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My MBA Interview with Accepted.com [Kellogg, MMM]

MBA/MMM Interview with Kellogg Student: Using Empathy to SucceedRecently, I was interviewed by Accepted.com for its series of MBA Student Interviews. I just saw that it was posted today!

You can see the original article at: http://blog.accepted.com/2014/12/12/mbammm-interview-with-kellogg-student-using-empathy-to-succeed/ or the text below. Many thanks to the team at Accepted for the honor.

This interview is the latest in an Accepted.com blog series featuring interviews with current MBA students, offering readers a behind-the-scenes look at top MBA programs. And now for a chat with Michael Nguyen, a student at Northwestern Kellogg’s joint MBA/Masters in Design Innovation program.

Accepted: We’d like to get to know you! Where are you from? Where and what did you study as an undergrad? Where are you currently studying?

Michael: I was born and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. I was unfortunately a mediocre student at Cal (UC Berkeley) because I spent a lot of my time playing video games. Thus, even though I started in Computer Science and really enjoyed it, I eventually changed to Comparative Literature (which is actually really difficult – I did not know this when I switched) after a couple of years. However, the time spent in both majors has helped me immensely throughout my career.

I am currently at Kellogg (Northwestern) in its newly revamped MMM program, which is a dual-degree MBA and Masters of Science in Design Innovation program run in conjunction with the McCormick School of Engineering and Segal Design Institute.

Accepted: Can you tell us more about your joint degree? What does “Design Innovation” mean? What do you plan on doing with your degrees?

Michael: The MMM program ends at the same time as the normal Kellogg two year MBA program but now starts one quarter early, in the summer. Though this does come with additional cost, this also means you get to enjoy the summer in Chicago! Another great benefit is that you will become very close with your MMM program mates, the other 59 students (the program is limited to 60 per year).

I personally define Design Innovation as an end-user empathy lens for looking at the world, but one that is not just relevant to developing products. If you manage a team, you need to be able to put yourself in team members’ shoes before you can create a rally point. If you are trying to sell a product, you need to know what your target customer is thinking – who they are, why they do what they do. It’s not that someone is just “stupid” or one of “those people” you can generalize. Everyone is unique and design thinking helps you use those lessons in your career.

From my time working in Southeast Asia, I used empathy in order to succeed at creating compelling products for different types of people as well as to win trust and motivate teams despite cultural and language barriers.

After the program, I am looking to return to smaller tech startups or perhaps start my own. However, the range of careers that others in the MMM program are seeking is very broad. Many are looking to enter into consulting, with more top firms now embracing design innovation, but there are also students looking to go into finance, consumer packaged goods (CPG), and technology.

Like the MBA, I think the Design Innovation degree is a toolset you can adapt for any career trajectory. Simply, the Innovation is the change you make in an existing product, process, or organization; the Design is the user-driven approach.

Accepted: It looks like you’ve got an interesting work history! Can you talk about a few of your most recent projects?

Michael: Previous to Kellogg, my professional background for the last decade has been in Business Operations at multiple startups. My first work experience was helping RedOctane become acquired for the Guitar Hero game franchise by Activision. I ran its e-commerce operations, including shipping logistics and customer service.

I then spent 7 years in Vietnam, becoming COO of the first social networking service there, Cyworld Vietnam, a 70 person startup funded by SK Telecom and IDG Ventures Vietnam. During my time in Vietnam, I worked closely with partners such as Nokia, LG, and Yamaha as well as local mobile carrier giants such as Viettel within the restrictions of one of the rare capitalist-socialist governments in the world.

During this time, I co-founded the most popular Vietnamese microblogging service, Mimo.vn, in 2010, helping it grow to 2 million users. Before I left Vietnam, I also worked on another side project which became a dating app called FriendsPlus. It was sold pre-launch to the largest dating service in Vietnam, Noi.vn, and the technology and service concept was integrated into Noi.vn as a whole.

In general, I have a deep interest in how different types of people connect with and add meaning to each other’s lives.

Accepted: What is your favorite thing about Kellogg so far?

Michael: When you are in a good class (happens more often than not thankfully), you can compare it to seeing a brilliant performer, whether that be musical, athletic, or theatrical. In many ways, that’s exactly what it is – a professor with a tremendous academic and real work pedigree who is educating you about different aspects of business. Because of this, I actually like to sit in the front to get the best view. After all, I am paying over $60,000 a year for this show!

What most surprised is me how every class links to each other. In a business setting, that wouldn’t be surprising because well, that’s business. If you run a company, you cannot just be a product guy with no understanding of finance and vice versa. But in this class format, you will see each class bring in aspects of the entire MBA education. Thus, if you are taking Finance, you are not asked to just do math. You are asked to think about what firm and market strategies change the math in the real world and how you sell that story to someone else (your boss, management, investors, etc.).

