04
Aug
13

My Personal Statement

As a freelance writer, I’ve written a lot of different pieces about a lot of different topics for a lot of different people. The hardest? My personal statement for graduate school, and really, it’s not even close.

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten was probably the simplest – “Just write”. As in, if you’re stuck staring at the blinking cursor, just write about anything. Eventually you’ll start writing about the thing you really want to write about, and you can clean up the rest. It makes a ton of sense, and it’s worked virtually every time.

The personal statement, though, was different. Most people survived undergrad by giving teachers exactly what they wanted, and they were rewarded with good grades for doing so. Naturally, going to the opposite extreme – a paper with literally no topic – is tough to swallow for everyone, but especially for those of us who grew accustomed to putting no original thought into schoolwork.

I must have started writing my personal statement a dozen times, only to delete it every time. I scoured the Web for tips regarding how to approach the task; with each successive page, I found myself more confused.

With literally no idea what I was supposed to write about – and even less confidence in the quality of what I was producing – I followed that initial bit of advice. I just wrote. I tried to speak from the heart and be as honest as the medium would allow, and that’s the once piece of advice I would give someone who has to write a personal statement. It’s a brutal process, but as long as you’re honest and focused on your ultimate goal of getting into school, you’ll be fine.

With that, you can see my personal statement by clicking here. Some of it is really good, some of it is laughably bad. At the end of the day, it got the job done. And although we all want to write masterpieces every time we sit in front of the computer, sometimes just getting in the door is the best we can do.

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30
Nov
12

Coursework: High Reliability Organizations in Major League Baseball

Tonight I gave a presentation at Hofstra about quality management theory as it applies to Major League Baseball. My premise is that baseball teams can become high reliability organizations – that is, they can operate with the same relative level of efficiency as those businesses that place a premium on quality.

I really like this project. And as much as I like the paper, I think the accompanying Powerpoint presentation might be even better. The Powerpoint is actually quite different from the paper itself, as there is some information that didn’t translate as well from paper to presentation and vice versa. Check it out and see what you think.

QM 290 Industry Paper

QM 290 Industry Presentation

19
Jul
12

Ratings

In the midst of the hoopla created when it was announced that Mets’ starter RA Dickey would not be starting last week’s All-Star Game, my cynic sensors went into overdrive. Clearly there had to be some less-than-kosher reason why Dickey wouldn’t be starting; it was the perfect player in the perfect confluence of events. My conspiracy theory – Major League Baseball, Fox, and National League manager Tony LaRussa conferred and decided it would be better for ratings if Dickey entered the game in the middle as opposed to the start. After all, if people got to see the biggest draw right off the bat, they’d turn off the game. But if they didn’t get Dickey right away, they’d have to stick around.

I have no idea if there was an actual conspiracy, much less the one I concocted, but it played out exactly as I imagined. The NL got off to a huge lead at the start of the game, giving casual fans no reason to watch the full game. With the exception, of course, of watching RA Dickey. Ratings data show that Dickey’s inning was the highest rated of the game. MLB and Fox got their ratings, and all it took was costing Dickey the moment of a lifetime, one that he had earned though his perseverance in both this year and prior seasons.

*********

When I was a kid, I didn’t even know ratings existed. As a 9th grader in 1996, I gladly stayed up late every night to watch the Colorado Avalanche face the Florida Panthers in the Stanley Cup Final. Today, such a matchup would be publicly dismissed as something nobody cared to see, a pairing of two non-traditional hockey cities who don’t draw.

That’s the way it works now. The media is so obsessed with ratings that it has brainwashed the public to care about ratings as well. Look at how the media cooled off the NHL when the New Jersey Devils made the finals this year as opposed to the more mainstream New York Rangers. The media effectively convinced people not to care about this series, simply because they no longer cared. Again, ratings become as important to the fans as they are to the media and networks, even though the fans don’t get any of the ad revenue that ratings generate.

It begs the question – what do ratings actually accomplish? We know that they basically run the networks; TV and radio will do anything to pop a big rating. Clearly, ratings work as a metric for the networks; they measure interest and the willingness of a viewer to make the network a priority. The other side of the equation is a bit unclear. Aside from plentitude – the desire of viewers to fit in and be able to discuss the previous night’s action at the water cooler – do ratings get the job done?

I used to think that TV and radio put the best possible product on their airwaves. I thought the Top 40 songs were legitimately the 40 best songs around at any given time. I thought networks put their best shows in primetime, because they’re the best shows and they should be seen by the greatest number of people. As I now know, these are all hoaxes. Top 40 “hits” must be bought and paid for, at which point radio becomes an artist’s biggest shill. And TV programs are ratings draws first, and being funny or informative is a distant second.

