I learned many “things” last year, but one of my biggest takeaways was totally unrelated to the curriculum. This last spring I took UGBA 103, Introduction to Finance. It is our capstone finance course, and it is known to be pretty hard. The concepts are tough, and the competition can be ruthless. Admittedly, I went into the class with the common mentality of searching for test prep and partial credit.
To my surprise, the course did not pan out that way. This was due to our discussion section, lead by Vivek Shah (for anyone unaware, at Cal, we have a lecture or two a week with 100-200 students, and then a smaller discussion section typically not more than 30 students to supplement the lecture). A few years after his graduation from UT Austin (we will not hold that against him) Vivek came to San Francisco to open the SF office for D.E. Shaw, a multi-strategy hedge fund. He was a vice president there and later became a principal of a spun-off group which became called Stellus Capital Management. Today he works for a company he opened called Consortium Finance.
Long story short, he has done a lot in the finance world, and most of his teaching is based on his professional background rather than an educational background. Like most things, finance got a lot easier and more likable when you started to understand it and its application in the real world.
The purpose of this interview was to ask Vivek a bit about why, and how, he reaches his students in this way. I believe that this perspective is great for our new transfer students at Haas (of which I was one last year), as well as anyone who has not taken 103. Haas is a competitive place, and exam scores are important, but I was shocked at how much more beneficial it was to forget about the exams and really go after the real understanding.
When did you first realize you wanted to teach?
In high school I had two teachers, one a US history teacher, and the other a physics teacher. Physics was known to be tough, and history was known to be dry. The history class was boring, everyone was asleep, and the overall effectiveness of the class was very low. Physics on the other hand was totally the opposite. He made difficult concepts easy to understand with a really engaging class that connected the concepts to the real world. At that point I realized that effective teaching styles have a huge impact on students, and I thought that some day I would like to try it.
Given that you teach a discussion section rather than a lecture, how do you try to structure the lessons?
My approach has evolved over time, and it will continue to evolve. When I first taught at Haas, I was apprehensive and pretty much followed the book. I let my energy come through but it was a class catered towards the material, problems, and exam prep. The feedback wasn’t bad, but it was standard, nothing special. Then when I did the undergrad course, I went with a really different style. I focused on the practical aspects of the topics, and tried to be as engaging as possible. People really liked it. Reading reviews that appreciated that teaching style was the best feeling.
Schools do a great job of innovating curriculum. In talking to heads of programs at Haas, I see a constant push for innovation. For whatever reason a lot of Universities are lacking the implementation of things like Excel. For a lot of the jobs that you guys [undergrad students] are looking for, Excel is a very important tool. A lot of you guys will be so much more efficient on the job if you can be productive in Excel. You have to teach the text, the theories, the concepts, but to the extent possible, it is important to supplement that with real world training.
Of the four defining principals (student always, challenge the status quo, beyond yourself, confidence without attitude), which do you think you and your section identify with most?
I really like challenging the status quo. It is human nature for people to get complacent. Even students at Haas who are clearly capable and have so much potential need to be reminded of that. When you get stuck and complacent and you are not innovating, that is a problem. This is very important to me personally and as a teacher, which is why my teaching style is so different. Its not that the status quo is not good, especially at a place like Berkeley, it’s just that I want to advance the level of teaching however I can. If the level of teaching is ‘X’ I am looking to make it ‘X+Y,’ which is what challenging the status quo is all about.
Rather than pick a handful of problems with which to teach, you typically chose long multi-part questions to do as a group. Once we thought we had the answer, then you would give us part D, E, F, and so on. What do you think is the advantage of that?
I like to stimulate thought in open-ended ways. In the workplace you don’t know what kinds of problems you will get, the kind of manager you will have, or the resources which will be available, so I think this variability is important in the classroom. The other goal I had in giving longer, more involved exercises was to show that there are often multiple correct methods to get to the same answer. Particularly in business where there are so many judgment calls, you use all the information at hand, and try your best, but many times it can’t be boiled down to a science. It is important to me to throw out longer problems so you guys think about the variables associated. It forces people to think outside the box and get more comfortable handling curveballs in the real world.
What was your favorite lesson to teach?
My favorite class to teach was the company valuation. Your class did Apple, but I have done Facebook, Google, etc. There is something to be said for older case studies of successful companies, but students are not thinking about IBM in the 90s, they are thinking about Twitter, Facebook, Apple, etc. I tried to design the valuation with a company that everyone knows, or is aware of. I guide the structure of the valuation as a whole, but you guys were the ones debating revenue growth, expenses, and Apple’s future prospects. When you work at a real investment firm, that is how it’s done. You discuss as a group and you end up coming to a final answer. Valuation as an exercise is not that hard, the whole finance world does it every day, the tough part is making the assumptions. I think the students really have fun with it, but in addition to the debates and assumptions of the merits and risks of Apple, you come to a stock price.
NathanInterjection ©: We valued Apple around $1,300/Share when it was trading around $600/share (Buying opportunity right? … it is now around $490). I guess our discussion section wouldn’t make the best investment bank.
As someone who works in and teaches finance, you see students and freshly hired employees. What do new hires do well, and what kinds of students make great associates?
To me, the baseline assumption is that if you have gotten into a program like Haas You have already been filtered for what I will call ‘talent.’ In terms of your grades, exam scores, experiences etc. By in large, everyone at Haas is of very high caliber. What I like to get across to students is the important soft skills you will need. It is not to soften curriculum but it is also really important to think about how to think, make an impact, be an effective employee, work as a team, disagree with people, and communicate. These kinds of things really matter. Lets say a firm will offer jobs to 8 of their 10 interns and you are all from good schools, but some of you are much easier to get along with. That is what people are really looking for. From Haas, most people can do the job, at the end of the day it is attitude that sets people apart. If I had the choice between the smartest kid without these skills versus the kid who is not as smart but had a lot of those skills, I would take the latter.
Like everything in life, for every perspective there is an opposite perspective. I know there are droves of students who are enthralled by high level proofs and theorems overheard in PhD labs. I am not one, but to every person their own. The takeaways which I was unaware of during my first semester at Haas (and proceeding 2 years at community college) are more complex than which teaching style is best. If we knew that, all teachers (and students) would be the same. I got two things out of it, and I hope they can be helpful to all the new students this Fall.
The first is that in business, a real-life perspective in the classroom is necessary. Sometimes closing the textbook, opening up Excel, and giving a couple real life scenarios a try is a huge supplement to a conceptual lecture. Vivek facilitates this very well, and I will certainly try to seek out similar professors in the future. Not only does it put everything in perspective, (partial credit on your homework and midterm will likely make no difference in the long run), it also goes a long way in preparing us better for our entry-level work.
The second thing that I noticed is more about education itself. It is as simple as saying, “go with the flow.” I noticed that Vivek taught that way, so I embraced it. I made sure to have Excel open, follow the problems, and force myself to think. On the other side of the coin, with conceptual professors I have had success diving in headfirst and forcing myself to think and learn abstract concepts. I can’t say I loved it, but I got through it end enjoyed the challenge and the perspective. I have seen people that zig when the professor zags, and the opposite, which is a real waste of what a given professor has to offer.
Big thanks to Vivek for a good semester and for doing the interview. To all the new students recently accepted to Haas, make it a point to look beyond the exams as well as embrace the style of the teacher you have. Good luck and GO BEARS!