Find Me A Rock

I love my morning reading routine.  Most mornings during the week – between 5am and 6:30am – I sit at my computer, catch up on email, read the stuff in my daily folder, go through my RSS feeds, and generally explore whatever I can on the web.  Some is systematic (my daily folder, my RSS feeds), some is more random (Techmeme, Hacker News), and some comes from places that I couldn’t tell you how I got to.

Today’s amazing story was from The Tech, MIT’s newspaper (currently in Volume 130).  The article is Opinion: The story BCG offered me $16,000 not to tell and is a great story from Keith Yost, an MIT grad, about his relatively short experience working at BCG in Dubai as a management consultant.

It’s a story that will be familiar to anyone who started working at a management consulting firm straight out of school.  Or an investment bank.  Or a law firm (out of law school).  Or an accounting firm.  Or any number of other “professional services firm.”  It’s especially relevant for anyone who got an A+ education and was at the top of their class, which seems to correlate with the type of people that management consulting firms are interested in hiring.

When I was at MIT, I never really contemplated getting a job working for anyone.  I started a few companies while I was in school, the first two of which failed but the third (Feld Technologies) took hold.  During my senior year, I was also finishing up my first year of business school at Sloan so for the hell of it I went to a few recruiting dinners, mostly to see what they were like.  I vividly remember one for McKinsey at L’Espalier when it was in its old location on Gloucester Street.  This would have been 1987 when L’Espalier was the best ticket for a fancy meal in Boston (I think I’d been once) so there was plenty of buildup.  The evening was one part delightful (the meal was awesome) and one part “turn a power drill on, place it between my eyes, and put me out of my misery” as the senior consultants and partners from McKinsey took the room through a presentation using overhead slides (this was before the age of Powerpoint) talking about the firm, the firm’s history, the firm’s importance in the universe, and a bunch of other things I forgot within 15 seconds of leaving dinner.

Over the years I’ve had plenty of opportunities to work with other large management consulting firms on various projects.  While I found the style and tempo to vary, Keith’s article rang true to me, especially when I talk to some of my ex-investment banking friends who didn’t make it through year three of their “advanced copy machine operation and presentation wrangling” skills.

If you are early on in your career in a professional services firm, you’ll benefit from reading Keith’s article and thinking about the story of “Find Me A Rock.”  If you are a manager or a partner, you’ve probably already found a rock, but it’d be worth your time to read this story also and ponder what you are doing on a daily basis.  Think of it as having something healthy for breakfast instead of the usual Cocoa Puffs.

  • Brad,

    First, thanks for your excellent posts. First time commenter, but long time reader.

    As a fairly recent alumni of Bain & Company, I find myself oddly compelled to defend management consulting given Keith's rough treatment. This is an uncomfortable position for me, as I left relatively disenchanted after two years, however I think it's important to point out what management consulting is and is not and what opportunities it does provide to recent grads. I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment you pull above from Keith's story, i.e. the importance of thinking critically about the purpose and passion of your work, but I do think that Keith falls into a convenient, too-oft-used meme condemning 'Big Business' as out-of-touch, ineffectual and empty, and ultimately does a disservice to his fellow MIT alums if they don't consider these fields out-of-hand.

    To understand why a recent grad may benefit from working at a management consultancy, one needs to understand that the fundamental market opportunity these firms exploit is inefficiency in the young, high IQ, highly motivated human capital market. What these firms have realized is that you can hire highly-accomplished recent graduates, train and work them intensely, and sell their work product for 60-80% margins by packaging it around a 30-year industry veteran. They are outsourced mental horsepower shops, at their best. This makes quite a bit of business sense if you assume the challenges facing a given business are not constant, and that it's not cost effective to staff for the high points. The fallout from this way of operating is that I was given astounding, terrifying levels of responsibility within 6 months of starting, as were each of my colleagues, as well as a relatively rigorous training program and more importantly a culture that actively encouraged, and tracked, continuous learning, feedback and progress.

