Archive for April, 2011

Disruptive Tech Congrats to Ashwin RT @a

April 8, 2011

Disruptive Tech Congrats to Ashwin RT @ashwinram: RT @openstudy Honored to get funded by @NextGenLC challeng… (cont) http://deck.ly/~TezsI

The Five Dumb(est) Ways that Universities Spend Money

April 6, 2011

I know a young woman who attends a very pricey public university that has plans to raise her tuition by another 25% next year.  It’s in one of those western states where the number of applicants far exceeds the number of available freshman openings.  You have to wonder what was going on in the alumni office when they were putting their quarterly newsletter together. It  proudly announced the latest institutional initiative, a million dollar branding campaign.

It would be one thing if it were a campaign to spread awareness of the university’s many great programs among prospective students.  It would even be all right to mount a a campaign to position the university as a driver of economic growth and social well-being for a balky state legislature.  But no, this was a branding campaign along the lines of  management book/landfill fodder classics like Why Johnny can’t Brand.  “It’s even worse,” said the father of the soon-to-be gold-plated sophomore.  His face was red and his hands were shaking as he shoved the alumni newsletter under my nose.

They are going to spend a million dollars — my dollars — on standard logos and common fonts.” No more nightmarish inconsistencies between physics and modern languages when it comes to business cards and PowerPoint presentations. And those press releases from the Athletic Director will now just have to rise or fall on their own merits. They won’t have serifs to hang onto.  Prospective employers will heave a sigh of relief knowing there has been no graphical hanky-panky in the registrar’s office when it comes to the forms on which student transcripts are printed.  Teams of litigators will have new weapons at their disposal as they fan out across the world to chase down the diploma mills that churn out thousands of knock-off degrees. As they cross the commencement stage, new graduates and their parents will be greatly comforted to know that every time their daughter is introduced from that day forward, the university’s branded,  descriptive tag line will have to be tacked onto the end, as in, “Meet Sally Smith who recently graduated from Western State University, the Mighty Blue Raiders, leading the force of change and innovation for the Rocky Mountains and beyond.”

OK, sorry.  I got caught up in the moment, but it struck me that a million dollar project to apply consumer product marketing tools  to a university that is raising tuition by 25%, closing academic departments, shutting down programs, and firing scores of staff was probably going to have some unintended repercussions. Marketing professionals would say it was not the best choice optics-wise. I remember thinking to myself: “This is maybe the dumbest use of university funds that I have ever seen.”

If you’ve seen my other posts (here and here for example) about college costs, you know that, optics-wise,  I am suspicious of any expenditure that does not add value to students. So I started to wonder about other really dumb ways that universities spend money.  I have a top five list.

  • An expensive “branding” campaign to standardize logos is at the top of the list.
  • Letting service units do research: Dormitories, IT facilities, bookstores, technology licensing, and public relations offices, are all service units. The problem is that mission creep results in an ever-expanding number of ever-expanding service units. No doubt inspired by institutional aspirations, they try to hire the best people.  Some of them have PhDs and academic career goals of their own, so they push very hard for a piece of the campus research pie. But, as we all know, university research seldom pays for itself. It is mission creep upon mission creep as service units with no academic mission whatsoever funnel resources into research programs.
  • Overhead forgiveness: Faculty members and research sponsors are equally suspicious of indirect costs on research contracts.  Professors see it as an unnecessary tax on their salaries, and sponsors confuse it with profit.  Both sides push to have it reduced or eliminated.  There are even federal agencies that make it a point to try to have it forgiven as they strong arm investigators into promising more and more for less and less.  Even full cost recovery does not pay the actual cost of research. Reducing or eliminating research overhead is an expense that robs the rest of the university, and is not a smart way to spend money.
  • Centralization: I once had a colleague — a fellow general manager — who effectively blocked any attempt to increase the size of his staff with “Where the f— do you think we are, General Motors?” It translated better back when General Motors was ranked number one in the Fortune 500, but it is nevertheless a good message today that administrative bloat is a dumb way to spend money.  The Spring 2008 issue of the UCLA faculty newsletter shows how bad it has become:

Over the past decade, the numbers of Administrators in the UC almost doubled, while the number of faculty increased by 25%. The sharpest growth took place among Executives and Senior Managers: 114%. Because Administrators command high salaries and benefits, any increase in their number higher than the expected growth rate for the University results in high costs: rough estimates of the costs of carrying extra administrators at UC range around $800M.

