In the first week of the third quarter of my 12-month Sloan academic year, I find myself spending at least 2-3 hours every day this week in a perpetual (often futile ) attempt to optimize my courses for this quarter. The exhaustive and reiterative process has been very tiring, but much needed. Because the course selection of Winter Quarter is critical, unique and sets the course for half of my Sloan year. In Summer and Fall Quarter, our curriculum was largely the same with limited variations – there was not much we can do to adjust the curriculum. Things start getting interesting in Winter Quarter, when we only have two classes together (Finance and Marketing) and need to fill up more than 50% of our academic calendar with self-selected coures from GSB and other school. The below 15 factors, in descending order of importance, might be helpful in strategizing your most optimal course portfolio, from the perspective of a GSB Sloan.
1. Iconic Courses
These are the signature courses that have achieved immortal status in Stanford lore. Most Stanford alumni have taken them or at least auditioned them just so that they can proudly claim they have been to Stanford. Even non-Stanford people from around the world follow those courses religiously online from many open-course platforms.
- MS&E 472: Entrepreneurial Thought Leader’s Seminar (“ETL”). You should make it a ritual to attend this star-stubbed seminar at 430pm on every Wednesday. This is the one seminar that rules them all, that bonds all Stanford students from all the disciplines together. You can also easily get one credit if you care to. Enrollment is easy as long as you have no scheduling conflict.
- CS 106A: Programming Methodology. Legend has it that 90% of Stanford students have taken this introductory programming course, which does not require any prior programming experience. We’re in Silicon Valley and Stanford. It just feels wrong not to take this course to at least understand how coders work and think. Anyone with any significance in Silicon Valley is most likely linked to Stanford in some way, and most people have taken CS106A. So you’re truly in the company of some future movers and shakers of our time. While enrolling into this course for credit with the undergraduates 3 times a week is probably a bit of a stretch, you can always audition it or watch the online video. Enrollment is easy as it’s a huge lecture class with a roaster of a few hundred.
- STRAMGT 354: Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital. The most sought-after Stanford GSB course, and the most difficult one to get into. People weep in tears upon the news of enrollment. Valley extraordinaires Peter Wendell, Andy Rachleff, and Eric Schmidt co-teach this class. They have enormous pull from Sand Hill Road and Silicon Valley, and thus regularly invite first-class entrepreneurs and VCs to the classroom to share their insights. Wendell brought in Vinod Khosla in the first class of the quarter last week, as if just to make a statement. You have to super-round this one to have the chance to get in as every GSBer is throwing his/her super-round option on this.
- Finance 321: Investment Management and Entrepreneurial Finance. The legendary 7-unit course taught by celebrated value investor Jack McDonald (to give an idea, most courses are 2-3 units; 4 units is considered pretty heavy; 5 units is very rare; 7 units is out of this world). If you’re going to do investment of any kind, you should try to enroll into this class. Auditioning attempt will be futile. McDonald has a photographic memory even at his current age.
- OB374: Interpersonal Dynamics. The famous “touchy feely” course in GSB that everyone is talking about. All my Sloan classmates who are taking this course are raving about it and many GSBers think this is the single best course in all their GSB years. As someone who has watched David Finch’s Fight Club (1999) many times, the mere thought of “touch feely” brings up vivid pictures of a support group therapy session, where everyone is crying over the shoulders of someone else, and occasionally Edward Norton buries his head in Meat Loaf’s man-boobs…
2. Celebrity Professors
Many illuminaries, Sillicon legends, Nobel laureates, and billionnaires walked the corridors of Knight Management Center. There are so many of them in this pantheon of gods that it’ll be almost an insult to them to single-out any individual ones. There are some larger-than-life personalities whose mere presence will enthrall people in awe such as: Jack McDonald (GSB’s franchise professor), Andrew Grove (Intel), and Condoleezza Rice (Secretary of State); there are some glittering entrepreneurs/VCs whose names have been heard by every GSBer such as Peter Wendell, Steve Blank, Andy Rachleff, Mark Leslie, and Heidi Roizen; there are many Nobel winners in GSB, such as Myron Scholes and A. Michael Spence; there are also some filthily rich professor billionaire such as David Cheriton (who famously wrote Google’s first check). There are many, many more. You’re in Stanford. Nobody gets to teach here by being less than a superstar in his/her own right. Even for the professors who classes we don’t quite enjoy, I can see why they can stand here on a solid ground.