    All this being said, management consulting suffers from quite a few classic principal – agent problems, as well as a few self-inflicted wounds. On the former, the firms are incited to win more business, not necessarily find the best outcome for the client, you're unable to follow through on plans you've spent long hours developing, and a lack of client readiness or understanding for how to use your firm can make for a terrible experience. As you allude to above, there's also a healthy dose of self-congratulation and pretension that seems to come with the cultural territory.

    I'm getting a bit lengthy, so in conclusion, management consulting was not for me, and it certainly has its problems, but I also wouldn't trade the training, mentorship and experience it provided me as a naive, 22 year-old liberal arts major and am fairly certain I wouldn't have or be as competent at my current job working with exciting startups and dynamic entrepreneurs.

    My two cents.

    • Good defense.  And – more importantly – I think you did a great job of pulling out my point of “the importance of thinking critically about the purpose and passion of your work” from my early morning rambling.

  • As a general rule, kids right out of college should not be starting businesses! No matter how smart they are, they simply do not know enough. (People like Brad the exceptions, and one should not base sound policy on far right outliers.) Instead, they should find a suitable environment where they can learn on someone else's dime. These opportunities include elite managerial environments such as GE, the top management consulting firms (BCG and McKinsey), or if they want to learn how to do deals, the top investment banks (e.g., Goldman Sachs). Most of these firms offer fantastic training, both formal training and then on-the-job.

    One of McKinsey's core values is "the responsibility to disent." Even if you were just hired yesterday right out of college, if you believe the client or the consutling team is wrong, you are expected to speak up.

    • Re: McKinsey – as I’m sure you know, there is often a huge gap between a “core value” of a company like McKinsey and the way this core value plays out through the rank and file of the organization.

      Re: “kids right out of college should be starting businesses” – I completely disagree with this assertion and the line of thinking.

      • Brad — Most 21 year olds simply do not know much, and there is no reason to expect them to, particularly since they have spent almost all of their life in school. Yes, there are exceptions, but even among the very top schools, only a few percentage of them are ready to start a company. Most of them would be so much better off learning from older, more experienced people.

        Let's take those graduating from Harvard Business School. On average they are 5 to 6 years older than those just graduating from college. That's a big age difference. Plus they have had 3 or 4 years work experience, in most cases very good work experience. Plus two years of education that is pretty on point when it comes to starting a company. Of that very select group, certainly less than half are capable of starting a company, but the percentage is a lot higher than those just graduating college.

        The mistake you are making is that you are basing your conclusion on samples (the business plans you get, Tech Stars, MIT entrepreneur club) that are unrepresentative of the "normal" population. It's like hanging out at Julliard and thinking, "Wow, all Americans are gifted at classical music" or watching the Olympics and thinking that everyone is a gifted athlete.

        At least for McKinsey, my impression is that they remain pretty faithful to their core values.

        • “Normal people” shouldn’t be high tech / high growth entrepreneurs!

      • One training ground that has not been mentioned is an internship/apprenticeship at a good VC firm! The numbers hired are small and many VC firms will not hire someone right out of college. But if one is fortunate enough to land such a job, I would think that would be fantastic training for someone who wants to subsequently start a company.

        • Some firms do an excellent job of this – for example Union Square Ventures.… They also have a great track record of where their ex-associates have gone. 

          Many VCs – on the other hand – have a lousy track record of this.  It really depends on the partner you are working with AND the firm.

      • One reason I have so consistently recommended to youngsters is that they take a job at McKinsey if they are made an offer is that over the past 15 years, I have read over 100 internal McKinsey manuals. The quality is breathtaking, in most cases substantially better than the leading published book on that particular topic. They have an internal book called "Microeconomic Frameworks" that is better than all of the other microeconomics book combined. If all one gets out of a two year experience there is to read those 100 manuals, and the rest of your time you spend photocopying and adjusting the slide projector, the training would still be fantastic. That's assuming you have the intellectual curiosity and assertiveness to order them and read them, I have made a lot of people who don't.