  • Entertain yourselves: We call it many things.  Networking. Teas. Receptions. Faculty meetings.  For most of the world, lunch means a five dollar sandwich from the cafeteria. At too many university gatherings, a catered buffet is the lure that induces professors to attend. Whatever we call it, the world sees it as a free lunch, and professors spend university funds to feed themselves at the drop of a hat. Long-time viewers of the NBC comedy series The Office know the drill.  If there’s a reason to entertain ourselves let’s do it:

Jan: You already had a party on May 5th for no reason.
Michael: No reason?! It was the 05 05 05 party…
Jan: And you had a luau….
Michael: …it happens once every billion years.
Jan: And a tsunami relief fundraiser which somehow lost a lot of money.
Michael: Okay, no, that was a FUN raiser. I think I made that very clear in the fliers, fun, F-U-N.
Jan: Okay, well, I don’t understand why anyone would have a tsunami FUN raiser, Michael. I mean, that doesn’t even make sense.

Paring the list down to five was not easy, and I am sure many of you have lists of your own.  What was number six? Well, Rutgers’ decision to pay Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi  (star of MTV reality show Jersey Shore), $10,000 more than the annual cost of attending the university was a real contender. It was $2,000 more than Nobel Prizewinning author Terri Morrison received.  It was a problem.  Optics-wise.

Big Animal Pictures

April 4, 2011


I’ve been spending more time with alumni.  Zvi Galil, the new dean of computing at Georgia Tech — my successor — has been on a national tour to get acquainted with recent graduates. I accompany him whenever I can to make introductions and to generally help smooth his transition.  Not that he needs it.  Zvi was dean of engineering at Columbia for many years and knows how to get alumni to talk honestly about their undergraduate experiences. We were having lunch with a group of recent graduates when I heard Zvi ask someone at the end of the table, “What’s the one thing you wish we had taught you?”

The answer came back immediately: “I wish I had learned how to make an effective PowerPoint™ presentation!”  If the answer had been “more math” or “better writing skills” I would have filed it away in my mental catalog of ways to tweak our degree programs. It’s a constant struggle in a requirement-laden technical curriculum — even one as flexible as our Threads program — to get enough liberal arts, basic science, and business credits into a four year program, so I was prepared to hear that these young engineers wanted to know more about American history, geology, or accounting. After all, I am a former dean.  I had heard it all before.

But PowerPoint? Everything came to a stop.  Zvi said, “PowerPoint!” It was an exclamation, not a question.  Here’s how the rest  of the conversation unfolded” “Look, the first thing I had to do was start making budget presentations. I had no idea how to make a winning argument.”  From the across the table: ” Yeah, we learned how to make technical presentations, but nobody warned us that we’d have to make our point to a boss who didn’t care about the technology.”  “It’s even worse where I work,” said a young woman. “Everybody in the room has a great technology to push.  I needed to know how to say why mine should be the winner.”  And so it went.  This was not a PowerPoint discussion.  We were talking about Big Animal Pictures. If you understand Big Animal Pictures, you understand  how to survive when worlds collide.

David Stockman directed Ronald Reagan’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) from 1981 to 1985.  He was a technician.  A financial engineer. He had a Harvard MBA, and spent the early part of his career on Wall Street with Solomon Brothers and Blackstone. It was a checkered career, and if you take seriously the accounts in his memoir of the Reagan years, he never really understood that he was caught between colliding worlds. Which brings me to Big Animal Pictures.

Stockman was a conservative deficit hawk who thought his job was to restore fiscal sanity.  Reagan had beaten Jimmy Carter in part by painting the Democrats as financially irresponsible.  David Stockman’s job was to fix that, and that meant budget-cutting.  Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger thought that Reagan had been elected to restore America’s military might. Weinberger’s job was to pump more money into defense budgets.  Stockman and Weinberger were on a collision course, and for a year they traded line-item edits to the federal budget. This was a technical duel. Stockman and Weinberger both had considerable quantitative skills. It was a bureaucratic game that Weinberger had learned to play when he worked for Reagan in California, but there was a deepening recession. In the end, it appeared that DoD would have to make do with the 5% increase that the White House was proposing. It was a spending increase that Stockman believed was unwise and unaffordable.

Weinberger’s proposal was 10%.  Stockman could barely contain himself. It set up a famous duel in the form of a budget briefing with Reagan playing the role of mediator. It was going to be a titanic debate.

Stockman showed up with charts, graphs and projections.  The stuff that the OMB Director is supposed to have at his fingertips. Weinberger came armed with a cartoon, and walked away with his budget request more or less intact.

Weinberger’s presentation was a drawing of three soldiers. On the left was a small, unarmed, cowering soldier — a victim of years of Democratic starvation. The  bespectacled soldier in the middle — who bore a striking resemblance to Stockman — was a little bigger, but carried only a tiny rifle. This was the army that David Stockman wanted to send to battle. The third solder was a  menacing fighting machine, complete with flak jacket and an M-90 machine gun. It was the soldier that Weinberger wanted to fund with his defense budget.  Weinberger won the budget debate with Big Animal Pictures.

Stockman was appalled:

It was so intellectually disreputable, so demeaning, that I could hardly bring myself to believe that a Harvard educated cabinet officer could have brought this to the President of the United States. Did he think the White House was on Sesame Street?

