Here is an informal interview that may be of some help to you plan your career. Reed on:
How does working at a small firm affect your experience?
First, there's a greater range of things that a new analyst can do at our company. It's a very young place, so we don't have as many senior people. There's more upside for new people than there would be at some other places in terms of responsibility. Second, because I've been able to work with some pretty senior-level people, I've gotten thrown in early into thinking strategically about business. And that's great.
On the downside, you don't have the guidance of more experienced people because we're all young. Also, we may not have the range of clients that a larger firm might have.
How has your role evolved since you started?
On my first case, I was assigned a very discrete piece of analysis, and I was managed by somebody else who had designed the overall piece. They checked my work. My first few cases were like that. After I had been at the firm for four to six months, I started to do some of my own work-planning and helped to design analysis. And now that I've been here for about a year and a half, I'm overseeing the work of first-year analysts, and I have more freedom.
What have you learned in consulting?
A friend of mine showed me this cartoon. It's entitled, "How a consultant asks a woman to marry him." The first picture is this guy showing a bar chart to his potential bride that's titled "How my love for you has grown over time." The next one is a 2 by 2 matrix called "My love for you versus other women." And then the last one says "How I feel about spending time with you versus other activities," and it shows golf, sailing, and all these things. This is his presentation to try to win her over! While that's a little extreme, the point is that consulting really hammers into you a structure for how to think about business or anything else in life. Regardless of whether people are planning to go into business or public policy or whatever, it's extremely valuable to have the ability to think logically.
Another thing you get from consulting is concrete, general business skills. You can come off of two years at our firm and have a conversation with someone from marketing, operations, or accounting and have a pretty good talk with them and understand what it is that they do.
Finally, you get thrown into situations that are the equivalent of someone inviting you to come play baseball, where you're playing on their field in front of their fans, and you've seen it played but you've never really played it yourself. And you're playing for a million dollars, and they've been playing for twenty years and are pretty good. And after you've done that a couple of times, you get the self-confidence of knowing that given three or four days, you can come off sounding pretty knowledgeable. That ability is an ingredient you'll find in CEOs and senators, I believe. It's taking limited information and sounding credible and developing intelligent views.
When the senior guys at consulting firms come in toward the end of a project, they'll take what several other people have done, and package and market it extremely well to the client. There are two types of senior guys at our firm. There's one type who's just a brilliant business analyst in general and then there's another who isn't. But one thing they have in common is they can both tell a very good story.
What has surprised you about consulting?
I didn't understand the whole lifestyle issue. At first, when I heard that consultants travel four days a week, I thought it sounded pretty cool. Now I've been traveling two days a week and I think four days would be really difficult. So as for lifestyle, it's hard to have a good sense for it until you're actually doing it. Some of the undergrads I've interviewed say things like: "The lifestyle doesn't seem so bad in consulting-it's about seventy-five or eighty hours a week." They have no idea what they're talking about. That's a lot of hours, and you definitely feel it.
Second, I have found that there are some businesses I really enjoy working in and others I don't. Consulting firms work with a lot of industrial companies in businesses like chemicals, steel manufacturing, or plastics. These companies hire consultants because they make big capital spending decisions and don't have the allure to draw in talented young people for their own full-time staffs. If you're a bright young person, the prospect of working with those firms isn't particularly exciting. It can be really frustrating. If you end up working with some steel company for over a year, it's almost like you're working for them. You're really immersed in their culture. Out of college nobody would say "Hey, I'll go work for some steel company," but somehow you end up doing that anyway through consulting. So in general, you're not able to control the nature of the consulting assignment you're going to get. If I were analyzing which consulting firm to join, I would want to know what the expertise of the firm is, and I'd also like to know how much control I'm going to have over my assignments.
A friend of mine got stuck in the salt industry, and during this first conversation with his clients they tried to convince him that salt is not really a commodity product. You're working with these forty-five-year-old managers who have been in the salt business for twenty-five years and you have to figure out how you are going to get motivated to learn about the business.
How would you describe your colleagues? What traits do they share?
Well, consultants in general, I would say that they're not quite as aggressive or social in general as investment bankers. They're more reserved and academic. I've met people who did well in investment banking who I don't think would do well in consulting.
I've noticed that in consulting people talk a lot about how smart someone is. Intellectual horsepower is important. In high school, people talked a lot about how good-looking someone is. And in college it was how cool you are-instruments, sports, that kind of thing. In consulting, people really admire others' intelligence. They are smart and passionate and interested in things.
So you've bonded with your colleagues?
Yes, but I've found that there are only about four or five people I would want to hang out with after work. One thing that does happen in a small office is that people rely on others in the office for their own social life, even to the point of dating people in the office. It's almost like an extension of college. One other thing is that people really care where you went to school. There is some elitism.
What advice would you give to someone deciding which consulting firm to work for?
You want to think about the brand name on your resume-ten years from now, what are people going to think? The major reason for going into consulting is to leverage it into another career.
If you go to a more established company, there's more stability. You'll be more actively managed and there will be more senior people on your team. The downside is that although they treat people well, they have more room to muscle people around and they're just not as responsive to individual needs. At smaller, less well-known firms, there's more of an opportunity to rise up, but you'll be less actively managed. Also if you do well there, there's more upside financially as well.
How do consultants at your firm feel about their experiences?
One negative thing is the lack of diversity within our firm; especially racial diversity. There's a limited number of black and Hispanic consultants. We have a council trying to work on that. But the problem is, in the pool we interview from, there are very few black or Hispanic candidates we can interview.
How do you think women find working at your firm and in consulting?
The experience will depend on the client you're working with. For example, if you're working with a big industrial client in the Midwest and you're young and you're a woman, there's going to be an additional hurdle you have to get over in winning over the client. But I think women speak very highly of our firm and our culture. It's a very sensitive and politically correct place, and about as different as you can imagine from an investment bank.
But one story might illustrate the problems women face in consulting. There's a woman at our firm who went to business school after being an analyst, and a partner came to visit her and took her to dinner and asked what they could do to recruit her back to the firm, and she said that her decision was primarily going to based on lifestyle issues, because she wanted to raise a family. She didn't want to trade off not having a family. And he said, "What trade-off? I see my kids twice a week, every week!" And he was bragging about that.
Where does this job fit in with your overall career path and where would you like to be in a couple of years?
I want to work in the technology industries, but I want an MBA, too. I've heard it's hard to get into business school with just two years of consulting. So I'll do two years here and then a stint at a medium-size company, or I'll do four years here and then move on to business school.