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Last September I did something I thought I would never do.

I applied to Harvard Business School.

I never really thought I would be attending. My grades/rankings through high school and college have always been good, just not Harvard good. Additionally, I never pursued the typical route of a Harvard student. I have read more binaries than cash-flow statements and choose discussions on botnet takedowns over hostile takeovers. So being accepted to Harvard Business School’s 6 month PLD program surprised me greatly. Having just completed the second module of Professional Leadership Development I can think of several reasons I am glad I chose this course over a typical IT certification.

1. I did not understand Business

I thought I understood. All my certifications and experiences had me rabidly supporting the notion that the business is king. However, this sentiment in certs and work were just small two sentence blips shoehorned into the much larger core security concepts. Overtime, I grew a bias that my supporting work was essential and everything else was trivial. You could always find someone to do marketing or sales, but IT professionals are enjoying a negative unemployment rate and are swiped up fast. I was much more likely to crack open a book on encryption instead of on business because of my mistaken belief that “business” was easy.

This shifted as I looked for ways to use my Post-9/11 GI Bill. Structured courses have always been a great way to prime the learning pump for topics I didn’t completely understand. As I looked across the diverse range of MBAs and EMBAs, I came across the Harvard Business School’s Professional Leadership Development program. It was a fantastic alternative to other Executive MBA programs for me.

With no understanding of finance, marketing, or accounting, the HBS online curriculum provided immediate immersion for me on day one. I was floored by the presentation and the complex concepts conveyed in a simple manner. The topics got much more difficult over time and I’m not proud of some of my scores, but I learned. I even started to enjoy it! Now a financial statement book is sitting on-top of my reading list.

More importantly, I have learned that businesses are fascinating in ways I had never considered. After staring at cash-flows or income statements for anomalies I started noticing little weird discrepancies popping out at me. The aha moment of seeing aggressive accounting is a very similar feeling to the joy I experience when I find a hidden instructions in malware.

2.    Real understanding of actual business problems

Harvard is famous for their Case Studies that are a fundamental part of the course. Before you arrive on campus for module 2, students read around 40 cases on various subjects. As the HBS website describes it

…the case method is a profound educational innovation that presents the greatest challenges confronting leading companies, nonprofits, and government organizations—complete with the constraints and incomplete information found in real business issues—and places the student in the role of the decision maker. There are no simple solutions…

Cases are tough and I found them extremely fun (in some sick twisted way). Personally, I covered each case three times. I read them the first time to understand the basic concepts, I discussed them the 2nd time with the live-in group, and then finally with a professor in the classroom with 80 of my colleagues each giving unique insights. Every time I learned something new and had a completely different perspective on the case.

The course throws you into the core of problems of businesses we know conversationally. Lots of us have heard of Enron’s downfall, devour Apple products, wear Lululemon, and some may have shopped at Cardullo’s. Each of these cases are relatable enough that you have probably discussed them with friends but the case studies take it to the next level. Each one puts you into the shoes of an executive at a critical decision point. I won’t call it LARPing for business nerds… but it totally is. The case studies we explored provided a different perspective of how an executive led a company to make an extremely pivotal decision. Understanding the issues, deciding how you would act, and seeing the direction the company took is excellent preparation for the next big decision you will make.

3.    You connect with a group not your own merits

A big reason I chose this course was the living group arrangement. Back at the Naval Academy we all lived in one building, Bancroft Hall, and these friendships continue to . HBS does something similar but instead of Bancroft we have Tata. Our groups might be a bit smaller (7-8 instead of 40) but I feel connected to them in a similar manner.

The diversity of these groups is amazing. In the program of 160 only 50 are American and that flowed down into our small groups. My group alone (the prolific 5C) represented Canada, Czech Republic, Kuwait, South Africa, Turkey, and the United States.

In two short weeks:

  • We studied and suffered an incredible packed curriculum for hours.
  • We argued over excessively over cases. Perhaps investing a little much in events that have long since passed.
  • We had our own inside jokes and terminology about chicken banks, “Lars”, plumbers, and other key players from cases.
  • Some of us were cold called (called without warning in class) with very tough questions
  • We even discussed the challenges of being a working parent

I believe The added stress in the environment pulled us together as we didn’t want to let each other down. Plus each of us had our own unique experiences and expertise to add to the group. I would have never understood important aspects of the cases if it weren’t for my fellow members and our short timeframes.

It was a fantastic experience and essential part of the program that is hard to replicate.

4.    Meeting the Former Secretary of the Navy

I never expected that I would be able to meet former Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus. But in-between classes I was asked to step out with other Navy veterans to speak with him. It was strange to sit across from a man who drastically shaped a majority of my Naval career. More impressively they even invited past Navy PLD Alumni to the small discussion.

The program didn’t have to go out of their way to coordinate this event. Nobody would have noticed if this didn’t occur. It is this unexpected perk and service from the HBS faculty that really drives home their commitment to their student’s current and future development.

5.    Anticipation for the future

The best part of the entire experience is that there is so much more to come. We are only half done. The next module has lots of work for us to accomplish including a personal case, an alumni case, individual development goals, and of course more case studies. I really miss the dedication of the people I was with these last two weeks and am looking forward to seeing them all again in just a few months.

I could not be more pleased with my decision to pursue my goals with Harvard Business School. Now I have a whole host of new tools to push my development in surprising new ways. With this new found experience I feel that I will be equipped with better skills than any IT certification could provide.

One parting word of advice…

Beware the chicken banks

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