3. Juicy Startup Courses
Many think it’s a rite of passage to do a startup-themed course in Stanford – which is probably true, especially for those who haven’t done startup before. The above four are your choices, among which two are from School of Engineering. Choose them carefully because it’s a significant undertaking. You should expect to spend 15-30 hours a week, which include class time, many hours of team meetings, and regular review sessions with assigned mentors. All of them require application as a team. S356 and S321 are heavy two-quarter commitments (you can still get out after one quarter but it might create bad will with your team), while M273 and E245 are one-quarter only. I will try to do a more in-depth analysis and comparison among these courses in a separate article. Make sure you choose the right team (3-4) for these coures because you’ll spend significant hours together, much more than a typical study group format requires. Grouping with the wrong person for 3 months is much worse than sitting in the wrong class. You sort of place a big bet of your social capital (ie. time) on 3 people (Sloan/MBA/engineer) at the expense of the other 70-80 Sloans. Good luck. Another great benefit of these courses is the mentor the instructor will assign to you, and the opportunity to pitch to real VCs for your project. For people who are new to this process, this will be a great experience to get hands dirty and get a taste of how it’s like working in startups and with VCs. For people who have gone through this process before, don’t get too dizzy with all the shining names from Sand Hill. It takes several reciprocal transactions to start building a real business relationship. MBAs have more means at their disposal such as independent studies, case-writing, teaching assistant etc. As Sloans, we’re in general a bit handicapped.
4. Reasonable Course Portfolio Strategy
It’s helpful to have a rough roadmap before coming to Stanford Sloan in terms of what you want to get out of it, then allocate your courses (or, your tuition) strategically. I suggest strategizing your portfolio of courses around the below major categories: A) Startup track; B) Corporate Track; C) Investment Track; D) Social Innovation ; E) International Politics & Economies; F) Leadership. G) Communication (this is for Sloans only. Few Sloans would go Consulting after graduation). It’s advisable to major in only one stream from A to E, maybe minor in another stream from F to G, then taste the rest with a surveyor mentality. Do not major in two streams. It will kill your social calendar and cost you the most valuable asset you can get out of Sloan program – bonding with other Sloans.
A is self-explanatory – you do whatever you want to do in the wilderness, do 1-2 above mentioned startup course; sign up for every course that has “entrepreneurship” in its title from every school; attend weekly ETL religiously; hack your way into Wendell’s class; watch every video from Stanford’s e-Corner; attend as many Silicon Valley TMT conferences as your budget allows; enroll into CS106A just to show you’re hard-core; and make some young friends in School of Computer Science or Engineering who only enjoy coding for the pure pleasure of coding regardless of how lousy the actual product/service is – which inevitably is designed by you.
B is for people with corporate sponsorship or willing to go back to the corporate environment. Sign up for some bad-ass named courses such as Paths to Power, Decision for the Future, etc. Minoring in either leadership or communication goes well with this one.
C has three sub-streams: angel/VC investment, private equity investment, and public investment (hedge fund and portfolio management). They all lead to very different industry dynamics, practices, and locations so you want to think carefully before stepping into any stream. Get into the class of Jack McDonald, Peter Wendell, and Charles Lee. Run for Sloan Class’ Investment Committee officer position. Show up at every event whenever any member of Stanford Management Company (Stanford’s endowment fund) is present.
D is D. E is a common choice for Sloans sponsored by governments or coming from family business background.
5. Flashy One-Timers
It’s important to take note of some highly desired courses that are only offered in a particular quarter (due to the availability of the instructor, who might be attending multiple board meetings or making movies, or advising US President in the other three quarters). For example, Jack McDonald’s legendary 7-unit course on investment and entrepreneur finance (Fall Quarter), Leadership in Entertainment Business (Spring Quarter), and Real-Life Ethics (Fall Quarter). Take them before they vanish from your academic year’s calendar, which is only one-year.
6. Heavy Two-Quarter Commitments
Many courses run across two continuous quarters because they use team projects as the teaching vehicle. Make sure you sign up for the first leg at the right quarter, otherwise it’ll be very difficult to join them at the second leg. That being said, there are still ways to join the second leg of some of those courses. For example, when some people drop from a team after the first leg, a position may become available and the instructor may want to fill that with someone new just to keep the group/project/class going.
7. Confusing Application-Required Courses
MyGSB and Axess are the main portals to register for our courses, but not always. Some courses require application and may not even been available to register from Axess. There are three types:
A) Registration available on Axess + No application needed
This is easy. Just register on Axess and you’re set.