I used to think networks had a moral responsibility to present acceptable, decent content. Another hoax. Networks will show as much sex and questionable content as necessary to pop a big rating. And that’s what gets me thinking. Media serves media’s interests first, and people are expected to mold their tastes to whatever is shown on TV or radio. That suggests that ratings are not, in fact, the be-all and end-all of media analysis. If a TV show earns a ratings point, it doesn’t mean anything except the viewer chose that show over anything else on at that moment. It doesn’t mean the show was good, and it doesn’t mean the viewer will be discussing it at work the next day. Hell, it doesn’t even mean the person watched the show; maybe they just left their TV on in the background.

And then there’s this – there are only 50,000 Nielsen boxes in the country that determine the ratings. The “millions of viewers” are mere extrapolations of this sample of 50,000. Therefore, the ratings should be viewed with skepticism as opposed to being considered clear-cut indicators of what’s “hot”. And yet, all we hear about are the almighty ratings, to the point that we actually care about them.

That’s just weird. Do I care about Microsoft’s ROI for Microsoft Office? Do I care how much Apple makes off each iPad it sells? No way. So why are we so obsessed with ratings?

I think it’s a function of society today. Everything has to have an explanation, and everyone wants to know how decisions are made. We have advanced stats in sports that give us more information than the average scouting department for a professional team. We know box office numbers for movies, stock performance for corporations and grades for public schools. Why should TV be any different?

The thing is, businesses and customers are different and should be treated as such. Only in TV do people know data about themselves, then let that data get in the way of the decisions they make. If the Mets have lousy attendance – and they do – it won’t make me more or less likely to attend a baseball game. Yet when ABC tells us “12 million people watched the premiere of (some new show)”, our ears perk up. They’re basically telling us we’re supposed to watch because everyone else watches, and we fall for it every time.

On the flip side, while viewers are very concerned with the metrics that matter to the network, the opposite isn’t true. The truest gauge of viewer interest these days is social media, yet TV-themed social media accounts exist solely to promote. They don’t discuss; they just try to get certain things trending on Twitter. They don’t care what viewers like or don’t like about the show; they only care that people tune in, because that’s the only thing advertisers care about. In a sense, TV shows exist solely as a conduit for advertisements. It’s kind of like a free mobile phone app; while it may serve one purpose on the surface, it’s really only there to bombard you with ads.

So, what’s the verdict? Basically, what you already knew – TV networks will do anything to get ratings, people are sheep and will comply with anything the networks do, and the networks don’t care about what you want. And now that they’ve sold you on the concept that ratings matter, there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

01
Jul
12

Project Management

As a Quality Management major, I frequently deal with project management, both in terms of a potential future career and in heading the projects that are necessary to earn the degree. Project management takes foresight, a delicate touch and the ability to plan ahead for the things that may go wrong. I feel I have a good handle on all three areas, and I developed these skills in an unlikely way.

Personality Types
There are basically three kinds of people you’ll meet in any project setting:

– The Alpha Dog (the person that has to be in charge of everything)
– The “Go With The Flow” person (someone who goes along with pretty much everything, never voices a concern)
– The Negative Nancy (the person who fights the Alpha Dog on every issue and never really buys into the team concept)

At one point in my life, I resided exclusively in the second group. I was content to simply do my job and let the bigger personalities take center stage. As time went on, I grew tired of unqualified people tell me what to do. At the risk of sounding arrogant, I was smarter than these people, I did better work than them, and I spoke better than them. Why should I let my insecurity get in the way of a better grade 9r a better project?

As I began to take more responsibility in these projects, I realized I already had the ultimate project management experience. And I got it in, of all places, a grocery store.

Supermarket Sweep
I spent my high school and college years working at a very busy supermarket on Long Island. Statistically, it was the busiest store per square foot on the Eastern Seaboard. There were a lot of customers, and therefore there was a lot of cleaning up to do.

On most nights, my job was to take care of “throwbacks” – that is, any items that customers would bring up to the register, but decided not to buy. In most cases, there would be three to five wagons full of throwbacks when I started my work. It was my job to organize these items and put them back on the shelves. I also had to delegate responsibility to anyone helping me out.

That last part was much trickier than anyone realizes. In a typical project in corporate or classroom settings, everyone is motivated because everyone has a goal. Either they want a good grade, or they want more money, or they want the recognition of being on a winning team. That wasn’t the case in this supermarket. Most people were there because they had to be, not because they wanted to be, and they were paid whether or not the work got done. This presented a real problem in terms of finding people motivated enough to help.

