Besides meeting admissions directors and others from business schools, attendees at the CentreCourt event in London also got the chance to hear from five alumni who spoke about their experiences at business school.
Danielle Schmitt, who has an MBA from Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon and is a senior program manager at Microsoft based in London, talked to CentreCourt co-director Matt Symonds about learning to use data, juggling priorities in a team, and how some MBA skills become more important over time.
Matt: Danielle, thank you very much for being with us.
Danielle: Thank you for inviting me.
Matt: I know about your career at Boeing and Microsoft, and we are going to talk about your experience at Tepper. But let’s hear a little bit about yourself beyond work. What do we not know about you?
Danielle: Well, I am an avid traveller, and so far the count is five continents and 28 countries. But the really fun fact is that 14 of those countries were last year.
Matt: So, we can certainly say you have discovered travel. Which leads us back to your career. After six years with Microsoft on the West Coast you came to London with them two years ago. Is there a big Tepper alumni base here that you were able to tap into?
Danielle: Yes. One of the great things about an MBA background is that you pretty much have a network around the world. It doesn’t really matter what city I land in, I’m going to have new friends as soon as I get there.
Matt: All of these applicants to business school, have amazing backgrounds and accomplishments. Before you went to business school, what accomplishment were you most proud of?
Danielle: Oh, definitely my bachelor’s degree in computer science. As you know, there’s not many women in STEM, unfortunately. So being in that career field, and being an influencer for other women who may be afraid of going into it, is something that I was really proud of. It takes a lot of bravery to be the only woman in the room, so having people to show you that it can be done is really helpful. I’m very proud of that.
Matt: Great. So, what drew you to Tepper?
Danielle: I was certainly looking for a school that had world-class business and engineering schools, which Carnegie Mellon does. But I got really excited when I discovered more about Tepper’s culture of bringing disciplines together, and working across the campus to build business leadership. When I visited the school and saw the people and felt the culture I understood what a Tepper student is, and I knew immediately it was the school I wanted to go to.
Matt: Have you had the chance to go back recently to see this wonderful new campus building?
Danielle: I have, yes. I am actually on the Tepper alumni board, so I get to go back twice a year. I went in October and saw the beautiful campus. Ah, I wish it had been built when I was there, but I’m very glad the new students get to experience it.
Matt: Absolutely. Now, you talk about the Tepper culture. As you think about the MBA classmates that you had for two years, were there any common characteristics that drew them together or defined them?
Danielle: Well, of course they’re all very bright and very driven, as you would expect. But actually they’re also a lot of fun. That “work hard, play hard” mantra applies to Tepper students, I’d say. They will certainly get it done at work or in a project, but they can let loose, too.
Matt: We talk about the MBA in terms of both personal and professional development. Is there is a skill that you think you developed at business school, perhaps several, that you have been able to use in the last eight years of your career with Microsoft?
Danielle: Tepper’s obviously known as a very quantitative school, and I would say that I built on my analytical rigor. You hear the phrase Big Data everywhere, and it is really part of business today. That can scare a lot of people. But I think one of the great things about the Tepper culture is that from day one you learn not to be afraid of data, and beyond that to understand its power and how you can use it. Data comes into marketing classes and entrepreneur classes and everything in between. I used that, well, my entire career, whether it’s helping inform strategic business decisions, or experimenting to hone and refine a product. That emphasis on data and using it to make smarter business decisions is a skill that I learned and built at Tepper.
Matt: Was there a defining moment during your two-year MBA experience?
Danielle: The moment that comes to mind is one when I was really frustrated. I was working on a group project, and one of my classmates had been up all weekend doing a case competition. They showed up, but they weren’t really there. Another classmate was in the middle of interview season, and honestly was not involved in the project at all. A third was trying to keep his perfect A rating. So obviously this was a very, very challenging project. Reflecting on that moment, I realized that, actually, that’s life. In work people have different priorities and conflicting ideas about what’s important. I’m very thankful that I had the opportunity experience that, and to hone my leadership skills, in an environment where it wasn’t as critical as it would be in at work. One key thing about an MBA is that you learn things which aren’t in the curriculum, and that you couldn’t really learn anywhere other than a B-school.
Matt: What do you miss most about Tepper?
Danielle: Besides my amazingly talented friends, of course, I would say the diverse thinking. The exciting thing about a business school program is that you get people from different industries with loads of different life experiences. You’re approaching a lot of the same questions, but you get so many diverse opinions and different ways of tackling a problem. I think outside of business school, you often get similar opinions, whether that’s because of your industry or your group of peers. It’s really, really hard to find those challenging opinions that I think are super-critical, especially if, like me, you’re working on a global product. You need differing opinions because your customers are going to have different opinions. At the time I possibly wouldn’t have said I valued it, because it can be quite challenging, but in hindsight having those kinds of opinions easily available is something I sorely miss.
Matt: Many of the visitors at CentreCourt are perhaps thinking about those first career steps after business school. Where do you see yourself in five or 10 years from now, and how will the MBA continue to help you achieve that?
Danielle: Well, I hope that I am on a leadership team of global product or a suite of products, maybe living in another country. I don’t know, we’ll see. I would say the thing that Tepper has really helped me with, and continues to help me with since they have a very strong ongoing lifelong learning program, is leadership. It’s a skill that not only gets honed over time, but becomes more important over time. The first couple of years after an MBA, you’re probably using some of the hard skills you learned in the classroom. There’s a lot of soft skill classes, of which I tried to soak up as much as I could, but I don’t think you need them as much in your first years after the MBA. But as you continue in your career, those skills and leadership skills become more and more important.
Matt: Thank you for being with us this afternoon.
Danielle: Thanks for having me.