I feel that in every class, you are not challenged to solve the problem but to create and then sell the story so it can be implemented in a company.

Accepted: If you could change one thing about the program, what would it be?

Michael: In the busy lives of the MBA students here (classes, groupwork, recruiting, competitions), it’s not easy to make deep connections with others in the student body. I think this problem likely exists at many schools, so despite Kellogg’s reputation as a great school to make friends and be around team-focused individuals, no school can create the perfect social setting for everyone.

Thus, if you are an international student or more of an introvert, Kellogg’s emphasis on big social group events may be uncomfortable at times. CIM week can feel like a rehash of your undergrad years where the majority of students solidify their social groups within the first few weeks and do not go outside their comfort zones to befriend people that may be unlike them.

It is something that Kellogg is aware of and looking for initiatives to help address the issue. In fact, a friend and I are working on a mobile product that we hope will help with this and we are looking to get the Kellogg administration’s support for it as well.

Accepted: Looking back at the MBA application process, what would you say was your greatest challenge? How would you advise others who may also be facing that challenge?

Michael: I actually decided to apply to MBA programs two months before Round 1’s began, and I also wanted to make sure I applied for Round 1. This meant I needed to prepare for the GMAT and every other part of the application in a very short amount of time – an MBA was something I had not seriously considered for the previous five years. Fortunately, things worked out, and I got into a great school.

However, others should not follow this route. An MBA program is a very serious time and financial commitment, one that is essentially your last chance to use an academic setting to create a long term impact on how people view you professionally. Do spend the time (at least 1 year in advance) to prepare your applications properly to maximize your chance into getting the program that’s best for you. Beyond that, also use that time to get a proper understanding of which schools you can actually get into.

I am not a big believer in backup schools. If you there is a school you absolutely want to go to, and your background is a good fit for that school, spend the most time on that school. Even if that means working an extra year to improve your professional accomplishments, I say do it!

Accepted: Do you have any other admissions tips for our readers?

Michael: Although we are asked to pretend we know what we want to do after our MBA, few people really do. Because of this, don’t be worried if you really will follow-up on everything you talk about in the application. What’s most important is to think about what you would want to do right now and think through how going to a particular school is well suited to help with those specific goals. I think schools like Kellogg are not judging your ambitions but your ability to construct plans and build towards them.

For Kellogg MMM specifically, it’s a great program that is not getting a lot of publicity right now, likely due to the recent curriculum change. However, I recommend (to everyone) to look at it more closely and talk to people in the program (like myself). Many people I’ve met at Kellogg regret not applying for it because they had misconceptions about the program or thought it wouldn’t be relevant to their career. Once they better understood how the program works, however, they realized its applications were much more broad than the words “Design Innovation” may initially suggest.

What It’s Really Like to Take Classes (and Pleasant Surprises of the Kellogg MBA Experience)

imageBefore starting at Kellogg this past summer, I had been away from school for over 10 years, and I really do not remember my undergraduate years.

That said, my time at Kellogg has been different from what I had been expecting. For example, if you are taking four units (the minimum is three, but four is probably normal), you are in class about twelve hours a week, and with Wednesdays off for most people, that’s only about three hours a day, four days a week. And yet, you will find that all of us seem incredibly packed with group work, recruiting/job –related activities, competitions, and then only if you are lucky, study time and social activities. Oh, and sleep. At least half of my “off-day” Wednesdays end up being completely full with commitments that take away from study time.

You can see an example of my calendar here – it might not seem so bad, but I am actually doing very little recruiting work right now. Talk to people looking into consulting or finance (over 50% of the class), and you will see a group constantly bleary-eyed and lacking sleep. (Keep in mind that I try to study in the blank time slots, but it’s pretty difficult to do so in anything shorter than an hour – this calendar also doesn’t show the classes I had after 5 PM or my night commitments)

image

Whether you are recruiting or not, however, the feedback from second years has been that things never get better. A common response to when you ask someone to get coffee or lunch is “find some time on my calendar”, which at first seemed really rude, but you will find yourself thinking the same way too. I naturally amass so many appointments that I really cannot remember what I have committed to until the time comes and the reminder comes up on my phone.

Another surprise for me at Kellogg is that when you are in a good class (happens more often than not thankfully), you can compare it to seeing a brilliant performer, whether that be musical, athletic, or theatrical. In many ways, that’s exactly what it is – a professor with a tremendous academic and real work pedigree who is educating you about different aspects of business. Because of this, I actually like to sit in the front to get the best view. After all, I am paying over $60,000 a year for this show!

