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Tag: personal

2010 in blog

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I did it last year, the year before that, and the year before that. So, here’s another post dedicated to the past year of my life:

What a year! Here’s to next year being as awesome as this past one. Happy new year everybody! And thank you for reading my little corner on the internet!

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Last thoughts on consulting

It’s not the first time I got this question, but, now that I’m done (at least for now) – what do I really think of management consulting?

  • image Great first job: I believe this is one of the best first jobs that you can get coming out of college or business school. It challenges you to think about issues which most people don’t get a chance to until they’re at the middle/senior manager level (e.g., the clients you work with). It also gives great practice in handling tough situations (e.g., hostile clients/customers, rapid deadlines, changing requirements, etc.) and forces you to learn how to work with many different types of people and thinking styles. It also introduces a mental discipline around finding and structuring solutions to tough problems, no matter the political situation or the perceived difficulties. Beyond the “boot camp” aspect, its also tends to pay a pretty decent salary and offer a very young and “work hard, play hard” culture which large companies tend to be unable to replicate.
  • Opens many doors: Consulting doesn’t end up fulfilling the 4 criteria for job satisfaction for everyone. But, not to fear – the skills I alluded to in the first point make new consultants very attractive to employers (some job openings primarily target consultants, like some private equity and corporate strategy roles) given the broad set of experiences and ability to perform in difficult situations. Furthermore, the abundance of MBAs and the networks of the more senior members of the firm provide consultants with a great network to use to help position themselves in new jobs. It’s a benefit that should not be discounted.
  • Very cyclical: There is no business which isn’t, to some extent, vulnerable to the business cycle, but as a fairly expensive client-services business with long lead-times in both hiring and getting new clients, management consulting is especially vulnerable. I can tell you that during a recession, things can get pretty tough. Clients are rarely willing to pay full price and demand much higher levels of quality. This, in turn, makes everyone’s lives harder and makes the firm reluctant to pay bonuses, hire additional workers, provide perks, or give promotions. This has no effect in the short-term, because there are no other job opportunities available in a recession, but when the economy begins to recover, it pushes more people to look elsewhere for jobs. The result of this is that during the ensuing recoveries/booms, firms can’t seem to do enough to hold on to their people. Compensation/bonuses go up and more promotions are granted as the firm becomes both forced to and more willing to do more to keep its people and hire new employees to handle the increased quantity of client work it wants to service – which itself becomes the over-capacity which leads to problems when a recession hits (and the cycle repeats). Now, this cycle is not unique to consulting, but it’s important to keep this in mind when considering consulting as a career because the very nature of the consulting business (long hiring/project lead times, expensive client-service) strongly amplifies the bad aspects of the consulting experience in recession and the good aspects during booms.
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  • Changing model making it harder for junior people: Like the previous bullet point, this is not unique to consulting, but it is a growing trend which I have observed. In the “Dark Ages” of business when the internet was not around and electronic data/contact lists were not so readily available, successful consultants did not require deep industry or operational area expertise to be effective – they could quickly come up to speed by finding the right data/experts and conducting the select set of analyses needed. But, as more data and “industry experts” became more readily available via the internet (and the market understanding there was demand for such things), clients began to demand more and more industry/operation-specific expertise from their consultants. This has forced the more senior members of a consulting firm to become industry/operational area experts. While this is a natural progression of the consulting model, an under-appreciated result of this is that junior members of the team now start new projects with a significant knowledge disadvantage from the senior members of the team. The result of which is that junior members may get less of an opportunity to work deeply with “the higher ups” and with the client (who expect junior consultants to be as well-versed as the senior members of the team). While strong teams and cultures find ways to mitigate these problems (with team norms, strong mentorship, and/or by allowing junior members to specialize, etc.), the change in the consulting model (and their adverse impacts) will likely continue. This is definitely something to think about if considering consulting.

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Goodbye consulting, hello venture capital

image A little over three years ago, I entered the world of management consulting. Yesterday was my last day. In true consultant fashion, I sent the office a slide-as-farewell-email and enjoyed a few glasses of wine and a few bottles of beer with my “war-buddy” colleagues and other well-wishers at a local bar in the early evening. It was a great way to go.

What’s next? I now move from the world of advising large companies on big business issues to advising and, now also, investing in small, early-stage startups as someone in the venture capital space. This move won’t surprise many of my friends who have, for years, known me as someone with a lot of interest in startups and new technologies and who has dabbled on and off with my own little projects like Xhibitr. For me, a stint in VC was a great opportunity to get a chance to do many things, including:

  • Learn more about what makes new business ideas/technologies succeed: Working at a VC gives you a unique chance to truly take in numerous business plans and ideas at all stages in the startup lifecycle and see what helps drive success and failure.
  • Build an interesting network of thinkers and do-ers: While Dilbert is probably an over-exaggeration of corporate life, there is something to be said about large companies being less able to respond to disruptive innovations and business models. By immersing myself in a world of startups, I’m hoping to get to meet and converse with some of the thinkers behind the big ideas which will change the world.
  • See a different side of the business world: Consulting is a great introduction to understanding how businesses think and work, but it operates mainly at the big business level, where gameboarding and strategy matter a great deal more than boldness and execution. I didn’t feel comfortable making a commitment to a particular industry or specialty (or to a MBA/masters/PhD/other degree) without seeing this other side as well.

