Review: Michael Fern, Management, Santa Clara University Leavey School of Business

Management 619:  Something or Other but known as:  CAPSTONE
At a glance

  • 3 unit course offered every quarter but summer
  • Workload:  Ridiculously Heavy
  • Teaching Style:  Discussion, case-based
  • Interest in students: Very High
  • Relevance to outside world: Ridiculously High

Overall Professor Rating: 4.5

Overall Course Rating: 5

Note:  Since this is the last required course in the entire program, it is one heckuva class.  It beats you down, it brings you together, it pulls you apart.  But you learn a tremendous amount from it.

About Me

I haven’t done one of these reviews in a while.  The truth is that 1) I have gotten worn down a bit by the program so I have been less motivated to write about my courses and 2) I have a bit of senioritis.  I actually am going to be walking in my commencement this Friday, so I’m easily distracted, I guess.

I started the program almost 3 years ago – March of 2007.  During the past years, I have had trouble finding good, expansive reviews of faculty and/or courses.  So I started writing these.   There are lots of sites out there that provide feedback and rates – ratemyprofessor is the most notable. The SantaClaraMBA Yahoo group also has a big database of comments and lots of additional information in its message archive. That database can be a bit hard to wade through, and the comments are short and often just link to other threads, which are themselves pretty short and superficial. Only here can I write as much as I want  🙂

I review professors from a variety of perspectives.  First, I explain the context(s) under which I took the class.  Time of year, time of day, etc.  Then I talk about the quality of the class and the professor, and finally about the professor as a person.  After all, we are trying to learn about our interactions with people, so knowing that side of a teacher is critical, too.  So these would be interactions outside the classroom, etc.  I also just write whatever it is that I think is relevant or will be helpful to others.  That is my overall goal.

The facts

I took MGMT 619 in Winter 2010, in the 7:20 section.  This was the best quarter for me, as it interfered the least with any other event at my work.  Capstone is not a class with which to be trifled, and I wanted to make sure I planned it correctly.  This is also the only course about which I warned my manager that I would “check out” at some point from my job responsibilities.  This is important – be careful about when you take Capstone.

Selecting a team is critically important for Capstone.  Unlike some other final courses for MBA programs, this is all about teamwork, rather than an individual thesis.  I received emails throughout the summer if I was available to be on a team in the Fall, and then again for the Winter.

I was lucky in that many of my classmates from my very first class – MGMT 501 – whom I knew well, considered friends, and had worked with in the past, were all taking the course at the same time.  It is true that one never knows what will happen with any team, even one composed of people whom you know.  But at the very least, this is a case of the “devil you know” being better than the devil you don’t.  And trust me – at some point, during all the stress of Capstone the devil does make an appearance.

Fern is one of 3-4 faculty in the management department that teach Capstone.  The number of sections offered depends on how many petition to take the course by a certain deadline.  For instance, there were 3 sections in the Fall, 2 in the Winter, and I think 4 in the Spring.  Some of the other faculty that teach the course include Madsen, Levehagen, and Chandy.

The class

Capstone with Fern is incredibly fast-paced.  In the 10 weeks, we cover, I think, 8 cases, do 2 case write-ups, have 7 mini-quizzes, and then the final uber-project.  The 8 cases are from Harvard Business Review and are downloaded online.  I found that I was best served by printing every single one of them out.  The quizzes don’t count for a lot and you get to drop the 2 lowest of them but every bit helps.  The 2 case write-ups, which are done as a team project, are worth 20% and 10% of one’s grade, respectively.  They are not easy and require a lot of work crammed into just 5 pages (plus 5 pages of exhibits).

Participation is also apparently a decent amount of one’s grade, as well, based on the slight variation my team had in final grades.  In a class of 40-45 (which is the usual class size, according to Fern), one cannot speak all the time.  Fern advised us to choose our comments carefully and to make the most out of each time we raised our hands.  He does cold-call if he feels that certain people are monopolizing time.  Given all of that, every time I felt I had a decent idea I raised my hand.  It might not have been earth-shattering, but if I felt it was worth saying, I erred on the side of raising my hand rather than not.

The course is obviously case-based.  Fern provides a set of questions that are meant to direct one’s thinking in preparation for discussion.  Those questions are also often relevant to the quizzes, as well.  I found that if I literally took the time to write down answers to those questions as I read and then again when I finished each case, I was more prepared for class.

Fern provides all handouts, his slides (which he modifies if he feels the discussion headed in a direction that requires adjustment), links to video recordings of each class and questions for the cases via a Google Sites…site.  He also provides a Google Calendar that is useful.

The Teams

Each team was from 5-6 people, though we did have one 4-person group in our section.  I strongly recommend you 1) get people who are committed to working at the same level and intensity as you but 2) get 6 people if you can.  Sometimes it’s hard to find 6 people that are so committed, but the paper is so long that you need that many.

You will need one person to be the “integrator.”  This person can also be the general project manager, as he or she can see how things are going, sense when one part of the paper is moving slower than others, etc.  I was the integrator and project manager for my team and when I would be getting drafts for one section and nothing from another, it was pretty easy for me to know what people to prod a bit.

You will spend a TON of time together.  My teammates all had jobs during the day, so we met on weekends and e-mailed a lot.  We started off with 4-6 hours just on Saturdays.  By the time the first case write-up came around we were up to 4-6 hours Saturday and Sunday.  By the time the 5th week came around – half way through the term – it was “start early, stay until we’re done, whenever that is.”  And we had some long, long days.  We also did a lot of “how are we doing” discussions at the end of each class on top of all the e-mails we were sending.

