Life as a Consultant at McKinsey to in the Trenches at a Startup, Airtable
Interview with Pete Huang
Learning is often a direct product of finding new and inventive ways to challenge yourself. From taking a class in a subject you are not very confident with to making a big career change in a space you are not familiar with, there are infinite ways you can push yourself outside of your comfort zone.
It generally starts with one big bold bet on doing something brand new. As we learn in this interview with Pete, with the right mindset and work ethic, you can learn anything, from anywhere. The struggle in developing this leverage, learning-first mindset is critical to growth.
Understanding why you do what you do, as Pete explains, is often far more important than the mechanics of execution.
Read the whole thing and let us know what you think! It’s a good one if you are debating between startups, consulting and what to do in the meantime to get you there. Be sure to comment, share, and subscribe!
Hey Pete! Thanks for taking the time to share on Student Hustle.
Introduce yourself! Tell us about where you went to school, where you have worked, and what you are up to nowadays.
My name’s Pete Huang and I’m on the growth team at Airtable. I’m originally from the East SF Bay Area in California, went to Northwestern University and had stints at Palantir Technologies and McKinsey & Company prior to my current role.
What did you study in school? Have any classes been helpful in the real world? If not, where did you learn what has been most helpful at work?
I studied political science and computer science at Northwestern. While I can’t think of one particular class that I constantly think about as “the one that made it all worth it”, I do think I gained a lot from my classes.
Seek out opposites in your coursework
Specifically, if I had to give advice about this, it’d be to actively seek out opposites in your coursework. If you like math, take history with it. If you like political science, take chemistry with it. I believe that for most people, college should be used as a way to build an incredibly strong generalist toolkit. Beyond college, the problems that you solve will never look the same and will never pull from just one topic area. So, to prepare, you want to be able to identify and recognize a wide range of problems and solve them all comfortably. Take coursework that all looks very, very different and force yourself to do well — it will hurt, but it will be worth it.
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How was your experience at Palantir? What was your team like there?
I loved my experience at Palantir! Everyone I interacted with was so intelligent, so curious and so driven to make the most of themselves and of their opportunities — they drove me to new heights and I continue to see them as a source of inspiration.
Importantly, I think my internship there was my deepest period of exposition and reflection. It really hit me about 2 months into the internship, when the other interns (on semester systems; Northwestern is on a quarter system) had left and I had a lot of time to think.
On the first week, I thought a lot about the nagging feeling that had lurked in the corners every day and determined that it was because I didn’t adopt an ownership mindset of my work (or, “bias towards action”, as I learned it was called).
I could have done more and better if I had thought intelligently about the problem instead of blindly following
On the second week, I thought a lot about the actual work I did and determined that I could have done more and better if I had thought intelligently about the problem instead of blindly following what my team lead and mentor meant only as a possible idea.
On the third week, I thought a lot about what this meant for my post-graduation plans and determined that if I had made such fundamental mistakes over an internship, I won’t be as effective or grow as quickly as I would want if I were to re-join Palantir right after graduation.
On the fourth week, I thought a lot about what I determined to be true the last three weeks and checked that those conclusions really had my full conviction — they did.
My time at Palantir was a time of frightening impostor syndrome, failures that surfaced many things I wasn’t happy about and determination to become better than who I was. It kicked me in the ass, and I needed that.
After Palantir you went to work at McKinsey. How was being in consulting? What were your favorite things about working at McKinsey?
I started at McKinsey as the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed fresh grad that McKinsey loves. They always say that the BAs (Business Analysts) were the best of the firm, and while I didn’t understand it at the very beginning, it’s not very hard to see why — I, along with the rest of my class, was a great example of the energy that we brought.
The antsy, out-to-prove-himself Pete would show up early, stay late and demand to help with anything, even and especially the business development and practice-building work that wouldn’t be relevant to me until I got promoted two or three times up the ladder. I wouldn’t let myself fail, and I treated over-achieving as getting a C.
I loved every team I was on. They were sharp and insightful folks. They were fun. They took care of each other and recognized that while they were all part of the company, McKinsey itself is an institution that requires some navigating, and they pulled each other up.
It was fun. It really was quite fun. It felt like every day was a new adventure, a new opportunity to stretch myself and learn from the best in the consulting business. I remember that for my first year, I felt like I would stay there for forever. Engagement manager, junior partner, partner. All the way. It came down to the people. They were why I enjoyed my time so much. They created opportunities for me. They spoke the world of me in a large, global environment where reputation is everything. They brought me in and took care of me.