I’m very excited and am looking forward to the next chapter of my professional life!

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Reading for value

My buddy Bill shared an article on Google Reader about the demise of Newsweek which linked to this New York Times article (does anyone else find it ironic that one newspaper experiencing financial problems is calling out another publication’s financial problems?):

American newsweeklies were built on original reporting of Large Events, helping readers make sense of a complicated world, but it is a costly endeavor with diminishing returns during an era of commodified and chewed-over news. Both The Economist and The Week were built, rather Web-like, to “borrow” the reporting and then spread analysis on top, thereby making a sundae without having to crank the ice cream maker.

And in this instance, the foreignness of the brands gives the reader an intellectual sheen that once Olympian domestic brands can’t. The Economist and The Week not only make you smarter at cocktail parties by giving you a brief on the week events, but name-checking them will make you sound in the know. Mention Newsweek and people will wonder whether you’ve been going to the dentist a lot lately.

Don’t you love British wit? 🙂

I’m an avid reader of The Economist, and Bill’s shared article got me thinking of why it is that I read The Economist (and many of the other things in my reading list) rather than the numerous other publications out there:

  1. It makes me look smarter. Okay, lets cover the least important (albeit still true) reason first, so I can get it out of the way and focus on the more substantive stuff :-).
  2. It’s analytical. I’m an analytical guy. If there’s one thing consulting has taught me, its that a reasoned conclusion requires both quantitative and qualitative analysis. I’m not satisfied with soundbytes, and I’m not satisfied with superficial reasoning. But, I probably don’t have the time to follow each thread/claim to its origin, nor do I have the time to crunch through all the numbers. Enter The Economist. How many other publications do you know who’ve created an index for measuring purchasing-power parity based on McDonald’s Big Mac? Or run their own quantitative models on the Greek economy to project how the Greek debt situation might look 5 years from now? Or are even in the business of selling macroeconomic analytical data?
  3. It’s opinionated, but still balanced and rigorous. A lot of newspapers strive to be “unbiased.” I think that’s the wrong approach. There are few articles in The Economist which I would say are truly unbiased. And much to its benefit, I might add. When done correctly, having an opinion means doing the necessary research and analysis and thinking. It means carefully considering opposing views. What distinguishes The Economist’s approach is, even if I disagree with the opinion they conclude with, I am given plenty of the background needed to disagree. What newspapers should focus on is not to provide “unbiased” coverage, but balanced (as in carefully presenting all sides of an issue) and rigorous (going beneath the soundbytes).
  4. It’s timely enough. As a weekly, The Economist can’t exactly provide the up-to-the-minute coverage that cable news networks provide (although a lot of that can be remedied if you just check their website). But, frankly, unless you’re a day-trader or a diplomat, I fail to see why you would ever need to know everything on a “as-it-happens” basis. And, if the tradeoff for not getting the news “as-it-happens” is missing out on hours of repeated soundbytes and the very trite cable news network commentary, then I am more than happy to make that tradeoff.
  5. Original content/coverage. Related to the previous point, although it may not be as timely as a cable news network, the Economist also goes places most cable news networks don’t go. It’s the one place I know I can go to get decent analysis of happenings in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, Eastern Europe, and Southeast Asia – parts of the world that the cable news networks and major newspapers ignore in favor of endlessly hyping up soundbyte-ridden coverage of more “popular” news items. Also unlike many news sources, they’re also one of the few I can reliably turn to who provide decent science coverage in a way which is respectful of scientists and what they actually found rather than what the newspaper thinks the public is interested in the scientists finding.
  6. It’s witty/doesn’t take itself too seriously. Let’s forget, just for a moment, the witty phrasings/titles that are all over The Economist. Take a look at these covers, and tell me that this is a magazine that takes itself too seriously:

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The interesting thing is, without even thinking about it, the list of news-y blogs/web feeds I follow (right-hand-side column of my Links page) has steadily fallen more in line with the 6 reasons I mentioned above. Of course, the list could always use some pruning/adjusting (and as anyone who’s seen how much I share over Google Reader or on Twitter, they can tell I have a lot that I could cut from my list), but I think this set of 6 criteria is as good as any for helping people to manage their information sources.

What other criteria do people use in finding good sources of information/news to follow?

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The Same Four Chords

This video of Australian comedy group Axis of Awesome has been making the rounds on the internet lately, so I’m probably late to the party, but if you haven’t seen it, watch this hilarious and well-done (annotated!) medley showing how a huge chunk of major pop hits use the same four chords again and again…

It reminds me a lot of this other comedian’s rant about how many pop hits borrow heavily from Pachelbel’s Canon in D:

So, why do we pay pop singers so much money to sing the same damn song over and over again? 😀

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PARO

imageAt the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival in San Francisco’s Japantown, my girlfriend and I expected many things. We expected to see beautiful performances of Japanese dancing. We expected to be thrilled by taiko. We expected to gorge ourselves on street food. We even expected to see odd American tourists wearing panda gear, even though pandas are Chinese and not Japanese. What we did not expect to see, however, was an adorable robotic baby harbor seal named PARO.

