts after day 1.

  • The sweetener (idli-vade-chutney) at SN refreshments is awesome but leads me to take a route that is heavier on traffic than the more optimal route (via Sanjay Gandhi and East End). Too many school buses and office cabs that move haphazardly make it less than a pleasant drive
  • My car was again waved past at the IIMB gate. No questions asked. I’m still not sure how they do it every time to my car, given there is no insignia on it! I don’t believe that they remember the car from when I was a student!
  • IIMB has a new classroom complex and I “inaugurated” one of the classrooms there. It’s quite nice, students set out in a wide U format which I quite like. The projector takes HDMI input which is awesome!
  • The class started off rather quietly. I had to put on my sarcastic side and helpfully mention that “there is still time left to drop this course”. Participation picked up after that.
  • For an 8 am class, no one slept, which I take as an achievement! But then it is the first day of the term. Maybe they’ll learn as they go along
  • There were zero objections when I put up my “pie charts are evil. don’t use them” slide. This is the first time I’m not facing any resistance for saying that! In the past I’ve had people say “but then I used a pie chart once and it was very well accepted”, and this after I’ve told them about the perils of anecdata!
  • Everyone calls me “sir”, from the students to the administrative staff and officers. I’m letting them call me thus. It’s funny how one of the administrators who I used to call “sir” when I was a student now calls me “sir”.
  • The drive back was horrible. Insane traffic all along Bannerghatta road till I got past the ring road. Then it was smooth but the 3rd block circle was again jammed. But then IIMB is giving me office space so once I get that I’m unlikely to drive back immediately after the class.
  • I need to manage my voice better. Half an hour in, I realised I had come close to losing my voice. I need to be less hyper and “conserve my voice” at least for the duration of the class.
  • And no, I won’t put such an update after every class. Just that today was the first day so ..
  • I came back and added “adjunct faculty, IIMB” to my linkedin profile :P

Teaching at IIMB

Starting tomorrow I’ll be teaching at IIMB. It’s a course called “Spreadsheet modelling for business decision problems”, and targeted at term 6 MBA students. I explicitly warned them to not take the course if they don’t consider themselves to be competent at mathematics. Yet, some 60 students have registered (current IIMB batch size is ~400)!

This promises to be fun. The only part that may not be so much fun is that in order to make it compatible with the rest of my work I requested for the 8-930am slot on Mondays and Tuesdays so that means I need to get back to my early-to-bed-early-to-rise ways which have served me so well for most of my career (last few months though I’ve become a late riser).

Now, for everything that I do I like to have a “sweetener” – something that is totally unrelated that spurs me to do whatever I’m doing. Usually the sweetener is something that sounds quite trivial but is actually useful in spurring me on. The sweetener in this case is that SN Refreshments in JP Nagar 2nd Phase lies on my way from home to IIMB, and they make absolutely awesome idli-chutney. So the plan for tomorrow (and every other class day in the next 3 months) is to leave home early and have breakfast there and then head on to IIMB.

I’m hoping for a nice lively class. I’ve reserved 20% of the evaluation for “class participation”. I hope at least that spurs them to be nice and lively! Then again it’s first thing in the morning on Mondays and Tuesdays so you never know..

I’ll keep you guys updated on anything whacky that might happen in class. Oh, and I’m going to be starting a “class blog” for my students where they can write for extra credit. Will send out the link once it’s up and populated.

Now to decide whether to go by car (for some strange reason when I take the car – the same one I had when I was a student at IIMB – I never get stopped by the security guys at the gate. there’s no sticker on the car though) or by motorcycle (easier to navigate traffic and park near SN)!

Twisting and shouting

Ten years ago to the day, there was tragedy. Around this time I was home. That day I remember my father’s usual Ambassador (his office car) wasn’t available, so he had come in a blue WagonR which looked like anything but a government car. Not that I could see too well, though.

Back in 2004, spectacle lenses made of plastic weren’t yet popular, and even if they were available they were quite expensive. I remember having a shell frame back then (like I do now, except that that one was an ugly-ish brown). The lens was made of glass – the kind that could shatter on impact and enter your eyes.

And shatter and enter it did. I had instinctively closed my eyes, so not much had gone in, though. My first reaction at that point in time was to remember the phone number of my usual opthalmologist (yes I still remember things like that). I even remember calling that guy’s office (yeah, back on those Nokia phones you could type without looking). Friends, however, were of the opinion that I should go to the nearest eye clinic. And Shekar Netralaya (JP Nagar 3rd Phase) was where we ended up.

