Jitendra Subramanyam -- IT Management Consulting
Let’s begin by demystifying consulting. What do consultants do?
The consulting world can be split up into three types of companies. One I’ll simply call management consulting. You have clients, you go on the road, you listen to problems, you solve them (figure out how to improve operations, lower costs, whatever’s needed), you stay on for a little while and help implement some of the solutions, and then you do it again. The best known consultancies of this type are McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group (BCG), and Bain. The big 4 accounting firms – KPMG, Price Waterhouse Coopers (PwC), Deloitte, and Ernst and Young (E&Y) also have management consulting arms.
Another kind of consulting is “implementation” consulting. This is most applicable to a field like information technology where companies not only need to know what to do but also need to get it done—i.e., need to implement the systems and get things to work. Companies like IBM Global Services, Infosys, Cognizant, Tata Consulting Services do this kind of consulting. It requires a lot of technical knowledge that is specific to information technology systems.
Finally, there are advisory firms. These are usually branches of consulting companies devoted to research and productizing this research in one way or another. Rather than have a slew of consultants on the ground at client companies, advisory firms write research reports, identify best practices, and provide data or products that are meant not just for a single client but a large number of them.
For example, they might do research on identifying how an industry should react to a kind of threat, or a change in supply, or falling oil prices. This research is then written up or “productized” and sold to clients or used to market the firm’s products and services. You can think of it like the Rand Corporation, but toned down quite a bit. Almost every traditional consulting firm (the first kind above) has an advisory group. And of course there are advisory companies like CEB (formerly known as Corporate Executive Board) and Frontier Strategy Group that specialize in advisory consulting.
Advisory in the form of financial analyst reports are also a prominent function of investment banks of all sizes. Financial analysts of this kind closely follow publicly traded companies in a particular industry sector and provide investment guidance (buy/hold/sell recommendations). If I had to pick, I’d say philosophy graduates are particularly suited to the advisory consulting world.
What are the names of some firms that do advisory consulting?
The firms that are best known for advisory consulting are also best known for their traditional management consulting. The top 3 (my subjective picks) would be McKinsey, including the McKinsey Global Institute, Boston Consulting Group (BCG), and Deloitte. CEB is a large—about 4,600 employees—consulting firm that specializes in advisory consulting. Gartner is a very large IT advisory firm. Forrester is also a large well-known advisory firm that covers more than IT (but less than CEB).
Consulting has a reputation for sending you everywhere. Does it indeed require a lot of travel?
Yes, working at management or implementation consulting firms involves a lot of travel no matter how new or how experienced you are. A normal week consists of flying out to the client site—it’s usually an office building, but it could be a factory, a warehouse, a construction site, etc.—and flying back home on Thursday night or early Friday morning, depending on where the client is located. You do this every week until you finish the engagement, which can last anywhere from a few weeks to a few years. It can be anywhere in the world but usually it ends up being within a 6-hour flight from where you live.
As you become more experienced and move up the ladder at these firms, the time spent on the road is the same but the locations become more varied. Rather than just go to a client and back every week, experienced consultants (Managing Directors and Partners/Principals) can count on trips to multiple clients in the course of a week. You’re basically living on planes with brief interludes on the ground. I have a friend, who when asked where he lives, says with a quite straight face, “United Airlines.”
Advisory-type consulting also sends you on the road, but it’s usually not as much of a treadmill. The trips are shorter and less regular but make no mistake, you’ll get to know your local airport very well! For me, travel was exciting and fun even if I had to do it a lot. For people who have families, kids, other kinds of local commitments, it can quickly become quite difficult, if not impossible.
Are philosophers an attractive hire for one of these firms?
For some of them. Some consulting companies value generalists. These firms take the view that if you’re smart and you’re willing to learn, they can teach you anything. That’s one style of consulting firm: it includes Bain, BCG, and McKinsey. CEB was like that—otherwise I would never have had the opportunity. I think philosophers could be really attractive to this kind of firm.
Implementation consulting firms require very specific knowledge of technology and systems. It’s harder to break into these firms as a generalist. This is a path that is obviously less suitable to philosophy graduates.
If you’re not, say, 27—if you’ve finished your PhD, you’ve been teaching for a few years—are you still a candidate for the firms you mentioned?
Sure. Age is not an issue unless it is for you. There probably will be some question about age from the standpoint of being able to work together with or for younger colleagues (sometimes much younger). As long as you’re comfortable with that, you’ll be fine.
We’re all used to being with very smart people in our Ph.D. programs. Consulting firms are packed with very smart people – not necessarily the kind of smarts that would incline them to a degree in philosophy; but plenty smart nonetheless.
Can you reach out to consulting firms about jobs?
They do advertise jobs, but sending in a CV or cold-calling is not typically effective. A lot of talent gets wasted because recruiters don’t screen for the right thing; they are overly sensitive to two or three key words that if you don’t know to use gets you discarded immediately. You won’t have these problems if you can find someone inside a firm who can bring you to the attention of the right people at the firm.