B) Registration available on Axess + Application needed
Very confusing. You have registered the course on Axess, but you still have to go through a separate application process outside of Axess to get enrolled, which means your precious calendar will be taken up by a course that is not guaranteed to you yet and at the same time might get in your way for other courses. The Spirit of Entrepreneurship and Lean Launchpad come to mind.
C) Registration not available on Axess + Application needed
Less confusing but more mysterious. They are not on Axess, you have to go to their own idiosyncratic websites to apply or even go through the draconian means of … email. Sloan’s staff does a pretty good job on this and will organize talks before the registration period to highlight all such courses that need special attention.
8. Evil Exams
It helps to go for the electives that have no exams – so that you will be free in the last exam-week and start your vacation earlier while others are still sweating on exams. It seems that most electives do not have exams, but some of them do have, such as Decision for the Future. Be aware and stay away from those courses, unless you really love them dearly.
9. Shining Guest Speakers
When you evaluate the attractiveness of a course, the quantity and the quality of its guest speakers are very important. They can make a huge difference and bring life to an otherwise dreadful classroom session. They also reflect how influential the professor is and how much pull he/she’s got in the industry and around the Silicon Valley. For many classes guest speakers are integral part of the teaching, such as Real Estate Investment, Real-Life Ethics, Entrepreneurship: Formation of New Ventures, The Spirit of Entrepreneurship, Election 2012, and many more.
10. Bright MBAs
All the core courses are Sloan-only. Some electives are set up to be Sloan-only (such as Executive Communications). Most electives have mix of MBAs and Sloans. Personally it’s been an enlightening experience for me to take many clases with MBAs, who are smart, respectful and mature (despite of their much younger average age). I wish I could have spent more time with them.
11. Geeky Coders and Engineers
Attend some classes “across the street” from School of Engineering or School of Computer Science. Stanford GSB students can rival the best MBAs from any school, including Harvard and Wharton, but still they are not the prince of the universe here. Don’t lose the sight of the fact that Silicon Valley’s culture, wealth, and social pecking order are defined and ruled by engineers and coders from Stanford. It will pay long-term dividend to make some friends there and at least understand how they work and think. Besides attending ETL and CS106A, go to some seminars/talks organized by Engineering and Computer Science. Don’t get too caught up in Knight Management Center.
12. Personalized Seasonality
With many Sloans regularly taking around 20 credits a quarter, it’s fairly easy to satisfy the academic requirements for graduation, which ask for 56 credits, out of which at least 50 come from GSB. Summer Quarter is pretty light with only 12 credits (we played many basketball games then – utterly unthinkable now); Fall Quarter and Winter Quarter are the heaviest. You do have some level of discretion about Spring Quarter. You can either load yourself up to attend as many classes as you can to make good on your $108,000 tuition investment, or go by with only 11 credits – the lowest credits you have to maintain to qualify as a full-time student. You can free up yourself to pursue other things in life, such as landing a job, finding a significant other, starting a business, or making some babies.
13. Manageable Team Relationships
Almost every class requires some sort of grouping. So we always end up in 4-6 different groups in Fall/Winter/Spring Quarter. Most of them are only called for on as-needed basis when group project deliverables are approaching. However, be aware that some groups are quite heavy-lifting and require significant investment in time and emotion (like “Touchy Feely”) due to the nature of the group projects. All the startup-themed classes, as well as the assigned study group for Finance and Marketing, fall into this category. Depending what kind of people you end up with in your groups, some groups choose to meet as little as possible and some groups prefer to do everything together. Welcome to B-school, where drama never ends.
14. Forgotten Audition
Do not forget to audit. Many a time you’re not able to enroll into a particular class for reasons such as, you max out your 22 credits for the quarter, the class is full, it conflicts with other classes on your calendar, etc. You can still sit in for those classes as long as the instructor permits. You sit in the back row; do not raise your hand; no participation, no homework, no grade; you’re just a spectator – this is auditing. I would always audit for Wendell’s class as long as I’m not completely burned out. With so many intellectually stimulating classes opening their doors to you left and right, it’ll be a crime and waste of your tuition money if you don’t do any auditing.
15. Precious Wednesday
Last and the least, try to keep your Wednesday free of any class except ETL, which is always on Wednesday afternoon. Sloan staff usually schedules program-related activities on Wednesday, such as important announcements or class meetings. Many study groups schedule their weekly session on Wednesday. You should also leave some room for yourself for interviews, out-of-town trips. An inconveniently timed class on Wednesday might screw up all such schedules and make you very unpopular in general.