A Very Non-Technical Educational Path

It’s an annual tradition around technology startups and investing to bash MBAs. I don’t have a strong opinion on the matter because, as I’ll share below, I likely took the worst educational path given the choices I had. That said, expecting any non-technical people (MBA or not) to create new technologies and bring them to market is like expecting a father to be able to be impregnated and give birth to a child. The implication behind this criticism is that the venture capital market has a preference for investing in technical founders and fundamental technology.

Now, I didn’t go to business school, but I used to work for one, have taken many classes at one, and used to develop educational materials for four of them, as well. My wife has also worked directly for two business schools for the last eight years, so I know little something about the environments, the culture, the curriculum. While there’s much truth to the critique that non-technical MBAs seeking a business education as a path to entrepreneurship may not find acceptance easily in today’s culture of technology, it’s also not entirely certain that the next decades of disruptive company formation will necessarily require the type of technical skills espoused by the investors who either critique or defend the value of an MBA. Snapchat, for instance, is successful more because of its creators’ product vision and mobile software literacy versus the deep technical acumen many investors may covet. As technology becomes more pervasive and fully-steeped into mainstream culture, some of the exhaust of this engine will result in, as Andy Weissman artfully explains, “new stacks” for the development of new startups. If Andy is right, the founder archetype is going to get a lot flatter, well beyond entering in a silly debate about whether MBAs make good founders or not. (Please make sure to read Andy’s post, click here. It’s very good and provocative.)

What this debate triggered for me was the chance to reflect upon my own educational path. It’s a path that I’ve been privileged to go down (and one I never take for granted), yet I’d be lying if I said that it was a defensible choice to ignore certain subjects once I got to college. In high school, I had such a heavy dose of math and sciences that I quietly rebeled by focusing on the social sciences (broadly) in college and graduate school. I was privileged to finish up with calculus and physics requirements in high school (I also took a year of “computer aided design” if you can believe it!), and aside from chemistry (which I failed), the classes where I struggled the most — English, History, Political Science, Economics — is what I turned my focus to.

It wasn’t a conscious choice, but it happened. It’s now history. And, looking back on it, now given the world we live in, my choices weren’t wise. The best argument I’ve come across for an education that includes understanding even the basics of computer science is that those are not “technical” skills, but rather it’s about “literacy,” just like being able to read is important and how it’s important to be able to understand personal financial documents. That said, and not without plenty of struggle, I have somewhat managed to zig and zag my way around the technology startup world, though I wonder sometimes if I’m running on borrowed time. All of the noise in the chatter forced me to reflect on what I actually did study, and how a few teachers and classes made a truly deep impression on me, an impression that I carry with me every day, that seeps into my writing (blogs and Twitter), and helps inform how I interact with new people that I meet with, work with, invest with, and want to work with in the future. To come up with this list, which is intentionally short, I tried to think very deeply about what classes I still draw upon for guidance today, which lectures that still carry on in me today. Here’s what I distilled, five classes that I think about daily — I’ve also included some links to the corresponding syllabus, where available:

The Economic Strategies Of Nations, Bruce Scott

I’d heard about Scott’s class from many classmates who were taking healthy doses of macroeconomics classes. Scott’s thesis was to examine the economic strategies of nations with different political economies by looking at their macroeconomic balance sheets as if they were corporations. The key point he tried to drive home was to look at the percentage share of total gross domestic production of a country that goes to wages. As we went around the world, from democracies to autocratic regimes to quasi-states, it became clear that capitalism was the overarching system of political governance. What made this class even more special is the first lecture began in January 2008. Scott repeatedly criticized the U.S. economy at the time (he kept wondering why there was $45 trillion unaccounted for) and the political structure of the country which forced candidates to go to extremes in primaries where only certain people voted and how the Supreme Court was turning into a legislative arm of government. Most of what he predicted during these lectures actually came true, so I have to give him a lot of credit for reshaping my macroeconomic view of the world. One fun caveat — Scott had a small curmudgeonly streak, and the week before spring break, he randomly stopped his lecture and barked up to the folks in the back row of class and encouraged them to not only think about “Plan B” when they were drinking their martinis over the holiday, but also “Plan C” because Wall Street was likely to collapse. I remember everyone laughing, but he was exactly right. Even in his old age, he was sharp as a tack and would playfully rag on students. My wife worked at HBS and when he put two and two together that we were married, he slapped me across the back (in front of her) and said, “Nice job, kid!”

Industrial Structure and Strategy, F.M. Scherer

I didn’t know what to think of this class before entering, but I’d heard Scherer was a quirky guy. It was a pretty standard class. We had one textbook, and he wrote it. The book was classified into key national industries, and it was his syllabus for the class. Each class, for three hours, we were expected to have read the corresponding chapter, along with some recent articles about the specific corporations in said industry, and Scherer would then dissect the various technology and business strategies used by the market leaders. After a few disjointed classes, the themes started to come together, and patterns between seemingly unrelated industries started to take shape. This has helped me glean a better understanding of what larger players do within an industry, to better understand their core motivations, what may drive their long-term strategies, and how this may impact startups.

Public Narrative, Marshall Ganz

Ganz is a famous political organizer (with Cesar Chavez, and most recently, helping Barack Obama in his runup to 2008) known for his mastery of the “public narrative.” This means, being public, telling your story. It was one of the most popular classes at school, year in and year out. It did attract many people who perhaps one day wanted to hold some type of elected or appointed public office, but there were people like me, too, who were curious about storytelling, organization, narrative techniques. As part of the class, each person had to deliver three videotaped live “narratives’ to their peers and get feedback in real time and later through video. It was brutal, not only to hear yourself speak, but also to come to understand how others interpreted your words, your body language, your tone, or what was expected of you, how to use elements of surprise, and other techniques. Taking this class definitely broke me down but then, through speaking often in public, gave me the confidence to not only be more open, but to get over any fears of sharing my thoughts with others, either through the written word or in real life, in person. I never got to know Marshall that well, or as well as I would’ve liked to, and that was my mistake, but I still got a lot out of his class.