Stockman and many analysts concluded that the episode revealed something deep about Reagan’s intellectual capacity. Maybe so, but I think it revealed more about Weinberger’s insight into what it takes to carry an argument when the opposing sides can each make a strong technical case for the correctness of their position: argue for the importance of the end result, not for the correctness of how you will achieve it. It is a classical colliding worlds strategy.

Michael Dell’s 1987 private placement memorandum for Dell Computer Corporation was a Big Animal Picture. Buying computers was a hassle when Dell started his dormitory-based business in 1984.  By 1987, PC’s Limited had sold $160M worth of computers based on a simple strategy: eliminate the middle man, get rid of inventories, and give customers a hassle-free way to buy inexpensive, powerful IBM-compatible computers.  In the midst of a stock market crash, Michael Dell managed to raise $21M based on a short document that ignored the conventional view that private placement business plans had to be highly technical:

Dell has sold over $160 million of computers and related equipment on an initial investment of $1,000. The Company has been profitable in each quarter of its existence, and sales have increased in each quarter since the Company’s inception.

Tacked onto the memorandum, almost as an afterthought were letters from customers — inquiries from people who were interested in buying computers from Michael Dell and testimonial from owners of his made-to-order PCs who wanted to buy more of them.  It was short (45 pages with the letters attached) and, aside from a few pro-forma financials to explain what would be done with the new money, it was almost entirely devoted to painting a picture of what success looked like to Michael Dell.

A copy of the original Dell memorandum wound up on my desk in late 1998.  At the time, my Bellcore department heads were struggling to define businesses that could either be spun out of the company or funded as internal startups. I was drowning in  highly technical market forecasts and details of patent disclosures. Each new spreadsheet screamed: “Idiot! Just look at this equation.  It’s obvious why our approach is better than everyone else’s.”  One afternoon, in exasperation,  I threw Michael Dell’s private placement memorandum on my conference table and said “Make me a presentation that looks like this.” The room got very quiet as they realized what was going on.  I was asking for Big Animal Pictures.

We started four businesses within 18 months.  Three were spun out  and made a modest amount of money for the company and the founders.  We ran one as an internal start-up. It did not do nearly so well. One of the key factors was that we could not duplicate Michael Dell’s Big Animal Picture.

This is not a lesson that engineers and scientists learn easily. In fact, when presented with overwhelming evidence that business decisions are seldom made on the basis of technical elegance and correctness, engineers retreat to the safer ground staked out by David Stockman: “Do you think we are on Sesame Street?” The answer is “Yes!”  Successful engineers and scientists know all about Big Animal Pictures.

Paul R.  Halmos was one of the great mathematicians of the 20th century. He studied the most abstract topics imaginable. One of his crowning achievements, for example, was to create an entire algebraic theory to describe mathematical logic, which was itself an abstract mathematical theory to explain symbolic logic. Symbolic logic was, in turn, an abstract explanation of the kind logic used by Aristotle, and Aristotle’s logic was the formalization of correct patterns of human  inference. Halmos did not deal in uncomplicated matters.

How did Paul Halmos counsel young mathematicians to present their work in public?

A public lecture should be simple and elementary; it should not be complicated and technical. If you believe you can act on this injunction (“Be Simple”) you can stop reading here, the rest of what I have to say is, in comparison, just a matter of minor detail.

The mistake, Paul Halmos noted in his essay How to talk Mathematics is thinking that a simple lecture talks down to the audience. It does not. Halmos (or PRH as he sometimes called himself) seems to have understood worlds in collision.   Of course, a simple lecture in PRH world might open with the phrase “…as far at Betti numbers go, it is just like what happens when you multiply polynomials,” so it’s a sliding scale.

No matter what you’re doing in the technical world, learning how Big Animal Pictures work is a valuable thing.  I sometimes sit on review panels to decide on research funding.  I recently advised a young scientist to use Big Animal Pictures.  She had five minutes to present her work and I knew that the competition would be strong.  Her first instinct was to jump into the technical meat of her research to give the reviewers a feeling for why her approach was better than other approaches. My advice was to not do that.  I wanted her to literally give a BAP presentation that would inform the panel about the importance of her research and why they should care about it.  I later found out that other colleagues had given her identical advice, which she apparently followed with great success.

And it doesn’t matter which of the colliding worlds you are on.  BAPs are always a good idea. My colleague Wenke Lee was recently called upon to give a presentation on the state of computer security research to a  group of mathematicians.  It was all about how powerful mathematics can be used to exploit security flaws and vulnerabilities. Wenke resisted the temptation to dive into the technical details of botnet attacks.  It is, after all, a subject he knows well and he probably would have had fun demonstrating his prowess. But here is how Wenke began his lecture.

He went on for another twenty minutes, but he really didn’t need to. Everyone got the point in the first thirty seconds.