EMBA Signoff

Looking into Rowan Williams’ eyes while he speaks Latin to you is a strange experience. The ex-Archbishop of Canterbury is Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and was presiding over the congregation ceremony on 14th May, where I received my MBA degree. When called forward, I knelt in front of him as he sat in his gold throne in scarlet robes, he placed his hands around mine which were together as if in prayer, and he recited something in a dead language I did not understand.

The Cambridge Executive MBA 2014 class graduated last weekend, drawing to a close 20 months of intense experience. Just some of the things that have come to an end include hours of late night study (and non-study), time away from family and other loved ones, college dinners in candlelit wood-panelled rooms, looming deadlines, doing the reading, sometimes pretending to have done the reading, engaging in discussion in the safe space of the classroom, and the feeling of going through all this as a band of allies all pushing to the same goal.

In truth, there was some divergence of goals through the programme. For some of us, gaining the harder, technical skills was the motivation. For others, myself included, the course was more of an opportunity for deep self-inquiry and more abstract thought. However, this tension was only significant enough to notice on a few occasions, and the course was sufficiently varied to cater for both camps very well. I enjoyed being pushed on the technical side as well as the ‘touchy-feely’ side.

Talking to my wife about how I have changed since starting the course, she said she thought I am “less strident, but more confident”. I count that as a victory. I hope it reflects that I am questioning my own views more, and acknowledging more shades of grey where they might exist. When I then do come to a view on something, it is hopefully more considered and robust. I also love that I can change my mind more easily when confronted with alternative views that are better or more valid than my existing opinion, and I would hope that’s something that most of the class got out of our collective experience.

On the evening of our graduation day we enjoyed a gala dinner at the Guildhall in Cambridge, with great speeches by our wonderful classmates Farah Ahmad Perez and Sami Masannat, and our programme director Dr Khal Soufani. Class prizes were awarded for the academic high-achievers in various areas of the course, and there was also an award for Outstanding Contribution to Class Dynamic voted for by the class. I was honoured and humbled to share this last prize with my course-long sparring partner Tony Catachanas. While we disagreed often, it was in the spirit of learning and exploration, and always in good humour. Thanks to the class for acknowledging us both in this way.

Coming back to that list of things that have come to an end, I fervently hope that there is as long a list of things that will continue. First and foremost, I hope the friendships we have made on the course will stretch out years into the future. There are a number of my colleagues with whom I have found strong connections and I’m sure that these will endure for many years. As a wider class, too, we have created a well-used Whatsapp group which I hope will continue to be a place to learn what Nik Shahrizal is eating at any given moment, as well as idle chat about births, holidays, weddings and other fun life events.

Also, I hope none of us lose the drive to question, learn and grow as people in both our professional and personal lives. Some of the material we have been exposed to, and the ideas exchanged with my classmates around that material, will stay with me.

Another thing that won’t end is our link to one of the great institutions of the world, the University of Cambridge. It is a privilege to count myself as an alumnus of this 800-year old seat of learning. I fully expect us as a class to be worthy of the association. Let’s see what the next few years bring, but I can’t wait to see how the class will take the knowledge and experiences of the last 20 months and run with them.

So thanks to all of our great lecturers and teachers throughout the course, to the programme team for all their hard work, to the phenomenal speakers who excited and challenged us at our Friday dinners, to our families and loved ones for the selfless encouragement and support, but most of all to this ragbag of diverse, caring, clever, funny, thoroughly decent group of classmates I proudly call my friends. Love to you all.

Written while listening to ‘Beautiful People’ by Mark Pritchard (featuring Thom Yorke) (Warp Records) and ‘Jumbo’ by Underworld (Universal)

Cycle three

I’ve resurfaced, finally, from around six weeks of low-level illness.

We had the third cycle of the EMBA in Cambridge two weeks ago, and for a few weeks before I had been laid low by The Cold. This is the really heavy cold that has been going round seemingly the whole of the British Isles and the US simultaneously for the last month, putting a sluggish haze between me and reality.

Given that there hadn’t been much sleep at home due to this cold and a teething baby, I felt that I needed to make the most of my potentially unbroken sleep in one of the very comfortable guest rooms at Westminster College when up in Cambridge. This led me to miss out on some of the (apparently extensive) extra-curricular activities of the rest of the class in the evenings, which was a real shame. It certainly feels like the group is coming together nicely, with social networking on Facebook* and WhatsApp keeping us in touch when away from Cambridge, and a positive, very friendly atmosphere when we’re all together. Fingers crossed for my energy levels for the next trip to Cambridge…

The EMBA class of 2014

The EMBA class of 2014

Speaking of group dynamics, this cycle there was a lot of talk about how each other’s study groups are working. The somewhat diverse approaches and attitudes within some groups seemed to be providing food for thought, but no outright conflict yet as far as I could tell. I wonder if cracks will begin to show once group projects are assessed, although I am hopeful things will continue in the generally collaborative vein they have been in so far. For me, it is, of course, a pleasure to be in my study group – we have a range of approaches, background knowledge and ways of thinking that is proving to be very interesting to work among. One issue we had in the previous cycle was a sub-optimal split of time between the two group projects we needed to complete – we spent too much time on Corporate Finance and not enough on Management Science. This time around we are parallelising work on the two group projects we have in a bid to be more productive. I’ll report back on the success or otherwise of that approach.

