STEM to Business: 2016 year in review

STEM to Business: 2016 year in reviewWell, it’s that time. 2016 is almost done. And it’s been an awesome year here at STEM to Business.

I want to cover a few items in this post. First, I want to discuss my motivation for launching, and continuing, STEM to Business. Second, I want to look back at the 5 most viewed posts in 2016. Third, I want to look ahead briefly to 2017.

My motivation for STEM to Business

I’ll start with a little background. This site itself is a little over one year old. My “Hello world!” post was published on October 30, 2015. My first “real” post appeared on November 2, 2015. It was titled “Looking to transition from engineering to business?”

I have had one overarching idea in mind since I launched STEM to Business: to help scientists and engineers learn more about the non-technical side of business. My motivation is selfish, really. I’m creating the site I wish I had when I was starting my career in industry.

Early in my career, I was selected to participate in a leadership development program. The senior executives designed the program for early career PhD scientists and engineers like me. I quickly realized that I had large gaps in my knowledge of business, generally. I had the technical side under control. But trying to marry the technical side with the commercial and financial sides was tough.

I did a ton of reading. I spoke with our best leaders. Over time, and through trial and error, I pieced together an understanding of how large corporations functioned. I cut through the nonsense that keeps a lot of people from thinking and speaking clearly about business.

One of my goals for STEM to Business is to create the resource I wish I had when I was getting acclimated to industry. I try to cover the topics that would have been useful to me. I try to offer the perspective that I would have found most helpful.

Another of my goals for STEM to Business is much more selfish. The idea is best captured by this quote from Joan Didion:

I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.

I spend so much time invested in my day job that I know what I think in that context. Or at least I have an idea of what I might think. But when it comes to the stuff I cover here at STEM to Business, sometimes I don’t know what I think. I have to start writing. After I get a few hundred words into a draft, I hone my thoughts. Then something more or less coherent comes out.

That’s why, even if I got zero readers, writing at STEM to Business would still be valuable for me. It helps me organize my thoughts about things that may or may not be relevant to my day job. It rounds me out. It helps me have more interesting, more engaging conversations.

So that’s my motivation for STEM to Business. On the one hand, I think of it as a service to people following a similar path from technical expertise to business prowess. On the other hand, I think of it as a pathway for self improvement. That’s why I’m still so excited about STEM to Business, 15 months into my journey. I anticipate keeping this experiment going for a long time into the future.

Most viewed posts in 2016

Now I want to share the 5 posts that earned the most views in 2016. I think they give you a good idea of where my head is, and how I’m trying to engage with readers.

Number 1. How much cash do Apple and Google have?

This one is by far my most viewed post. I’m not surprised by that, since Apple’s cash pile is pretty ostentatious. The main takeaway from the post is that, yes, Apple has a ton of cash, but it takes many forms. It’s not just the cold, hard variety sitting in a bank vault somewhere. Apple safely invests its cash, trying to do a little bit better than shoving it under a mattress.

The Apple and Google cash post relies heavily on publicly-disclosed financial data. That’s been one continuing theme in the first year plus here at STEM to Business. I try to use financial data to give substance to ideas that are loosely talked about in the news. Part of my motivation is to show people how easy it is to find real data. We don’t have to rely on second hand sources selectively disclosing the most sensational data points.

Number 2. How does JPMorgan Chase make money?

This post also relies heavily on publicly-disclosed data on the SEC website. I read JPMorgan Chase’s annual report to understand where its revenue and earnings dollars came from. I used this post to sketch out the bank’s structure and catalogue its financial performance.

Like the Apple cash story, the financial performance of banks dominates financial news coverage. I’m not surprised this post was viewed a lot. It was a fun post to write. I plan to do a deeper dive into banking during 2017.

Number 3. Department stores are failing. Executives don’t know why

While I wasn’t surprised at the view counts for the Apple and JPMorgan Chase posts above, I have been consistently surprised by the high view counts for this post. I saw a quote where a Kohl’s executive was at a loss to explain why the performance of his business has been declining. He didn’t know if there was a macroeconomic explanation, or if something was specifically wrong with Kohl’s.

My point was that the problem isn’t with the economy, nor is it with Kohl’s specifically. The problem is with the department store business model. They’re all failing.

I’m sometimes surprised at the silly things that executives will say when they’re trying to explain their struggles. I suppose these folks are so used to success that failure perplexes them. Regardless, it was also a fun post to write. And I’m always on the lookout for rich, powerful people saying silly stuff.

Number 4.  Malcolm Gladwell, Revisionist History, and celebrity CEOs

This is one of the post ideas that came to me out of the blue. I was listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast. He was talking about “strong link” systems versus “weak link” systems. And I immediately started to ask myself about that concept, relative to business.

The performance of a “strong link” systems depends most on the performance of the system’s strongest element. Think of a basketball team. A basketball team gets better most quickly when its best player improves. A “weak link” system improves most when its weakest link improves. A soccer team is a “weak link” system.

In the post, I made the argument that business is a weak link system. Even though celebrity CEOs get all the attention, it’s the front line folks that make the biggest difference. It’s just impossible to know all their names and faces. It’s one of my examples where narrative gets in our way. It’s easy to write stories about business celebrities. But the real work is done by nameless, faceless people working their asses off.

Number 5. My interview with a PhD engineer running for state office

Here was another post off the beaten path. In studying up for the state elections here in Texas this November, I dove pretty deeply into the Texas Railroad Commissioner race. The Railroad Commission regulates the oil and gas industry. It has nothing to do with railroads. Strange, right?

The Libertarian candidate for Railroad Commissioner had a PhD in petroleum engineering from Stanford. He also had compelling experience in industry and academia. I asked him, via an email through his website, if I could interview him. And he accepted. I posted the transcript here at STEM to Business, partly as a way to show a nontraditional way that scientists and engineers can contribute to society.

Looking ahead to 2017

Two potential themes immediately jump out to me, in term of posts for 2017:

  1. The impact of rising US interest rates, specifically on banks
  2. The impact of a stronger US dollar, particularly on companies that rely extensively on international sales

Rising US interest rates should help banks get off the mat. Also, Donald Trump’s administration has indicated it’ll ease financial regulation. These two reinforcing effects could make for an interesting turn for big banks.

The global economy is also at an interesting inflection. The US economy is strengthening. But we’re not seeing so much strength elsewhere in the world. China might be faltering. Europe is struggling to break free from its malaise. Brexit may weigh even further on growth.

Who knows exactly what 2017 will bring. But I’m excited to cover it. I hope to reach even more visitors in 2017 than I did in 2016. I also hope to find new ways to bring scientists and engineers into a broader discussion of the workings of business.

My career really began to accelerate once I developed some business acumen to go along with my technical expertise. My goal here at STEM to Business is to share what I’ve already learned, and what I’m in the process of learning, so others can take advantage of it. And I couldn’t be more excited to continue the journey into 2017.

Thanks for reading. It means the world to me.

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