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The Japanese have an almost unnatural obsession with robots. While I struggle to understand it at times, I had zero problems understanding how someone could love this “kawaii” little guy. While it may be a robot inside, it is soft and cuddly on the outside and has been programmed to be responsive to the world around it in a way that is far more sophisticated than a child’s toy. As the PARO website points out:

“Paro has five kinds of sensors: tactile, light, audition, temperature, and posture sensors, with which it can perceive people and its environment. With the light sensor, Paro can recognize light and dark. He feels being stroked and beaten by tactile sensor, or being held by the posture sensor. Paro can also recognize the direction of voice and words such as its name, greetings, and praise with its audio sensor.

Paro can learn to behave in a way that the user prefers, and to respond to its new name. For example, if you stroke it every time you touch it, Paro will remember your previous action and try to repeat that action to be stroked. If you hit it, Paro remembers its previous action and tries not to do that action. ”

So far it’s been used as a surrogate for animal therapy in hospitals where terminally ill patients may not have access to live animals (for expense or health reasons). I was unable to find a decent video of the PARO interacting with patients on YouTube to embed here, but the PARO website has many videos of happy patients interacting with these cute guys which you need to see to have a real understanding of the appeal.

But, in my eyes, the cutest thing about him is that his power cord is a pacifier!

(all pictures from PARO website)

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2010 Goals

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I don’t usually do the New Year’s resolutions thing. But this year, since I’m now publishing everything  to benjamintseng.com, I think the perceived public scrutiny associated with having a public list of goals for the coming year on my own personal domain name might end up being a good motivator to achieve them.

So, without further ado:

  • Finish a Rev 1 of Benchside – While I had a wild ride on Xhibitr and learned a ton, I’m hoping Benchside, the  project that I’m currently working on, will end much more successfully. Whereas Xhibitr was an online social network aimed at fashion, Benchside is a software application designed to run on your computer (not the web) which aims to help you change the way you organize the information on your hard drive. While Benchside officially started about half a year after work on Xhibitr went underway, its progress has suffered from a lack of focus on my part. Despite this, I still have strong faith in the team and the project, and I definitely want to see this through. So, by December 31, 2010, I will have a working version (even if its only barely working and cobbled together with voodoo magic and duct tape) of the core Benchside software working on my computer.
  • Read Pawn in Frankincense and Checkmate by Dorothy Dunnett – My girlfriend adores Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles. They were an integral part of her identity growing up, and she continues to re-read them today whenever she has extra time (and no new reading or knitting material :-)). They are also very meaty books full of well-researched 16th century European history and cultural idiosyncrasies. I’ve already read two (Game of Kings and Disorderly Knights – yes, there’s a chess theme in the titles) and despite priding myself in being well-educated, I found them very difficult to follow (I guess that’s why I read comic books?) So why read two more? In addition to my girlfriend wanting me to read them, she’s raved about the conclusion to this series (Checkmate) for years, and given her refined, educated taste in books (although apparently not in men :-)), I can’t help but want to stretch my own reading ability especially if the payoff is as grand as she has made it seem. Consequently, by December 31, 2010, I will have read both Pawn in Frankincense and Checkmate.
  • Meet at least 3 new people per conference I attend – If I have one great weakness, it is that I find it painfully difficult to talk to people I’m not familiar with. On the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test, I rank extremely “I” (as in introvert). But, given my upcoming job in venture capital and my desire to pursue opportunities which won’t be so forgiving of my extreme shyness, I’m going to set a goal for myself to help break that habit. At every conference/industry event I attend in 2010, I will meet and have meaningful conversation with at least 3 new people.
  • Read at least 1 academic scientific paper per month – I pride myself on being a science person. In fact, with the notable exception of Xhibitr, my portfolio is full of my old scientific “adventures”.  But, as I’ve dug deeper into the technology and business world, I have unfortunately lost touch with that part of my life. Part of the reason that I still blog about science here and over at Bench Press is a desire to stay connected to those under-exercised scientific interests. This year, to help keep that connection going, and also to help me keep pace with the tech-and-science related news and innovations which give me fodder for more blog posts, in 2010, I will read at least 1 academic (as in journal) scientific paper per month.

I’m sure some of the people reading this list will think that my bar for success is set too low. And, maybe they’re right. But, hey, this is the first time I’ve done something like this, and I’m not about to set myself up for public failure :-).

Happy New Year to everyone! And best of luck with those resolutions!

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2009 in blog

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As I did with 2008 and 2007, a couple of highlights from this blog for the past year:

Happy new year, everybody!
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Hello WordPress

So I finally took the plunge.

