18 July 2014

Weeks 24, 25, and 26: Oh! The Places You'll Go!

And just like that, everything changes.

I'm certain when they told us during orientation, "look left, look right -- these folks just may be your path to a new future," they didn't mean right then, and certainly not during the most intense week of the most intense semester of the program.

But that's just the way it goes. Sometimes you just gotta' grab the chance and jump right in.

In the past few weeks, we've had an exam for Econ, developed a presentation and a paper, and experienced our first taste of a died-in-the-wool, old-school case study method professor ...

... and meanwhile I've gotten a new job, found a new home, and started a new life for myself and my family. The wild ride just got crazy.

It's hard to believe we're at Week 26 -- halfway through the first year, 25% through the program as the calendar reads. We're closer to 30% or more complete by credit hours, and in a few weeks we'll be over a third. Funny, but there is not the sense of accomplishment we felt at the end of last semester -- for better or worse, the late nights feel normal, and the prep we're doing for our team presentation tomorrow feels routine. Yes, we can check off another class and 3 credits, but we know already what's next, and the time that lays ahead of us. Having a full week off for July 4 was a minor hiccup, but now it's full on, adjusting to the new realities of the lives we're meant to lead.

Just like that, everything changes.

26 June 2014

Week 23: Choose Your Own Adventure

As you've probably heard, there's a lot of talk these days about Millennials in the workforce -- that "next generation" which will either save the world (because they don't drive cars) or will overrun everything with reckless abandon (because they're large in number and horribly narcissistic). One interesting prediction I've seen is that this group will experience up to 20 different careers in their working lifetime. Not jobs, careers.

As it stands, the "average" worker spends 4.4 years in a job. Millenials are averaging 2.6 years. With working lives now extending past 50 years, Millenials are on track to have 25 different jobs ... but what's even more interesting is that those jobs are very likely to be in radically different fields.

By contrast, my cohort, Gen X, was predicted to take on something like 8 or 9 different careers. I'm sure when that was predicted it was attributed to our "slacker" mentality as we left our "McJobs," but the reality is that we were kind of stuck in the middle to begin with, emerging as we did to a radically changing labor market already top-heavy with Boomers. So we did what we do best: We learned. We adapted. We survived.

I bring this up because I'm about to embark on "Career" No. 7 (or 8 if you count all those years of food service). Truth be told, it's an extension of "Career" No. 3, which I traded out of a decade ago to try spreading my wings a bit. They got summarily clipped, but without that experience I sure wouldn't be where I am today.

And that's the funny thing about these transitions, at least for me: I'm doing what I love, I'm learning as I go, and even through some unpleasantness, I've built a portfolio of skills that finally, amazingly!, has a home. And all the while, I'm following my passions.

I remember sitting in my car maybe 6 or 7 years ago, "living the dream" while working at WBR and racing full-time, hearing an NPR story about some sort of massive data mining. And I remember saying to myself, "Self, that's where you want to be."

And I filed it away, not sure what to do with it, more than happy to take on the nonprofit world and the bike industry, sometimes at the same time. But despite the B-school mentality that a "Poet" can't be a "Quant," I kept finding myself drawn to stories of information management, "Big Data," and the types of crazy analyses that give us unique predictive odds on who is going to win their Group in Brazil this week. The nadir had to be the 2012 Presidential campaign, and the work of Nate Silver (now of web site FiveThirtyEight) -- all of a sudden data was cool, and I wasn't doing enough of it. So I started to explore with the opportunities I had ...

... and now here I am. "Career" No. 7. Senior Client Data Analyst. For a Fortune 100 company, no less. It's not the first time I've set out to follow a dream, and for sure not the first time I've taken a risk to do so. I'm nervous, and a bit scared, but in the 10 years since Career No. 3, information management tools have come a long way, and I have to admit, I'm geeking out more than a little as I gear up for the next chapter ...

So bring it on. Changing "careers" is not a bad thing. In fact, I'd argue that the skills you learn filling steam tables translate to breaking down data cubes exploring customer behavior. (OK, that one's a stretch, but you get what I mean.) Giving yourself the opportunity to explore can be really, really hard ... but if you keep your mind open, you just might have a "driveway moment" that leads to your Next Big Adventure.

