Interview With Ryan Howard, HEC Paris Alum

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.

Matt Symonds, co-director of CentreCourt, conducted a Q&A with Ryan Thomas, a Canadian who graduated from HEC Paris four years ago, and who currently works as a robotics engineer at Amazon. They talked about swinging a lasso, team-building at a military training camp, and how an MBA led to an unforgettable Punjabi wedding.

Matt: Ryan, thank you very much for being with us.

Ryan: My pleasure.

Matt: You graduated from HEC four years ago and if LinkedIn is anything to go by, you are building a very exciting career. Are there any interesting facts about yourself that you kept from HEC’s admissions office that you can tell us?

Ryan: I was pretty open with them, actually. I’m from Calgary, Alberta, in western Canada, which has a strong ranching background. I used to work in oil and gas and I spent some time with an old boss of mine who is a team roper, which is like being a rodeo cowboy. I found myself trying to learn how to ride a horse and swing a lasso at the same time. It’s terrifying. It’s absolutely impossible. I’m glad I don’t have to do it here in the UK.

Matt: It’s like patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time, but on top of a horse, right?

Ryan: While you’re riding an angry Ferrari, yeah. It’s not for me, career-wise.

Matt: I bet. Now, many of the attendees of these events are wondering how to share their professional background and academic achievements with the schools they apply to. What pre-business school accomplishment are you proudest of?

Ryan: I started in biomechanics research. I was working with a really good team of engineers and orthopedic surgeons looking at the impact of osteoarthritis, and we developed the first robotic system to reproduce the motion of a knee-joint. It was pretty cool.

Matt: Wow.

Ryan: Yeah, it was a nerdy engineering thing, but it was fun.

Matt: We often think about bankers and software engineers and consultants applying to MBAs. But did you have an eclectic mix of people in your cohort?

Ryan: Yes. That’s what really stood out to me about HEC: the diversity. And not just diversity in terms of countries or backgrounds or gender, but diversity of thought. I think that’s also part of the French approach. I’ve had arguments and debates on every subject you can imagine. I’ve taken sides I never thought I would. There was just this wide diversity of ideas, of backgrounds, and of subjects. It was pretty interesting.

Matt: Schools somewhere along the way develop characteristics, so that people sometimes say a particular quality is in a school’s DNA. Were there any sort of common traits or value system that you think really defined the people on your MBA?

Ryan: You know, what struck me about HEC is that I felt like, and still feel like, every single person in my class could’ve taught me a class. Not only are you interacting with the professors and their backgrounds, and their crazy experience and stories, but after class or during class you’re with people who are also fascinating. We had a history professor from Ireland. We had a French military officer. They’ve got experience that I would never have gotten exposure to in my past career. It was just that deep background of everyone in the program. It was really interesting, really cool to learn from.

Matt: Do you think that you developed a particular skill in the MBA program? And how has that since served you in your career?

Ryan: Definitely. My dad’s an engineer with an MBA as well and he always said that the MBA is a finishing school for engineers. In that respect, it worked for me. It was almost like learning a new language in a lot of respects. One thing specifically that was really cool was an event at Saint Cyr, which is a military academy, where they do a leadership training course. You have to lead your team through a task, and mine was trying to get everyone across this giant steel rod over a big pool of water you could fall into. I remember trying to get really involved and a French officer saying: “No, no, no. You’re the leader. You need to step back and let your team do it.” I actually thought about that at work last week. “No, no, no. I’m managing this. I need to be out of that.” There were specific lessons like that every week. And then there was just learning the overall language of business. That was really great for me, coming from a technical background.

Matt: This was a weekend out in the French countryside, over a bloody river?

Ryan: It was on a stark cliff over the ocean, yeah. It was pretty cool.

Matt: Like you say, an MBA is about learning the language of business, the hard skills. But it is also about soft skills. How do you make that mix work?

Ryan: I think that as an MBA student you have to drive it. You have to take the opportunity. And the program will help you do this. It’ll help you identify what you’re good at, and where you need to develop. The resources are all there. You can do that. You can get into accounting, which I wasn’t great at. Or marketing. You can get into leadership. You can get into all this stuff. The resources are all there. The people are incredible. The classmates are incredible. It’s just figuring out where you need to develop and getting after it.

Matt: People at today’s event are thinking about the time and money involved in business school. Was there a moment during the program when you wondered: “Why I’m putting myself through all of this?” And was there an “a-ha moment” when it suddenly made sense to you?

Ryan: In terms of whether it’s worth it, I think the key thing is that you get a chance to look at everything, a chance to have another look at your career. I came in pretty focused on what I wanted to do, and everything changed. And yes, there was a moment when I thought: “Okay, I’ve got the tools I need now. I don’t need to make some 10- or 15-year life-plan. I have the opportunities, I have the resources, I have the support of the school and the support of my classmates to take opportunity as it comes”. And sure enough, that’s what happened with my career. I went from oil and gas to tech. Realizing I had the freedom to do that was a good moment.

Matt: What comes next for you?

Ryan: I’m 100% certain that I have no idea! Some people in the class went right after their goal and nailed it. I did an MBA rather than a technical engineering degree precisely so I could be open to opportunity. When I think about the future – well, five years is a long time. In 2019, I may be working on a technology that doesn’t exist now. But I feel that I have the tools and I have the background to take that opportunity as it comes. So, I have no idea but I’m pretty sure it’s going to be fun and that I’m going to enjoy what I’m doing. That’s what I went to HEC for.

Matt: Is there anything that you miss from your time there?

Ryan: The people for sure. But I have a coping mechanism, which is staying in touch. If I opened my phone right now, I guarantee I’ve got a friend from HEC who wants to go for brunch tomorrow. I spent New Year with some friends in Geneva. I’m going skiing in March. I went to a wedding before Christmas in Delhi. If you ever get the chance to go to a Punjabi wedding, do it. It’s amazing. So yes, I miss the people, but I’ve also built relationships for life with these great people.

Matt: That’s a fantastic network.

Ryan: Yes, it’s good.

Matt: Thank you for contributing to that network by being with HEC Paris at today’s event.

Ryan: It’s my pleasure. I’ve been in everyone’s shoes here, I know how it is. It’s great to be back and help out.


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