Studying, Sports, and Competition at McCombs

After his first semester, this B-school student has developed some perspective and learned how to better balance his schedule

First, I'd like to wish everyone a Happy New Year and thank my wife, family, friends, and one of my mentors, Dr. Philip Zerrillo, for helping and supporting me over the past few months. When we got done with our finals, it was great spending a few days sleeping in and not having to worry about school. Having some time to reflect, I have to say that these past few months have been more challenging than I expected them to be.

My goal in coming back to business school was to tailor my next two years to find out if we should continue expanding our software company, CodeQuest, or if I should find a new career path to better realize my entrepreneurial goals. I have great business partners and friends (Mike, Sonny, Kevin, Paul, Chatty, and Suravee) who continue to work on our business while I'm in school.

In terms of classes, I could only take core courses (financial accounting, corporate finance, marketing, statistics, and microeconomics & operations) in my first semester. But for my second semester, I will be taking classes with some of the best entrepreneurial professors, who will expose me to more technology-based companies and challenge me to discover why some of these companies have succeeded or failed. Currently, although CodeQuest has nine beta-customers, we haven't been able to confidently pinpoint our target market. As a result, we have changed our business model twice, causing several delays and uncertainties.

Applying the Lessons

The classes I plan to take are 1) New Venture Creation, 2) Entrepreneurial Growth, 3) Strategic Marketing, 4) Art & Science of Negotiation, and 5) Strategic Management.

How will these classes help? First, the New Venture Creation class is taught by Robert Adams, an active venture capitalist and the director of the Moot Corp competition. Second, the Entrepreneurial Growth class is taught by John Doggett, one of the best teachers at McCombs and a serial entrepreneur himself. These are just two of the five classes that I'm very excited about taking because I know I will be able to directly apply the knowledge learned here to our software company.

So how have I occupied my time outside of studying? First, I love sports, and I'm excited that I'm at a school that has many great sports teams (in 2005, Texas won the Rose Bowl in football, the College World Series in baseball, and made it to the Elite Eight in basketball). This year, I had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go to the Ohio State-Texas game, which pitted the No. 1 and No. 2 college football teams in the country. Even though we lost, the atmosphere was incredible, with 100,000 fans cheering in the stadium.

Facing the Challenge

During my first semester, I also participated in two case challenges, where 20-plus teams of four to five students are given a case Thursday at 6 p.m. and given until 8 a.m. the next day to analyze it and present their recommendations to a panel of judges—high-level managers representing companies that recruit from McCombs. Unfortunately, I didn't make it to the final rounds, but the experience was well worth the two all-nighters and days it took to recover.

I think it's a must that everyone participates in at least one challenge to find out what it's like to prepare a presentation with different people in under 12 hours. Making it to the final round is an accomplishment that you can also add to your résumé, in addition to winning cash prizes. If you don't make it, still try to watch the finals to see the different presentation styles and learn how the other teams made it there. All the teams that made it may not have had the best recommendations, but they definitely spent more time practicing their presentations (i.e. clearly defined roles for each team member, smooth transitions between speakers, good supporting data, lots of graphs and charts, etc.).

Through this experience, I'm more convinced that communication skills help determine a person's success. At McCombs, you're encouraged to hone these skills by taking advantage of the free one-on-one coaching with PhD. students from the Communications Dept. This was a resource that I didn't specifically look for when researching schools, but I highly recommend finding extra training or courses to improve your communication skills wherever you go.

Dream It and Do It

Next, I also joined the Plus program, which is an organization that gives students the opportunity to lead or work on projects for outside companies. These projects are usually proposed by students, and the director, Saleem Assaf, will sit down with you to make that initial contact with an executive or an alumnus to jumpstart your project.

As an example, one of my good buddies, Don Sedota, is a die-hard Denver Broncos fan. He went to Saleem saying that one of his dream jobs is to work for the Broncos. Well, a couple of phone calls later, Don and his team are starting on a marketing project to enhance the Broncos brand.

For me, I co-led a nine-student team preparing a market-research report on the microfinance industry for a local venture-capital firm. And for next semester, I will be leading a team working with a premier restaurant company and its IT management team in evaluating future technologies for its restaurants. This project will allow me to learn more about the different restaurant management software offerings in the market and increase my understanding of how IT-budgeting decisions are made for multi-chain restaurants.

Finding the Balance

Finally, I'm officially involved with two student organizations: the Entrepreneurship Society (ES) and the Graduate Consulting Group (GCG). I joined ES because I'm passionate about entrepreneurship and would like to continue enhancing the entrepreneurship brand at McCombs. Earlier this month, I was elected one of the vice-presidents of the society, and our new executive team will be leading the organization beginning with the second semester.

I joined GCG not necessarily to move into consulting, but to have the resources available to prepare for case interviews. All in all, I'm beginning to find that balance between work and play and continuing to make the most out of my business-school experience. I would like to graduate knowing that I challenged myself in every way possible, shared my experiences, learned from my classmates, gave back to my school and community, and made a few long-lasting friendships.

Now that the first semester is over, the next big thing on everyone's mind is landing that summer internship. During your first semester, there will be many companies hosting on-campus informational sessions. These are great opportunities to learn more about an industry or a company that you have always been interested in. In addition, you can learn even more about different companies by going on treks with your classmates, like the New York trip I took in early November.

No Shortcuts to Practice

Since I only worked for AMD (AMD) since I graduating from college, I forgot what it was like visiting companies and seeing how different two companies can be from one another. More than anything, the trek helped remind me how important cultural fit will be in my future decisions.

During the next few weeks I plan on practicing for the two types of interviews: behavioral and case-based. In behavioral interviews, you're asked to give specific examples of when you demonstrated particular behaviors or skills. In case interviews, you're given a business situation and asked to analyze it, identify key business issues, and discuss how you would address the problems involved. So how do you prepare for these types of interviews? There's no shortcut, and the only advice people are giving is to "practice, practice, and practice some more!"

I plan to prepare for the behavioral interviews by answering the commonly asked questions beforehand, using the STAR (Situation, Task, Action, and Result) approach. And I plan to prepare for the case interviews by reading the book Case in Point by Marc P. Cosentino and using additional school resources to become more familiar with the different types of scenarios and frameworks. After studying both interviewing types on my own for a week, I plan on getting together with some friends and second years to practice. Before the break is over, I hope to become more comfortable with both types of interviews and will continue practicing until I find a good match for the summer.

Gaining Perspective

Before I leave, I would like to share some thoughts about my first semester. Even though I'm relaxed now after my finals, I can still remember being stressed at times and having many doubts. Many second years have said the first semester will be the toughest because students have to adapt to a hectic, business school lifestyle, worry (too much) about grades, and try to figure out what to do after they graduate. But after the first semester, most of us will start to put things into perspective and learn how to better balance our schedule.

To end, I borrowed some thoughts from my finance professor, Sandy Leeds, which have helped me put things into perspective:

•Don't judge yourself by your grades (professors don't and others won't)

•Don't lose confidence because you're not at the top of your class (that's why you went to a top-tier business school)

•Have perspective—this is supposed to be fun!

•Spend time searching for your passion

•Do something exceptional while you're in school (help someone in a job search, tutor someone, etc.)

•Think about others and how you want to be remembered

•What are you going to do in school that you will look back at with pride?