      • One reason I am such a big fan of working at the very top professional service firms is that the very top ones instill in you perfectionism. At Cravath, if you are writing an internal memo about the bathrooms being closed tomorrow, it has to be perfect, you keep rewriting it until it is. After five years of having this banged into your head, it changes the way you think, and if you are good, the first draft of anything you write will be close to perfect. Firms that are not top do not teach perfectionism, they do not practice it, they do not care about it, and people who have worked for those firms are much more likely to have bad habits.

        One of the main purposes of a job right out of college is to be molded, and the very top firms generally do a great job on molding people.

  • I would be very skeptical of ever using a corporate lawyer who had not been trained at a major corporate law firm. At those firms, you learn in one year what it would normally take 5 years to learn by yourself. Cravath in particular is famous for its approach to Associate training, and that is a large reason why so many employers clamor to hire Cravath alumni. As one WilmerHale attorney I know says, "In choosing a litigator, ask him, 'Who trained you?'"

    For the same reason, In choosing a doctor, I want to know where he did his residency. If it was at MGH or the Mayo Clinic, I would view that favorably.

    I simply do not believe the class instruction offered by BCG was as shallow as the author claims. I know several BCG consultants (current and former) and they all say something very different from the author.

  • It's interesting that elite professional service firms have not developed in the software development industry. There are software product firms, such as Microsoft, Google and FogCreek, that have exceptionally high hiring standards. But no equivalent exists for software development firms that develop software for clients. By elite I mean the firm would have very high hiring standards and a consistent approach to professional development.

    James Mitchell

    • It’s correspondingly interesting how none of the elite consulting firms have ever been successful in building high end IT Strategy / Implementation practices.  My Uncle Charlie created The Feld Group (acquired by EDS in 2004) as a elite CIO-level consulting firm with deep methodologies and a substantial track record of F1000 IT transformation.  He had zero competition, including from firms like Bain, BCG, and McKinsey who all had “IT Strategy” practices, but none were particularly effective at the IT transformation.

      • I agree that when elite consulting firms purchase any IT implementation firm (high end or not), it is almost always a disaster. I think the cultures are just too different. You need to keep them completely separate but if you do that, how will there be any synergies? I think this is simply one of those "sounds great in theory but it has never worked, so let's not keep making the same stupid mistake" ideas.

        As for the IT strategy groups within the elite strategy shops, I agree they are basically a joke. I cannot think of major idea, paper or article that has originated from any of those groups. Part of it could be that their cultures are inherently generalist and their consulting staff rarely has hard core technical backgrounds.

        The one firm that comes to mind is Index Systems, which I think got acquired by CSC. There were not a high end strategy firm the way McKinsey or BCG are, but they did make significant contributions to business process reengineering. As for their implementation capabilities, I had the impression they were good, but they never had the huge number of implementation people they way EDS, Perot Systems, and Accenture do.

        I had the impression that the Feld Group was not really an implementation shop but more of an CIO/IT management shop. If someone could acquire an IT implementation shop and then make the acquisition work, you would then it would have been them.

        • Feld Group wasn’t an “implementation” shop – the professional staff consistent almost entirely of CIOs, CTOs, and CDOs.  They had a few people with deep specific expertise (database, network architect) and a few generalists (HR).  Their approach was to staff the highest levels with Feld Group folks (usually a CIO/CTO pair; sometimes a CIO/CTO/CDO, and sometimes a CIO/CTO/CTO depending on the organization) and the use the F1000’s companies employees to do the work.  The goal was to “transform” the entire IT organization (usually several thousand people; $1b annual budget).  There were often other consultants involved that the Feld Group took responsibility for – this would be no different than any other consulting dynamic run by a CIO.

          Their ultimate goal was to transform the F1000 company and replace themselves with new leadership over three to four years.   

  • Chuck

    Thank you for sharing this, Brad.

  • Brian L.

    Found it on Reddit last night at midnight… read it until 12:30. Great article although a bit fluffy at points. "Status" jobs are overrated.

  • I'm only half way through the article (found it last night), and it mirrors *some* of the experiences friends and associates of mine have had.

