Harvard Business School: A Veteran in Tech's Reflection
Was the MBA worth it? Am I better for it? Am I now the person I want to be?
I mean…I would do it again (probably).
I was fortunate enough to gain admission to Harvard Business School with the Class of 2020.
I went there (to class, not to like…lurk in the bushes) from July 2018 to May 2020.
It was a transformational experience in mostly good ways. Some ways were bad tho.
The majority of my personal transformation was made up of macro level perspective shifts, yet a nontrivial portion of the changes were very strange micro-behavioral differences that I’m still discovering.
For example, I now say things like “net net” and “what are the action items?”
I’m not sure how I feel about that change in particular, but here we are.
The Odyssey Begins
For those of you new around here, I’m Cameron.
Some contextual grounding - here’s my pre-HBS history:
Born in Germany to American parents - raised in Georgia outside of Atlanta [Cherokee County].
4 years as an Infantry Officer in the U.S. Army doing things like
Aide to a Combined Arms Battalion Commander
Deployed to Kuwait and Afghanistan as an Infantry Platoon Leader (‘16-’17)
Taught leadership at the U.S. Army’s Officer Candidate School
So I’m a nerd who’s done a lot of pushups. DM me for Army stories.
I’ve spent the two years since my HBS “graduation” in Startupland - specifically as cofounder at an e-commerce company selling an affiliate commerce tech stack to media publishers. We sold that startup back in July 2021 and I left soon after the acquisition to ape into crypto. I’m now the Founder of a Web3 payments startup working to make transaction fees extinct (More on that here). I’m also an angel investor and love overthinking, grandiosely writing, and talking ahead of my skis about all things tech. I won’t dive into any of these experiences in this essay, but I want to transparently share that they exist and do, in fact, color my memories and thoughts and judgments in all that I do.
I have one specific perspective among the tens of thousands of HBS graduates and the millions of people who interact with (or are affected by) the decisions of the school and its alumni.
I try to make my perspective thoughtful and I don’t always succeed at that.
Ok. Let’s get after it.
My partner and I arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts in early July 2018 to move into our apartment (our first big life event after we left the Army) about 6 weeks before school started - excited to meet all these impressive future classmates who were now potential new friends. A decent chunk of the incoming class had done the same and “Class of 2020” group chats were abuzz with plans to meet up in Boston before the official start of the year.
Bright eyed and bushy tailed, I had a phenomenal first few encounters with kind and genuine (and razor sharp) people. It was a bit frenzied, but mostly because everyone had the same insecurity that they wouldn’t be “good enough” to make friends with their interesting and thoughtful classmates which manifested as this fascinating desperation to make as many connections as humanly possible early on. I had the stochastic good fortune to meet some of my eventual closest friends during this time period.
This chaotic period set the expectation bar high. Like wow. Was everyone I would meet going to be this incredible?
Well actually no. I mean. Technically yes, but no. Like.
Everyone was GOOD. Perfect scores on standardized tests, extraordinarily gilded resumes, and amazing life experiences abounded, but I could also feel a visceral, emergent phenomenon.
I got bucketed.
Like, I watched something strange happen in real time through repeated trials of meeting hundreds of people for about 20 minutes each as people heard my story. I got to see how competent strangers thin-sliced me into their brain over and over again.
I felt the exact moments when people stopped paying attention to what I was saying because they decided this whatever military guy from Georgia couldn’t help them get their next private equity internship or job or something.
I saw the instant the light of focus fade in their eyes as conversational autopilot took over and they subtly searched for another person to chat up.
It was a masterclass in identifying narcissitic utilitarianism and a great lesson for me.
The military has these people too (so does everywhere else so start paying attention), yet there is usually at least a veneer of a group mission that keeps everyone working (mostly) in the same direction. I had never been exposed to the raw, unadulterated version of that person. It was also a neat foreshadowing of how military veterans and other career switchers experience a fundamentally different MBA program than those “on the path”.
