I still have no idea what’s going on: Wrapping up the MBA journey
May 05, 2017

Ten years ago, after graduating from college, I made a vow to never set foot in a classroom again. No more textbooks, no more assignments, and no more 8am exams after an all-nighter fueled by Cheetos and Red Bull. I was resolute and unwaveringly determined that if I ever have to go near a college campus again, it would only be forceremonies such as graduations, weddings, or mass circumcisions (it’s a Malaysian thing).

I guess I was wrong.

Yesterday, on a -- hugely unexpected -- rainy English morning, I attended the graduation ceremony for my MBA class at the Royal Albert Hall. With my entire family in attendance, it was the largest congregation of Malaysians at the hall since our songstress Siti Nurhaliza performed there in 2005. But she did not have livestream and my grandparents were tuning in from Kuala Lumpur so I might have won by a margin in terms of global reach.

At the tender age of 34, graduating again is a rather different experience. I feel more relaxed, and less anxious about how the following chapter of life is going to unfold. And as a parent, there is more routine to life that you become better at predicting what’s next. We had an argument with our toddler about her preferred attire before the ceremony yesterday, and I found myself trying to placate her again after the ceremony while still in my robe. Surprise, surprise!

All of life’s certainties aside, the past two years have showed me how little I actually know about myself. The vow that I had arrogantly made a decade ago about never going back to school faded over the years as I began to seek new challenges in life. I started applying to business schools in 2014, and commenced life as a part-time student in January 2015. In December 2016, I submitted my thesis with a desire to perhaps continue with this journey of learning -- but not too soon!

I have to thank my family and friends for this milestone. My wife and daughter for giving me the space and time to study. (Mostly my wife… the 3-year-old has no mercy.) My parents for their belief. My sponsor for their support. And the Imperial Global MBA 2015 faculty and cohort for the unforgettable experience and friendship. I still have no idea what’s going on but I will do my best to make it look like I do.

The Joy of Refrigerated Commuting
March 22, 2017

Earlier this year, after 10 years of driving to work, I started taking the train. The existing line was extended to include a new station in my neighbourhood, so I thought I’d give it a try. It saves time and money, for starters. And I’ve had enough of getting stuck in KL traffic anyway. The time has come for me to get stuck in the LRT.

Here are three things that I’ve learned so far…

1. Bring a winter coat (and paracetamol)

Malaysians love air-conditioning. Living in tropical weather and unforgiving heat, we have survived evolution by developing the ability to seek shelter in air-conditioned areas e.g. the mall. Our national car, Proton, is renowned for the power of its air-conditioning and the lack of power of its power window.

The LRT train, however, brings it up a notch by providing industrial grade air-conditioning system capable of generating a mild Himalayan blizzard. Which is fine when the temperature outside is not 34 centigrade. Three days of these fluctuations and you’re at the doctor’s in no time. I am happy to report that after three months, my body has now acclimatised to this climate change.

2. There’s so much to do

My train journey to the workplace takes about 30 minutes. And if there’s one thing that I cherish about taking the train is the amount of things I could do to fill up this half an hour. Back when I was driving to work, I was stuck with radio ads with Adele songs in between. Now I can listen to podcasts, read a book, or catch up on some sleep on the commute to work.

It does make me wonder if I would be more enlightened today had I spent the past decade taking the train to work. Imagine the amount of knowledge I could’ve gained in my daily trips to and from the office. Heck I could’ve learned a new language by now. Ten years of driving in KL and all I learned was cursing in four languages.

3. People still play Pokemon Go!

The Fastest Two Years of My Life
February 25, 2017

This frame is from a video I made three years ago. It was for my MBA application, and watching it again reminds me of how eager and determined I was about going back to school. Which is funny because the vow I made to myself after finishing college, apart from getting a haircut, was to never set foot into a classroom again. I guess I was wrong.