23 June 2014

Week 23: Piling it on

They warned us about this.

Working professionals have a couple of choices at Wake Forest, coming down to attending classes on evenings or on Saturdays. Regardless of the program, everyone I've spoken with in 2nd year says the same thing: 1st-year summer is tough. Really tough.

Well, we're in it now, and they were right. Which is why it was kind of silly for me to decide to take on a massive yard beautification project last week, involving 13 cubic yards of mulch. It was delivered on Thursday, and I set my mind to having it gone by Friday, which I'm happy to report I accomplished, with Kim's help on Friday afternoon. And along the way, a funny thing happened: I calculated.

I think it's a measure of how far I've come this year. Instead of just mindlessly slinging mulch (yes, there was plenty of that too), I actually figured out what I was doing. First strategically: How the h*ll was I going to get all this in place? And then tactically: If a cubic yard of mulch is 27 cubic feet, and my new wheelbarrow holds 6 cubic feet, how many wheelbarrow loads does it take to do a cubic yard? And how many shovel fulls does it take to fill a wheelbarrow?

I was totally geeking out.

However, at the end of the day, I still had homework to do, a final exam to study for. And I was whipped -- hand-moving 4.5 tons of mulch (or so -- 600-800 lbs. /cubic yd) does a body good, real good. Things have ratcheted up, and having Kim's help to allow me to focus has been huge. I managed to pull it together for the test, and for Sunday's study session, and now am focused on getting the assignments for Quant and Econ done so I can do the "heavy workload" case reading for Accounting. We have a mid-term in Econ on Saturday, along with our first encounter of an old-school-style B-school prof ... and I have a yard to mow.

They warned us about this.

15 June 2014

Week 22: God Save the Queen

I never really felt the kinship of St. Elmo's Fire.

Yes, I "got" the movie. Though I was, what? 12 when it came out?, I'm certain Andrew McCarthy's Kevin became the blueprint of the early part of my life. (Yes, complete with my own "Leslie," though I never kept secret photos, I swear!) That moment when he slaps the paper on the windshield, his first major byline? I know that moment. It was incredible.

And I absolutely had friends like that growing up. Especially in high school -- there was a crowd that morphed and changed over time. But not so much during college, at least as defined by where we hung out -- I was spending too much time at the newspaper (where we had our own group, but no hang out other than the basement of Johnston Hall), or later going back and forth to Minneapolis to see Kim. So I never had a "St. Elmo's" -- they razed Giuliani's after my sophomore year, the 'Lanch was too much of a dive, and I just never was one for Hegarty's or Murph's. So that scene at the end of the movie, when the gang looks in the window and realizes they have all grown up ... well, it never happened for me.

Things are different now.

In the past, what? six months, I have watched more horse racing, baseball, golf, hoops, and now (finally!) soccer, than at any point in my life. See, we have a "St. Elmo's" -- there, tucked in the right corner of the photo above. Only ours is called "Fitzgerald's," and it's a sure bet that on any given Saturday afternoon, starting right about 5 p.m., you'll find a bunch of really smart people sitting at the bar, or around tables outside, enjoying a pint or two as they unwind from a long day of study. And I am proud to count myself among them.

Yesterday was centered around England's World Cup match with Italy, which I enjoyed in the company of classmates from Nigeria, Venezuela, St. Vincent, and many different parts of the U.S. (not to mention the poor tourists from Frankfurt who had been diverted to Charlotte on their way home from San Francisco, and were stuck in the Queen City for several days). It was an eclectic mix of people and ideas, and our conversations ranged from the joy of the equalizer in the 37th minute, to risk optimization and uncertainty,
to the plight of the Brazilian slums and the possible explicit and implicit economic and social benefits Brazil hopes to reap from a successful Cup. I am honored to share a classroom with these folks, and I find myself each week looking forward to a few minutes at Fitz's -- this is what St. Elmo's was; this is how they came to mean so much to each other.

