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The Final Exam

Jai Krishnan, a graduate student in the Engineering Design and Innovation MS program at Northwestern University in Illinois, won the inaugural Build U. scholarship.

Below is Jai Krishnan’s winning essay for the inaugural Build U. scholarship:

Jacquelyn Designmann was well settled in her desk as her classmates teleported in just before the bell rang. Being relaxed was more important than last second cramming. The professor began, “Well students, best of luck on your final exam today. Hopefully you absorbed at least some of my fascination with ancient American business practices. To pass my Advanced History of Capitalism course, you will be required to build your own corporation. The twist is your simulated society will be from the last millennium, before shared consciousness was invented. As always, you may use the consultant module in CivilizationSimulator 3013 to debug your code. Please begin.”

Sales, Marketing, HR, Engineering, Jacquelyn went through the mental checklist a second time, just to be certain. Sure enough, every department was in place, and she still had time to spare! With a deep breath, she hit simulate and…

They had negotiated for an hour, but it felt like three. The way these two managers argued, I would never guess they worked for the same company.

“Go ahead and build your new database, but why would I pay for it? You can’t expect the finance team to spend its budget on a sales project.”

 “The sales developers are building this website for you finance guys! You are the ones who wanted daily transaction data, why can’t you chip in?”

“Well if we pay, can I add some features?”

“Our design is locked, we’re not allowing any more changes.”

I stifled my growing desire to scream and like a good consultant suggested a compromise for the fourth time. Or rather, tried to suggest. “Folks, the important thing is doing what is right for the company. Surely we can finish the project this year if both of your teams share the cost of-“

“No way! I’m not paying without a say in what we’re building.”

“If we have to start over with the design, I’m quitting the project.”

Of course, the unity statement. Jacquelyn forgot to link all the departments under one leader, and her reasonable employees were getting into unreasonable fights. She added a line of code and began a second simulation…

I clicked to the “Questions?” slide of my presentation, and breathed a sigh of relief. Delivering suggestions for improvement is never easy, but the hard part was over. Or so I thought. The client engineer let the silence smother the room before clearing his throat.

 “That’s a good bunch of ideas you got there. Real good. Its just that…”

 I was trained for situations like this. “We love feedback at Accenture, please feel free to speak your mind.”

 “Well, you know what my boss told me when I started working at this energy plant? You have to decide if you want to share your ideas, or keep your job. Our VP, sometimes I think he couldn’t get dressed in the morning unless corporate told him what to wear. There’s no way he’s going to sit through a 30 minute speech about what the company is doing wrong and why his teams are inefficient.”

My ideas had been rejected before, but this was unusually rough. “So…what do you recommend I present?” 

“How about you focus on that idea for a recycling program? Corporate likes the environment.”

Jacquelyn furrowed her brow. If individuality bred fighting and authority stifled creativity, what was the ideal middle ground? The simulator didn’t have a setting for “some unity”, what other option was there? If only there was a way to have her employees behave like the consultants. In fact, how did the simulator generate those consultants? With a few deft moves, Jacquelyn hacked the consultant module and began reading. Instead of a unity statement, there was a function called Accenture_Core_Values. The simulator program was exposing every consultant to broad values like “Stewardship” and “Integrity” without hardwiring them. Jacquelyn had never seen anything like it, but time was running out, so after a few copy/paste combos, she ran her third simulation…

I had always enjoyed wearing a suit. Add some sunlight and catered breakfast and I was all set for some soulless brainwashing. But the HR director’s introduction was a pleasant surprise.

“Let me be the first to welcome you to Jacq-centure, we’re so excited to have you join our family. Before I begin, you should know that your career here is entirely in your hands. You will always have guidance and mentorship, but ultimately, you get to define how your thousands of coworkers can assist you in doing great work. So when I present our core values, think deeply about how you want to incorporate them to your work and life. The more time spent thinking about how our institution’s beliefs complement your own, the more you will bring Jacq-centure thinking to clients around the world.”

Jacquelyn rewarded herself with a smile and hit submit. A week later, her professor contacted her.

“Jacquelyn, I gave you an A- for your final exam. Hacking the consultant module to create your own company was brilliantly creative. Your employees were able to influence and be influenced by the corporate culture, which made Jacq-centure both tightly-knit and innovative. I have to wonder though, how far did you run your simulation? Did you know that after 5 years, your virtual employee decides he wants to work on social impact projects, quits the company, and goes to design graduate school at Northwestern? It seems like a major flaw in your program.”

Jacquelyn shook her head. “Actually professor, that was exactly how the simulation was designed to run. Shared beliefs don’t only keep companies running smoothly, they also provide a measuring stick for how well the employee and employer match. If their values diverge too far, having the employee leave might actually be better for everyone.”

“Well then, let’s change that grade to an A+. Would you like to teach the course next year?”