Shonali Burke first HBAP virtual ImmersionGoing back to school

I enrolled in, and graduated, the Harvard Business Analytics Program on March 31, 2021.

I’m constantly being asked about my experience there, partly because I’m a (volunteer) student ambassador, and partly, I think, because I’m not the typical post-grad business analytics student.

So I decided to write a post about my experience, and what you should take into account if you’re considering enrolling.

Why I signed up for HBAP

I experienced some pretty big life changes in 2018, which I wrote about here.

As I moved through multiple and concurrent grief cycles, I needed to figure out what was next for me, not just personally, but professionally as well.

Several years ago, I made a sea change in my career, when I transitioned from being a working actress and director into PR and marketing. When you’ve worked in an industry for more than two decades, you inevitably get bored, burned out, into a rut, or some combination thereof.

I was not in a rut, but I was burned out and restless. I loved the work I did, but I wanted to learn something new, I wanted to stretch myself… and I also wanted to see if, perhaps, it was time to work with data in a more hands-on way.

We experience the impact of data on our lives every day. If I could learn how to use data to tell better stories and help change the world … well, that would be pretty cool.

My HBAP experience

Prof. David Parkes teaching HBAP Immersion March 2021

I cannot tell you that I loved every minute of HBAP.

It was tough; very tough.

While we had access to world-class professors (I mean… there’s a reason they’re at Harvard), some of the more technical courses could have been better structured, IMHO.

The pic above is Prof. Parkes teaching during my final Immersion; this was one of the best classes EVER.

I had mini meltdowns more times than I care to remember, and if one more TF could shut down our desperate pleas for help with some nuance of supply chain management or R by reminding us of the “heuristic teaching approach” … well, let me just say it was just as well they couldn’t see my face.

All that said, I have zero regrets about enrolling in HBAP.

Students will always have something to complain about, after all (I should know; I’ve taught graduate students for more than a decade now!).

Overall, it is an absolutely fantastic program; one which opened many new doors for me, and of which I am proud to be a student ambassador:

  • I rediscovered the joy of learning; from not just the faculty and TFs, who are fabulous, but the wildly smart students from every corner of the world;
  • I discovered I really love supply chain (which Prof. Hammond leads). Who knew?! And data-driven marketing totally floats my boat;
  • I love love LOVE how much more comfortable I am with statistical concepts and applying them to solve real-world problems;
  • I am much more aware of the prevalence of algorithmic bias in every aspect of our lives and the impact that it has on social justice and equity. I learned about Joy Buolamwini’s “Gender Shades” study through class, and highly recommend you read this Atlantic article on how algorithmic racism impacts teens;
  • I learned about, and signed up for, JobMorph, a career-focused startup founded by my cohort (and now good friend) Maryse Williams while she was still an HBAP student, and which I highly recommend to anyone looking for career coaching;
  • I have made some really good friends, and know these are relationships that will grow and unfold with time; and
  • I get to legit drop the Harvard name any time someone needs to be put in their place ;).

HBAP March 2021 Virtual Conferral

Pic: a screenshot of class during my second Immersion.

Questions I am often asked about HBAP

Q: How much does it cost?

Q: Was it worth it?

  • Yes. See my bullet points above, particularly the one about JobMorph. Had I not enrolled in HBAP, I wouldn’t have met Maryse, she wouldn’t have coached me when I started looking for a job, and I wouldn’t have found what is literally my dream job.

Q: Will it be worth it for me?

  • I have no idea; only you can answer that question.

Q: Should I enroll in HBAP or get my Master’s (or other advanced degree) in data science?

  • HBAP is not a Master’s program/MBA (though IMHO it should be).

Here’s how I see the value proposition of the program: it teaches business leaders the language of data, and data scientists the language of business.

Once everyone’s speaking the same language, they can more effectively and efficiently collaborate on identifying and leveraging data for growth.

Q: How long does it take?

  • It depends; there’s a fair amount of flexibility built into the program. I was on what’s called the “part-time track” (though I was putting in “full-time” hours and then some) and completed the program in 18 months.

Some do it in 9 months; some take time off, and come back after a year or more to complete it.

Q: What kind of support did you have?

  • A lot. The program is administered by 2U, and the enrollment counselors (who will be your first point of contact if you express interest) and student success advisors are terrific. So are the TFs, and I believe additional office hours, etc., have been introduced since I was in the program.

Q: Is there a lot of/will I need to learn programming?

  • Yes, but “a lot” depends on your programming background. For me, it was a lot (we used R, SQL, and Python) because I hadn’t programmed since I was in middle school. You cannot get away from R, so don’t think you can. Resources I used time and time again include:

Personally, I did not find the resources we were originally pointed to – Codecademy and DataCamp – very helpful, perhaps because the free trial was too limited for me. And really, when you’re dropping that kind of cash on Hahvahd, the last thing you want is to drop more just to be able to keep up in class (though ironically, I did exactly that, with an IRL stats tutor who did a great job of translating Statspeak into Plain English for me).

Shonali Burke's virtual graduation from HBAPQ: Is it all virtual?

  • The program was conceived as a hybrid learning experience: synchronous online classes and peer learning, a TON of async work, and in-person immersion (which is basically a three-day bootcamp).

It is set up so that you graduate immediately after your second immersion (your final course in the  program).

My first immersion was slated for March 2020, when the world shut down thanks to COVID-19, which meant it was virtual instead.

So, my entire HBAP experience has been virtual (pic at right, my virtual “walk”), but that in no way impacted the quality of the programming.

At some point in the future I believe we will be able to go on campus, which I am really looking forward to!

Q: Which class was your favorite?

  • Erm… all of them…? ;) I was being absolutely sincere when I said we had world-class professors, and every single course was valuable.

Fan-girlwise, I will say “yes” with my eyes closed to anything asked of me by Karim Lakhani, Jan Hammond, David Parkes, or Hanspeter Pfister.

Q: So… did you end up moving into the data field?

  • Thank you for asking! Yet another gift of my HBAP experience was realizing how critical communication is to digital transformation.

I realized that, rather than switching to data science, I could make a greater contribution to social justice and equity by helping a purpose-driven organization tell data-driven stories more effectively.

Now that I much more comfortable with the language of (and challenges surrounding) data, I can do what I love to do, and am really good at, for far greater impact.

Q: Would you do it again?

  • In a heartbeat.

I also chatted with my friend Eric Schwartzman about my HBAP experience on his Earned Media podcast; you might find it interesting. And if you still have questions, the enrollment counselors are truly terrific.

I hope that’s helpful; let me know if there are other questions I can answer for you. And whether you’re considering HBAP, or another program, as you advance in your career, congratulations for investing in the most important person in the world: you!