Instead of hosting my blog on Blogger, I’ve decided to move it over to a self-hosted WordPress blog which not only gives me a whole lot more control over content and styling (and has vastly more versatile plugins and themes), but allows me to start consolidating my online presence into, hopefully, a coherent presence. [This will also hopefully finally get Serena and Teresa to stop with their “Wordpress is so much better than Blogger” comments everytime they talk to me about my blog :-)]

The process, while complicated, was not as painful as I expected:

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1. Design – With the help of my lovely girlfriend, I picked out the Berita theme from BizzArctic. It presents a very cool landing page with a slider and a sophisticated menu-ing system across the top. I then did some simple copy & paste to create a CV page (from an existing resume) and an About page (borrowed heavily from my LinkedIn profile). A quick scan of my Google Reader and some of my friend’s blogs helped me fill out the Links page, and a quick scan of my hard drive put together the various pieces of my Portfolio.

2.  LifeStream – Through WordPress’s plugin directory, I found LifeStream which makes it easy to embed a LifeStream page and sidebar widget which aggregates my activities on Google Reader, Twitter, and my blogging life in one place.

3. Import – WordPress comes with a powerful import tool which made the actual moving of posts from Blogger to WordPress painless. Handling the URL’s (steps below) proved to be a bit more challenging…

4. Maintaining permalinks – Oddly, I discovered that WordPress and Blogger use a completely different mechanism for defining their permalink URLs (the web address that lets you visit the page for an individual post). Thankfully, Justinsomnia maintains a very helpful plugin which helps convert the much more rational WordPress permalink naming system into the peculiar Blogger URL naming system (and because WordPress’s plugins are basically combinations of PHP and Javascript/CSS, it turns out that it’s just a simple regular expression!)

5. Setting up a URL re-direct on Blogger – This too, thankfully, was very simple (just follow the steps after “Update your Blogger settings” as it sets up the Blogger URL re-direct – the playing around with the DNS is needed for it to be completely seamless, but I don’t think its necessary) and step #4 above makes it so that the URL re-directs from Blogger go to the correct WordPress page.

6. Correcting internal links – While steps #4 and #5 fix most of the URL issues, I wanted to fix the internal links so that people who read my blog wouldn’t have to deal with the ugly Blogger re-directs everytime they clicked on the many internal links I have in my blog. Thankfully, because WordPress relies on a SQL database to store all of the post content, a simple SQL command in phpMyAdmin was all that was needed to fix all the internal links.

7. RSS feed – Because most of the regular traffic I get on the blog comes through RSS readers, I wanted to make the transition seamless. Thankfully, I’ve been using Feedburner for quite some time so all I needed to do was switch out the source feed, and then I used the FeedSmith plugin to re-assign my blog’s RSS feed <META> tags to point to my Feedburner feed so that new subscribers would get the right one. So, most of you RSS readers won’t see any difference unless you actually click over to the page itself.

And voila! While I’m sure there are still a few kinks to work out (i.e. alas I’ve lost all the old Disqus comments from my Blogger days and the pictures on my blog are subject to the whims of Picasa/Google hosting), the new blog has been set up. So, please, check it out, let me know what you think, and for those of you with your own blogrolls or who haven’t yet figured out how to use RSS, please update your bookmarks & links!

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Why Comics? Why SciFi?

There’s no denying it. Comic books and science fiction have more than their fair share of “only for geeks.” While I would be hard pressed to deny who I am, I will say that my love for science fiction goes far beyond just pure escapism.

imageNow, I could talk about how I think comic books represent a reassuring world where the good guys triumph and where the human spirit and concepts of justice and loyalty are all that is necessary to be a hero, and how I believe that science fiction represents an optimism about the future and the importance of human emotions and morals. But instead of “taking my word for it”, why not hear Reading Rainbow host and the actor behind Star Trek’s Geordi LaForge LeVar Burton take on the subject (yes, the quotes were an intentional Reading Rainbow reference):

I’m one of those people that believes that there was some kid back in the 1960s watching Star Trek, and he kept seeing Captain Kirk pull out this communicator and flip it open – and that kid grew up and became an engineer, a designer of products, and we now have a device that is more common than the toaster. How many flip phones do you see on a daily basis? That which we imagine is what we tend to manifest in third dimension –  that’s what human beings do, we are manifesting machines.  The metaphor of a man who has an external electronic device, something man-made that serves him and somehow serves humanity, and that he becomes so aligned with that device, with the power of that device, that at one point he can discard it – I think that’s a real metaphor for the human journey. One day we won’t need a transporter device to get from one place to another.  And it begins with the wheel and then migrates through airplanes to some future technology that we can’t produce yet but we can imagine.  Imagination is really the key part of the human journey, it’s the key to the process of manifesting what our heart’s desire is.

When I was a kid, it was comic books that pointed me in that direction and from comic books I went to science fiction literature, which is still one of my most favorite genres of literature to read.  Don’t underestimate the power of comics and what they represent for us and how they inform us on the journey of being human – because it’s powerful. It’s very powerful. They give us permission to contemplate what’s possible. And in this world, in this universe, there’s nothing that is not possible.  If you can dream it, you can do it.

