10 things business school students should know for a career in data analytics consulting
On November 12, 2019, I gave a one-hour lecture at the Stuart School of Business at the Illinois Institute of Technology titled Careers in Consulting. I knew each student wanted to be there since it was finals and bitterly cold.
We discussed 10 key points to having a successful career in data analytics consulting. In addition, I shared my career trajectory and lessons learned.
I asked each student their most important key take away at the end. You may be surprised by what they answered.
I started the lecture by walking up to each student, greeting them, and shaking hands. I handed each of them my business card. We spoke about how business cards complete a formal business introduction and enable contact.
The 10 things graduate students should know about a career in data analytics consulting
Point 1: Trust and reputation matter
Of the two business cards, which makes it easier to sell and deliver projects?
An IBM card (my prior role) represents often decades-old relationships between companies often worth millions of dollars, and the trust that IBM will stand behind the contract. IBM will make it a successful project as it has the will and resources to do so.
The US Advanced Computing Infrastructure, Inc. card represents an unknown entity. They may know and trust the person who hands it to them, but the firm lacks reputation and resources. In our startup, we are spending the first year building that reputation based on our team of associates, research, publications, marketing, conferences, and sharing knowledge. We will have to work harder for every sale.
My advice to students is to work for a firm with a trusted name and solid reputation for their first consulting job. It can be a large industrial firm, like Siemens, GE or Honeywell, a technology firm like IBM, HPe, or Oracle, or an established consultancy.
Point 2: Put the Client First
The key point in the consultant / client relationship when we move from selling to serving is when the client signs the agreement and is paying for your time. When that happens, you must hold their interests above yours in every case and in every interaction. You also must adopt and uphold a standard of business conduct and professionalism like the American Institute of CPA guidelines.
Trust is built on reliable service, competency in solving their problem, intimacy and connection during the project, but can be instantly destroyed by self interest. Put the client first and serve them without conflicts of interest.
Point 3: Have charisma and sell
On a snowy day in Kitzbuhel, Austria, I learned from a consulting training that the client should enjoy meeting with you, prepare for, and look forward to those meetings. We were taught to try and make it their favorite meeting of the week. How? By bringing an awareness and care for the people you will be meeting. Cover the topics for the project and be yourself, be authentic, be interesting, and be curious.
Build a relationship, keep your eyes and ears open, share relevant information, and find ways your firm can create more client business value. The consultant creates value for both the client and the consulting firm when they identify and develop new ideas for projects.
Point 4: Have a ‘T-shaped’ profile
As consultants, we may have wide ranging interests. We can have conversations across industries, levels of seniority, and topics. It makes us effective, but it does not make us valuable. Clients will not fly you across continents, or pay premium consulting rates for a ‘jack of all trades, master of none.’
Our value, and client demand, comes from being exceptionally good at something. Our consulting focus at that time. The vertical line of the ‘T’ represents an area of deep expertise where we strive to be the best in the world. To be an expert you must focus your efforts. Two examples I shared were 1) Insurance Industry, Property & Casualty, Claims, Reducing Fraud and 2) Financial Services, Asset Management, Equity Portfolio, Optimization.
Since it is a global marketplace for talent, and consulting fees are high relative to full-time employees, strive to be the world’s best at something that you want to do so clients have a reason to engage you.
I told a story of a lecture I gave to a graduating class at Northwestern University in Chicagoland years ago. At that time, starting salary expectations were $21/hour. At that same time, MBAs in Beijing were accepting jobs for $3/hour. I asked the students whether being in the USA, with access to better infrastructure and libraries made us 7x more valuable than similar students in Beijing? Nobody thought it did. At that time, the outsourcing and offshoring model was not as wide-spread, but I saw the global market for talent coming.
Point 5: Pick a business domain
You should have an industry that you focus on and learn about, and where you concentrate your project work. You can solve multiple client problems in that industry, and if possible, deeper into business processes. Become a student of that business domain by learning the language, the best practices, the toolsets, and the people who excel at it.