The past two years as an MBA candidate have been quite enlightening in terms of self-discovery. I never knew I could enjoy learning as much. And I don’t think anyone else did, either. Credit to my parents for not laughing when I told them I wanted to pursue postgraduate studies. Maybe they didn’t want to hurt my feelings. I had a better chance at winning Miss Malaysia, really.

Education is such a different process when it’s driven by personal motivation. Assignments become much less of a chore, and readings make more sense when you have some work experience. At the tender age of 33, I was re-discovering the joy of learning. And I am grateful for that -- better late than never, I suppose. Although I do wonder how life would have turned out if I had this much drive in college.

As an engineering undergraduate, I often question if I will ever need stuff like object-oriented programming in the future. This was compounded by the fact that I was never good with subjects that require the left side of my brain. (Or is it right?) At least in business school, you know some of the lessons can come in handy when you argue with the people from Finance at work someday. If you can’t beat them, confuse them.

In May, subject to outstanding library fines, I will be making my second walk as a graduate. These past two years have certainly been the fastest in my life. Everything seems to have been sped up, somehow. They say time flies when you’re having fun. Maybe I was having fun. That’s right… school is now fun. What have I become.

A Decade of Growth
February 03, 2017

Ten years ago today, I reported duty as an analyst in the Petrochemical Business Unit of our company. I was 23, eight months fresh out of college, and had absolutely no idea what to expect. I did have some experience working at the computer lab in college, but ‘business analyst’ sounded way bigger than ‘printer fixer’. I was sure the problems at the new job couldn’t be fixed by simply pressing the restart button.

As I try to reflect on that very first day of work, I realise how little of it I actually remember. I’ve always had this habit of not documenting milestones properly and in hindsight, I wish I had captured the day better. I would love to relive the thrill and romance of that maiden step into my working life. Not sleeping well the night before, arriving early into an empty office, addressing the lady boss as ‘sir’... I could vaguely remember any more than these first day jitters.

My poor recollection aside, the past decade at the Twin Towers have been full of wonderful memories. I’ve been lucky to have made friends with some of the nicest people, worked with some of the brightest minds, and visited some of the most interesting places in the country. I even met my wife here. It makes no premise for a record-breaking 7pm Malay drama, but Fattah Amin and Neelofa are more than welcome to play us on TV.

To commemorate my tenth year with the company, I’d collected my name cards over the years and (had my wife) arrange them nicely into an RM 9.90 Ikea frame. It’s nothing fancy, and this is about as creative as I go. But I do feel that it gives a nice snapshot of what I’ve done over the course of my career so far. I’d moved four times over the period, and I hope I’ve left a positive experience with each of my colleagues. (Except those who support Man United.)

I could only offer my humblest gratitude to PETRONAS for shaping my adult life. I am a second generation staff, and I was under the scholarship programme for my undergraduate studies. Therefore my relationship with the company began way before 2007. I’ve learned so much from being a part of the organisation, and I am keen to learn more. The late Yasmin Ahmad summed it best in a corporate video she made for us some time ago,

“Give me the wisdom not just to take, but also to give. With integrity, humility, and compassion.”

Death, Taxes, and the Final Project Report
December 02, 2016

In the 1994 movie The Shawshank Redemption, Tim Robbins plays Andy Dufresne, a banker who was wrongfully sentenced to life in prison for murdering his wife. The movie revolves around his life in incarceration, and ended with — spoiler alert — an incredible escape from the Shawshank State Penitentiary. Ask anyone who has watched the movie and many would cite the escape as the most iconic scene of the film, if not in the history of Hollywood.

Over 19 years of his life in prison, Andy had dug up a tunnel using only a rock hammer and, on a stormy evening, made his way through the tunnel into the sewage pipes to the river outside. He only had a Raquel Welch poster to cover up the hole on the wall. By the time the guards found out, it was already too late. Andy was already a free man, eager to unshackle himself from imprisonment and taste the liberty of the outside world.

Well that’s how I feel right now. I have just submitted my MBA Final Project report.