To many African-Americans, like Burton and fellow Star Trek actor/fan Whoopi Golderg, Star Trek holds a very special role in their minds:

imageWhen I was a kid, I read a lot of science fiction books and it was rare for me to see heroes of color in the pages of those novels.  Gene Roddenberry had a vision of the future, and Star Trek was one that said to me, as a kid growing up in Sacramento, California, “When the future comes, there’s a place for you.”  I’ve said this many times, and Whoopi (Goldberg) feels the same way – seeing Nichelle Nichols on the bridge of the Enterprise meant that we are a part of the future.  So I was a huge fan of the original series and to have grown up and become of that mythos, a part of that family, and to represent people dealing with physical challenges, much like what Nichelle Nichols represented for people like Whoopi and myself, I can’t even begin to share with you what that means to me.

While I was fortunate enough to be born in an era where nobody questions the role of Asian-Americans in industry and science, I can also see why many Asian-Americans would have been similarly inspired by George Takei’s role as Sulu in the original Star Trek series.

(Interview on LeVar Burton’s upcoming role in DC’s Superman/Batman: Public Enemies DVD) (Image Credit – LeVar Burton) (Image Credit – Nichelle Nichols)

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Recruiting lessons

image If the sudden increase in emails from my company’s recruiting staff are any indication, the recruiting season is back in full gear! For many, this will bring enormous amounts of stress, but it doesn’t have to be that way. For starters, I’ve posted a number of tips in the past about:

But, while I’ve focused a great deal in the past on advice for how to land a job you want, I’ve spent relatively little time talking about how to select a job. On that front, I have four tips:

  1. Reputation matters. A lot.
  2. Find out what people actually do. Including the bad parts.
  3. Determine what sort of training and mentorship is available.
  4. Understand the working environment.

The practical minded out there (this blogger has been guilty of this many times) will say, “I’ll worry about that after I get a few offers.” And, on some level, especially in college/business school, that is true. But, the fact of the matter is that recruiting is a very time consuming and tiring process. The cycle of going to company presentations, chatting up people who are constantly sizing you up, preparing resumes and cover-letters, and interviewing took up valuable time which I would have preferred to spend with my friends or on things of greater interest to me. Worse than the opportunity cost of spending all your time applying for jobs you’re not interested in, it can leave you in a position where you, at best, are apathetic towards an offer and, at worse, leave you in a place which can actually be detrimental to your professional development. Instead, I would advise that you focus very early on in narrowing your search so that you can tailor your resume’s, cover letter’s, and conversations to fit the firms you’d actually like working for.

image 1. Reputation matters. A lot: If there is one thing that I learned during my two years in consulting, it is that the reputation of a company is everything. While this may seem a bit obvious, I think what most people don’t understand is the magnitude of the impact that reputation can have. It dictates things ranging from the money that a firm can make for a particular engagement or project to what sorts of engagements a firm will get to handle. Some informal conversations that I’ve had revealed that firms with stronger reputations will not only land more interesting, longer-term engagements (e.g. multi-month strategy projects vs. 2-week fact-finding projects), but that for the same project, a firm with a strong reputation can charge significantly more (I’ve heard gues-timates of pricing varying by over 50% between top-tier/specialist firms and second-tier shops). When you also consider the weight that the reputation of your previous employers has when you’re looking for new jobs (there are quite a few private equity/venture capital firms that require applicants to be from top-tier banks/consulting firms), it should become pretty clear that the reputation should be a very important consideration.

To be 100% clear, this doesn’t mean that you should only focus your time on “big name” companies. After all, while McKinsey is a great consulting firm, they may not get you where you want to go if you’re interested in PR or marketing or even in a specific type of consulting, like IT, or a specific industry expertise. What it does mean is that you should figure out what you want to build credibility around and find companies which can help you do that. This will help you develop your own skills and capabilities and position you well for the next job.

2. Find out what people actually do. Especially the bad parts. The recruiting process is as much a process for companies to find out more about their applicants, as it is a process for prospective applicants to find out more about the firm. This means that you shouldn’t be the only one answering tricky questions.

While you can ask direct questions like “what do you do?”, “how much travel do you do?”, and “what sort of hours do you work?”, you should be aware that any firm with a half-decent recruiting process will have already prepped its people with answers to those questions. While those answers won’t be outright lies, they are oftentimes couched in “spin” to mask un-pleasantries about the job and are generally too unspecific to help you understand what you really need to know about a job to determine if you like it (or, perhaps more correctly, if the rewards outweigh the bad aspects of the job).

