Investment careers

On Thursday evening I attended a presentation about several fields related to financial investment. Four MSU alums described their experience in investment banking, private equity, asset management, and private wealth management. It was largely aimed at undergraduates, but I still found the presentation to be beneficial, as I was not familiar with all of the ins and outs of the investment field. My main interest is in venture capital, but I understand it is virtually impossible to get into. From the four descriptions, I-banking is really the only one that interests me. It sounds like an intellectually challenging, financially rewarding job, and it can lead into a venture capital job. However, I am not particularly interested in the insane work hours; I would like to have time in my life for a girlfriend and personal travel. And while I have realized that I expect to earn a higher income with an MBA, money is not my prime motivator.

Yesterday I was browsing the job listings for NSHMBA, and one that looked especially cool was IBM’s Extreme Blue internship. It sounds exciting and fits with my previously stated interest in project management or some sort of Internet start-up. On second thought, it looks similar to where I would be after a promotion at Consumers Energy. Possibly worse because I would have college interns working on my team instead of professionals with degrees. But IBM claims this is very entrepreneurial (which Consumers is not) and they recruit the technical interns from MIT, Stanford, and Carnegie Mellon (which Consumers does not). Separate from the work experience, it could be a great networking opportunity for a future start-up. However, it is worth noting that an Extreme Blue internship would have nothing to do with my finance concentration. Hmm…

Gaining insight

A little over a week into the MBA program, I am gaining insight into many aspects of business. It is also a little amusing to observe how the academic world excels at systematic solutions to 30-year-old problems. While most professors seem to delusions of granduer regarding what is covered by their concentration, I am begining to see the broad ideas.

In the realm of marketing, a business needs determine what customers consider valuable (and hence desirable). In some cases, the business causes customers to consider something valuable. Clearly a business must have customers.

In the realm that includes supply chain management, the business needs to create this aforementioned value. Traditionally this has been done by manufacturing a product or via retail, but rendering services and manipulating information also create value.

I am less sure of the third realm, but it seems like finance fits in by providing a method to measure the value and allowing the comparison of alternatives.

I have been investigating venture capital firms recently by developing a list of VC firms that invest in technology and Internet firms and going to their websites. Incidentally, nearly every VC firm has the same website except for the name, logo, and team bios. Virtually none of them accept resumes for their firm, even fewer advertise openings. From reading the team bios, it looks like everyone has an MBA from Stanford. While I am much happier with the price of MSU, it is definitely not the doorway to the VC world.

One very cool thing about business school is the status that comes with it. At the library, I can check out books for 180 days; undergraduates only get 3 weeks. Business undergraduates can get into investment banking analyst internships. MBA students can get into I-banking associate internships probably even without a finance or accounting background. Finally, because of the emphasis on networking, being an MBA is like joining a special social club where you’re instantly popular You are cool just for being in the program.

Early Mormonism

In the past year, I have read several books about Mormonism. Many of these sources could be termed “anti-Mormon,” but not all of them. Some of these attempt to dispute Mormonism by quoting the outlandish things said by some early Mormon leaders. While many of these quotes are factual, it is a useless strategy. If you confronted an average Mormon with these strange quotes, you would likely be told something like, “I’ve never heard anything like that” or “We don’t believe that at all” or “What planet are you from?” Furthermore, prophecy is virtually impossible to disprove.

I am currently reading In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith by Todd Compton. It is a hefty book by a Mormon author, with biographical chapters for all of Smith’s well-documented wives. Right now I have read about a third of it, and I am really gaining an understanding of why so many people were attracted to Mormonism in its early years and why they claim to be the restorated true church.

It all has to do with the book of Acts. This is my favorite book of the Bible, because it is the action/adventure part. The apostles visibly receive the Holy Spirit, there is speaking in tongues, miracles happen left and right, people sell all of their possessions to join the Way, sinners are struck down by God, people praise God because their suffering allows them to be tested, and more. If you compare that to Christianity in America today, I doubt you will find many similarities. From what I have read, such a contrast also existed in the early 1800s. However, in the 1830s, Mormonism entered the scene. Joseph Smith was revealing propecy from God! New Mormons were speaking in tongues, and other ones were translating! Healing administrations were happening all the time! People were selling all of their possessions and moving to live together with other believers! And they were persecuted just like early Christians! If I was around for this incredibly display of the Holy Spirit, I quite possibly would have joined too. In Sacred Loneliness mentions one convert who had concluded that all churches had fallen away before he ever heard about Mormonism.

