Harikesh Nair tagged one of the “Best 40 under 40″ B-School Professors in the World is an Associate Professor of Marketing at the Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB). He obtained his B.Tech in Civil Engineering in 1998 from IIT Madras
and went on to do his MS in Transportation Science at University of Texas at Austin and then completed his PhD(Business) in 2005 from Graduate School of Business, University of Chicago. He describes his Stanford experience as “drinking from a fire hose” and accurately explains Grades vs Success as a “Simple Economic Model”. Read on to find more about his life and his love for “Modelling human beings”.
1) Could you please succinctly describe your IIT Undergrad experience? What are the key takeaways from it that serve you in good stead even today?
I was a Civil Engineering Undergraduate from 1994 to 98. I had an amazing experience. I was in Godavari hostel. Both the hostel and academic lives were very fulfilling. With regard to how it influenced my life, firstly, the world is becoming analytical. My field (Social Sciences) is being taken over by a data revolution. The IIT system is very valuable at such a time because it builds quantitative intuition. Engineering training is all about analytical and systematic problem solving, and it builds an ability to think clearly, a skill that is valuable in any field one chooses. Another aspect is the large number of extra-curricular activities like quizzing and sports. No one can succeed in life as a uni-dimensional individual. IIT Madras offers holistic personality development for those willing to partake.
2) Could you tell us any memorable incidents? Anything that stands out in your mind or impacted you deeply?
There so many incidents close to my heart that it is hard to isolate one like that. I was an avid quizzer and used to enjoy all the quizzing events in the institute, particularly the lone wolf quiz. I was an active basketball player and used to hit the courts from 5 to 7 in the evening every day to unwind. One of the most memorable experience for me was winning the gold for basketball at IIT Kharagpur. I also worked very closely with Professor Koshy Verghese who has become a good friend. I was fortunate to have close bonds and friendships not just with fellow students but with professors as well.
3) How was your hostel life?
Hostel life was good fun and a fairly intense experience – you’re pretty much in each other’s faces all the time, eating together, studying together. The facilities (like rest rooms) were horrible, much worse than they are now, but that didn’t deter us from relishing the hostel experience. An important aspect is the heterogeneity in the pool of people at the hostels, with people from different states, speaking different languages, with different priorities and so on. Hostel life is a great equalizer in this sea of diversity.
4) You did B-Tech in Civil engineering here and went on to do an MS in Transportation Science at University of Texas at Austin. How and why did you decide to shift to PhD in Business? How did the change come about? Was it a sudden change in interest? Or was that a plan you had for yourself?
It was not planned at all. I was really interested in Civil engineering and after my undergrad, I started to think a little bit more about transportation engineering. The big change happened when I went to UT Austin and started working with my advisor Chandra Bhat. He’s a very inspirational person and a careful teacher. In engineering we deal with a lot of deterministic models. In contrast, I was working on stochastic problems trying to predict how travel patterns would shift in response to transportation related interventions. For example, would there be more congestion on adjoining roads because of spillovers from a new road? To forecast these, I had to build models of human behaviour. The idea of modelling human beings using mathematics was something I had never thought of seriously before. As human beings we have a fair amount of randomness associated with us. This aspect interested me. That is how I got into marketing and applied economics where we predict how people react to market interventions and respond based on those predictions.
5) You have received numerous prestigious awards, scholarships and even the tag of one of the “best forty under 40″ B-School professors in the world! Our hearty congratulations for that… could you please describe your work at Stanford GSB? What do you love most about your work?
Thank you. I think of my Stanford experience as “drinking from a fire hose”. There is a lot of knowledge generation and transfer happening here every day. I get to interact with many smart individuals often and I try to absorb as much as I can. The thing that I love most about working here is that it is a tacit commitment to lifelong learning. The other interesting thing about working here is the location. We are located in the heart of the business world – Silicon Valley. We work very closely with the most innovative companies and start-ups in the world. Because of this there is a smooth diffusion between research and practice. Quite a bit of my research gets applied to practice as well and what happens in practise affects my research. This symbiotic relationship is one of the most fulfilling aspects of life and work at Stanford. What a typical day is like? Meet with my PhD students, all of whom are very smart, and work on important questions or chat about some new exciting research. Then, on most days, attend a seminar or a talk. I give a lot of talks and seminars as well. Then, work on research, think about publishing papers. I also teach in the MBA and the PhD programs. Then, probably a cup of coffee with my colleagues, meet people from the valley. That’s a typical day for me.
