The Peer Pressure of Finishing An Exam Early

Today is the final exam of my course at IIMB. It’s a two part exam – students have been given the problems today and they have to describe on paper how they are going to approach the problem. Tomorrow I’ll send them relevant data and then they need to build an Excel model and solve the problem.

The point of this blog post, however, is to do with the peer pressure of finishing an exam early. Today’s exam is taking place in two rooms, with the students having been divided equally between the rooms. I’m writing this two and a half hours into a four hour exam, and so far about a dozen students have handed in their papers. The interesting thing is that eleven of these are from one room, and one from the other.

This makes me wonder if there is some kind of “peer pressure” in terms of finishing an exam. When you hand in your paper early, you signal one of two things – either that you have really aced the exam or that you really have no clue. By looking at the people who have walked out so far and their academic reputations, it is possible for the remaining students to know whether the people who have left have aced the exam or given up.

So the question is if there is some kind of gamesmanship involved in finishing an exam early. Let’s say a stud walks out of a 4-hour exam in an hour. Does he walk out early in part to let his peers know that it was a bloody easy exam and that they should be doing better than they already are? And does this in part put pressure on the other studs to “preserve their reputations” in some manner by also finishing early? And does this imply that they might hurry up and not do a good enough job of the exam, leading to suboptimal performance and better grades (let’s assume a relative grading system) for the person who originally walked out?

Or do you think walkouts are independent? That two students walking out i close succession to each other were independent events that I’m reading into too much? I wish I had actually tabulated the timings at which papers had been handed in, and maybe perhaps correlated them with the actual performance in an exam (to analyse how early finishing affects performance). As it stands, though,I should work on the data available.

I’m writing this blog post siting in room 1 (posting later since Wi-Fi has been switched off here for purpose of the exam). After I started writing, one of the studs sitting in room 1 walked out. Almost in quick succession one other stud in this room followed him. This is the room where one guy had walked out really early, and he’s also one of the studs of the class.

This suggests that there is some kind of correlation. A sort of relationship. That one person walking out puts pressure on others to also walk out. And can result in some good “relative grading”!

I’ll end with an anecdote from my days as a student here, almost exactly 9 years back. It was an objective final exam, with multiple choice questions only. And in that series of exams it had been some sort of a competition as to who would walk out early.

So it was the last exam, and this one guy decided to “show off” by walking out within five minutes. Unfortunately one other guy had decided to turn up late for the exam. The institute rules state that nobody is allowed into an exam after at least one student has walked out. So the second guy was not allowed to take the exam.

As it turned out, he got a better grade than the guy who had walked out within five minutes!

Studs, fighters and spikes

In a blog post yesterday I talked about the marriage and dating markets and how people with spikes which can be evaluated either highly positively or highly negatively were more likely to get dates, while in the arranged marriage market, you were better off being a solid CMP (common minimum program).

The question is how this applies for jobs. Are you better off being a solid performer or if you are someone who has a quirky CV, with some features that can either be heavily positively or heavily negatively by some people. How will the market evaluate you, and which of them is more likely for finding you a job?

The answer lies in whether the job that you are applying for is predominantly stud or fighter (apologies to those to whom I mentioned I was retiring this framework – I find it way too useful to ditch). If it is a predominantly fighter job – one that requires a steady output and little creativity or volatility, you are better off having a solid CV – being a consistent 3 rather than having lots of 5s and 1s in your rating chart. When the job is inherently fighter, what they are looking for is consistent output, and what they don’t look for is the occasional 1 – a situation where you are likely to underperform for whatever reason. Fighter jobs don’t necessarily care for the occasional spike in the CV – for there is no use of being extraordinary for such jobs. Thus, you are better off being a consistent 3.

If it is a stud job, though, one where you are likely to show some occasional creativity, you are more likely to get hired if you have a few 5s and a few 1s rather than if you have all 3s. If the job requires creativity and volatility, what the employer wants to know is that you are occasionally capable of delivering a 5 – which is what they are essentially hiring you for. Knowing that people who are good at stud jobs have the occasional off day, employers of stud jobs are okay with someone with a few 1s, as long as they have 5s.

So whether you should be looking for a stud or a fighter job depends on what kind of a professional career that you’ve had so far – if you’ve had a volatile career with a few spikes and a few troughs, you are much better off applying for stud jobs. If you’ve been a steady consistent performer you are better suited for a fighter job!

Of course you need to remember that this ranking as a function of your volatility is valid only if you were to hold your “average rating” constant!