Sunil ChopraI can still remember stories from the summer from Professors Maoz and Saraniti for Marketing Management and Business (Data) Analytics emphasizing particular points. The stories felt overly long when I first heard them, but months later, I now realize that they help me understand things at a fundamental level that I can now hold on to and explain to others myself. This fall, I have been treated to Professor Chopra’s “hand waving” insights as I have learned about Operations and understanding Process Flows.

Like watching sports at the venue live or on television, this is also the difference between attending a class or just reading the book/watching it online in an MOOC (massive online open course). Being in class is to be challenged and focused on the material, you’re an active participant and a learner.

What surprises me most, however, is how every class links to each other. In a business setting, that wouldn’t be surprising because well, that’s business. If you run a company, you cannot just be a product guy with no understanding of finance and vice versa. But in this class format, you will see each class bring in aspects of the entire MBA education. Thus, if you are taking Finance, you are not asked to just do math. You are asked to think about what firm and market strategies change the math in the real world and how you sell that story to someone else (your boss, management, investors, etc.).

I have not had one class yet that did not link itself naturally to lessons from another class. This semester, I found myself thinking at several points in 1) Management and Organizations, 2) Operations, 3) Strategy AND MMM Research, Design, Build classes, “wait a minute, this is a Marketing question”. Professor Maoz would be so proud.

I feel that in every class, you are not challenged to solve the problem but to create and then sell the story so it can be implemented in a company. That way, you can look in your past experience to better understand your successes and failures and then understand how to use your new-found knowledge once you get back to work.

Kellogg MMM – The Secret MBA Program Everyone Wants to Be In

Kellogg MMM Program

The Kellogg MMM program might be one of the biggest secrets in the MBA world. Even among new Kellogg students I have met this fall, many are curious to know more about MMM, and when I explain it to them, they say, “Wow, I wish I had know about it when applying – I would love to be in MMM”. I’ll also often hear from someone that she thought it required an undergraduate engineering degree.

Last week I met a new student at Booth who told me that if he had known about MMM, he would have gone to Kellogg instead (he had been accepted into Kellogg’s standard 2Y program). One of the current MMM students didn’t know about the program when he applied, and after he was accepted into Kellogg, he made a request to be considered for it.

With all these anecdotes in mind, I can only conclude that Kellogg has done a poor job of promoting MMM.

So what is MMM?

(The above slide was taken from an official MMM presentation to students)

First, you do not need an engineering background – I studied Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley. Another student studied History at Harvard. Another studied German (uh) Studies in China. MMM students come from a very broad background from all over the world.

Second, the MMM combines two Masters degrees. One is the awesome Kellogg MBA. The other is a Masters of Science in Design Innovation from the Segal Design Institute, which is part of the McCormick School of Engineering at Northwestern University. The program is still two years in length, though MMM programs begin 1 quarter early in the summer. You graduate with the normal 2 Y program in the spring of your second year.

Design Innovation pertains to how you look at the world in solving problems. It’s an end-user empathy approach at the world, but one that is not just relevant to developing products. If you manage a team, you need to be able to put yourself in team members’ shoes before you can create a rally point. If you are trying to sell a product, you need to know what your target customer is thinking – who they are, why they do what they do. It’s not that someone is just “stupid” or one of “those people” you can generalize. Everyone is unique and design thinking helps you use those lessons in your career.

Professor Eyal Maoz was fond of saying to us this summer (in Marketing Management), “once you understand the customer and his point of view, see how easy it is to design a product for him?” And he was right, it was. Design Innovation is highly relevant to anyone who is looking create something better for a group of people – to resolve a set of needs, whether that be through a product (digital or physical) or service. I think the degree is great for a career in product development or product management, but I think the lessons are applicable anywhere. The Innovation is the change you make in an existing product, process, or organization; the Design is the user-driven approach.

There are consulting firms (Deloitte) and large companies (Samsung) with separate innovation divisions,  but also companies that focus only on Design Innovation (Ideo, Gravity Tank) consulting. You don’t need to think of the MMM program as pushing you towards that type of career, but it definitely prepares you for one. I am taking a MMM class this fall, Research, Design, Build, that uses the same process defined at Design consultancies such as Gravity Tank and our instructors are actually from Gravity Tank! We are producing real world applications of what we learned and applying them on-campus with Kellogg students. This is a great way of understanding how a startup idea can be developed, prototyped, and iterated.