For the uninitiated, there is an almost direct career racing line in the global economy to HBS.
Let’s assume you’re one of the #blessed ones. You’ll often start your life with a prep school like Andover, Roxbury Latin, or Hotchkiss. Through these streamlined academic and extracurricular powerhouses you’ve now secured a ~40% chance to get into an Ivy League school (even higher if it’s a “near Ivy” - as the not quite as prestigious class of “2nd tier” colleges are sometimes called). So you get in somewhere good.
Once an Ivy or “near Ivy” admission spot is locked up, you’re now in a position to convert this dazzling collegiate experience into a series of blue chip, pre-approved internships summer after summer. Don’t worry about the details, your peer groups will let you know where to apply (Goldman and McKinsey and maybe Google for rounding out the resume). With these in hand - you’re well on your way to a money printing career path in Consulting or Banking (and then eventually Private Equity or Venture Capital).
Some people get “on the path” even earlier while others merge onto the career success superhighway after their non-target undergrad. There’s naturally a bit of internal hierarchy of relative “on the path”-ness based on your entry point, but for the most part once you’re on, you’re on.
If you made it “on the path”, congratulations! You’ve statistically maximized your chances of getting into a top MBA program.
Don’t believe me? Fair. HBS does a good job inconspicuously omitting statistics breaking out the career [update September 2022 - looks like they added these] and academic backgrounds [not this though] of its admits (note the list of pre-career fields without actual % numbers), but the “niche” industry of MBA admissions consulting (which is big enough that there is an additionally niche(r) industry that ranks MBA Admissions Consultants) cracked this case wide open with some open source intelligence gathering and compiled a comprehensive history of the HBS Class of 2020.
About 1 in 5 HBS students went to Harvard, Penn, Stanford, Yale, or Princeton for their undergrad
24 similar undergraduate schools degreed about half the student body
38% of the class had worked in Consulting or Banking before HBS
21% of the class worked at one of three top Consulting companies - McKinsey, BCG, and Bain - before school
MIT, Wharton, and Stanford MBA’s are in about the same boat at 43%, 51%, and 40% Banking/Financial Services + Consulting respectively.
If you were unaware of this Konami code to phenomenally influential seats in business and government (like I was), you’re not alone.
Normal people have no clue
To be clear, this is not a complaint about my now wildly privileged position nor an indictment of those who’ve been “on the path” their whole lives; it’s just a description of an interesting thing that neither I nor my parents (or friends or relatives, etc etc) were aware was even an option when setting up your frameworks for building a life.
That said (without moralizing too much) I’m pretty sympathetic to the idea that maybe those aware of the game District 1-ing their way to business school doesn’t do the best job of meritocratically finding and supporting the future leaders of the world.
This homogeneity of backgrounds wasn’t immediately obvious to me (I didn’t know the subtle tells yet), but it showed up fairly quickly in wild ways.
Naturally, many people “on the path” had worked together before - both long term or temporarily on consulting projects. Often they had gone to school together previously. Some had even vacationed together or their families had known each other their whole lives. Many friend groups and couples applied to HBS together or asynchronously but then deferred to go to school at the same time later.
The socioeconomic makeup of the school was so incestuous that during an icebreaker activity two “strangers” realized that one person’s first kiss was none other than the other’s best friend’s little sister.
After a few weeks, I thought I was getting Truman Show’ed because it seemed that almost everyone I met already knew somebody who had gone to the school.
Of course it seemed that way because it was true lol.
What an advantage. I mean, I have advantages a plenty - I mean look at this face, but wow. I’m not just talking about the explicit information asymmetry advantage, I’m talking about the complete elimination of the invisible line between you and the kind of place Harvard represents.
When I got my acceptance to HBS, my grandfather from Watertown, Tennessee (population 1,358) called me in tears and shared this sentiment.
“Harvard is a place for Roosevelt’s and Kennedy’s and now there is an Armstrong there!”