Obviously, It's not about the bar -- though the staff at Fitz's is pretty great. It's the people, who barely 6 months ago were complete strangers. I am lucky to have found a group so intelligent, so open, and so honest, that in the short time we've been together we have really found a way to come together. I'm certain, 2-3 years from now, I won't have the opportunity to speak to some of these folks on a regular basis. We won't see each other at Fitzgerald's any longer.

But for some others, I will see them regularly; and I also know that even if I don't talk to one of them for a year or more, all I'd have to do is pick up the phone, tell them I'm locked in an empty apartment with no heat, and they'd be there in a heartbeat with hairspray and a Bic lighter. 'Cause that's just what you do.
You know what it is? It's St. Elmo's Fire. Electric flashes of light that appear in dark skies out of nowhere. Sailors would guide entire journeys by it, but the joke was on them... there was no fire. There wasn't even a St. Elmo. They made it up. They made it up because they thought they needed it to keep them going when times got tough, just like you're making up all of this. We're all going through this. It's our time at the edge.

08 June 2014

Week 21: Experimentus Optimus

Screen shot of a fractal programmed in Java by our Quant professor

There's this really weird feeling I'm beginning to get about our class: We're all part of some really whacked-out experiment beset upon us by the faculty.

We had a sneaking suspicion last semester in our Organizational Behavior class. The professor was up front with us from day one, telling us that her area of research had to do with decision making under stress, and if I remember correctly, with sub-optimal information. Or maybe I'm making that up, and just remember what happened in the first few months -- specifically, that we were thrown into a crazy, unknown world with minimal information inputs, and had to find a path that let us be successful. And damned if it wasn't difficult, especially when it felt like she was watching over our shoulders. Sure she was supposed to "grade" us, but was she also "observing" us in a research sense?

And now this half-semester, our Quantitative Analysis professor has us concentrating on Management Science, and specifically program modeling and optimization. It's super interesting stuff, especially given my recent time in manufacturing, but then when he cops to being a researcher in the field, all of a sudden our homework assignment takes on the feel of some sort of test, an experiment of some sort to see if Management Science will survive this next crop of MBAs ... And in the meantime there's the fractals. Programmed in Java and set to music on YouTube. Our Quant prof is one very interesting dude.

Of course I'm kidding about the experiments. It is pretty interesting being in somewhat of a research-oriented school, though, and for the first time in my life I'm understanding what an absolute gift it is to study with folks like these. I mean, yes, we had fantastic professors at Marquette, and some very "famous" ones, but as an undergrad your exposure is limited. Now, however, there are these incredible application opportunities -- literally, on Saturday you're working through a question with one of the foremost researchers in the field (in the pub, natch), only to turn around and use it in your professional life on Monday. It's pretty great.

On a personal note, my dad is cleaning house, and came across a stash of report cards that my Mom had kept from when I was a kid. Years of them, and many with class photos still in their envelopes. Technology is an amazing thing -- I snapped a photo of one of our classes, and tagged a bunch of folks on Facebook ... how weird is it that here, 1,200 miles away, I'm still connected to five or six kids I knew in first grade?

More importantly, I also finally learned the first name of my second-grade teacher -- the first educator who had a profound affect on the path of my life. Tucked in among the 7th-grade failure notices and "needs to learn to be quiet" notations was a Buck Rogers and the 21st Century notebook, filled each day of the school year with guided assignments, free writing, and drawings (mostly of dinosaurs). In the course of 9 short months, I could see my writing progress, to the point that by April and May I was serializing a mystery story and writing commentary on then-current events. Mrs. Zander's encouragement was sprinkled throughout, carving a place in my heart for written expression that continues today.

I've always wanted to thank her, and tried to find her a few years ago. But I always got stuck -- I never knew her first name, and she left the school after only a year. But in that stack my Mom had kept for so long were my progress reports from that year, with Mrs. Zander's first name ... again, thanks to technology, it only took a few short minutes to track her down. In a week in which the nation lost such a profound, guiding voice, I finally got to thank one of those who influenced me so deeply. And maybe she was just being kind, but she told me our class was one of her favorites; it had to be one of her first, and even after all these years she still has our class photo. (I guess we were all just unforgettable.) I was pretty proud to tell her of all the things I've done since we saw her last, several decades ago.