Unlike Andy Dufresne, however, I did not have Morgan Freeman to narrate my life in business school. It would be nice to have him chronicle the 15,000-word document, though. For every postgraduate student, the final project/dissertation/thesis is the raison d’etre. The final piece that culminates all that you have learned in your field of study. The final lap of the race that embodies the blood, sweat and tears that you have put in throughout the journey. And behind every submission, there is usually enough drama to fit a feature-length motion picture.

Mine was a laptop malfunction two weeks before the deadline. Granted, I’ve had the machine since Gordon Brown was still Prime Minister. After a few hours drenched in perspiration and fear, I finally managed to resuscitate the machine with some complex programming and furiously restarting the system like a madman. The files were all intact, but my heart function suffered in the process.

I did have the files backed up on Google Drive as I have been religiously saving every new version into cloud storage. But as fate would have it, my laptop died after an intense 3,000-word session — not much of which I could recall by heart. The thought of re-writing the entire lost sections had me shudder like a singing contestant on the set of Hell’s Kitchen.

The silver lining of the whole incident was a renewed spirit for me to complete the report ahead of the deadline. I was resolute on committing the coming week to the report and dedicating my full focus on finalising the findings of my analysis. Completing the report early would also eliminate any more technical mishaps. If technology can send us to the moon, it can surely wipe out my final draft.

I have to thank a few people, without whom I might not have reached the ‘Submit’ button to upload the report PDF. The Programme Management Team have been diligently guiding us from as early as December 2015, about a year ago, to make sure that everyone is on-track and no one is silly enough to write his report using a dying laptop.

My supervisor, Dr. Jonathan Pinto, has also been very patient and supportive in coaching me throughout the paper. He was like Mr. Miyagi, looking over the Karate Kid. Except that we are both probably more agile than them. (I hope he’s reading this.)

Like Andy Dufresne, the time has now come for me to kick back and enjoy some me time. Maybe it’s time to catch up with Shawshank Redemption as well. It has been a while. If you manage to grab a copy of the film, the cover of the DVD reads, “Fear Can Hold You Prisoner, Hope Can Set You Free”. I hope I pass this Final Project.

Hail to thee, Northwestern
June 17, 2016

Ten years ago today, the unthinkable happened: I graduated from college. After four gruelling years of battling Chicago winter and differential equations, I finally completed my engineering degree.

My mother cried as she hugged me tight outside Ryan Field, where the commencement ceremony took place. Whether it was tears of joy or relief is anyone's guess. She was usually the first to know my grades when the transcripts reached home by courier. So four years of receiving discouraging news by mail every semester had finally come to an end.

My father, too, couldn't stop smiling. I will never forget how proud he looked that day. It must have been quite a special moment to witness your firstborn graduate. Especially when you’re the guarantor to his scholarship.

It was a beautiful Friday morning in Evanston. The sun was bright and the breeze from Lake Michigan was mild. Our commencement speaker for the day was one Senator Barack Obama (D-IL). I make a point to watch his speech on YouTube on June 16th every year.

“Focusing your life solely on making a buck shows a poverty of ambition,” he said, “It asks too little of yourself, and it will leave you unfulfilled.”

A decade has passed and his prose remains forever etched in the memories of members of the Class of 2006. Mr. Obama will end his second term as President of the United States later this year.

I spent four years at Northwestern University as an undergraduate, between 2002 - 2006. I was 18 when I first set foot on the lakeside campus, and couldn’t fully appreciate how privileged I was to call Evanston home for the next four years. Chicago was just 10 miles away, and we had a diverse range of cuisines around the campus town. From Chinese to Lebanese, Evanston was a haven of food I could not afford.

But age wasn’t the only reason I was unable to fully immerse myself in the beautiful surroundings. I didn’t have the time to do so. Northwestern is a competitive place full of smart people. And competitive and smart are two traits that I neither possess nor able to pretend to possess. So I had to play catch-up with my classmates for the majority of my time there.

Those who went to college with me would attest that I was never the sharpest tool in the shed. My struggle was compounded by the University’s quarter system. An unforgiving schedule of 10-week semesters where you will get a mid-term before your textbook could arrive from Amazon. I think we had a mid-term during orientation week.