I’ll never forget that.
Especially because he’s absolutely, dead to rights, correct.
The truth is that Harvard isn’t a real place to the vast majority of people on the planet.
It’s in movies. It’s in pop culture. It’s a storytelling heuristic to say “someone is smart” and an “other” and it’s mostly used as a bit.
Knowing Harvard is real and it is attainable and oh by the way that guy Jeff I used to work with (who I always thought was kind of an idiot) got in so I can probably do it too is so unbelievably powerful that I think it’s pretty clearly the dominant variable in admissions to the school.
Representation matters because it’s what signals to people without advantages that it’s worth their time to even try to start to do something hard.
Crossing the River by Touching the Stones
Aware of this creeping sense of “otherness” and unsure of how to grapple with connecting my military background to private sector jobs, I jumped into the frenzy of recruiting that first fall at HBS and fell flat on my face.
I initially (scientifically) decided that finance = kind of like math so why not start there? Investing sounded cool I guess and man those hedge fund guys seem to stir up some emotions which I (a rapscallion) enjoy. So I got to work! Gathering data from my financier classmates, they reflexively told me that I need to do banking first.
The advice had a strained quality to it, almost as if some negative sensory memory had been triggered by the mere question.
Interesting - I thought - What does working at Wells Fargo have to do with buying companies?
As it turns out, it has nothing to do at all with buying companies!
When they said “banking”, they meant “Investment Banking” not “Commercial Banking”. Investment banks advise companies that are buying and selling companies. That’s the “On the Path” banking I mentioned earlier. If you didn’t clock the difference either, then it’s probably clear by now how “Off the Path” you are. I found my mistake out mid-conversation with a classmate as he gently explained the difference between the two (also I don’t think ever talked to me again?).
So I asked other people more questions about the correct type of banking and I found out that it’s supposed to be pretty terrible?
I’m no stranger to misery, but I was sort of hoping to not hate significant chunks of my life after leaving the Army. So I probed and probed about the value of the experience and the best I could piece together is basically what this forum says in that investing firms let banks filter out the best applicants over a year or two of soul sucking pain and then they cheerfully cherry pick the winners?
It sounded to me like a better version of the S3 shop and was a hard no from me. For military folks reading this who are thinking about doing it, I hear from vets that did take the plunge that all the staff work TTPs definitely carry over. Good luck!
So with the Finance dream dead (for now), I decided to try Tech instead.
Consulting (the other “On the Path” choice available) seemed really vague tbh (and it still does!) and I liked my Tech classmates much better anyway. They were the least likely to do that bucketing thing and generally had more fun stories and they mostly wore t-shirts. So I got my resume together and made inroads with career counselors and professors and recruiters who came to visit the school and man did I learn what it felt like to be an unexciting applicant to a hiring filter mechanism. Like damn.
32 internship applications, 5 Zoom interviews, 4 in person interviews, no offers.
To this day, I’m not sure how I whiffed so hard. I prepared, I studied, I did practice interviews, I’m good at passing admissions filters etc etc. So I watched my classmates secure their summer spots at all the places I failed and shrugged externally and panicked internally.
Now it’s important to note something.
It wasn’t an MBA thing. It was definitely a me thing.
Contrary to popular belief, Big Tech doesn’t hate MBAs. Devs hate MBAs.
I think it’s some sort of symbiotic relationship where Big Tech gets skilled generalist individual contributors with some option value of managerial potential and the skilled, generalist individual contributors get to feel slightly more in control of their life while still getting paid 8x the U.S. median wage right out of school.
(Again, not moralizing just connecting some conveniently hard to notice dots.)
Anyway, so Big Tech clearly hated me, but I then caught a lucky break.
Amazon had been slow getting back to me (I suspect they waited until someone had turned down their internship offer to reach out to me), but in March they reached out asking if I still wanted to do an interview! They asked me to switch my area preference from Product Management to Finance (c’mon man), but I was too relieved to be that frustrated.