There are 60 people in MMM each year, and you must apply to be in MMM when you apply for Kellogg – there are no transfer students (many tried earlier this fall when there was a rumor that a slot had opened). Our MMM class is very close, with unique social events for program students. Unlike Kellogg sections, whose students only takes classes together during the first year at Kellogg, MMM students will be in at least one class together each quarter for the entire two years.

If you have any questions about classes or the program, leave a comment below or learn more at Kellogg. (MMM 2016 in the Jacobs “Jake” atrium shown below; I am bottom row middle.)

(This article was also posted in an edited format at: http://kelloggmbastudents.wordpress.com/2014/11/04/one-of-the-biggest-secrets-in-the-mba-world/)

Do Grades Matter? [Kellogg, MBA, MMM]

image#GDM

Do Grades Matter?

This question comes up a lot in normal everyday Kellogg student life. The answer, time-tested by generations of Kellogg MBA students (I’ve asked alumni as far as 15 years back), is no.

Actually, the answer is “it depends” – this is probably the answer to any question you are asked in class. Try it the next time you are cold called, seriously!

So, to explain this is more detail, grades do not matter unless you are looking to go into consulting or finance. Even then, they may not really. For example, a friend of mine got a finance internship after getting a 2.8 GPA his first quarter. Students were told a story (by Kellogg staff) of a recent student who received a great consulting offer despite a 1.8 GPA. (I am not even sure how a 1.8 is possible, as it is generally accepted – again, time tested – that you will not fail a class. After all, this isn’t a public undergraduate university!) I got a B over the summer in Marketing Management – it was humbling, but I have no regrets as it was likely the best class I have ever taken.

It is rare that you will be asked your grades, and even if you do, you can explain it away (I would assume) with a good reason. The time at Kellogg is a balance of social networking, career preparation, and academic needs, and while related to each other, these activities can also be mutually exclusive. Thus, as long as you use your time according to what’s most important to you, you will be just fine. If grades matter to you as a measurement of your performance relative to your peers, then yes, grades do matter.

Otherwise, #gradesdontmatter.

Should I Live in McManus? 10 Thing to Know [Kellogg, Housing]

I’ve been in McManus for 3 and a half months now, having arrived in late June to begin the Kellogg two year MMM Program. Here are some thing to know if you are considering it:

1) Its location is excellent. You are probably closer to class than at least 80% of the other students. You are also downtown. Going to JT’s, an Evanston bar favorite, takes a two minute walk. Same for at least 10 food places. Burger King is across the street (1 minute walk) and open 24 hours a day. That might be considered a bad thing, but remember the location when you are walking through the ice cold snow in the winters – I already appreciate being in McManus. Whole Foods is across the street as well, 20 minutes closer than any other supermarket. Unless you have a car or a bike that can transport a lot of stuff, you may suck up the higher prices in order for time convenience.

2) The residents here are primarily international students and is made up exclusively of Northwestern Kellogg MBA students.

3) Pricing is simple, reasonable, and inclusive. Electricity (including heating and AC) and utility bills are included along with basic furniture. Everything large that you might need, including your own table, desk, and cabinets are included. I pay less than $1,000 a month and share a twin studio (no living room) that comes with bathroom and kitchen. This is not an undergrad dorm. Plus, no deposits.

4) Sound isolation is great – if you have ever lived in building with thin walls, you will understand. In general, I rarely hear anything from neighbors and thus far, have never felt bothered by noise, other than from one weekend party that was over by 10PM.

5) For your summer internship after your first year (if you are not staying in the Chicago area), or if you take an exchange trip abroad during your second year, you can put your stuff in storage and not pay rent while you’re gone. Great for avoiding the hassles of subletting. There’s a lot of flexibility in housing options. For example, I was able to transfer to a single apartment starting January.

6) All entrances require keys to get in, with the normal entrance requiring 3 key swipes to get to your room. You can feel reasonably safe.

7) Janet Olsen (Housing Coordinator) and Marisa Ann De Rose (Program Assistant, Residential Services) are great. I’ve asked them a lot of questions and they have consistently been responsive and helpful.

8) if you own a bike, you may want to keep it in your apartment. Bike racks are available, but they are in the very front of the buildings, and I have heard multiple stories of theft. Underground car parking is available (with parking pass).

9) There’s a social area on the ground floor with a large screen tv, couches, ping pong and foosball tables. There are also study rooms on each floor as well as a printing/copy room on the ground floor – I promise you will love this when you realize what a pain it is to print at school.

10) While there is a small gym, you will want to avoid it. The laundry room, however, is great, affordable, and electronic savvy. It costs $1 per load to use the drier or washer, you can pay by credit card It’s free, and you can check machine status online.

If you have any questions about what it’s like to live here, ask away!

More photos from my apartment below.