Instead, ask strategic questions, like:

  • What were you doing last week/month/yesterday at work? (More difficult to “apply spin” when you’re trying to recall something specific)
  • What do you do for fun outside of work? (Indirect way to get a sense of what sort of control people have over their work-life balance)
  • If you could change one or two things about your job, what would they be?
  • What was your best day at work? (Get a sense of what sort of on-the-job rewards, responsibilities, and recognition are possible)
  • What was your worst day at work? (High probability of “spin” in the answer, but still valuable to understand)
  • How many people stay at the firm for longer than 3 years? Why? Where do they go? (Good measure of whether or not people like the job and why)
  • Where do most of your non-college recruits come from? (A good way to assess what sort of person fits in and what sort of skills the firm can help you develop)

image 3. Determine what sort of training and mentorship is available. Success in your career is highly dependent on what sort of skills you can pick up over time and what sort of opportunities you choose to pursue. To that end, understanding what sort of formal training programs are available and how the firm’s more senior members think about mentoring is something that should be on top of every recruit’s mind.

I personally did not even think about mentorship when I did recruiting in college, so I am very lucky that I wound up at a firm with a wide range of training programs and where partners and managers place emphasis on providing advice and coaching to more junior folk. This sort of luck is not something you (or I) should ever count on, and I would highly advise you to find out:

  • Does the firm have ongoing training programs throughout an employee’s career? What sort of training? (Or are there just introductory programs at the start of employment and routine training on rules?)
  • Who conducts the training? (This can help establish whether or not the firm values training and mentorship enough to take senior staff away from their day jobs to do it, or whether or not training is an after-thought)
  • Who do individuals at the firm turn to for advice about their careers? (Is management willing and able to help their workers?)
  • Does the company let employees switch between different roles/divisions? (This is usually a good sign that the firm cares about developing its people by exposing them to more things)

4. Understand the working environment. There are a lot of little things which really can impact how you feel about a job. The challenge is identifying these things. Below, I’ve attached a list of things which I didn’t realize would matter to me so much:

  • Dress – Being required to wear a suit and a tie every day would be a nightmare for me, and so I am fairly grateful that my firm only requires me to dress semi-formally.
  • Location – I love the Bay Area. If you want me to work for you, you better be in the Bay Area.
  • Food – I strongly believe that offices should have breakfast cereal available. Some of my coworkers could pass on breakfast cereal, and complain that we don’t have enough in-office lunches. To each their own.
  • Face-time – Some people (like this blogger) would rather leave the office early to work from home, while some people want work to be only conducted in the office. And some people would rather not show up at all. Understanding where you lie on that spectrum and where the company you’re interested in working at lies on that spectrum is important.
  • Non-business Internet use – Consulting hours are very variable. Some days you’ll be in a rush all day. Some days you’ll have nice valleys of work intensity. As a result, at least at the firm I work at, nobody really minds if you’re on YouTube or Facebook or an RSS reader, as long as you get your work done on time. Some companies do mind. I don’t think I could work for one of those.
  • Socializing at work – Different firms have different approaches to socializing at work. And sometimes, within the same firm, different divisions and groups have different unofficial policies on socializing. If you are the type of person who can’t socialize at work (or stomach other people socializing while you’re working), then you definitely need to know these things.
  • Parties – Are company parties loud and crazy? Or soft and subdued? Are employees friends outside of work?
  • Start/End of day – Some companies have no set start time. Other companies expect you in by 8 AM. Other companies don’t mind as long as you’re in by 10 AM. Depending on how far you plan to live from the office and how late you wake up, this may be an important criteria.

These are just a few examples of things to ask about. What’s important is that you consider what sort of working environment you need to be productive, and find out whether or not the firm you’re talking to can deliver that environment. If they can’t, then it doesn’t really matter how much you like the company: if you’re unproductive, your career will suffer.

Hopefully these four tips help are helpful for people pursuing recruiting. Anyone else have any other tips on how to identify companies that fit you?

(Image credit – Freaking News) (Image credit – gossip) (Image Credit – Mentor)

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Nerdy Cow

Put this in the “if you are nerdy, you will enjoy this” category. Nerdy cows go “mu”:

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Courtesy of JXZ (Image Credit)

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The Never-Ending Battle

imageimage Just as Superman sometimes refers to his battle for justice as “the Never-Ending Battle,” I refer to my annual battle with the hordes of ants who seem to use my house as a summer vacation spot as my own personal never ending battle.

My enemy: ants. Hordes of them. They infest my backyard, my home, and any other source of food they stumble upon. They number in the thousands, and their hive mind makes them as formidable as a well-programmed computer adversary. Physically obstruct one entry point? They will find another. Use poison? They will learn to take paths which are more difficult to attack.

No matter how clean we try to keep the house, they seem to be drawn to anything that even remotely smells or tastes like food. Shampoo. Soap. Toothpaste. Wet/damp areas. They are so voracious that spiders that thought they could “profit” by positioning their webs near ant trails have disappeared within 1-2 days of appearing as the ants destroy even them.

And in case you think my problem is amusing, laugh while you can, for this problem is one for all people, as it seems that a number of Argentine ant colonies around the world all happen to be part of one massive super-colony who’s size “is paralleled only be human society” (via BBC)

Argentine ants living in vast numbers across Europe, the US and Japan belong to the same inter-related colony, and will refuse to fight one another.

The colony may be the largest of its type ever known for any insect species, and could rival humans in the scale of its world domination.