I prepped and prepped and finally nailed one. So I went to Seattle.
Which was overall…good. You can read some lessons learned here and here about the experience, but the short version is that Amazon actually felt very similar to the Army.
Big. Slow. The prospect of being a well paid cog in the war (cough I mean commerce) machine.
Ultimately not my speed. Got the offer (nice) and turned it down.
Great prospects for a solid career though and I absolutely do not shade folks that have a different multivariable life optimization function from me. Also, if you ever swing through the Emerald City I firmly recommend you check out Qin Xi’an Noodles for some great Biangbiang belt noodles. Superb.
At the end of it, the summer had been pleasant, but it was time to get back to work (for real).
I revived my Finance dream in my second year. I now had something resembling “quantitative skill” on my resume that proved I could do “some math” (because my math degree didn’t cut it…). So I decided it was worth a real shot this time, except…hedge funds didn’t recruit until mid-Winter. So in the meantime…I did stuff?
I focused on school. I started advising/helping at the earliest stages of the startup I would eventually join as a cofounder. I really started studying financial math in depth to prepare for the interviews so I’d be ready when they kicked off.
And…hedge fund recruiting went really well actually! I had “de-risked” (another MBA word) my profile enough with Amazon Finance that I got interviews at everywhere I applied. The phone screens went well and I was preparing for my final rounds at a few really big name places when COVID RKOed me out of nowhere.
COVID actually blew up the Finance industry (and obviously many others) for a lot of 2020. By the end of the year, some firms decided to scrap their hiring classes entirely or pushed start dates back 6+ months and offers got rescinded all over the place.
I couldn’t know all that ahead of time, but I was informed in March that all my recruiting processes at all my potential hirers had been frozen for an indeterminate amount of time.
Hearing that, I decided I didn’t want to wait for them to get their act together (surprise surprise).
So I looked at all the things I had explored over the past two years and probability weighted outcomes against quality of life estimates and hard pivoted to that e-commerce startup.
It looked like a rocket about to launch and that turned out to be the right call.
Over the remaining few months, the school (like many others) struggled to transition to remote classes and the experience eventually faded to black as everyone moved elsewhere (or to the beach) to get a head start on their new lives.
Well, actually that’s not true. A lot of people just hung out for a while in that weird stasis during the first quarantine wave where we were still hopeful for a quick return to normalcy.
I graduated from my couch.
Thus ended my time at HBS.
The Shape of My Story
As a veteran with zero private sector life experience after 8 years of military stuff, my transition out was a doozy.
Almost overnight, everything in my life had changed and I lost all sense of grounding in an externally imposed mission.
I had no goals other than to “succeed” (whatever that meant).
I had no team other than my steadfast (and lovely) partner who was going through a similar huge life transition.
I had no sense of self or what I wanted or even what I thought I should want because I was smack in the middle of such a sharp pivot from where I thought my transition out would take me (doing operations research in a lab somewhere).
So, buffeted by this massive inflection point, my initial excitement morphed into a fitful depression that didn’t disrupt my work, but made me fairly antisocial in a weird way. I could have hours long 1:1 intense, intellectual discussions, but couldn’t handle going to a bar and just hanging out casually.
The latter gave me incredible anxiety.
I think it came off as aloofness, but can’t credibly comment on how other people saw me.
In reality, I just didn’t feel like I could relate to most civilians because we cared about different stuff. Or at least, I felt like I wasn’t able to shift my brain enough to “low stakes mode” to join in the fun. This subsided a bit over time as I realized I liked technology and built some personal connections with classmates through those aggressive 1:1’s and established a non-military identity, but like immigrants of all stripes I don’t think I’ll ever fully assimilate.
When I was productive with schoolwork, I felt good for a while - even as I worked towards things I didn’t care about.