Finding Gems
My first task every day was figuring out who was working until closing (11 PM) and who was getting out earlier. If they were getting out earlier, I wasn’t going to give them anything complicated to do. Why? Because people who don’t close the store have no vested interest in getting the items back on the shelf. All they’re interested in is finding something to do that doesn’t involve ringing up customers. For those people, I would prepare a small wagon of easy to find items. If they slacked off, no big loss. If they actually did their job, I could always give them more work.

Next, I targeted the people who had a real reason for getting the store closed and leaving as soon as possible. This included anyone who had somewhere to go immediately after work. For example, if someone wanted to go to the bar after work, they’d be super motivated to take care of business so they could go out and have fun. Even if their motivations weren’t necessarily the most noble, these people could be counted on to do what was necessary to get the job done as quickly as possible. This not only made my life easier, but it also shaved countless dollars off the payroll.

My other major contribution was assessing the individual skills of each person and giving them a load they could handle. If someone helped me every night, I knew I could give them a bigger share of the work and they wouldn’t complain. But if it was someone’s first time, I had to be careful. If they became overwhelmed with not knowing where anything was, they’d become disenchanted and be a liability instead of an asset. In these cases, I would prepare a very small wagon that they could easily handle, building that person’s self-confidence up little by little. They’d feel better about themselves, so they’d do a better job to help the team.

The Bigger Picture
The skills I learned putting away items at a supermarket drastically shaped the way I viewed projects going forward. I found that professional and school projects were actually easier than managing throwbacks in a supermarket. If you can’t find stuff on the shelf, there’s not much you can do to help the cause. But business and classroom projects are multi-faceted, and there truly is something at which everybody can excel. For example, if you hate writing papers, you can always do research or take an extra part of the oral presentation. If you aren’t a good speaker, you can create some graphs in Excel or give the paper a really good proofreading. It’s just a matter of figuring out where the strengths lie for each member of the group.

Accentuate the Positive
Paul Heyman took over a small regional group called Eastern Championship Wrestling and made it a legitimate threat to the World Wrestling Federation on a shoestring budget. His simple philosophy: Accentuate the positives, and hide the negatives. That’s really what project management is all about. Find the things the people on the project are good at, and let them do those things. Similarly, find the things they aren’t good at or don’t like to do, and delegate those tasks to other people. In the end, the final project should be successful in both a data standpoint and a morale standpoint. Everybody learns from each other on a good project team, and the team creates something that none of them could have conceived individually.

23
Jun
12

Projects – The Impact of the NCAA Tournament on Workplace Productivity

My term project in my management class last year required us to develop a hypothesis and use advanced research methodology to prove whether it was correct or incorrect. We split the 30-person class into four or five groups, which led to massive groups of 6 to 8 people per group. We all figured it would be a piece of cake; after all, if there are 8 people in a group, each individual wouldn’t have to do too much work.

Not so fast.

We discovered early on that things weren’t going to go as swimmingly as anticipated. With so many people in a group, the biggest challenge we had came right at the beginning – how do we develop a project that everyone cares about and will remain interested in until the end of the semester? Each class session brought new twists and turns to the project. And every time we thought we were getting somewhere, someone would poke a gaping hole in our thought process.

We had a group of all males, and as we got to talking, we discovered that most people in the group had a strong interest in sports. The big issue at the time was the NFL’s desire to expand the regular season schedule by two games in spite of the health risks that were just beginning to come into prominence. It was when the long-term effects of concussions first entered the mainstream, and we wanted to explore whether an 18-game schedule would exacerbate those problems.

There were two problems with this approach. First, it would seem fairly obvious that adding games to an already taxing schedule would add injuries to the equation, leaving us with a premise that already made sense to begin with. That was no good, because the whole idea was to take a new idea and proving it with evidence, not with preconceived notions. Secondly, it proved too difficult to show what would happen years from now. After all, most concussions suffered by NFL players in the past were not documented, so all we had to go off of was those players who spoke up. We couldn’t draw conclusions on such a small and non-random sample, so we continued with our search.

Eventually, the NCAA Tournament began, and since our class met on Thursday nights we all discussed the games with great enthusiasm. While we already knew we wanted to venture into sports, we weren’t sure exactly where to go. The presence of the Tournament provided a new direction.