    I joined PricewaterhouseCoopers straight out of undergrad (Bucknell University) in 2001. I did a 3 week long local training program, then spent 3 months at their Tampa training headquarters. PwC had a program called MIDAS, which was an intense IT training program. It covered their systems development approach (all components of design/build/test), as well as an introduction to their consulting methodology (which was rather voluminous, and a little intimidating).

    I offer my experience as a partial contrast to Keith's article and the undoubted "management consultants suck!" meme that will surely follow.

    Consulting isn't for everyone, as your experience clearly shows. But it does work for others, and the free market shows that companies have and continue to find there to be great value in the services of McKinsey, BCG, Bain etc.

    One element I'll add is that I think the ultra-apprenticeship model is rather common at the top-tier firms. You carry some senior partners computer bag around for a few months, do some Excel jockeying, and learn the basics of the firm's way of business.

    Non-top-tier firms, in my experience, will throw you right into the mix. Yes, PwC and Accenture etc are all selling experience and brand like BCG, but typically these types are not doing the pure 6 month-long exploratory projects. Which may make a difference.

    I'd also view Keith's experience as more typical to the specific practices he as involved with in his story. I've known some McKinsey people who got extensive training, and were very well prepared by the firm.

    Consulting is also very much an industry where you make of it what you will. If you find that you didn't get enough training, there are often hundreds of options for you to get more. If you don't think some role is being fulfilled on a project or in the local practice, fill it.

    • Chris – all good points.  To be balanced, I have plenty of friends who love being management consultants and for whom the apprenticeship model worked well for them.  But – for each one that loved the experience, I know many more than one that hated it.  So – it’s interesting to me to see a cogent argument about the other side of the experience.

  • Matt Smith

    Brad- Thanks for the interesting post. I keyed in on thee "find me a rock" problem. The responsibility to clearly define a task lies with both the manager (make sure you think through a task you are assigning and clearly understand your objectives and describe the work product you expect to receive) and the employee (make sure you understand what you are being asked to do and that you clarify any questions you have before charging off to do the work).

    Also, I find that it's important to be iterative throughout larger tasks. In other words, before you haul a huge boulder to the boss's office, show him/her a picture of it and ask if that's the rock he/she really wants. 🙂

  • Brad,

    Since I have worked at BCG before business school (I'm currently a 2nd year MIT Sloan MBA), I felt compelled to reply, and share my experience with the company.

    Overall, my 2.5 yrs with the company were very different from what was stated, and I would add that, in my experience, the original article is not a good representation of how it's like to work for BCG as a consultant. I do think the article is well written, but it seems to me that it just compiles industry clichés into a story, making up a perspective on consulting that I believe is different from what generally happens in top-tier consulting firms.

    Without going into all the details of the story, let me share a few counter-arguments based on my experience:

    1. When saying that he "was regularly advertised to clients as an expert with seemingly years of topical experience to the case", the author implies that BCG lies to their customers, fabricating a story/professional history/resume for its consultants. This is obviously not correct. If that was true, sooner or later a client that would find this would probably quickly sue BCG, which I believe never happened in any office.

    2. "Analytical skills were overrated, for the simple reason that clients usually didn't know why they had hired us." This does not make any sense at all. First, conclusions presented to the client have an excel model behind it whenever possible. I did had to quickly improve my excel skills to create non-trivial models. On top of explaining what are the assumptions behind the model, sometimes clients request the excel spreadsheet to review it themselves. Also, from my MBA experience, consultants are generally the ones more prepared with this tool. This should mean something.

    Second, clients don't hire BCG just because they feel like it, without a goal for the project. If that was true, then this would not be a sustainable business, as companies would eventually see that consulting firms weren't of any value, and therefore would stop hiring them. This has not happened to BCG. It has been growing every year since 1992, including 2008 and 2009, where it was the only top-tier consulting to do so.