Though I never did find out if she likes fractals.

31 May 2014

Weeks 19 & 20: Legacies

These past several weeks have been an opportunity for deep reflection. Receiving the news via our Wake Forest email that Maya Angelou had died this week was the third such moment I've had recently: Twice now in the past month, I've found out via social media that a former professor of mine from Marquette had also passed.

We are blessed on this earth when we have even a fleeting chance to share just a moment with a luminary who truly makes the world a better place. Often they are teachers, but so too are they open to be taught. They may be put on a pedestal, but the most gifted find the ladder and climb down.

I never met Dr. Angelou, but through the wonders of radio had most of two days to spend with her as I drove to Louisville and back this week. She strikes me as a person who found a way to come down off the pedestal of fame, and through the strength of who she was, used her considerable stature to overshadow any platform upon which she might have been placed. It was incredible to listen to her powerful voice echo through the ages, transporting me to memories long forgotten.

Reading the life stories of my professors had a similar effect -- these were two men whose paths crossed mine only briefly, but who both helped build the person I was to become. The newspaper articles gave context to them, filled in some of the back stories I never knew, and in the process recalled days long ago in Milwaukee trying to find a way forward.

It is the highest compliment you can pay to say that someone has changed you for the better. Reflecting on these three lasting lights, I can't help but be reminded that it is up to us, the living, to carry the legacy of folks such as them who change those around them in a lasting, positive way. We must be up to the challenge.
All my work, my life, everything I do is about survival, not just bare, awful, plodding survival, but survival with grace and faith. While one may encounter many defeats, one must not be defeated. - Maya Angelou

17 May 2014

Week 18: The Doorknob

I have this doorknob.

I'm not sure where it came from -- Pier One or World Market or somewhere. But I do know when I got it, in November 2003. Actually, I bought two -- one for me, and one for my boss.

My boss at the time, Kevin, had "sponsored" me through a 9-month, intensive leadership program. By "intensive," I mean intense -- in 9 months, we had to read something like 56 books. We covered everything from Old Man in the Sea to Finding Your Own North Star to Good to Great, and every 5-6 weeks we'd get together and hash out what it meant to be the kind of leaders we wanted to be.

And it was incredible.

That year was the start of some very difficult times for me. I enjoyed a milestone birthday with a sort-of surprise party in Evanston, and then that summer Kim and I followed the Tour around France. But when we got home -- July 28, 2003 -- everything changed. My world was turned upside down. And damned if at that very moment, I was expected to read Jonathan Livingston Seagull for class. It was the first time I read it in something like 10 years. If ever I doubted it before, that time confirmed it: There is no such thing as coincidence.

Lewis Carroll would surely have something to say about my reaction: When the program ended, I needed to thank Kevin in some way. And I found these doorknobs. Or rather, they found me. Ever since, the one I got for myself has hung in a prominent place in my life -- for a long time, on the wall in our place in E-town, and for the past several years above the doorway in my office at Cane Creek.

Now it's home again.

On Monday I begin a new chapter in my life. I've had a fantastic run chasing my childhood dreams, and am blessed that I've exceeded expectations I never even knew I had. When I said at 7 years old that "I want to be a bike racer," I had no idea where that would take me, nor what it really meant. Now I know, and I wouldn't trade it for the world.

See, that was one of the other outcomes of that leadership program. For the duration of the time we met, we were driven to find our authentic selves. What we wanted out of life. Because it's only through understanding yourself that you can really grow into becoming a leader. And what I realized as my life was changing rapidly around me was that I only have one chance to live my dreams. So that's what I do.

I have another, post-bike life to lead, one that I put on hold right about the time this doorknob found me. That's what drove the decision to find one of the top working professional MBA programs in the country. That's what pushes me at midnight when Chi-squared calculations aren't quite working out. That's what wakes me up before dawn every Saturday to chase the sunlight into Charlotte.

It's time to get after it. Game on.