Tell me about the interview process.
Most consulting firms take the selection process very seriously. They’ll give you a case about a business situation and expect you to think on your feet. Case interviews, as they’re called, are meant show how a candidate thinks through a practical problem. I think most philosophy grad students would excel at case interviews but it does take some preparation. There are some really good books that go over the techniques you need to excel at case interviews; one of my favorites is Case in Point: Complete Case Interview Preparation by Marc Cosentino. Another is a series of books called Ace Your Case published by Wet Feet Consulting.
Most consulting firms also have lots of information on their interviewing process on their websites. Check them out before your interviews!
Are these cases much like actual consulting work? Would it be a good way to test one’s interest in consulting?
Yes and no. Some of it is trivial, e.g., questions like “how many gas stations are in Nevada?” Other questions are meant to throw you off or put you under pressure. But most of it is about giving you an open-ended business problem and seeing you work your way through it. You’re expected to bring in both quantitative and qualitative considerations. There are many methods of arriving at an answer to a question like that. Firms want to see if you are sufficiently with it to get to an answer in a clear and interesting way. If you’re intrigued by cases, then it’s likely that you’ll find the typical problems that clients have interesting as well.
The thinking part of it is fun but you may hate the topics and not want to “rent your brain” solving these kinds of problems. If you hate this aspect of the corporate world, then consulting is probably not right for you.
So a fastidious philosopher has to think, this isn’t about getting a correct answer, the interviewer just wants to see my thinking process on display.
Yes, and often the interviewer will by design put you under stress. They’ll make you feel like they’re angry at you, or try to throw you off, and for good reason. It’s not uncommon to find yourself in a CEO’s office of a $3 billion company and it takes guts to pull yourself together and say, gosh, I don’t know much, but here I am in this plush office and the CEO wants to talk to me so I’d better pull myself together and start making sense. Can you do that? Case interviews are supposed to be a test of this ability.
Let me start asking you about your transition out of philosophy and into consulting and IT work. When did you first start thinking about leaving philosophy?
I laugh because I really never had any job inside philosophy other than being a TA and being an adjunct professor. I came to Washington, D.C. because my wife, who is an academic, got a job here. I got a few adjunct jobs; then I taught a semester of logic at Mary Washington College; I taught two semesters of logic at Towson State University. It was difficult to maintain any kind of momentum, and there was a very high degree of uncertainty.
As an undergrad, I studied physics, philosophy, and electrical engineering. I had strong interests in physics and philosophy in grad school. But until 1998, I had never done any programming other than some LISP programming as an undergraduate for a course on Artificial Intelligence. I didn’t find it interesting then. But in 1998-99, I started getting into programming by accident when I started experimenting with HTML and other web technologies, and I got deeper and deeper into it. Programming started to become interesting. It felt very much like writing a paper, sometimes even more interesting and fulfilling.
After not getting any interviews for tenure track positions, I started looking seriously for non-academic jobs. I saw an ad for a job at a very small consulting company outside of Washington, DC. I wrote to them and they had me in for an interview. I had applied to many such jobs, and hadn’t heard from any of them. This was the first company, and in fact the only one, where I’ve written and they’ve actually replied! I went to talk to the owner of the firm and that’s how I got my first consulting job.
What was that work like?
They consulted for government organizations, primarily on energy issues. In 1999, the hottest issue in energy was California’s deregulation of the electric utilities. Everyone needed help figuring out what to do, including the utilities in California. They had me building computer models for these utilities to show them how to price their product and where to sell it. When I started I had no idea how to do any of this. So I read the regulations (as much as I could make sense of them) and reports on the regulations, talked to the people at the utilities, and started to learn what they were facing. I spent the bulk of my time at work learning how to build economic models and turn them into computer simulations. I learned a ton of economics, which I’ve never taken a single class in. I got better at programming. I gave lots of presentations. I was on the phone a tremendous amount—that took some getting used to; I still hate being on the phone but now it’s easier to do.
I was at this firm for a year and a half. It taught me two things. The first thing was that no matter what area, one can get to a certain degree of competence really quickly. It also taught me that non-academic work wasn’t as boring as I’d feared. People who want an academic career want it for certain reasons: you want to be work on the things that you think are important. You’re motivated by that, and the big fear of being in a non-academic position is that someone is going to dictate what you need to do and how you should spend your time. What this job taught me is that I didn’t have to fear that very much because there are a lot of interesting problems in the world.
Let me offer an anecdote about the difference between academic and business research: it was an eye opener for me at the time. I was at a business convention where my job was to tell utility company executives how to price their products. Here I was with this complicated model that made tons of assumptions—I had kept a very careful list of them and the justifications for why I was making them. I gave the talk; told them this is how the pricing should work. I was anticipating, as at any philosophy talk, that the first question would be how on earth did you come up with this? What are your assumptions? Walk us through your reasoning. But absolutely no one asked me about any of that. They just took my word for it and started asking about the business ramifications of the pricing structure.
