On mental math and consulting careers

Sometime last week, the wife wanted to know more about management consulting, and I was trying to explain to her the kind of work that consulting firms do. I told her that the two most important skills to have in order to be a successful consultant are structured thinking and people skills, and in order to illustrate the former I put her through a “case” on the lines of those that consulting firms use in order to interview.

The importance of structured thinking, I explained, lay in the fact that not all problems that consulting firms pose have a definitive solution, and structure helps you hedge against not being able to generate a solution. In the worst case, if you follow this approach, you would have made a contribution to the client solely by putting a structure on their problem, and by enabling them to think better about similar problems that cropped up in the future. This is also the reason that consulting firms use the much-touted (and much-abused) frameworks – they are a good method of structuring the problem, I said.

I then went on to talk about how I’m not much of a structured thinker, and how I frauded my way in through that during my consulting interviews nearly six years back. On joining a consulting firm, I’d found myself thoroughly disillusioned and out of my depth, and finding that the job called for a completely different set of skills than what I possessed. The nature of problem solving, I found, was very different from the kind I’d been mostly exposed to, and enjoyed. I quit in a matter of months.

I went on to narrate a story from my B-school days. It was about the final exam of a second year course, and I’ve blogged about it. The question presented a business problem and asked us to find a solution for it. I thought for a bit, figured out the solution (with a bit of thinking it was obvious) and explained it two or three paragraphs. My friend had instead put a structure on the problem, and used all possible applicable frameworks in order to structure it. He has been working for a consulting firm since graduation, and I’m told he’s doing rather well. You know my story.

So we talked a bit more about problem solving approaches, and how I could possibly structure my business now that I’m an independent consultant (given that I’m not a particularly structured person). During the course of this conversation I happened to mention that most of my early problem solving was in terms of programming. And the wife jumped on this. “You are a mental math guy, aren’t you?”, she asked. I nodded, feeling happy inside about those days when I would do three-digit multiplications in my head while my classmates still struggled with “six in the mind, four in the hand” methods of doing addition. “And you’re an algorithms guy, always trying to find the easiest method to solve problems?”, she continued. Again I replied in the affirmative. “Then how the hell could you even think that you would do well in a job that requires structured thinking?”

She has a point there. Why didn’t I think of this earlier? The more pertinent question now is about how I’m going to structure my data modeling business since it’s clear that I won’t be able to pull off the classical consulting model.

3 thoughts on “On mental math and consulting careers”

  1. I think instead of focusing on the approach, i.e. whether it is structured problem solving or not; the outcomes actually make a lot of sense. The client pays for the outcome and not the so called frameworks, so probably designing some solutions which are unique and outcome oriented would be really useful.

    Also probably targeting off-the-track segments like SMEs etc which are not being served by the consult majors is one good option.

  2. If you’re looking for a place to put your quant/data modeling skills to work, check out some of the competitions at Kaggle.

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