I am a little confused about what happened in the past 170 years. If health administration by the laying on of hands works as well as it did back then, we wouldn’t need to bother with secular hospitals. Smith’s furious rate of prophesying has not been matched by recent prophets. The growth of the Mormon church, while still quite significant, is slowing down. I can’t think of a single acquantance who converted to Mormonism, sold everything, and moved to Utah (although I bet some people still do this). I have never been to a service, but from external appearances, the Mormon Church looks more like the Roman Catholic Church than the early church in Acts.

I welcome any constructive criticisms.


On the way back from Cross Village, Sonya and I had a discussion about education. With her recently acquired degree in elementary education and my interest in tirelessly debating everything, it was a pretty interesting conversation (at least for one of us). We talked about why people think kids today do not learn much in school and whether this opinion is true. We also covered the differences between learning things, learning how to locate things, and learning how to learn. I am sure she reached different conclusions than I did, but I would like to share the things I realized as part of this conversation.

The part of education that I would consider most useful in a general sense is something I would call research. An example of a research assignment would be to ask a student a question, such as what is the executive title in Canada’s national government. The student would then (1) locate and identify media sources with this information, (2) read and comprehend the media sources, and (3) effectively communicate the answer to the question. This format is really quite flexible; the question can be detailed and specific or very broad. The available media sources could be unlimited or just one chapter in a textbook. The answer could be communicated in the form of a single, written sentence, a large paper, an informal conversation, or a formal presentation. This research format could be expanded by adding a step (#2.5) of collaboration. The format would change from research to problem solving if the original question is replaced with a problem; the students would need to formulate questions that might help solve the problem.

Much of what I have done in my short professional career has followed this research model. This is how to learn; it encompasses literary arts, history, science, and advanced mathematics. (The rest of what I have done at work is the implementation of the answers I have discovered.)

I would argue that the retention of the discovered answer is generally quite unimportant. It is important for students to know how to learn. It is not important or students to know the leadership titles of foreign governments. Reading and comprehending information is critical, as is the ability to effectively share that information.

While talking with Sonya, I identified three nonessential skills that schools often focus on. The first is alphabetizing. It is useful to be able to alphabetizing quickly, and I am often surprised when I see people who have trouble with this. However, it is only marginally helpful to the research model described above, and it is unrelated to the critical skills. The next is mental arithmatic. I have the same opinion of this; it is nice to be good at, but it is unrelated to the learning process. (Incidentally, I have known at least one talented math major who was bad at arithmatic.) The third skill is spelling. I was reluctant to admit this, because I consider it important to spell correctly. (You don’t want me to find a spelling mistake on your resume!) However, spelling is unrelated to reading and comprehension. Modern spell checkers reduce the need for spelling ability, and I would like to draw a line distinguishing spelling errors from semantic errors.

While alphabetizing, mental arithmatic, and spelling are unrelated to the critical skills of research, they share similarities and certainly are not useless. For lack of a better explanation, being good at these things is simply being smart. Standard aptitude tests measure and emphasize these skills.

Using broad generalities and cruel, arbitrary judgments, it seems like people can be reduced to four groups:

  1. Good at learning (i.e. educated) and smart
  2. Good at learning (i.e. educated) and not smart
  3. Not good at learning (i.e. uneducated) but smart
  4. Not good at learning (i.e. uneducated) but not smart

Someone with college degree has evidence of their ability to learn. However, they may still rely on pocket calculators and spellcheckers and not be able to find words in the dictionary. Kindergarten teachers can easily tell you which of their students are smart even before the students really know how to learn.

Drug Enforcement

Ever had one of those thoughts that seemed to make sense for a moment before you realized how ludicrous it was? But then after more reflection it almost makes sense again?

I was reading this article about a $350 million cocaine bust, which mentions the Bush administration requested $600 million for Colombia’s anti-cocaine effort. Clearly, or so it seemed momentarily, they won’t need the full $600 million since they just got more than half of it from this one drug bust! But soon reality set in, and I realized that despite the cocaine having such a high American street value, the Colombian authorities will not be collecting on that. The article goes on to explain how the amount of cocaine on U.S. streets has not declined despite more than $3 billion in assistance to Colombia over the past 5 years.