If you’re in the later section, as we were, and you want to actually meet and get work done before class, you will need to make a lot of time to get away from work ASAP and to Lucas.  For us, we couldn’t do that, so we just met like crazy on weekends and plowed through.  Many of the people in the 5:45 section could be seen in the study rooms even as we were leaving our class – they had been meeting the whole time after their section ended.

Allocate a lot of time for Capstone, then expect to spend even more than that on the work.  Warn your spouses and significant others, get on the same page, etc. The last thing you need is something like “you said you’d be gone a lot, but not this much.  We need to talk about this.”  Not that your partner won’t be understanding, but you have to be clear on how things will go.

The Case Write-Ups

The course is very fast-paced, as I indicated above, and it’s easy to lose a bit of steam on the case assignments when the big final project looms larger and larger.  However, the analysis he expects out of each case is 1) based on what he has covered recently and 2) basically what he is going to expect out of the final paper.  So if you were to take what you do in both case analyses, plus about 50 other tools, that all goes in the final paper.  So it’s important to still put in the effort on them.

The Person

Fern was brought in, as far as I can tell, specifically to teach Capstone.  Since he arrived, he has not taught anything else.  His specialty is strategic planning, and that’s what Capstone is about.

I thought Fern was an excellent professor, and would have liked to have had someone like him for many of my other classes, too.  He ran a case-based class, but helped keep the energy up rather than just waiting for us to propose things.  He cold-called often enough to keep people on their toes, but was okay if someone wasn’t ready with something.

Most importantly, he kept bringing us back to common themes, either case-specific or course-wide.  I thought he managed the class and material really well, keeping us on track, making sure we learned important topics and tools that would be key elements to our paper.

My major issues have to do with a slight tendency to be wishy-washy on certain items.  For instance, when we proposed one idea for final project, he gave us some solid feedback that made us back off.  However, when another team from the other section chose a company in the same field as ours, all he told them was “well, that’s okay, but another team is also doing that.”  I challenge any professor to be able to read two papers on companies in the same industry and not evaluate them against each other, at least sub-consciously.  I think that he should have been more direct.  At the least, say “there is another team, and consider that before you decide to do that industry or not.”  Don’t be so vague.

Editor’s Note:  I recently found out that the other team that did the same field as ours had their paper nominated as one of the best in their section.  I want to be clear that 1) I and my team are 100% proud of the paper we produced, and have no regrets at all and that 2) I am certain that the other team’s paper was, on its own and unto itself, one of the top 2-3 papers in that section and worthy of a nomination.  I do feel that it’s possible and probably likely that Fern may have said “team 1 recommended this.  team 2 recommended that.  team 1 wrote it better, so I might take 1/2 a point off from team 2.”

Just because I think Fern might read one in relation to the other does not mean that I think he was biased against all other papers as a result and that the other team’s nomination was not justified.

Some Tips

6 person teams – As I mentioned, you’ll want to try to get to 6 people if you can find the right ones.  Just think about the roles that are needed and/or the sections to be covered:

  1. Integrator (and make sure you have 1-2 others that will look over things at the end, too)
  2. External Analysis (this might be 2 people easily)
  3. Financial Analysis (need a 2nd set of eyes here, too)
  4. Corporate Strategy (linked to Business Level)
  5. Business Level Strategy (linked to Corporate)
  6. Exhibits (collecting, making them look consistent, etc)

So I indicate 6 people there, but note that some areas will need more people and help.  Imagine doing all of that with fewer than 6.  Also, this doesn’t even consider the Intro section, the Synthesis or Recommendations.  The last part really needs to be done as a team, then written up by 1 person.  So along with integrator, some parts will be written up from scratch and in their entirety.

Collaboration tools – The school doesn’t really provide anything that aids teams in collaborating on such projects.  You’ll want ways of keeping all files in one location, being able to have multiple people edit a single file, communicate with the group, and probably doing a kind of real-time, video/phone conference session with shared documents.

We utilized the following:

  1. Mailing list – we used google, but whatever will work.  This was used just for e-mails.
  2. – We kept all of our relatively static documents here.  Financial statements and various other electronic sources, plus our drafts of each section.  The 2GB you get here and unlimited file size were the key factors here.
  3. Google Docs – for the few documents that we wanted to truly quickly collaborate on.  The best example is the Bibliography, which we just kept adding to as we found and entered citations.
  4. – This was the best tool we found where we could all talk together (they offer a conference call number for free), look at documents simultaneously, and mark them up as needed.  For instance, if we felt that an exhibit posted should look differently, then any one of us could use the pen tool and just draw on it.  The person in charge of that area could then make the real changes, share them again, etc.  It’s free, too.

Ground Rules – Set these early.  Good ones are:

  1. Citation style – MLA is probably the easiest.  Don’t let anyone cite anything without using the style, or it’ll likely slip by in the final edit.
  2. Receptivity to changes – you can discuss changes that the integrator made to a section, but you can’t be arguing about it and no one can go about feeling hurt because a paragraph was edited out or whatever.
  3. When and how often you’ll be meeting – we agreed early on that we would meet “as often as we needed, for as long as we needed” and that whatever that meant would change as the quarter went on.
  4. What you will do in case of writer’s block, lack of data, help needed on something, etc.  How will you respond, as a team, to obstacles?

Some Metrics

I’m not sure metrics are useful at all for this course.  It’s just freaking hard.  A ton of work.  And you should prepare for it to be twice as hard and four times as much work as you expect.  But it’s worth it.

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