There were two overarching themes to the content in our Cambridge visit this time: portfolio theory and financial ratios as a way of assessing a business. The coverage of portfolio theory across both traditional corporate finance usage and through Management Science’s case study approach was very well knitted together, with each reinforcing the other. The discussions of financial ratios clarified some other areas of murky corporate finance minutiae. Not coming from the corporate or financial world, I feel an outsider’s view is useful here – I enjoy questioning orthodoxies.

Financial RationsThe question of financial ratios allowed us to continue a discussion that had started in the previous cycle around company valuation, particularly in the tech world. It was interesting to me that there seems to be a divide in the class between those who I’d say generally trust the valuations and those who don’t. I am very much in the latter camp – to me, if something looks too good to be true, it generally is. Valuing a company at tens of billions of dollars when they have at best shaky revenue models, and more importantly sometimes before they even have any revenue model, seems crazy to me. The discussion on this will run and run, I think, as it is one of the big questions of our time. However, I think I have the empirical research on my side regarding the performance of ‘growth’ stocks versus ‘value’ stocks over the long term.

Going back to portfolio theory, what came through in the teaching was a kind of formalisation, restating and consideration of something that I think many businesses do instinctively or subconsciously – a balancing of projects or activities in order to in general advance the strategy of the business. In my own case, CI has recently been designing a new process for managing ‘feature development’ within our digital music delivery platform. In our terminology, ‘features’ are additional functionality around content exploitation or presentation at music services, often driven by marketing and label relations teams at the music services themselves. We recently began a process to help us to prioritise and allocate development resources to these feature development items to balance the interests of various stakeholders. The benefits of our particular approach remain to be seen, but the theoretical backdrop of portfolio thinking gives me a lens through which to judge the effectiveness of the approach.

*I hate Facebook and freed myself from its ugly grip a few years ago, so I have no idea what the rest of the group are saying about me on there.

Written while listening to ‘Archie, Marry Me’ by Alvvays (Polyvinyl Records) and ‘Can’t Do Without You’ by Caribou (Domino Recordings)

 

About Me

Kieron Faller

My official School photo

I’m Kieron. I’ve just started on the Executive MBA at Cambridge Judge Business School, and this blog is going to be about my experience of the EMBA.

To begin with, I’ll tell you a bit about myself and how I came to join the class of 2014:

When I was younger, I always thought I would study at Cambridge. This is not the way I expected it to happen.

I was always a bookish child, and visited Cambridge from time to time with my family as I grew up around an hour’s drive away. The sense of history and atmosphere of learning were always enticing.

My education at a grammar school in Lincolnshire was excellent, but my application while there was by no means perfect. I was lucky to be able to do okay in coursework and exams without working too hard. However, this meant that I didn’t push myself to excel.

As such, the opportunity to study an undergraduate degree at Cambridge floated on by. Instead, I went to the University of Kent at Canterbury to study Law and Philosophy. Not a bad consolation prize by any means.

So I got on with life, qualifying as a lawyer after my degree, while living in Oxford then Stratford upon Avon, and my youthful dreams of Cambridge faded into the background. However, there was always a lingering feeling of maybe somehow coming back around to it later in life. Maybe when I retired and had time to do some kind of postgraduate degree.

My career as a lawyer lasted only a few short years – a combination of desire for interesting, fulfilling work and a commercial property crash saw to that – and I made a tricky transition into the music industry, which had always been a far-away citadel; an impenetrable Oz. In many ways this was similar to my view of London, too, where I moved in order to get involved in the music industry. However, once I edged my way into both industry and city I found that people are just people – there is no special access code you have to have; no secret handshake. I am beginning to feel this about the University of Cambridge too.

I have ended up in London as General Manager at a brilliant, progressively-run company that provides an essential but niche service for independent record labels and distributors. We deliver digital music content on their behalf to music services such as iTunes, Spotify, YouTube etc etc. We are an extremely small company, and I have been at home here for three-and-a-half years.

Earlier this year, my boss (co-founder of the company and board director) suggested I consider studying an Executive MBA. My first response was unenthusiastic in the extreme, thinking that EMBAs and MBAs in general were jargon-filled self-reinforcing systems of obfuscation, and that business is in fact very simple. He asked me to consider it further and look around to see if there were any EMBAs that did appeal. I soon found the Cambridge EMBA at Cambridge Judge Business School. I was sold on the approach, the focus on diversity of backgrounds and experience, and maybe most importantly on the Cambridge ‘thing’ (a combination of academic rigour, reputation, and a kind of romantic idea of the place).

A successful application process later, and I am juggling the reading for the course with my full time job and family life (I have a very supportive wife and a 15-month-old daughter). I am only just beginning to feel like I am a part of Cambridge, rather than a visitor or interloper, but I think this connection will deepen over time.

Time is, however, moving very fast, with all of the calls on my attention at the moment. It is jarring to realise that the EMBA class of 2014 are already almost 10% of the way through our course! I wish things could slow down a little so I can take it all in a bit more, but that’s more wishful thinking I guess…

 

Written while listening to ‘Sun Harmonics’ by Jon Hopkins (Domino Recordings) and ‘Overwhelmed with Pride’ by Avi Buffalo (Sub Pop Records).