Would it be so crazy for the Drug Enforcement Agency take the drugs collected in busts and sell them on the streets in America? One could raise the point that drug abuse has negatively affected so many lives. However, people clearly have had access to illegal drugs without any help from the DEA. If the DEA sold drugs, it would have additional funds for the fight against drugs. If it undersold the competition, Colombian drug lords would lose their profit motive. The DEA might run them out of business!

Now someone may be thinking that a lowered price would result in more drug users — simple supply/demand economics. To those people I ask this: is the price of illegal drugs the reason you aren’t an addict? Do you know how much these drugs cost? I expect some will answer yes to both questions, but I doubt that is the majority. It is generally accepted that, among hard-core addicts, illegal drugs are price-inelastic; the demand is relatively constant regardless of the price. There is more contention about the price-elasticity among experimental users.

So, in short, if the DEA sold drugs, there would be more funding for drug enforcement, less incentive for suppliers, and a mixed result on users. I know that is not a perfect outcome, but it is arguably better than the outcomes from their current strategy.

Haiti journal

While I did not keep a journal while I was in Haiti, I did write several letters about my experiences there. Before mailing them off, I think I will post them here so they can be read by all. In the future I might break them up into separate blog entries with the appropriate dates and associated pictures.

Monday, January 31, 2005 – I am in Haiti now. It’s kinda like Ecuador except that everything’s French or Creole instead of Spanish.
We met at the church at 3:30am and piled in a bus headed for the airport. Checking in our luggage was a busy event because we used nearly our maximum allowance taking clothes to donate and building supplies. It turned out that two of our items were oversize, 2 more were overweight, and packing a used engine will trigger the bomb sensors due to traces of gasoline. The flights went smoothly. Picking up our luggage and getting to the F.O.H.O. guest house was hectic, but we were warned of this. They have lots of porters at the airport who are very eager to help us with our luggage. With about ten carts full of luggage, the ends up being quite a production. I was never quite sure which ones were paid to help us. We put the luggage on the back of two trucks, and most of us sat on top for the ride from the airport. Our compound is at 28B Delmas, which is on one of Port-au-Prince’s biggest roads. They have traffic lights here, but they don’t have any power!

Tuesday, February 1, 2005 – I laid block today. I’m not particularly good at it. Another guy, Scott, is an apprentice bricklayer, and he taught me how to do it. I understand some of what I’m supposed to do, but that’s not the same as being able to do it. There are a couple other difficulties involved in our task. We had to pour some concrete, which involved improvising the forms from blocks and scraps of wood, as well as figuring out how to ask the Haitians to make some concrete. There seemed like only one guy knew what should be doing, and he was only around part of the time because he had other responsibilities. The Haitian foreman liked to stop by and show us how he liked things to be done, which was different from how Scott had been taught to work. I spent a lot of time standing around.
In the afternoon I heard some firecrackers which turned out to be gunfire. Nathan was working on the roof and said he saw people shooting at UN forces. I’m not going to write home about that.
Most of our group is working on different tasks. Many did some digging. I think it’s in preparation for pouring concrete. Others did work on the F.O.H.O. guest house, and at least one person was teaching.

Wednesday, February 2, 2005 – I laid more block today. I did a really horrible job on some of it but got a little better over time. The late morning sun got really hot.
An interesting thing happened last night: it was really quiet. The guest house overlooks one of the busiest intersections in Port-au-Prince. Usually it’s just teeming with tons and tons of people and vehicles. Last night it was abandoned. We watched from the roof, and there was just one car driving through every couple minutes. This would be like seeing Times Square completely empty at 10:30pm. All the streetlights were on, and the traffic lights were out as usual. My best guess is that maybe a curfew was declared because of the shooting. Nobody seemed to know for sure.
Haiti doesn’t have sufficient electric power for Port-au-Prince, so the city has rolling blackouts. We have a generator, so we are not affected, but each night it seems like a different part of the city is black. Tonight it seems to be our part of town.
Today I gave away some of the suckers I brought. One of them was to a little girl sitting by her mom across the street from the guest house. Two more were to the daughters of the Haitian foreman working on the church. He has a Creole name that sounds something like “Eleanor.” In the afternoon – maybe after they get out of school?? – they start quietly hanging around the worksite until they go home with their dad. I took their picture because they were so cute sucking on the candy while their dad took a shower in the bathroom we have been building. (Fortunately, I didn’t get his whole body in the frame.)
After work and before dinner, I was interested in leaving the compound. I had casually discussed this with another guy, Brian, who recalled the rules saying that you had to be in a group of at least 2 when leaving the walls and groups with mixed genders need at least 2 of each. Today I asked Marv, one of our leaders, what the rules were for leaving the compound. He did not answer my question per se, but he did respond that he wants us to be with one of the leaders when we go. None of them were available today. Maybe tomorrow. I don’t have anything specific that I’m burning to do outside the walls, but I feel like it is such a wasted opportunity for me to sit inside and drink a Coke after work when I could be outside in the city. I can sit and drink Coke at home. There are other things I could be doing with this time such as reading the Bible, praying, writing, or hanging out with the other missionaries – but these are also things I could be doing at home. Seeing Haiti – I can’t do that at home. I can’t witness in Creole, but I could in English. And I’m sure there is plenty I could learn about the city and the culture.