6) We spoke about extra-curricular activities and hostel life. Your comments on the academic environment during your time at IIT Madras?
I was chatting with Director Ramamurthy when he was here in the Bay Area recently. I gathered that things have changed a lot now and that you have a lot more choice and there is emphasis on the broader aspects of engineering. During my time, the teaching environment was superb. The teachers at IITM are world class. All students criticize their teachers for something or the other, but having been on the other side I know how hard it is to be a quality teacher. Relative to my time, I felt that there were some aspects of the curriculum that could be improved and I am happy to hear that IITM is moving in that direction. For one, world over most of the cutting edge research is now happening at the intersection of fields and hence there is a necessity to place more emphasis on the broader aspects of engineering rather than field specific learning. The second thing that I wish was present during my time is more open-endedness and ambiguity in problems we solved as opposed to rote commitment to memory. Real life problems never have a perfectly defined right answer. The third thing I feel could have been better is more emphasis on the social sciences. We do an excellent job with engineering and mathematics, but all these are applied to solve human problems and that piece (social science) is necessary to understand problems and to better apply scientific knowledge to real world problems more effectively. Finally, at that time we lacked an institutionalised program for internships. There is no better learning than getting your hands dirty and actually doing things for yourself and seeing the results. I know that IIT is working actively to remedying that.
7) What is your opinion on the whole Grades Vs Success correlation?
Yes there has been a lot of debate on that. It is a very simple economic model. Just high grades do not guarantee success. Success is a multi-causal phenomenon and you cannot give a uni-causal explanation for a multi-causal phenomenon. For instance, one’s EQ is as important as IQ and professionalism matters. Having said that, what do grades indicate? I think that if you get good grades, it signals you are smart. If you don’t get good grades that does not mean that you are not smart – it could be low effort. In this sense, grades offer a very valuable, but asymmetric, insight into the ability of a person. In professional life later on, you will have so many things to do that are not the sexy stuff – which you don’t enjoy doing but have to do because that’s the way to go and because you have a commitment to a team. If I have to rely on you, I should be confident that even though you may not agree with me completely or are not happy with what needs to be done, you will get the job done. Grades indicate that quality. In that sense I think they matter. There is a definite correlation though not a direct one. Grades may not directly vouch for ability, but they definitely vouch for quality.
8) Your advice for students aspiring for a career in marketing?
Marketing like any other field, is very quantitative. I would advise students to take as many quantitative classes as possible and to understand computing as it pervades everything we do. There is a shortage of people out there who have domain knowledge as well as quantitative intuition and business acumen. So acquire hard skills and at the same time develop quantitative aptitude.
9) Your advice for those trying to get into Stanford GSB for an MBA? What are the sort of people who are generally admitted? There isn’t any specific mould that fit an MBA candidate for GSB, because you pride yourself on the cultural diversity, but what are the basic things one should have and how best can a student especially from IITM equip himself/herself to get in?
Like you said there is no specific model for an ideal MBA candidate for Stanford GSB. We seek diversity on our class and we also look for a holistic package. With regard to how to get in, there is the usual trio of Test Scores like GMAT, essays and letters of recommendation. The main thing that most business schools are looking for (Stanford is no different) is a progressively improving career path, and a very clear idea as to why you did what you did, as well as a very clear vision as to what you want to do.
Marketing professor Harikesh Nair is an expert in marketing analytics. His interdisciplinary research on the subject merges applied economic theory and econometric tools with marketing data to analyze consumer behavior and ultimately improve companies’ strategic marketing decisions. Professor Nair’s award-winning studies have been published in top-tier academic journals, such as Journal of Marketing Research and Quantitative Marketing and Economics, and have been covered by worldwide media outlets, such as The Economist, the Financial Times, andU.S. News.