Output is how I defined myself for a long time (and sometimes still do), but that’s a pernicious metric. As long as you can rationalize your work being generally in the right direction, you’ll feel “good” about your day even while ignoring important tasks to be done. You’ll also rack up the compounding expense of processing important emotions. And there’s always more work to do so it’s particularly easy to block out the rest of your life to focus on the task at hand.
If this sounds familiar (veteran or no), please reach out. Nothing is worse than not having anyone to which you can relate your personal struggles.
Over time (honestly - only as I collected more wins outside of the military) this turned into stoic determination to try to dutifully make good use of the opportunity and privilege to which I now have access.
That’s a vague statement, but I think it’s probably the most candid reflection on the mental shifts I made while at school.
I am in an interesting position now where I don’t have an extended community to take care of (unlike a lot of my fellow “never on the path-ers” who have family to support) so I have less loss risk and therefore can take more chances (which I am).
So in shooting for the moon, let’s hope something SBF like with charity can work out.
The Doer Alone Learneth.
I learned a staggering amount while at HBS.
Much of it had a slant, but is that really surprising?
I tried to learn though. I really tried.
I read all my cases. 3 times. Once at the beginning of the semester in a big, multiday block. Once on Sunday to prepare for the week of classes. Once the night before. It wasn’t enough to get me the “coveted” Baker Scholar designation (my dismal first semester Accounting grade saw to that - shoutout to my future CFO), but aside from that class I was pretty on it with my learning.
My education consisted of two components. Knowledge and Vision.
Knowledge came from the academics. My academic case work filled a pretty significant knowledge gap about things like “what’s the difference between an investment bank and a commercial bank” or “what is the monetary policy trilemma” or “wtf is an income statement”.
This knowledge is inherently fungible and undifferentiated.
All those facts are important and useful, but if I had the right list of Wikipedia links and worksheets (oh god do these even exist anymore? Gen Z please be gentle) and someone to answer my questions I could probably get pretty close to what I now know much faster than it takes to do two full years of school. Sure, I’d miss out on some nuggets of insight from a professor that was there at the company the case is on or something, but in the grand scheme of things I’m confident anyone can basically learn this list of things by themselves with some discipline.
Also, I’m gonna shoot you straight here and say that HBS isn’t good at teaching quantitative finance. I (along with everyone else I knew there trying to work in finance) learned all the stuff on my own. The professors are brilliant and great, but HBS’s pedagogy just isn’t conducive to learning math and numbers and stuff like that.
If you want to be a pure quant, honestly just go get a Math or Computer Science PhD or something. You’ll get a lot more technical competence out of that experience.
But overall the Knowledge is useful and I needed to learn it somehow.
The Vision piece though? Oh man.
The Vision component is where the school is a bit magical.
That magic starts with coffee chats.
HBS is a veritable temple for the coffee chat.
I don’t think it’s unrealistic to say that there is enough space on campus for 1000 private conversations to comfortably happen simultaneously.
And these one on one or small group talks create an environment where the performative façade of competence and poise starts to fade.
You can get real, no bullshit perspectives once you get someone just a little bit away from their repeated game competitive social set. I also benefited from the fact that I don’t think anyone viewed me (the Army Man) as competing with them for their internships or jobs which I suspect helped me get more truthy answers.
I had tons of these conversations (per my previous anxiety) and I learned a LOT from them.
Some concrete things, but mostly shapeless powerful things. Ideas from people with which I could never make my brain fully empathize. Second hand opinions from powerful parents. The emotional scarring that a lifetime of “On the Path”-ness leaves behind. The sober awareness (or glaring lack of awareness) of these scars.
I saw the meta aimlessness people felt when they achieved HBS and reached the end of “the path” (even if they didn’t realize that was what they were experiencing).
I sometimes planted the seeds of disagreement in other people’s narrow opinions.