The Works Of Primo Levi, Ralph Williams

Williams was one of the most popular, visible professors on campus in Ann Arbor. He was famous for teaching lectures on The Classics and Civilization, on The Bible and World Religions, and A Survey of Shakespeare. He was a true intellectual polymath, fluent in over 15 languages and much more. His knowledge was encyclopedic, and he was a gifted orator. I took the latter in my first year on campus. I could barely keep up. What I learned from Williams oratory style is that he outlined his lectures on the board in what he called “rubrics.” I had to look up that word, “a set of instructions at the beginning of a book, or a test, etc.” It took me years to figure out why that was key. In reading tons and tons of text, he wanted his students to strip away the noise and pull out key themes, and he wrote them on the board, underlined them, and lectured around them so precisely, many of them I can still recall by memory. So, when senior year came around, I wanted to make sure I took his seminar on The Works of Primo Levi. Given the demand for his course, a seminar in which we had the read (slowly) all of Levi’s books, Williams kept the class at the standard 4-credit pace but only offered it as 1-credit. To be in the class, you implicitly had to take on the work of what would be a normal class, with attendance and discussion, with writing due weekly, scored by him, but only get a quarter of the credit. It’s a difficult topic to just casually discuss, but in my opinion, Levi is a genius. For those who don’t know, he was an Italian chemist (and Jewish) and he was sent to Auschwitz. Because of his technical prowess, he was kept alive by the Nazis and tortured in a different way. His written work was his attempt to share his story and try to comprehend the arc of his life, what he saw, and what he lived through. In his books, with Williams rubrics burned into my brain, it turned into a course into the deep, meticulous study of interpersonal relationships. I didn’t realize it at the time, as a 22-year old, but now as I get older and recall the lessons from the books and lectures, I try to take conversations with people to heart, to listen more, to not judge too quickly. (My #1 book by Levi is The Periodic Table, one of the most original pieces of writing I’ve ever read.)

Mind, Brain, and Spirituality, Richard Mann

I took Dr. Mann’s class in 1995, my last semester of college. You had to write him a letter about why you wanted to be in his class. It was competitive. I can’t remember what I said to convince him, but I’m sure it wasn’t original or totally honest. The truth was, I’d heard great things about him and just wanted to be in the class. At a big school like Michigan, with all its red tape, you had to find out where the good stuff was and then jam into situations you wanted to be in. Mann relented and accepted me into his class, Psych 401, a seminar with no desks, no syllabus, no structure, no rules. You didn’t have to show up. You gave yourself your own grade. Each week, you had to write something about yourself on a broad topic and share it with Dr. Mann, or a classmate, or no one. It was up to you. The guiding principle in the class, though we didn’t realize it at the time, was to put yourself on a path of self-realization. Mann’s style in reading our work wasn’t to critique, but he’d just highlight some text and write a question mark, as if to say, “That’s interesting. What did you mean by that? Please, tell me more.” Mann himself has a curious background. He is one of the foremost academic leaders in psychology and was part of all the experiments done at Harvard with the Merry Pranksters and the like. He also suffered some personal tragedy, left his profession, lived in India for years, and returned back home to Ann Arbor to teach and begin anew. I spent a lot of time with Mann and my classmates. Tne nature of the conversations in and around that class were totally different than what I’ve ever experienced. Now, years later, the key lesson from that class was to always be alert about what could be causing me — or people around me — to struggle and learning the intellectual and tactical tools to work through those challenges without ignoring them, probably fueled by the fact that Mann set up his class to have no rules or administration — it was entirely self-directed, and now years later, the gift of being self-directed is helping me survive and enabling me to work with who I want on what I want to.

Transportation Economics, Tony Gomez-Ibanez

Tony was a professor but I also worked with him on some cool projects. He is a fun guy to hang out, and insanely humble given all the work he’s done around the world.

* * * * *

I stopped fiddling with computer programs after age 17. I didn’t take a science class since finishing physics before high school graduation. I didn’t understand how learning these languages was more about literacy than it was about “taking an interest in a subject.” But, I also believe that people will continue to add real, long-term value at sale to society by taking different educational paths and cobbling together different experiences. The links in Andy’s post above shows the beginnings of those seeds. I entered graduate school thinking I’d work on macroeconomic-related work in India, but then I decided I just wanted to move back to California even though I had no idea what to do. I’m sure many people enter MBA programs with the desire to start a company, and many have — and quite successfully. And, they will continue to, because even if someone isn’t deeply technical, or if they don’t an MBA, it often comes down to an individual’s human desire, their drive to do something — anything — despite what one investor may say. Technology alone isn’t a prerequisite for creating sustained value or disrupting an incumbent situation. In some situations, initial branding and marketing matter a great deal, or the development of a new business model creates an opportunity to build something new. In these cases, advancements in underlying technologies may or may not driving these opportunities, but the value may often be captured by the creative person who stitches together the disparate pieces, who grabs different off-the-shelf stacks and positions them in a way no one else has thought of, who motivates people around them to innovate, who attracts talent and inspires them to stay, who knows how to bring new things to new markets. For me, that is the deepest insight of this whole recurring debate.

Haystack is written by Semil Shah, and is published under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Copyright © 2018 Semil Shah.

“I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.”— Epicurus