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Diaries Of A Darkhorse: Poets Vs. Quants: Is The Pen Mightier Than The Spreadsheet?

From The Darkhorse Diaries

Ben Fouch, an aspiring member of the MBA Class of 2021, is documenting his journey as an applicant every other week in his “Diaries of a Darkhorse” column. He works on the corporate development team at Booz Allen Hamilton on the sourcing, valuing, and structuring of potential M&A deals. Among his target schools is Harvard Business School. He was also a 2017 Best & Brightest business major with Poets&Quants.

I’ve always appreciated the name of the Poets&Quants website. It points out two very different skill sets that are valued in M.B.A. programs.

I often think about them as the two general buckets where applicants fall. Quants are the people who can swan dive into a sea of data and come back up to the surface with invaluable insights. Poets, on the other hand, are like sailors in the crow’s nest. They look at the high-level picture, scanning their surroundings and the horizon. Their vision helps them think strategically and guide their ship through numerous obstacles. A poet who tries to be a quant is likely to turn their swan dive into a belly flop. Odds are, a quant who attempts to be a poet will miss the waves from the horizon in their ocean of data.

A question I’ve wrestled with is whether these two buckets are equally valuable. These days, words like “big data”, “analytics”, and “statistical modeling” are crammed into every PowerPoint slide, press release, and spoken sentence with almost gleeful abandon. In the contest of poets vs. quants, it can be hard as a poet to understand what you bring to the table in your career and M.B.A. application.

A POET DISGUISED AS A QUANT

I’m proud to be a poet. A mind built for numbers and figures is something I admire – from a distance. Words, communication, and critical thinking have always been my strong suit. You might not guess that from my line of work in finance as a member of a corporate development and M&A team. We parse through large amounts of financial data, making models that guide decisions ranging from the pricing strategy for our acquisition bids to our firm’s competitive strategy. It’s a role that on paper is ideally suited for a quant.

I’ve certainly tried to play the part of a numbers guru; the stack of statistics and applied math books on my desk is tall enough to require zoning permits. I felt the need to turn myself into a pure quant to really “Excel” in the finance field. Fortunately, time has shown me, both in my work and M.B.A. applications, that it can be a huge advantage to be a Poet.  It all comes down to understanding how both poets and quants fit into a team.

Quants have the skills to draw tangible results from a set of data. A talented quantitative person can take a task, gather the relevant information, and apply advanced tools to tease trends and other information out of the information. They provide the answer to the “what?” question that every business must ask when evaluating a given problem or opportunity. That is an incredibly valuable step, but it isn’t the end of the process.

POETS ANSWER THE KEY QUESTION: “SO WHAT?”

Poets take the information a quant provides a step further, providing additional value in the process. They can answer the question of “so what?” and expand on the implications of a given analysis. In my experience, it is even more important that, as poets, we can deliver those lessons to the appropriate decision-makers in a clear and compelling way. In one case, a groundbreaking piece of financial analysis by one of my colleagues demonstrated a new way to think about our firm’s performance relative to our peers. The method’s novelty was the source of its value. However, the method did not get adopted until my colleague built a story around his findings that explained why they were strategically relevant, and how they could guide the firm moving forward.

Having a more qualitative outlook has helped me think strategically and go beyond the numbers themselves. Being more skewed towards a poet skillset can help us extract new strategic insights some quants miss. That’s how I add a special value in my job, and how I complement my talented quant coworkers. Some of the greatest minds in business have been poets, even in a quantitative field like finance. Charlie Munger, Warren Buffet’s famous co-partner, has attributed much of his almost unparalleled success to “mental models” he has adopted to explain the world around him. Most of these models are high-level and conceptual, but they have been fundamental in developing Charlie’s wisdom and foresight. Charlie is a poet who has used his incredible intellect to build a reliable system to help him make the right decision again and again over the span of decades. It’s certainly hard to argue with his results!

When applying to M.B.A. programs, I think it’s important to talk about how we, as poets, complement quants. It’s a well-established theme that businesses are drowning in data. Processing all of that data is an enormous challenge, but we can’t forget that we still need folks who are capable of drawing deeper insights from that data. You can run a thousand regressions on every piece of relevant information in your company, but the value of that analysis isn’t realized until you build the story that explains the significance of the correlations. It seems like that type of higher-level thinking is exactly what M.B.A. programs are looking for in their students.

WHAT THIS MEANS TO YOUR B-SCHOOL APPLICATION

I see an opportunity as M.B.A. applicants (and young professionals) to distinguish ourselves as poets. We should all aspire to have a balance of both skillsets, but demonstrating our quantitative aptitude is much easier on paper. A high GMAT (or GRE) score, a certification, or a technical degree can signal that you have the tools to analyze numbers. Demonstrating your skills as a poet can be challenging on an applicant, and it will take some convincing. That is why when I have been toiling away on my M.B.A. admissions essays, it’s been a priority to demonstrate vision and storytelling. The greater our leadership responsibilities over others in the business world, the more these skills are necessary. As M.B.A. programs are trying to develop the future leaders of business, doesn’t it make sense to emphasize to them that we have those more intangible skills?

As a poet, how do you take your more qualitative skillset and apply it to create new insights in your work? If we learn to collaborate with our quant colleagues, we change the nature of the relationship from poets vs. quants to poets and quants working in tandem. Together we can fully answer the “what” and “so what” questions that drive business decisions.

Warren Buffet’s fascination and aptitude with numbers would have made him a very good investor, but finding his poet counterpoint in Charlie Munger took them the next level and into the history books. That is why, to all the poets out there, I hope you take pride in what you bring to the table. We couldn’t do it without you.

Originally from Indiana, Ben graduated from the University of Notre Dame with a degree in Finance and Political Science. While at Notre Dame he co-founded Dark Horse Sports Recruiting, an undergraduate academic and athletic admissions consulting service. He enjoys baking, dad jokes, alternative history novels, and obstacle course races.

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