End of month blues

One of the problems with running your blog on your own website is that you need to manage bandwidth. Basically it seems like my blog has been run over by bots and so by the 25th of every month the bandwidth for the month is over, and the blog goes down for the rest of the month. I’ve been trying to do a lot of things to prevent this – blocking suspicious looking IPs, installing bad behaviour, and such like, but still I don’t know why it gets locked out.

My biggest problem with this end of month lockout is the volume of ideas that go down the drain during this time, rather than getting published on the blog. I wish I could try and remember all those blogging ideas and do one mega blog post at least with a summary of all of them, so that I could write about them at some point of time in the future, but it seems like I can’t remember anything now.

In other news, I’ve been getting really stressed out of late, and my mental bandwidth has been at an all time low. I’ve felt that I’ve been going downhill since my trip to New York a few months back, but of late it’s gotten really bad, and I’m just not able to do anything. That’s yet another reason why blogging frequency has dipped in the last couple of weeks or so.

Doing a deep dive into my own past, I think I’ve figured out why this has been happening. Rather, I have a hypothesis about why I’ve been stressing myself out too much at work which has led to this situation. Basically it’s down to studs and fighters.

I traditionally have what I call as a “stud” working style. I work in bursts, at reasonably low intensity. I look at the problem as a series of steps, and for each step, I internalize the problem, and then try to de-focus. And while thinking about something else, or reading something, or writing something else, I end up having a solution to the problem, and then I take a little break and move on to the next step. This is essentially how I’ve worked over the last few years and I think I’ve (to myself at least) done a good job using this method.

There’s yet another method that I’ve frequently used in the past, one that I call the Ganesha method. It’s basically used for tasks I want to get  done with ASAP. I work at it at a very high intensity, shutting myself off from everything else in the world. I work at it continuously without a break, and then take a long break once the solution is done. I’ve used it in the past for things like competitive exams where I think I’ve done rather well.

So the mistake I did a while back (maybe a year or so back) was to try and use this latter method over longer periods of time, for longer problems. The thing with this method is that it’s suited for short problems, which can be finished off in a burst with a little bit of stretching myself. But when applied to significantly larger problems, I’ve found that it’s been stressing me out way too much. By trying to be steady and focused over a long period of time, which is how a fighter traditionally works, I think I’ve mentally destroyed myself.

Moral of the story is that whatever happens you need to be yourself, and do things in your own style. Don’t try to change yourself in order to please others. It is simply not sustainable.

Partners and Associates

Last week I’d written this post about managing studs, and while discussing that with some colleagues the other day, I realized that I could reformulate it without touching upon the studs and fighters theory. So let us consider a consulting firm. There is a partner, whose sole job is to solicit business for the firm, and to get the lion’s share of the benefits. And there are associates, trying hard to get noticed and promoted, and working for this partner. It’s the associates who do most of the work. Let’s assume that the firm is in “steady state”, where as long as they don’t mess up, there is a steady stream of business assured.

Under this assumption, all that the partner needs to do is to ensure he and his team don’t “mess up”. He knows that he has the relationships to keep the work flowing, and given that he doesn’t really do any work himself, he doesn’t care about the nature of work, or whether his associates find the work challenging, or interesting, and stuff. As long as the tap is open, and he makes his “partner’s cut”, he’s happy.

Given this, his incentives are towards work that is hard to go wrong. “Steady” work, where expectations are likely to be high, but the downside risk is quite low suits him absolutely fine, and he seeks to find more and more of that kind of stuff. There is little chance that his relationships with his steady clients can go wrong in this kind of a situation, right? So he goes about trying to find work with a “short deep-out-of-money option” payoff.

What about the associates? There will be some of them that are already established, and known to these steady clients. They know that it’s only a matter of time before they get promoted and hit the partnership pot of gold. They’ve made their mark, at a time when they had the opportunity to do so, and now they only need to hold fort till the end of the rainbow. And they hold on, perfectly happy to do work in which things can’t go wrong.

As for the other associates, who are still looking to establish themselves? What they’d ideally like would be the opportunity for “big wins”, which will make them be seen, and noticed, and enable them to make the move up the ladder when the time is right. Given their current standing, they don’t mind taking the risk – they have little to lose in terms of lost reputation. On the other hand they have everything to gain from pulling off improbable big wins. Basically they ideally like the “long deep-out-of-money option” payoff.  But the stream of projects the partners and other associates prefer doesn’t give them the opportunity to go for this kind of payoff! So they are stuck.

So, if you are working in a consulting firm, which is in reasonably steady state, where the partners don’t take part in day-to-day work, and where you are not yet established, you need to think if you’re in the right place.