Point 6: Pick a technical domain
Choose which tools and techniques you use to solve client’s problems. In technology-based consulting, this could be building an expertise in an application or a technology infrastructure stack. It could be a certain method of analysis. An example is the ‘quant’ or ‘high speed trading’ teams in an investment bank. They master a way of working.
Point 7: Take the executive mindset
What is the difference between a consultant and a technician? A technician thinks about the problem to be solved in a focused way. A consultant thinks top-down about the company or organization they serve. They look at the big picture, and take into account shareholder value, cash flow, strategic issues, employee concerns, community stakeholders, and even government regulation as it applies to their client and project scope.
I told a story about a large contract for enterprise software maintenance, support and operations that we won. A large contract, valued at over $20M/year. The sales team set up an in-person meeting with the head of procurement for IT and my first business statement was “I notice that you have an extra billion dollars tied up on the balance sheet that can be used to lend to your clients. If we win the contract, we will work hard and focus on freeing up that billion dollars.” I figured that out by studying their financial statements. I did not realize that it was the #1 priority of the CEO. I did not know that a specific conversation was had between that procurement executive and the CEO the prior week on that same topic. I never did get to talk about the software or how we deliver maintenance. We won the highly competitive contract and kept it for years.
Point 8: Problem Solving Method
There are three types of problem solving that a consultant faces. The first is computation, or ‘the math.’ Most of us can do this, and consultants are trained to do this in their heads, and to memorize key facts and figures. The second is analytical or logical problem solving. A + B + C leads to D. Lay out the problem and solve it in an organized way. Draw conclusions based on facts and analysis. Again, most people can do this. The third type of problem solving is conceptual. The ability to see a system, understand the connections, interdependencies, and flow, and really see it function. The ability to abstract away the details from a problem and focus on the core. To see ‘the big picture’ and be able to imagine how it could and should change. This is not very common, and is a required skillset for management consultants.
Point 9: Break down a problem to solve it
We are a management consultancy, and we outline how we work on our homepage. Consultants have to think about this process, and understand the work they will be doing.
The first part of the work is to identify and communicate ‘the art of the possible’ for the client. Help them to see what can be, and what life might be like if that could be brought to reality in their situation.
The second part is problem solving. It starts with a hypothesis and breaking down the problem. We then figure out the math behind the question. We seek the right algorithm or model to solve the problem and run it on a computer.
The fuel for this problem solving machine is the data. Most first year consultants will spend their time identifying, extracting, transforming, cleaning and loading data to be analyzed. This is hard and important work. Quality data is required to do real consulting.
Point 10: Trust
My last point is that consulting always comes down to trust. The client trusts us to put their interests first, to be predictable and reliable, and believes that we are capable to solve their problem. We as consultants do the incredibly hard work of fulfilling those expectations.
When I reviewed my resume with the students, it showed that as a consultant, my value came from selecting something and being focused on building that capability and skillset over a period of 12 years. That enabled me to move into general management of consulting businesses.
An important point from my education. None of my majors or courses of study gave me any specific expertise that clients would pay for. After college, I became a programmer and a disaster recovery consultant that eventually used economic theory to understand, and benchmark, the structure of IT costs. After my Masters degree, which was 20 classes in 20 different topics, I extended my focus from IT cost management to include IT outsourcing advisory services, and after many years, added the globalization and automation of IT services.
Student Key Take Aways
At the end of the lecture, I asked each student the same question. Was this a helpful discussion (yes/no) and what was the one thing you remember the most from the discussion. The students could also ask questions at this time.
Key Take Away #1: Focus Focus our energies as a consultant and work to be the greatest at something. Finding an area that we want to work in.
Key Take Away #2: Professionalism Have a professional manner when meeting business contacts, including the exchange of business cards.
For more information, please contact Jeffrey Cohen at Chicago Quantum. We also made a video about this lecture.