Was I lucky? Absolutely. I had no decision-making power about the first team I was on, but every team matters — in a reputation-driven environment, a great first experience leads to an even better second, while a sub-par first experience leads to another questionable second. It’s a place where your experience can snowball in any direction very quickly, and the fact that my first team and I worked so well together literally made the rest of my time there extremely positive. But I can’t and won’t complain. I had an amazing time at McKinsey.
What were your least favorite parts about the consulting world?
At the same time, while the first year could not have gone any better, the last 6 months or so I was there started to take a toll on me. The honeymoon period, despite it lasting way longer for me than for others, had come to a close.
I strongly believed that finding your superpower is better done sooner than later
I felt frustrated that I couldn’t point to a single skill that would distinguish me in a company. I knew that I wouldn’t be in professional services forever (few are), and I strongly believed that finding your superpower is better done sooner than later. Accordingly, the longer I was in consulting, the more I was worried that my learning was more about how to be a better consultant, not about building transferable skills.
Sure, there were the typical gripes about the job: checking your work phone every single time it buzzed, hating Sunday Scaries and the Monday mornings that cause them, traveling so darn much. But the most prominent question I always had was whether or not I was optimizing how I was spending my time — is being a consultant for another 2–3 months the best for me right now, or is there something else I could/should be doing?
How do you thrive in the consulting world? What do the best consultants do?
The best consultants know exactly why they’re there.
You learn that the most directly if you do private equity due diligence projects. Instead of 3-month, longer projects investigating a topic at length, a due diligence is short: standard team size of 3–5 but only 3 weeks to give an answer. In those short projects, you stay away from the managers who are running their first due diligence, because they don’t know why they’re there and what questions are most important — there’s too much risk that they go down the wrong track and waste crucial hours of your day, causing you to work weekends. Instead, you look for managers who tightly manage scope and focus the rest of the team on the most important topics.
The trend is broadly applicable. The best consultants are sharply aware of what the client’s true needs are, what the client thinks they need and what the consulting team is scoped to deliver in the given timeframe.
How has being a former consultant leaked into the work you do now at a startup?
Consulting, at least the way McKinsey does it, trains you not to panic under ambiguity.
Consulting or startup, there is a lot you don’t know about the world. In fact, there will always be 100 times more questions than you can answer. The natural reaction is to freak the hell out and try to do every single thing. You want to flail and get to 100%.
The consulting reaction is to calmly decide on your approach to finding and tackling the most important questions, the ones that lead to 80% impact with 20% effort. That’s been an incredibly useful mindset to have as I’ve transitioned.
What was the transition period for you like moving from McKinsey to now Airtable? How is the work environment different?
The transition was smooth, but I do miss the consulting team room. I miss having 4–5 people in the same room all day, every day. It was your command center. People had side conversations, talked about topics related to the project but not directly to you, bounced ideas off each other. There was always something new on the table in that room.
In exchange for giving up the team room, I’m getting the experience that I felt I needed at this point in my career. As I mentioned before, I really believe in finding a superpower as early as one possibly can. Now, by working on a small team, I’m finally on the front lines doing tactical work that will allow me to reflect on what I think that superpower might be.
I think I’m lucky that this transition has worked out so well — not every consultant would feel the same. Notably, many would find the transition from thinking to doing rather painful. They would find it difficult to give up the extensive analysis, the many recommendations in favor of just executing on those recommendations. I lucked out in that I was itching to make that change.
What do you wish you knew when you were in school still? If you could go back, how would your professional career have gone?
I would tell myself to emphasize finding opportunities that stretch and strain you. Take harder, more different classes. Go further in your student organizations; don’t just operate as normal, but set ambitious growth goals for them. Hell, get involved outside student organizations — they’re too safe and established. Set a stupidly difficult goal (interview 100 people and write about it online, teach yourself to program and land a job in 6 months, learn to read/speak a language, raise $100,000 for a nonprofit) and go after it. Then do it again.
Students are far more capable than they think.
Students are far more capable than they think. Far, far more capable. But they get comfortable, letting themselves get pulled to the average, and they settle for thinking and dreaming about what operating at their limit might be like.
Where can people find you and what opportunities are you looking for? (Twitter, linkedin, personal site, medium, etc).
I’d love to meet anyone who has a thought about the future of any part of the world 🙂