Managing stud work

I begin this post with an apology. About two years back I’d promised that I won’t write any more on Studs and Fighters on this blog, and I’ll save all that for my forthcoming book. Unfortunately, since then I’ve managed not more than one page of my book, and that too has been in the last couple of weeks. I realize that by not writing about studs and fighters here, I’m losing that perspective of thought entirely, because of which I’ve not been able to write my book.

So, Chom (a friend) raised an important point during a discussion earlier today. He said that people who are studs, after they become “managers” (in which case their job is solely to manage other people. Think of someone like a partner in a consulting firm), start angling for more fighter work for their team.  That they seem to forget all their studness, and assume that all the people they manage are fighters.

I had argued earlier that once the partner of a consulting firm stops doing day-to-day work, the quality of work at the firm suffers. This post is an extension of that. So what Chom says inherently makes sense. Here’s why.

Stud work is risky. There is a good probability that it may not be completed. So when your target changes from the “total impact of work done” to “number of pieces of work successfully completed” the whole equation changes. You are not looking for those “big wins” from your team, any more. What you need from your team is a high rate of delivery, and a large number of projects that are completed. If you get big wins, that is just a bonus. But all you care for now is the number of wins.

So you start taking on more fighter work, and letting go of stud work. After all, it is now rational for you to do that. Your own working style can sit aside.

Happy Birthday 2

So today this blog (on this website, not the earlier avatar on LJ) celebrates its second birthday. I request you to join me in wishing this blog a happy and prosperous second birthday.

It has been an interesting journey since I moved my blog to this website exactly two years ago. Initially, readership just took off, but for a combination of reasons I had to slow down the pace of my blogging sometime late last year so you don’t see this blog as prosperous as it used to be last year. Oh, talking about monetary prosperity, this blog has to date earned a sum total of two dollars in Google Adwords earnings.

I have a resolution to celebrate the second birthday of this website. Starting today, I’m going to make an effort to set aside at least ten minutes every day and write one post on this blog. I must warn you that the quality of writing might go down, that there might be occasions where I might be forcing myself to write which might compromise on quality and stuff, but at least there will be stuff to read. It saddens me looking at the amount of NED that I’ve been putting (on a website of the appropriate name) over the last few months resulting in a fairly barren blog, and strong resolutions like these, I think, are necessary to take this blog back to its glory days.

I still stick to my promises – no more posts here either on arranged scissors or on studs and fighters. Another disappointing thing I need to mention is that I haven’t really been able to do much work in terms of those two books. I hope to start some positive work in that direction towards the end of this year, I hope.

I must take this opportunity to thank you people, my readers, for helping me make this blog successful. I hope you continue to enjoy reading the stuff here and that my readership will grow.

The other side of the long tail

There are several people who talk about how the advent and the popularity of the internet has resulted in markets in many a long tail. Without loss of generality, let us just take the market for writing here. Several niches which were earlier not served since there wasn’t enough of a dedicated audience in a particular geographical area for a certain set of articles and so no one bothered to write and disseminate them.

For example, it is unlikely that there was enough of a “market” for a series of posts on the Studs and Fighters Theory in the days before the internet – a market big enough for a newspaper or a magazine or a journal to bother publishing. Now, the internet not only allows me to publish it without effort or cost, but also lets me know that there is enough of a market for this kind of a series for me to bother publishing it rather than just explain it to a few friends in a smoky bar or cafe.

Now, the funda is that sometimes the long tail can exist in geographically coherent markets and not online! For example, all of yesterday, while at work i was frantically searching for sources to follow the BBMP election results. Everyone led me to this TV9 video streaming but it didn’t open on my office network and I couldn’t find any other live sources that were constantly updating the results. I had had similar problems following the results of the Karnataka Assembly elections two years back.

It was then I realized that the “traditional market” can itself be the long tail! For example, the amount of information I found about the elections in this morning’s papers was really impressive – in fact, the much ridiculed ToI had pretty good coverage of the polls, as did the Deccan Herald or the New Indian Express. Earlier in the morning, yesterday, too there were the Kannada channels which focused exclusively on the election results.

What I’m saying here may be fairly obvious, but just wanted to point out that long tail need not refer exclusively to the new media, or new channels. When you look at it in certain ways, several of the traditional media are also catering esssentially to a long tail, though when there was only the traditional media, no one really used the term.

Talking of BBMP elections, take a look at this graphic that was presented in the Deccan Herald today. Don’t you see a pattern in this?

Bangalore Map