    3. "we elected to answer questions that we had already answered in the course of previous case". Clients are not that stupid. One could obviously leverage on an internal document (eg. an international benchmark), but everyone I've met and worked with at BCG worked hard to answer client's questions – unanswered questions!

    4. One last counter-argument, regarding the "sit down, shut up" attitude. This hasn't clearly been my experience at BCG, where I was not only able to speak up, but that was always fostered in every case I had, with different teams and Project Leaders/Principals. Despite not having worked in the Dubai office, it is easy for me to say that the "sit down, shut up" attitude simple isn't part of the BCG culture.

    After sharing a bit of my experience, let me also say the following: I know that generally, VCs don't appreciate a consulting experience much, but I always thought that was the case because of a less hands-on approach to work (many powerpoints), since consultants generally don't stay and implement ideas/conclusions.

    I have been following your blog for over 3 years now, and I've always liked to read your thoughts and the reasoning behind them (thanks for sharing!). Reading this article though, I got the feeling that your perspective on consulting is similar to the one written in the original article. If that's the case, I'm surprised, since having lived the experience myself, I saw a very different reality. One that is definitely not the same as the one in the original article, and not as negative.

    Thanks again for your blog, and for your steady support to MIT in the different ways you do. I really appreciate people/alumni that come to school to share their successful stories/professional careers with current students.

    • sean

      I've worked at BCG for several windows of time before and after business school. I've also worked in VC (just as an associate) and have started two companies. I found my experience at BCG pretty challenging, usually fun and mostly educational. It was also pretty good training both for the VC gig and starting companies. In fact, ideas that I got while doing consulting (it exposes you to lots of business problems) led to both my startups.

      I wonder if the author's experience has anything to so with geography. The UAE is a pretty new business environment and was pretty frothy at the time. I don't know, but it's easy to imagine how that story could have been influenced by dealing with clients that are not yet as sophisticated as those here in the states where we have a giant head start.

      re: find me a rock – isn't the ability to handle ambiguity a valuable thing? I think it is, whether dealing with users of my software product or with consulting clients. Neither knows what they want, but get a lot of value out of having someone smart and knowledgeable structure the problem for them, pick out the important variables, take a reasonable first stab at solving the problem and iterate quickly.

      • Handling ambiguity is absolutely a valuable thing.  However, the point I was trying to make is that often people don’t use any critical thinking when faced with ambiguity.  They just go out and bring back a rock.  They don’t ask a few questions first, or even think about, what kind of rock might be interesting.

    • Actually, my goal with the article was not to bash consultants.  My first company – Feld Technologies – was a software consulting firm and one of our large clients was Monitor Company (between 1987 and 1993).  In addition to working on many of their back office systems, I ended up helping out on the tech / strategy side with a few of their clients.  I also did some quantitative analysis (mostly wrote software for pretty complex stuff that spreadsheets couldn’t handle).  I had a lot of interesting perspectives – many positive, some negative from that experience.

      I was also a major investor my uncle’s company (Charlie Feld – Feld Group).  They were a CIO-for-hire consultancy that turned into the premier strategy consulting firm for F1000 IT transformation projects. 

      So – I’ve lived plenty in this world and appreciate parts of it but am also healthily critical of other parts. 

      With regard to my VC view, I generally avoid consultants of all kinds at the early stages of a company.  I’ve been through this drill many times – there are specific tasks that make loads of sense outsourcing early on, but not core product or strategy.

  • Mike Greczyn

    Re “most 21 year olds simply do not know much”… I have to agree this is bs. I’ve seen 21 year olds with far less in the way of educational advantages than Brad had when he started his companies operate millions of dollars worth of military hardware and do it well. This might not be the rule, but the number of exceptions is a compelling enough story for me.

  • Mike Greczyn

    Forgive me, for I have never started or run a company nor have I ever been a management consultant, but it seems like someone who has re-written restroom status memos until their way of thinking has changed and they have been “molded” to perfection might be a very poor candidate for operating in an environment characterized by limited resources and the need to make decisions with imperfect information. The Marine Corps also teaches perfection, but not every grunt is cut out be an NCO or officer.