After your two years at this small firm, where did you go next?
I went to a firm called iDev, now a subsidiary of a large web programming company, that built websites for other companies. I had a friend who worked there—actually the son-in-law of my philosophy Ph.D. thesis advisor—and he said why don’t you come and interview here? So I did and I got the job. One of the first things I worked on was Al Gore’s website for his election 2000 presidential election campaign!
But the firm didn’t hire me as a programmer. They hired me as the person who would go to the client and say, OK, what are your requirements, what do you need to be doing, and then figure out what exactly we needed to build for that client. So I was on the front end of the whole process. It taught me a great deal about how people think about their businesses, how to build things for them in a way that pleases them, and different ways to manage different types of clients.
The next company I went to—and this is just amazingly lucky—the CEO of this company and I just ran into each other at a mutual friend’s and the CEO said to me, “I have this web programming company. Do you want to be a programmer for us?” And that was it. The company, AgencyQ, is now a large and successful marketing agency in Washington, D.C., but at that time, they had about 10 employees. That’s when I got deep into learning the various programming languages that powered the web and started learning about IT architecture and designing and building IT systems on a bigger scale.
One of the jobs that I held for the longest period of time was for 6 years with a company called CEB. As I discussed earlier, CEB is an advisory firm; they primarily do research, not management or implementation consulting. CEB was the most cerebral business environment I’ve been in and one that would be the friendliest to philosophers. If you look at the organizational chart of a typical Fortune 500 company, one level below the CEO are all of these C-level positions—CFO, CIO, etc. And then one level below the C-level positions are the vice presidents or senior managers. The best way to characterize CEB is to say they sell research to every one of those C-level and VP positions across the spectrum of corporate functions such as finance, supply chain, operations, IT, marketing, HR, and so on.
You started at a smaller consulting firm, but within couple of moves you were able to move far up in the industry. It sounds like there may be more mobility than in philosophy.
It’s much easier to move around in the corporate world than it is in the academic world. If the company or your group within the company is small enough, and your job is meaningful enough, you can quickly show that you belong; you can quickly have an impact. Actually, for a while I had to hide that I was a philosophy Ph.D. because that just sounded a bit weird and got people needlessly sidetracked.
Tell me more about the nature of the research that consultants do. Is it different from academic research, basically the same?
I would say that it’s basically the same, but it’s client-driven. What I mean by that is you work on very specific problems and sometimes you’re put in a position of needing to say what the client wants to hear and you have to preserve objectivity while still making sure that you’re pleasing the client. You have to be able to live with that. As I discussed earlier, clients are also much more focused on the implications of your conclusions and less interested in how you got there.
I’ll cut to the present day. Three years ago I left a management consulting firm called Hackett. They specialize in IT, supply chain, and business operations. I decided to see if I could form my own consulting company and work on the things that I most enjoyed, which have been data and analytics oriented.
Can you translate what your data analytics work looks like for a layperson?
Sure. It revolves around the kinds of things a company can learn from the data that it already has, or the kind of data it would need to solve a problem it has. For example, I’ve worked on projects where people accumulated a lot of cost data and wanted to analyze it to see what they could control, where they should be cutting, where they should be investing. You look for patterns in the data. These clients tend to be in finance and IT, but they could be in any field these days. Non-profits ask similar questions about data on child mortality rates and female education rates in their efforts to build effective children’s health programs. The techniques are pretty much the same.
A client wants to measure something, and needs to know how to go about doing that. For example, if you are a federal agency in Washington, D.C., you have certain IT requirements that no one else has. The law requires that particular data centers show that they are stable under nuclear attack. One of the projects I did was for a federal organization that has data centers within a sixty-mile radius of Washington. When the law was passed that they needed special procedures for their data center, the question became, how to measure stability of the data center from attack? My job was not to worry about the physical security of the building but the security of the data itself. If they were attacked, or had a natural disaster, how quickly could they bring their systems back up and running? The problem in this case was how to measure the quickness of coming back up and running. What are the different measures; how do we calculate that? That’s another kind of problem where this kind of data and analytics thinking comes in.
Before we wrap up, is there any advice or perspective you’d like to share about leaving philosophy?
The hardest thing for me was taking a chance on working on things that others would select for me. I also wrestled with the business world’s orientation toward pleasing its customers above all else. If you’re able to move beyond that, there’s a world of opportunity, not just in consulting but in many other fields where the ability to think through highly ambiguous problems, to make sense of a vast amount of information and pull it together into a coherent statement of opinion… there’s so much opportunity for people who can do that.
It’s hard for me to make any statements about how one should approach this because for me it seemed very much like being in the right place at the right time. I took advantage of opportunities as they presented themselves. If you can figure out the kinds of things you want to do, whether it’s data analysis or policy work or health care or peace-building… there’s a lot of opportunity out there. Seek out these opportunities, preferably through someone you know who’s close to these opportunities, but be adaptable as well, taking advantage of the things that present themselves.