In Europe, one vast colony of Argentine ants is thought to stretch for 6,000km (3,700 miles) along the Mediterranean coast, while another in the US, known as the “Californian large”, extends over 900km (560 miles) along the coast of California. A third huge colony exists on the west coast of Japan.

Whenever ants from the main European and Californian super-colonies and those from the largest colony in Japan came into contact, they acted as if they were old friends.

These ants rubbed antennae with one another and never became aggressive or tried to avoid one another.

In short, they acted as if they all belonged to the same colony, despite living on different continents separated by vast oceans.

And according to Wikipedia:

The ants are ranked among the world’s 100 worst animal invaders. In its introduced range, the Argentine ant often displaces most or all native ants. This can, in turn, imperil other species in the ecosystem, such as native plants that depend on native ants for seed dispersal, or lizards that depend on native ants for food. For example, the recent severe decline in coastal horned lizards in southern California is closely tied to Argentine ants displacing native ant species on which the lizards feed.

Argentine ants also cause problems in agricultural areas by protecting plant pests, such as aphids and scale insects, from predators and parasitoids. In return for this protection, the ants receive a sweet excretion, known as “honeydew”. Thus, when Argentine ants invade an agricultural area, the population densities of these plant parasites increase, and so too does the damage they cause to crops.

Do you think you can kill them easily? Don’t bet on it:

Argentine ant colonies almost invariably have many reproductive queens, as many as eight for every 1,000 workers, so eliminating a single queen does not stop the colony’s ability to breed. When they invade a kitchen, it is not uncommon to see two or three queens foraging along with the workers.

Well, on the bright side, at least I know I’m not the only one who has to deal with this…

(Image credit – Superman)(Image credit – ants)

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18 months

image My consulting experience has been pretty atypical so far. Most consultants rotate between cases and roles every couple of months. Me? Up until about a few weeks ago, I had been doing corporate strategy work for the same technology client for 18 months (which is a long time – hence the picture of the old man – I know, I’m clever).

And, although many consultants (yours truly included) entered the field to experience as many industries/functional roles as possible within a short period of time, I’ve found that spending this much time on a single client in a single functional role has benefited me greatly by letting me build:

  • Depth of expertise – Simply put, there’s no way that a consultant who’s constantly changing functional roles and clients to develop a deep expertise on the same level as a client’s employees. I can’t say I have the same level of expertise as someone who lives and breathes the stuff, but given the technical knowledge and understanding of the broader industry that I’ve picked up over the past 18 months, I’ve become knowledgeable enough to see connections/moves which people with less experience have yet to be able to see.
  • Deep relationship with management – Having worked 18 months on a case, I’ve built up a level of rapport and trust with the technology industry partners/managers at my firm. They now routinely include me on emails about tech industry developments, and don’t hesitate to put me on special projects. It is a position which grants me greater input and exposure than most people of my tenure, and it is one I am very grateful for. It is also good from a professional development standpoint, as I now have partners/managers whom I respect who will be in my corner.
  • Perspective on corporate strategy – I think very few people (even those in the technology industry) understand how corporate strategy at large companies is done. 18 months of watching a firm chew over the same issues again and again gives one a unique perspective on the pace and process of major strategic discussions, something that a consultant who’s rapidly rotated in and out of cases is unlikely to develop.

Several of my coworkers have asked if I’ve felt like I’ve missed out because of being on only one client. My answer is a no for three reasons. First, I am deeply interested in technology so being on a tech strategy case was like a dream come true. Secondly, as corporate strategy is an ongoing process which looks at a wide range of topics, I have had a wide range of topics ranging from premium branding (where I actually went to a Safeway’s to see how Procter & Gamble price their products relative to others), to emerging computing trends, to mobile convergence, to manufacturing outsourcing strategy, and even to formulating a process for the client to actively monitor and evaluate acquisition opportunities. Lastly, although I came into this job hoping for one thing (wide range of diverse case experiences), I believe that experiencing the exact opposite of what most consultants do see has given me a unique perspective on the corporate world – one that I would not trade away.

So, to all the new consultants (or even to the old ones), don’t knock the long-term client engagement path. You’ll be surprised at how valuable the experience can be.

 

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Play Classic

While all of my friends were playing their Super Nintendo (and later, their Gamecubes, Playstations, and XBoxes), my parents disapproval of video games meant that I continued to play classic games on my Famicom (which to the uninitiated, is the Japanese name for what is essentially a Nintendo Entertainment System).

It helped that I wasn’t very good (arcade/action games aren’t really my forte – I’m more of a strategy gamer) – so it took me longer to win (I’m somewhat ashamed to admit this, but I still haven’t beaten Super Mario Bros). But, even though the new games had a lot more glitz (and I couldn’t help but pine after a more sophisticated console when gems like GoldenEye and Final Fantasy came out), there was a certain “old school” charm to my dusty old system.

And now, you too can experience that “old school” charm. Thanks to Jamie Sanders, whom I can only describe as a 17 year old prodigy, who has figured out how to turn the NES system into a Java virtual machine — translation: you can now play ANY NES game in your browser just by going to virtualNES.com.