We’ve all read stories about how the NCAA Tournament affects workplace productivity. It’s estimated that companies lose billions of dollars each year due to the Tournament and the lack of interest of employees during that period. Those studies always seemed a little far-fetched, so we decided to do our own experiment. Was the NCAA Tournament the drain on productivity all the experts claimed it was, or were there other issues at play?

We decided a survey would yield the best and most direct results. Thanks to social networking, we were able to include more than 100 participants in our study. The answers to our questions led us to a new theory – the NCAA Tournament, on its own, did not play a major role in any decline in workplace productivity. Instead, the NCAA Tournament was just one of many distractions workers could take advantage of while they’re working. It wasn’t so much the Tournament as it was the presence of something workers could use as an excuse to slack off.

While our numbers painted a bleak picture for our hypothesis, two data points served as the nails in our proverbial coffin. First, approximately 75 percent of those surveyed chose to take the survey during work hours. This corroborates the aforementioned point about jumping at the chance to do something, as long as that something didn’t involve doing work. Secondly, about 15 percent of respondents abandoned the survey before its conclusion. We interpreted this to mean that those surveyed didn’t see this issue as a significant one, essentially debunking any thoughts about the NCAA Tournament being a significant threat to productivity.

Our numbers told a great story, but better than that, our 8-person group functioned very well as as team. I had a background in market research, so I handled the survey and the survey’s analysis. A couple of other guys did our research, one created the graphs for our presentation, and some others did a lot of the paper. We did have one group member who missed meetings and contributed very little, so we approached him with an ultimatum – either he handled the entire in-class presentation himself, or his name would be taken off the paper. He ended up doing the speech himself, and he did a great job. The odds of everyone pulling their weight were longer than us putting together a great paper, but we succeeded on both fronts. We got an A for the project and the class, and we all learned something in the process.

Paper: MGT 207 – NCAA Tournament and Employee Productivity Final

Presentation: MGT 207 Presentation Updated 5.4.11

07
Jun
12

Perception is Everything

I’ve always been a bit counter-culture. If something is obscure, I’m more inclined to like it; if it’s popular, I pretty much hate it by default. Roughly 80 percent of my iPod is comprised of songs I’ve gone out of my way to discover, as opposed to blindly following the directives of Clear Channel and MTV. As it happens, some of that music never would have found its way onto my iPod if not for the perfect storm of ignorance and misperception.

*****

I took guitar lessons from a very talented player when I was in high school. I was into punk and metal, while he was all about jazz and blues. Even though our tastes were seemingly worlds apart, we had some common ground, and I was always looking to expand my palette. I asked him to make me a mix of some jazz songs I would like, and he complied with my request.

It was the summer of 1998, and I spent much of that summer listening to that mix tape over and over again. I don’t remember every song on that tape, but at least half of them are relevant to me to this day. It had Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, John Scofield and some others, but the most prominent artist was the Brian Setzer Orchestra, who appeared three or four different times on the mix tape. Maybe it was because of the frequency of their songs, but I came away liking the Brian Setzer Orchestra the best of the bunch.

One day, my old buddy Rahul and I went to Hofstra to watch the Jets practice. Unfortunately, these were the days before the Internet came into prominence, and there was no way to foresee the practice being cancelled. We suddenly had a ton of free time, so we went to this newfangled store called Circuit City to look around. And wouldn’t you know it, they had the very Brian Setzer Orchestra CD that was featured on the mix tape. I decided to take the plunge and get to know this artist better.

When I got home that night, I showed my brother the CD, figuring he would have no idea what the heck I purchased. Instead, he had a different reaction.

“You’re into this crap, too?”, he asked accusingly.

“What crap?”, I wondered.

With that, he handed me the new Rolling Stone that had just come in the mail. The cover story was a feature story about the big swing revival that was going on at that time. Apparently the Brian Setzer Orchestra was at the heart of that revival, and their songs were all over the radio. Mainstream radio. Eww.

My brother was shocked that not only had I not known about the biggest story in music that year, but that I’d fed into the frenzy without even realizing. I, on the other hand, was more shocked that I could like something that was simultaneously appealing to the sheep that listen to Top 40 music. If I had heard the Brian Setzer Orchestra on Z-100 instead of that mixtape, I would have found some reason to hate them. Instead, I found myself on common ground with everything I despised.