Saturday, February 5, 2005 – It has been a few days since I last wrote. The reason is that I haven’t been following any of my regular routines while here. It does not bother me psychologically to interrupt my routine, but there are apparently several things that won’t get done unless I have established a time for them.
In the late morning and early afternoon, our group piled into a van and a truck and drove up the mountain to the Baptist Mission. We drove through a crowded market, enjoyed great views, saw super-expensive mansions, and bought souvenirs from street vendors. This was kinda cool.
Shortly after we returned, a much cooler thing happened. I was sitting in the lounge, and Brian came up to me. He told me someone at the gate named Mackensen was asking for me. This was one of the guys that had a conversation with me the previous afternoon when the group took a walk around the block. I was just going to talk to him through the gate, but Brian went outside to talk to his friend Jean (“John”) so I too went outside the gate. Mackensen had some dolls he wanted to sell me, but I told him I wasn’t interested. So we talked instead. He told me lots of things – I don’t know where to start. He said he was a Christian since May 2003. He said he used to be a bad guy but is now a good guy because he believes in God. I asked him if we were in a good part of town and where the bad parts were, and he said there’s no reason to be worried if you believe in God. After a little while, Brian came up to me. He asked me if I would go with him and Jean to the gas station because Jean needed to buy gas to cook with. This was an exciting question, and I really wanted to say yes. However, I wasn’t sure if we were allowed to do this. We both remember reading the official rules that say you need to be in a group of at least two when leaving the compound, but talking to Marv gave me the impression that they would like things to be much more restrictive. After a moment of indecision I agreed to go with him. I told Mackensen that I bought a book to learn Creole, and he told me that he would be happy to teach me Creole. We went to the gas station. Brian helped Jean buy milk for his baby, and Mackensen started teaching me Creole and even quizzed me.
After we returned from the gas station, Brian asked me if I would like to go to Jean’s home. Would I ever! On the walk there, I asked Mackensen if he had a girlfriend. He said no, he was waiting for God to give him one – it had to be a special kind of girl. At some point, Kenore joined us. He was another guy I met by the basketball court on Friday. We walked up stairs and more stairs to get to Jean’s home. There were lots of shacks along the way except that they were made of block instead of wood. There were many people just hanging around that I exchanged a friendly “Bon soir” with.

Wednesday, February 8, 2005 – I talked with Mackensen again this evening. The last time we talked, I didn’t have much to say, but I promised I would have “some words” for him. I tried to think of something last night, but I couldn’t focus much and nothing came to mind. I finally thought of something cool that Tricia should appreciate. I also showed him some pictures – one of Tricia, one of my parents, one of some friends from college, and one of some friends from home.
My trip is nearing its end. Our flight home leaves Friday morning, so tomorrow is our last workday. It has the promise of being a hectic day because we will be trying to get as much done as possible before leaving, there will be a wedding at the guest house for one of the Haitian workers, we will be packing all of our check luggage, and there will probably be some last minute bargaining with the street vendors. Thursday’s plans were discussed after dinner, but it was brief because it’s not really planned out.

Closing done

I walked to American Title Thursday morning and, after signing my name several times, am the proud new owner of unit #703 at Nelson Towers in Jackson. Well, that plus 10 years of mortgage payments. I moved a few things over after work: kitchen items, chairs, and a card table. I have Friday off work, so I might be able to move enough stuff to start living there right away. I’ve been asked a few times about when I’m planning to move in, and I don’t really have plans…. I’m just going to do it. Since I don’t have many possessions and it is not far away, it should be pretty easy. I suspect this post is pretty boring for most people, but I’m geeked.