It was among the freaker of freak accidents. I was playing badminton. <lj user=”amitng”> and I were on one side, two others on the other. We were both close to the baseline when the opponents sent the shuttle high. Both of us went for it, <lj user=”amitng”> slightly ahead and slightly to the left of me. Both of us drew our rackets back with a slight backswing. And that was it.

His racket caught me flush on the left spectacle lens. The lens duly cracked, and parts of it entered my eye. I remember that the game immediately stopped. I remember that one other guy’s car was right there outside the court, so we could go quickly to the hospital. And back in those days there wasn’t even a signal at the Delmia junction, so the U-turn was taken fast so that I could go to hospital.

I don’t remember what they did at the hospital. I think they cleaned up my eye, but one or two pieces remained particularly troublesome. I remember going for a follow-up test two days later. And I remember that one day after the accident I went all the way back to IIMB (after the accident I went home, in my father’s temporary blue WagonR) so that I wouldn’t miss accounting class (yes I was in my first semester so such youthful enthusiasm can be expected). And went back again the following day to write a test which I nearly aced.

And then there was the back story. 2004 was the first time that the IIMs decided to make public the CAT percentile. They had used an algorithm to allocate percentiles, and allocated it up to two decimal places. So if your “percentile” (with decimal places the term doesn’t make sense) was greater than 99.995 (i.e. you were in the top 0.005% of the 130,000 odd people who wrote the exam), your percentile would get rounded up to give a weird-sounding “100.00 percentile”. Top 0.005% of 130,000 means about six or seven people. Two of those were at IIMB. I was one of them. <lj user=”amitng”> was the other.

During our inauguration the certificates for the “directors merit list” of the senior batch were handed out. It was possibly meant to tell us how important being in the top 10 of the batch was, and I’m sure it did inspire a lot of people. And having been the top performers in the entrance test, people perhaps considered <lj user=”amitng”> and I top seeds (neither of us ended up getting it, though he got considerably closer than I did).

And so when I got injured before our first ever unit test and he was in some ways culpable for it (though in fairness it was on the field of play), there was scope for conspiracy theory. And when you have a bunch of creative youngsters and scope for a conspiracy theory, you can well expect someone to stand up and do the honours. And @realslimcody rose to the occasion. And Twisted Shout was born.

The name of the organization has its own story. @realslimcody is a Beatles fan, and he suggested that he name the yellow journalist enterprise as “twist and shout”. Madness heard it as “Twisted Shout” and the name stuck. A couple of episodes later I duly joined Twisted Shout. And we did a lot of twisting and shouting and yellow journalism. If you were our contemporary and not slandered by Twisted Shout you might consider your stint at IIMB of not being worthy enough!

Of course in a place like IIMB, you don’t do something just for the heck of it. Everything has to result in a “bullet point” in your CV (back in 2005 I’d planned to write a book called “In Search of a Bullet Point” about IIMB, but that again didn’t take off. I put NED, I guess). I think I wrote in my final resume that I was a “co-editor in the campus informal journal Twisted Shout”. I think the placement committee (which whetter all CVs) let that one remain (bless them). And as with all such campus endeavours TS quickly died after we graduated (though I tried to resurrect it in a separate blog on this site, it didn’t take off).

It’s ten years since that landmark incident that sparked the birth of Twist and Shout. I must mention my eye is fine – fine enough for me to wear contact lenses as I type this. There’s a scar inside my eye, though, and that’s something I’ll carry all my life. But it doesn’t affect life one bit, and life goes on!

Oh, I wasn’t right on that one – after the injury the doctor had told me that I shouldn’t let sweat enter my eyes. Two months after the injury I managed to get myself a red bandana (with skull and crossbones on it), and I ended up wearing it at all “sweatable opportunities” – when I played or partied. The bandana got legendary in its own way, and its story shall be told another day (or perhaps it’s already been told somewhere on this blog).

 

Teaching marketing

Recently, the Alumni Association of IIM Bangalore had invited alumni to give interviewing practice to second year students at the institute. This was in an attempt to help them prepare for their “final” placements that are coming up in March. With a view towards brushing up my interviewing skills (haven’t interviewed anyone for close to three years now) and also to check out the kind of people that go to IIM nowadays I decided to volunteer. And ended up interviewing some five or six people.