I learned a valuable lesson that day – perception is everything. Perception makes or breaks everything we encounter in life. How something is framed affects how we look at it, and everything is relative to everything else around it. It’s kind of like how your idea is rejected at a meeting, but when your boss gives that same idea, everyone thinks it’s brilliant. One of the hardest things we have to do as people is to try to strip away pretense and look at things at face value. It’s so easy to judge or dismiss others, but when we do that, we’re really doing ourselves a disservice. Had I dismissed those songs as a short-lived teenybopper fad, I would have missed out on some great stuff that I still enjoy today. But since I assumed I was listening to some jazz band from the 1950s, I created a positive perception that literally changed how I viewed the music.

Sadly, this concept is often absent in the corporate world. People are much smarter than others give them credit for. There are all sorts of biases and preconceived notions that convince people to disregard the thoughts of others. As a result, those people become discouraged and never reach their potential, and the entire company suffers. It doesn’t have to be that way. Virtually all companies talk about how everyone has a say and people should speak up, but precious few act on these sentiments. People should listen to the idea instead of critiquing the person saying it or questioning their motives for speaking up. Maybe then, we could all feel a little better about ourselves and the world around us.

31
May
12

Moneyball

In 2012, most people know Moneyball as some movie starring Brad Pitt. Before its motion picture form, though, Moneyball was a book by Michael Lewis that discussed the 2002 Oakland A’s in excruciating detail. Specifically, the book showed how the A’s and their general manager, Billy Beane, managed to thrive in a culture when winning without spending money was inconceivable.

On the surface, the philosophy was simple – get the most production for the smallest amount of money. But that’s much easier said than done. Most teams that win without spending today simply draft well and lock up their young stars long-term when they can. The 2002 A’s didn’t have, for example, the TV money that helped the Reds to lock up Joey Votto, so they had to look elsewhere.

The A’s focused on on-base percentage for two main reasons. First, it was an asset that was completely undervalued by the market. Second, it made more sense than anything else out there. The A’s discovered the importance of on-base percentage by simply drilling down until there was nothing left.

Paraphrasing from my memory, the thought process of the A’s was roughly as follows:

  • Baseball is a game with limitless potential. The only thing limited is the number of outs – 3 per inning, 27 per game.
  • The worst possible outcome for an at-bat is to make an out.
  • Therefore, the most valuable players are those players who make outs less frequently.
  • On-base percentage measures the probability that a player’s at-bat will not result in an out.
  • On-base percentage is the gold standard by which we will measure our players, our farm system and all future free agents.

It almost boggles the mind that nobody thought of this stuff before. But then again, baseball at the time was an old boy’s network, and computers were trumped by hunches and educated guesses.

Much of Moneyball focuses on the 2002 draft, and the A’s did draft well at this time. They had the power trio of Barry Zito, Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson, all of whom would go on leave Oakland for big dollars in later years. However, these A’s didn’t win because of their pitching, and they didn’t win because of their drafting abilities. They won because they picked the right guys in free agency and let them play their game. The 2002 A’s were successful because of Scott Hatteberg, David Justice, Jeremy Giambi, and all the other players who couldn’t even get a whiff of interest from another big-league team.

Since Moneyball became a philosophy, many teams have tried to replicate the A’s successes. The problem is, nobody can replicate their successes because this situation will never repeat itself again. In order for another team to field the sequel to Moneyball, they will have to:

  • Discover a statistic that is completely undervalued by the market.
  • Verify that this statistic actually helps teams to win games.
  • Find the players who are the best generators of that stat and sign them.
  • Function in a way that nobody else can figure out what they’re up to.

Could it happen? Anything’s possible. Is it likely to happen in this Internet age, where fans know more about stats than most front offices? Highly unlikely. Still, that’s not going to stop some teams from trying.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a Quality Management major, it’s that numbers are meaningless without context. So, say the Mets discover that teams aren’t paying for solid fielding, and they make that their focus for the next three offseasons. Will that even win them an extra game? Statistics prove that errors and fielding percentage are useless indicators of a player’s ability to field. Pursuing this would likely lead to three years of mediocrity and another cycle of front office and management personnel. Now, if the Mets found a bunch of players who could steal bases at a 66% clip and loaded up with those players, and it was verified that stealing bases at that rate would get them an extra run or two per game, that would be a worthwhile investment.

People often deride Moneyball as either being extremely cheap or being all about on-base percentage. In the end, Moneyball needed both to succeed. Once the market wised up, the A’s were done; they haven’t been relevant since 2006 and show no signs of returning to their former glory anytime soon. They captured the perfect storm of the right methodology at the right time, and rode it to the top. Any performance improvement initiative should take these lessons into account. If it’s not the right stat, and it’s not going to make a big change, it’s not worth investing in. The post-2006 Oakland A’s – and the many teams who have tried to imitate Moneyball – can tell you all about that.




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