I’ve spent the past 2 years working for a Big 4 Consulting firm as a management consultant. The experience has been like nothing else I’ve seen professionally. I’ve advised a Fortune 500 in their global data center strategy. Another project helped a Fortune 500 Financial Service firm avoid insolvency and as of this writing I’m helping a large Pharma rollout a completely new IT organization. It has been an experience to say the least. However, it has been a huge shift personally and professionally. If you are a technology SME and currently considering working for a Big 4, I have some reflections to share.
Management consulting and consulting is not the same
It’s important to define the Big 4 and establish the difference between Big 4 consulting and all other consulting. The Big 4 are PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC), Ernst & Young (E&Y), Deloitte, and KPMG. For each firm, their primary business is financial auditing. This is important as the audit culture of the business dominates the culture of these organizations. Each firm also has an advisory practice that provides professional services to their mainly Fortune 500 clients. If you are a technology SME then you will more than likely end up working for the Advisory practice of one of the firms.
Big 4 work is considered Management Consulting. The Big 4 take the difference very seriously. Consulting in any other form is considered “Industry” experience. Experience with boutique or regional strategy firms is relatable.
Management consulting and technology consulting has two different focuses. Management consulting focuses on advising customers on how to solve complex business challenges. I.E. how do I stay in business or how do I strategically exit a market. Technology consultants help solve problems around technology. An example would be a multi-million dollar ERP migration. While each problem is difficult and requires a high level of skill, they are not the same.
It’s not about the technology
As a technology SME, you may be accustomed to a linear relationship between your knowledge of technology and your career success. For instance, if you are a network engineer then climbing the Cisco certification ladder may result in moving from a senior engineer to a principle engineer. This formula doesn’t work in management consulting. The measure of capability is measured on the impact you’ve had on the firm and their clients. Getting accustomed to the subjective performance measurement in management consulting can be a difficult transition.
The nature of the problems you are trying to solve are different. In an industry role you are trying to solve a technology-specific challenges. In a management consulting role you are helping to identify the problem, frame and communicate the solution. The solution may be an IT transformation project that includes migration to a managed service provider and moving a data center to a different geography to gain tax advantages. You are required to communicate all the complexities of the solution to C-Level executives.
While having a deep understanding of technology may help in understanding the technology parts of the solution, it doesn’t help to increase this knowledge. The product at the end of the engagement isn’t a new system, but a PowerPoint presentation with tables and graphs that communicate the solution and next steps.
PowerPoint and Excel are your primary tools
On any given project, you can spend months of data mining, interviewing clients and employees and performing research with peers. At the end of the project, you may get one hour to present the results to the C-Level executive that’s sponsoring the project. Three months of analysis is hard to pack into a 12-page deck. You trade the overnights coding or in a data center getting the server up and running to spending the night in the conference room getting the right color blue on the pivot table.
All this effort is spent to provide the right mix of data, graphs and tables just to get stuck on the finance slide on page 3 in the actual client meeting (Warning: never put a slide with finances too early in a deck). The point being is the technology isn’t the focus of the job. The focus is on the ability to communicate effectively to non-technical executives. In order to be effective, you must develop your skills in presentation, writing and data analysis. This means knowing what an Excel pivot table is and how to gleam useful data to be shared with your client.
Audit dominates the culture
The roots of these firms are based in financial auditing. This has an impact on the day-to-day work experience and culture. Leadership of the firms simply doesn’t focus on the technology part of the advisory business. While these firms have extremely capable technology focused consultants, the size of the technology practices are dwarfed by the financial services practices. The individual practice leads have to champion the technology projects vs. senior leadership providing the focus. This is akin to real estate agency that offers home loans. While the real estate agency may be really good at providing home loans, their focus is on selling real estate.
Travel, Travel and more Travel
I’d be less the forthcoming if I didn’t call out the emphasis on travel. The travel may or may not exist in your current industry job, but there is little doubt about the amount of travel required as a management consultant. You will go where the work is sold. You will also do the work that is sold. If you are an IT Service Management (ITSM) SME in New York don’t be surprised if you spend 6 months traveling Monday through Thursday to Oklahoma working a SAP migration.
This brings to me to another topic of specialization. While you may be a SME in a specific area of technology, it’s rare when you are able to focus on that area. When interviewing for a management consulting job the focus isn’t on your technology knowledge. The interviewer is trying to determine if you have to aptitude to apply your general skills across technology domains. You may go a year or two without working a project that’s in your technology “wheel house.”
If you are ready for a career shift then life at a Big 4 will provide just that a big shift. Be careful what you wish. If you really love technology then you may find that the new career doesn’t fulfill your geeky needs. However, if you are much more interested in business and how technology and business intersect then a Big 4 life may be the life for you.