Altman Vilandrie & Company
Why hire a consultant?
One of the things I was thinking about while working at AV&Co is why hire a consultant? Many times a company - especially a PE firm - does not have the staff to do the research themselves. They might not have people with the skills needed for a particular task (top quantitative people from MIT, etc). In addition, as with any outsourcing arrangement, it can be more efficient if you only need a particular resource part time. They could want to hide their identity when mystery shopping and conducting interviews without lying.
The senior people have a lot of industry knowledge. While confidential information (such as actual numbers) is protected, general industry knowledge accumulates. It's like a take a penny, leave a penny bowl at a store. As a client you benefit from the general knowledge of prior engagements, while contributing to that knowledge. We also have subscription to research databases or our own resources that would expensive to duplicate.
Sometime it's just that an external perspective is useful. As the client, you have become so involved in your product - it's your baby - that it's hard to think objectively about it. An external person does not have that allegiance so they can provide a fresh perspective.
What I did
I worked for 3 weeks on a data center due diligence. I researched the supply of data centers. That involved a lot of Google-ing for press releases. (We also had someone doing mystery shopping.) I also contributed to discussions about the assumptions that we were making for our model. I really enjoyed discussing these assumptions with my colleagues. Perhaps 50% of the job is using standard business knowledge. The other 50% of the job is using industry-specific knowledge to make the proper assumptions.
The last week, I worked on the hospitality strategy for a major cable/satellite provider. I enjoyed this second project much more than the first. I got to talk to some retired senior people in the hospitality industry. I love piecing together parts of the puzzle to answer a client's question. This is my favorite part of the job. I worked on pulling together all of the threats to our client's business.
"Modeling" is simply building computational Excel spreadsheets. For example, on the House Dining Committee we needed to decide which dining hall to keep open. Rather than just asking that big question, a model helps you break the question apart. For example, how many people would go to a particular dining hall if it were open? Rather than thinking about the whole question, you can break it apart. You could assume that X% of people would go to a hall in their own building and Y% would go .2 miles and Z% would go .5 miles. You still need to make assumptions for X, Y, and Z, however these are smaller questions to answer than that big, open-ended question. You then combine these assumptions with hard facts - such as how far the buildings are from each other and how many people live in each building. You then build formulas in Excel. For example, for each dining hall, you would multiply the number of people in each dorm by your assumed percentage (X, Y, or Z) based on distance. This gives you an expected number of people in each dorm. Generally, you then check if the output makes sense, and adjust your assumptions till you get an output that makes sense. This is where it gets a bit soft, because you can't exactly tell if you made a mistake or the outcome is unexpected.
In order to fill in these assumptions, you can conduct interviews or make a survey to help you decide X, Y, and Z. We used research firms to find people to interview and then pay them a small amount to thank them for participating. This was one of my favorite parts of the job because you find out a lot of information that you would not have otherwise found. The most pieces come together per unit of time when you are on your first few interviews.
The end job of a consultant is to produce slides that tell a story. We produce very dense slides that contain a lot of data and are best suited for reading, rather than for projecting. We don't write traditional written reports. I also really enjoyed slide making - it's a visual exercise that I don't get much practice in usually. I liked building a story and then reinforcing that throughout a deck. I learned how much redundancy you need in a slide deck.
AV&Co is a low travel firm. That means we do most of our work in our own office. They might fly out for a few days at the start of a project and then again at the end. At other firms, you are always on the client's site Mon-Thur. We'll do that too if the client requests it, but the analysts are usually in our office. I didn't get to travel at all - but I would have if I would have stayed one more week.
What I learned
I am already noticing changes in how I look at a situation. I've mentioned how, at the HDC meeting last Wednesday, I felt like I was thinking more objectively about how to solve a problem by building a model.
I also feel like I am thinking and speaking more clearly. For example, I am noticing that I often start with a topic sentence that overviews the detail points and then I dive deeper into each of the points. Perhaps I always did that, but I seem to be more aware of it now.
I am also more confident with best practices. This was my first job truly in the "big leagues." The coworkers at AV&Co are all very serious about their jobs. I know have a much better idea about what the limits are on what is possible.
This brings me to what annoyed me about the job. Consultants are very formal about some things. For example, they give you a 5 page evaluation about your work on a particular project, on a 1-5 scale. However, I did not score above a 3.5 in any one particular category - apparently because I was new and could not get too high a score. I don't know how to describe it - but this just annoys me. Consultants are very aware about little issues - like how much to contact someone or phrase things. After seeing it, I think it does help in appearing professional and getting work done, but it is just something to learn. I think I certainly learned and got better at that as the job went on, but it irked me. I think I could ultimately get used to it. It's just not my current personality.
Would I do this full time
That is a possibility; I am trying to find out the competitive advantage of my skills - where my skills could be best used. This is certainly one of the options. I really like that you are always getting a new challenge. The puzzle starts fresh every month or two.