Back from Africa

Despite the long time since the last post, I am alive and well. I finished my senior thesis project back in September and early October. Tricia left for her mission in Argentina. I have been travelling for the past 5 weeks: one week in Florida, about a week in California, and a 3-week overland tour through South Africa with Swaziland and Lesotho. (Pictures are online now.) I arrived home yesterday after 25 hours on planes and 8 hours in airports for the return trip. Whew!

I am going with my family to Toronto for the weekend. Other significant events in the near future are starting a permanent position at Consumers on Wednesday, Dec. 1 and participating in commencement ceremonies at Kettering on Friday, Dec. 3. Today I also paid the deposit for my missions trip to Haiti in February.

Software Engineering

This term at Kettering I am taking Software Engineering. I’m pretty geeked about it. I was not previously aware of exactly what software engineering was. I know that the developers at my company use fancy acronyms like SDLC and PMM that don’t seem to really mean much. We have two required texts for the course: The Mythical Man-Month by Brooks and Object-Oriented and Classical Software Engineering by Schach. In the past week, I have read about 150 pages of Brooks and maybe 60 pages of Schach. The term “Software Engineering” seems to have been created because of this problem: large software projects generally run late, over-budget, and create products riddled with bugs. This can be compared with other types of engineering, which appear to have better management, design, and products. (As I am writing this, dozens of engineering failings come to mind ranging from life-ending mistakes at NASA to little things like my car having a rough idle. However, I must admit that engineered building rarely randomly collapse; Windows crashes much more often.)

Brooks concedes that an individual or team of two can write wonderful software. The problem seems to arise when a large project is needed in a short amount of time. The solution is to form a large team to build the software– which is also the source of them problem. Schach seems to implicitly agree, but I haven’t read where he admits small programs could be over-engineered.

Schach repeatedly cites a statistic that 67% of a software budget is spent on maintenance — more than all the other phases combined (requirements, analysis, design, implementation, integration, and retirement).

As I go through this information, I am trying to relate it to my work experience. (As a Kettering student, I have almost two years of fulltime work experience in my field, unlike a typical undergraduate.) Right now I’m thinking the whole software life-cycle idea is very short-sighted. Maybe things will change as I keep reading, but the life-cycle process seems to assume it is operating in a vacuum. The beginning steps are aimed at a client requesting a new software product. While my company has a large IT department, brand new software products are rarities. The only one that comes to mind was the company website created a handful of years ago. Instead of new product requests, we have transformations of existing products and integration of third-party software products. I suppose the transformations are considered maintenance. I do not know what Schach thinks of third-party software products….

Let me digress about maintenance. As I stated before, it seems that the software life-cycle is focused on just new stuff. That means new versions short of complete rewrites are considered maintenance. If we apply that to Microsoft Windows, I guess the requirements, analysis, design, implementation, and integration occurred prior to the 1985 release of version 1.0. Does anybody out there agree with me? I doubt it. From what I have learned so far (which is admittedly relatively small), the software life-cycle does not adequately account for new major versions of software. They are too big to be considered maintenance, but too small to be considered new products. This is a big hole because nearly all software is released in versions. (Some of software life-cycles discussed by Schach accomodate multiple builds of a product, but that is a much smaller scale.)

In my previous work experience, I installed a third-party critical event notification product. It was a small project but still complex; its human and automatic interfaces had to be programmed. The human interfaces involved the way the product communicated with people via pages, phone calls, and e-mails. The automatic interfaces involved how it received events from a separate problem ticket product and later updated the tickets. The problem ticket product in turn interfaced with a network management product.

So far, I don’t see how my past project fits into the world of software engineering. I certainly did not design and program a new software product. However, there were definitely elements of design, implementation, and integration involved. The three big pieces were each “completed&qout; software products (according to the life-cycle), although they all allow for much customization. If the goal of software engineering is to produce a good software product, what do you call it when the goal is to produce a good system of integrated software products? Is it business or information systems or industrial engineering? This work has the same technical demands as software engineering, but the scope is one step bigger.

One possible way to describe this scenario is simply *using* the software products. Despite some work involved in implementing the interfaces, each product was designed to interface with multiple other products after all. So far, I haven’t seen where usage fits in to the software life-cycle. Is it really a good idea to completely ignore it?