I noticed where my perspective was the “other” in the conversation. I learned to which of my opinions people ascribed value. I also learned which ones people tended to ignore. I better learned how to see the frayed edges of someone’s logic and carefully pull at those frays and eventually how to convincingly communicate big ideas.
I also learned when to turn up and turn down the intensity of those ideas to not scare someone off.
Most importantly though, I met people who’d “been there” and “done that”. Not in a literal sense of having “done” too terribly much (the majority of HBS students are around 26 and have only a few years of professional experience), but people that had actually worked at these companies that normal people just read about.
Google. Facebook. Tesla. Goldman Sachs.
The places that aren’t real just like Harvard isn’t real (except now they were real to me).
Then I realized that for a lot of folks, I was spurring that exact awakening for them about the military. I turned that explosion-y thing that only happens in movies into an undeniable set of concrete activities that no shit happen somewhere on the planet with real, live humans whether they acknowledge it or not. I helped (some of) them realize that the flat caricatures of soldiers in their mind’s eye actually dramatically underrepresented the agency of an entire group of people.
Ok maybe I wouldn’t go that far, but I do think some people added some nuance to their thoughts about government and defense as a result of our conversations which I count as a win.
At its core, the dimensionalization of a previous “other” made their experience and their accomplishments tangible to me. Certainly still impressive to be sure, but now attainable.
This was the biggest mood for me that simmered over two years of deep talks.
Are Ya Winning, Son?
I think so.
When I meet new people, they bucket me as HBS + Tech now and that’s mostly useful.
When I have a question about an industry specific issue I don’t understand that well, I feel pretty comfortable knowing that I can reach out to a classmate and get as good of a perspective from them as buying an expensive sector analysis report would give me.
When I do the math around my personal finances, it all seems to be trending in the right direction.
By the end of it, I filled in knowledge gaps and built many useful frameworks for how the world actually works. Even the gross parts.
HBS showed me a sociological biome that I had never experienced before or even thought actually existed. Probably this revelation alone made it worth it.
With all that said, here’s what I think matters more.
About halfway through my HBS experience, I had the opportunity to ask a prominent HBS administrator a question I was mulling over internally (I won’t name them here because I don’t want to feed the trolls).
“Does HBS actually make people more successful?”
They paused and smiled.
And responded thoughtfully.
I was shocked, dear reader, when they had an answer ready because they wondered that themselves and already looked into it!
They told me that everyone admitted to HBS is already on track to do interesting things and has a pretty solid career trajectory ahead of them. As a result of this and other data points from their research, they didn’t think HBS explicitly makes students more successful, but the process of spending two years meeting other sharp and driven people does raise everyone’s collective ambition level. The result is the blurring of those invisible lines that artificially separate what you can do from what I can do.
I think this is real and powerful.
I’ve seen people can do incredible things (both at and unrelated to HBS), but in order to do so they had to believe they could do the insane thing they were trying to do (or be naïve enough not realize they shouldn’t be able to do that insane thing).
For better or worse, HBS works very hard on the instilling the former mindset of capability within its students.
Take this plaque in my first year section classroom.
Hey, uh I know you’re supposed to be learning accounting right now, but also here’s a reminder that you should definitely multitask and figure out some world changing thing like inventing the spreadsheet while you’re taking notes.
No wonder we’re all so miserable!
When taken in combination with HBS’s (somewhat ominous) mission to “Educate leaders who make a difference in the world”, you can get a sense of the weight of implicit expectations placed upon its graduates who are self-aware enough to think about that sort of thing.
All things considered though, I’m glad this is how it is.
If HBS grads aren’t compelled to work on the most important problems in their fields (and to bring to bear all the advantages that an HBS pedigree anoints) then we’re probably misallocating those societal resources.
Anyway, I’d probably do it again.
I hope this added value to your day.
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Absolutely fantastic read, shocked this doesn't have more attention. You should spread this all over social media, because this is great stuff, and I'm not even on my MBA journey.
You are an excellent writer and incredibly introspective. Thank you for sharing.