I had told the organizers that I’d be interviewing for a hypothetical job in my firm and that they should preferably send students with an inclination for “quant” and for consulting. Perhaps there was a mismatch in communication, and perhaps I sent my “requirements” too late, but it so happened that at least half the people who came to were “majoring” in marketing (nowadays they’ve introduced the “major-minor” system at IIMB. If you do five electives from one “area” you “major” in that. Three electives from an “area” gets you a minor. There is no compulsion to either major or minor, though).

Given that the questions that I’d prepared were inclined towards interviewing for a quant/consulting/analytics kind of role (basically whatever I currently do in my “job”), I decided to not veer too far from that while teaching these people. To each of them I put forth a “case”, where the central problem was marketing-related but needed numbers to “solve”. In fact, I made up the case on the spot after one of these students told me he had interned at an e-commerce firm.

So I told them that they are the marketing manager of an e-commerce firm and the firm has launched a few advertising campaigns and now needs to test the effectiveness of such campaigns. I asked them how they would measure this.

Given that they might have just about started off practicing for their placements, I realized they didn’t have much expertise doing “case interviews”, and so tried to help them navigate the case. So for each of them I started by asking them what kind of metric they would use for measuring the effectiveness of the campaigns. And this is the stage that each of their “interviews” came unstuck.

Incredibly, each of them independently started off with “we will first understand what segment this campaign is targeted at”. And then their process of measurement involved identifying a sample of customers of this segment and then “measuring if they had got the intended message of the campaign”. When I told each of them that they weren’t allowed to do a survey, and added for good measure that a focus group discussion is also out of question, they all seemed absolutely lost. I couldn’t really proceed with their cases.

I find it incredible that the three of them (granted – small sample) who are second year students in one of India’s better business schools (at least I hope so) completely failed to imagine that the effectiveness of an advertising campaign can be measured in terms of “sales” or “website hits” or “click through rate” (depending upon the “intended message” of the campaign, one of these becomes the appropriate metric). It seemed to me that their management education had clouded their ability to think intuitively.

In my limited experience in interacting with marketers, I’ve found that a large number of them are fairly resistant to using numbers in their business, and speak in terms not fathomable to the common man (I once made the mistake of applying to a marketing analytics firm, and was promptly sent some questions about measurement of “brand feeling” and such like. I withdrew my application). The impression I get from my small sample is that marketers’ way of thinking is completely divorced from that of other people in business, and have always wondered about why this is. I had assumed it might be a function of getting ingrained into certain marketing jobs, but now it seems like this way of thinking is more deep-rooted.

I was taught core marketing by a somnolent professor who was renowned to be a “great marketer”. He clearly didn’t market marketing too well, for I didn’t take any marketing electives after that. However, I think I “get” related fields such as game theory and behavioural economics, and try to understand marketing using those frameworks. Usually it doesn’t take you too far in a conversation with marketers, though.

Based on my interactions with the three marketing major students I interviewed, it seems to me that something is wrong with marketing teaching, especially at IIMB. It seems to me that marketing is taught as a rule-based discipline, rather than based on first principles. Perhaps that is how recruiters of marketing majors want it to be like, but it seems like this kind of “education” is only going to create poor quality marketers.

PS: I admit to small sample bias, extrapolation and such like.

Numbers and management

I learnt Opeations Research thrice. The first was when I had just finished school and was about to go to IIT. My father had just started on a part-time MBA, and his method of making sure he had learnt something properly was to try and teach it to me. And so, using some old textbook he had bought some twenty years earlier, he taught me how to solve the transportation problem. I had already learnt to solve 2-variable linear programming problems in school (so yes, I learnt OR 4 times then). And my father taught my how to solve 3-variable problems using the Simplex table.

I got quite good at it, but by not using it for the subsequent two years I forgot. And then I happened to take Operations Research as a minor at IIT. And so in my fifth semester I learnt the basics again. I was taught by the highly rated Prof. G Srinivasan. He lived up to his rating. Again, he taught us simplex, transportation and assignment problems, among other things. He showed us how to build and operate the simplex table. It was fun, and surprisingly (in hindsight) never once did I consider it to be laborious.