    • And – even more importantly, “perfection” is not necessarily a desirable quality in an entrepreneur!

      • Mike Greczyn

        That's what I was trying to say. Often you have to accept a little imperfection and drive on. Otherwise, you'll still be re-writing that memo when the competition swallows the market. Was I too wordy?

        • You were fine – just reinforcing the message!

  • The author of the article says:

    "I worked hard at MIT. I routinely took seven to ten classes per semester and filled whatever hours were left in the day with part-time jobs and tutoring."

    I find this statement to be incredible, i.e., it has no credibility. I do not know one person who came close to taking ten classes per semester at MIT. This guy is either not truthful or his sense of reality is really warped.

    • Actually, you do know at least one.  Me.  I did it my 8th semester when I was simultaneously (a) finishing my undergrad degree, (b) finishing my first year of my masters degree, and (c) starting up Feld Technologies.

      I took 103 units that semester.  A typical MIT course is between 9 and 12 units – a unit is equivalent to one semester hour –
      I don’t remember the exact number of classes that I took (I could go dig up my transcript and check), but it was at least eight courses (might have been nine) and a thesis.

      There are a few crazy people each semester that take over 100 units.  There should be a Facebook group for it somewhere.

      • Why does MIT permit that kind of insanity? At Harvard, my recollection is that your advisor would have to sign off on a student taking five courses a semester (the norm is four), and I am fairly certain they would never permit a student to take six a semester.

        • Advisor?  Why does a senior need an advisor?  MIT has these things called “Freshmen Advisors”, but that’s only for freshmen.

          And – regarding insanity – that hardly qualifies as insanity for the kind of stuff that happens at MIT.  And – more importantly – I don’t think I ever heard the phrase “permit a student” at MIT – I don’t think it’s in the lexicon.

  • learn quran at home is an excellent program that enable kids, adults & new muslims to learn quran. have 24-7 classes. We have students in usa, canada, uk, france, australia, spain, ireland and all over the world. We teach 24 hours a day. You can try three FREE no obligation trial lessons to evaluate our online quran learning service. After that you can decide to continue or discontinue quran learning with us. We have both male and female tutors.

    <a href="” target=”_blank”>

  • learn quran at home is an excellent program that enable kids, adults & new muslims to learn quran. have 24-7 classes. We have students in usa, canada, uk, france, australia, spain, ireland and all over the world. We teach 24 hours a day. You can try three FREE no obligation trial lessons to evaluate our online quran learning service. After that you can decide to continue or discontinue quran learning with us. We have both male and female tutors.

    <a href="” target=”_blank”>

  • learn quran at home is an excellent program that enable kids, adults & new muslims to learn quran. have 24-7 classes. We have students in usa, canada, uk, france, australia, spain, ireland and all over the world. We teach 24 hours a day. You can try three FREE no obligation trial lessons to evaluate our online quran learning service. After that you can decide to continue or discontinue quran learning with us. We have both male and female tutors.

    <a href="” target=”_blank”>

  • learn quran at home is an excellent program that enable kids, adults & new muslims to learn quran. have 24-7 classes. We have students in usa, canada, uk, france, australia, spain, ireland and all over the world. We teach 24 hours a day. You can try three FREE no obligation trial lessons to evaluate our online quran learning service. After that you can decide to continue or discontinue quran learning with us. We have both male and female tutors.

  • If you are a manager or a partner, you’ve probably already found a rock, but it’d be worth your time to read this story also and ponder what you are doing on a daily basis.

  • Pingback: free credit reports from all 3 bureaus()

  • Pingback: limo hire London , limousine hire London , limo hire , limousine hire , hummer limo hire ,London limo hire , London limousine hire ,()

  • Pingback: auto insurance cheap()

  • Pingback: cheap auto insurance kentucky()

  • Pingback: auto direct insurance()

  • Pingback: free car insurance quotes()

  • Pingback: vpn()

  • Pingback: Arthur Westerhof()

  • Pingback: Lora Neudeck()