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Oh, and if you’re wondering, the screen shot above is a picture of me getting beat pretty badly in my all time favorite NES game: Mega Man 6 (or as my Japanese version called it – Rock Man 6)!

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Stuck between a big company and a startup place

imageI sometimes feel like I’m caught between two worlds.

On the one hand, I feel a strong tug towards the “Silicon Valley dream” of entrepreneurship. Friends of mine like Charles Ju, Founder and CEO of PlayMesh, the maker of one of the top iPhone games out there (iMafia) are living that dream – driven by one’s passions and one’s desire to engineer a product/service/technology to change the world – and heck, maybe get wealthy while you’re at it. It’s that drive which has pushed me to work with my buddies on projects like Xhibitr and Benchside.

On the other hand, I also feel a strong pull towards the corporate strategy world which I currently am involved in at my day job. The work is more stable (in the sense that I’m usually not dependent on the next round of funding for my livelihood), and the issues one explores are more strategic. It’s not desperately asking “will someone PLEASE buy my product?” or “how do I improve my product without spending any money because I’m out of cash?”. It’s literally answering “how do I shape an industry?” and “how do I change our business processes to be more responsive to customer needs?”

What makes the soul-searching all the more difficult is how different the two things are, and how different the people who work in each are. It makes it hard to just take the advice of friends like Charles or Serena who tell me to jump ship and head for startup-infested waters.

image For starters, I’ve noticed that there are very different skills involved in the two groups. Big corporate strategy guys are more likely to value things like analysis (e.g., do the models support the proposed strategy? do we have the right numbers? what does that do to our cash and margin position?) and gameboarding (e.g., how will Microsoft or Google or Intel or Cisco react? how do the tech trends affect us/get shaped by us? who are the strategic partners/enemies who will care most about this?). I’ve found startup guys to more value execution over strategy (e.g., can we ship on time? can we get it done?) and boldness over analysis (e.g. is our product cool enough? will people care?)

This is not to say that big business guys don’t value execution or boldness, or that startup guys have no sense for analysis or gameboarding. And this is not even to say that either side is unreasonable. After all, startups need to execute before they worry about a perfect strategy, and big companies need to defend their sizable profit pool before they bet on a new one.

But that dynamic oftentimes frustrates me. When I’m doing the corporate strategy stuff, I grow frustrated at the conservatism and lack of boldness and progress. I am bothered by the bureaucracy and the lack of value placed on my scientific/technical knowledge.

And yet, when I talk with startup guys, I am troubled by what I see as a lack of emphasis on analysis and strategic thinking. I’m concerned that the heavy focus on execution and boldness traps them into bad decision cycles. I see an almost callous disregard of things which all big companies do as a matter-of-practice (e.g. legal, business development, and HR issues). And, to be perfectly honest, the lack of resources to fund anything (let alone the pretty decent salary I’ve come to expect) is not an exciting proposition either.

And so here I am. Stuck between a big company and a startup place, and not quite sure how much longer before I get crushed.

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Goodbye, Scrubs

image This past Wednesday was the last episode of Scrubs, a show which I had gotten hooked on in college.

What had initially gotten me hooked were the main character’s (JD, played by actor Zach Braff) fantasies and daydreams. They reminded me a great deal of the little daydreams I had while walking/driving from place to place or when doing something monotonous (although they were nowhere near as crazy as JD’s were in the show).

What kept me coming back season after season was watching the show’s characters mature from “little baby interns” into residents and then attending physicians, all the while dealing with issues and life choices which were becoming all too familiar for me.

And, before I knew it, I was watching it week-after-week with my college roommate and his girlfriend, sometimes even while doing problem sets (explains some of my lower grades, now that I think of it…) This culminated in an interview with Dr. Jon Doris, the real person which Zach Braff’s lead character JD was based on (and one of the show’s medical consultants), about medicine and Scrubs for the Next Generation MD, a publication for pre-medical students that I wrote for.

The end of Scrubs, to me at least, was like saying goodbye to some friends I had gotten to know over the past few years. And so, yes, I will miss Scrubs and the hilarious antics of JD, Turk, Carla, Elliot, Dr. Cox, Dr. Kelso, Jordan, the Janitor (who’s name I won’t spoil if you haven’t seen it yet), Ted, and all the other characters I’ve gotten to know.

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Lessons from the Consulting Life: chain yourself to your blackberry

Yesterday, I stopped by a coworker’s desk to grab a quick morning breakfast and then to discuss our various workstreams. Given the endless teasing I get about how dependent I am on being connected via 3G wireless card and Blackberry, I thought I’d mix it up by not bringing either my laptop or my blackberry to the meeting.

Big mistake. The next thing I know, I have 6 emails in my inbox marked urgent: two from the head partner on my case, one from my manager, one from the head partner’s executive assistant, and two from the office receptionist. I have a message left on my cell phone from the partner. And I have the receptionist pinging me over the PA system.

It turns out the one time I choose to go “unconnected”, the client’s CEO suddenly needs some data that I have.

Lesson learned: I will chain myself to my Blackberry.

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