This time I didn’t forget. OR being my minor meant that I had OR-related courses in the following three semesters, and I liked it enough to even considering applying for a PhD in OR. Then I got cold feet and decided to do an MBA instead, and ended up at IIMB. And there I learnt OR for the fourth time.

The professor who taught us wasn’t particularly reputed, and she lived up to her not-so-particular-reputation. But there was a difference here. When we got to the LP part of the course (it was part of “Quantitative Methods 2″, which included regression and OR), I thought I would easily ace it, given my knowledge of simplex. Initially I was stunned to know that we wouldn’t be taught the simplex. “What do they teach in an OR course if they don’t teach Simplex”, I thought. Soon I would know why. Computer!

We were all asked to install this software called Lindo on our PCs, which would solve any linear programming problem you would throw at it, in multiple dimensions. We also discovered that Excel had the Solver plugin. With programs like these, what use of knowing the Simplex? Simplex was probably useful back in the day when readymade algorithms were not available. Also, IIT being a technical school might have seen value in teaching us the algorithm (though we always solved procedurally. I never remember writing down pseudocode for simplex). The business school would have none of it.

It didn’t matter how the problem was actually solved, as long as we knew how to use the solver. What was more important was the art of transforming a real-life problem into one that could be solved using Solver/Lindo. In terms of formulation, the problems we got in our assignments and exams were  tough – back in IIT when we solved manually such problems were out of bounds since Simplex would take too long on those.

I remember taking a few more quant electives at IIM. They were all the same – some theory would be taught where we knew something about the workings of some of the algorithms, but the focus was on applications. How do you formulate a business problem in a way in which you can use the particular technique? How do you decide what technique you use for what problem? These were some of the questions I learnt to answer through the course of my studies at IIM.

I once interviewed with a (now large) marketing analytics firm in Bangalore. They expected me to know how to measure “feelings” and other BS so I politely declined after one round. From what I understood, they had two kinds of people. First they had experienced marketers who would do the “business end” of the problem. Then they had stats/math grads who actually solved the problem. I think that is problematic. But as I have observed in a few other places, that is the norm.

You have tech guys doing absolutely tech stuff and reporting to business guys who know very little of the tech. Because of the business guy’s disinterest in tech, he is unlikely to get his hands dirty with the data. And is likely to take what the tech guy gives him at face value. As for the tech guy doing the data work, he is unlikely to really understand the business problem that he is solving, and so he invariably ends up solving a “tech problem”, which may or may not have business implications.

There are times when people ask me if I “know big data”. When I reply in the negative, they wonder (sometimes aloud) how I can call myself a data scientist. Then there are times when people ask me about a particular statistical technique. Again, it is extremely likely I answer in the negative, and extremely likely they wonder how I call myself a data scientist.

My answer is that if I deem a problem to be solvable by a particular technique, I can then simply read up on the technique! As long as you have the basics right, you don’t need to mug up all available techniques.

Currently I’m working (for a client) on a problem that requires me to cluster data (yes, I know that much stats to know that now the next step is to cluster). So this morning I decided to read up on some clustering algorithms. I’m amazed at the techniques that are out there. I hadn’t even heard of most of them. Then I read up on each of them and considered how well they would fit my data. After reading up, and taking another look at the data, I made what I think is an informed choice. And selected a technique which I think was appropriate. And I had no clue of the existence of the technique two hours before.

Given that I solve business problems using data, I make sure I use techniques that are appropriate to solve the business problem. I know of people who don’t even look at the data at hand and start implementing complex statistical techniques on them. In my last job (at a large investment bank), I know of one guy who suggested five methods  (supposedly popular statistical techniques – I had never heard of them; he had a PhD in statistics) to attack a particular problem, without having even seen the data! As far as he was concerned he was solving a technical problem.

Now that this post is turning out to be an advertisement for my consulting services, let me go all the way. Yes, I call myself a “management consultant and data scientist”. I’m both a business guy and a data guy. I don’t know complicated statistical techniques, but don’t see the need to know either – since I usually have the internet at hand while working. I solve business problems using data. The data is only an intermediary step. The problem definition is business-like. As is the solution. Data is only a means.

And for this, I have to thank the not-so-highly-reputed professor who taught me Operations Research for the fourth time – who taught me that it is not necessary to know Simplex (Excel can do it), as long as you can formulate the problem properly.