Alas, maturity and academic rigour are merely excuses I am making today for my underperformance back then. I was young and stupid once, and now I am a little bit older.

I did lead a reasonably vibrant life outside the classroom. I was involved in several student groups, and worked part-time as a web designer for the University. Not to mention the odd gigs I performed at on campus, and a forgettable stint in our Southeast Asian intramural soccer team. What can you expect a Malaysian bring to the team anyway?

My time at Northwestern is an experience that I would never trade for the world. It was a period when I was just young enough to be foolish with my priorities, and old enough to not burn down the chemistry lab. I somehow survived, and learned some of life’s most invaluable lessons while studying there. These range from leading a student organisation to cooking ramen at room temperature. (1. Soak overnight 2. Eat for breakfast)

A few months from now, my little daughter will enrol into playschool. I am both nervous and excited for her. It might not have the intensity of an undergraduate education -- I never had ‘Naptime 101’ in college, at least not formally -- but she will find school extremely challenging if she inherits my genes more than her mother’s.

No matter what life throws at her, however, I do hope that she takes it with pride. Growing up is all about building resilience, and if she works hard enough, opportunities might just come knocking on her door. And if this opportunity comes in the form of a scholarship, I’m sure her mother would be more than happy to become guarantor.

My best wishes to all members of Northwestern University Class of 2006. Go Cats!

The Spy Who Taught Me
April 05, 2016

Today I received the news that one of the most revered faculty members during my four years at Northwestern is retiring.

On March 14, 2016, the McCormick School of Engineering announced the retirement of Professor Charles W. N. Thompson. The first line of the notice read, “World War II veteran. International spy. Criminal attorney.”

I had the pleasure of being in Professor Thompson’s class in Spring Quarter 2005. The course was ‘IEMS 340 – Field Project Methods’, and I’d be lying to say that I remember what the class was about.

What I do remember, though, is Professor Thompson’s passion in teaching the course. He was always deeply immersed in the subject, and even at times emotional in stressing the importance of the topic at hand.

I later learned that his passion stemmed from his pioneering works in the field. His research aimed at “improving organizations through observations and surveys in place of experiments.” An area that would definitely come in handy for me today, as opposed to 10 years ago when I was a bumbling 20-year-old undergraduate in his class. 

Those who went to college with me would know that I was never the sharpest tool in the shed. But I was not alone this time around. The bright pre-meds aside, there were several of us who had trouble fully understanding the more complex materials of the course.

Despite our visible lack of comprehension, there was never a moment that Professor Thompson appeared to have given up on us. He was always genial in addressing our concerns, and no question went unanswered. Whether we fully understood his explanation or otherwise, was another question. 

While he was reasonably approachable, Professor Thompson was never one to mince his words. I wrote a joint paper once with a few classmates who were unfortunately as clueless as I was. When we got the paper returned, adorned on top of the front page in 2B graphite were the following words, “This paper is cancerous.”

It was disheartening, but we knew he (possibly) meant it in the nicest way. This presumption was affirmed throughout the one hour we had spent at his office to listen to why he thought our paper could be better. We still don’t know why to this very day.

“I’m a storyteller,” he once said in an interview. And any of his students would concur. 

It’s hard to not be one when your CV is 28 pages long with credentials ranging from the Air Force to Harvard Law School. Professor Thompson is probably one of the most decorated and fascinating men I have ever had personally encountered with. And I’m sure this feeling is not mutual.

After 50 years of professorship in the engineering school, I’m sure he will be greatly missed by the university. I think he will be remembered around campus for his wisdom, candor, and sense of humor. 

He does have a one-page summary that accompanies his illustrious CV that lists his less commendable achievements. 

The list reads, “1. Got kicked out of kindergarten.”

Announcement & Image Credit:

Photography by Azalia Suhaimi

  • Asrif, b. 1983
  • Subang Jaya, Malaysia
  • asrifomar[@]gmail[.]com
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