What Consulting Will Teach You

It’s hiring season for most senior college students in the United States. A few things have changed since my senior year of college - the economy has improved dramatically, the technology industry is a serious draw for many who have never coded a day in their lives, Austin and Nashville are among the hottest places to be. But even with the shifts in the culture, it’s still a stressful time for college students trying to choose the next direction of their lives. If you’re in that boat, this post is for you.

For many of you, consulting firms will provide job opportunities and rewards far beyond the wildest imaginations of any other business that wants to hire you. Their business model is simple: for each hour that you work, they will bill their clients for an hour of time. If your billable rate is $150 per hour, you will bring upwards of $300,000 in revenue to the consulting firm by the end of the year. Paying you $75,000 or so, then, is insane money for you as a young college graduate and chump change for them. Your first lesson will be that smart people know how to make money off of your sweat and make you okay with it.

Many of them will advertise that you’ll be traveling for your job and they’ll hold up examples of their professionals in New York City, in San Francisco, in Miami. Your second lesson will be that most of the major American cities who purchase consulting services are actually in the heartland - places like Minneapolis, or West Virginia, or Peoria. There is a lot of America out there, and you will realize that it is much more diverse in culture than you could imagine.

You will go to a client site and you will slug away on a project. You will show your work and your thought process in explicit detail. This work and thought process will be promptly torn to shreds and rebuilt anew, and you will learn that there are all sorts of new ways to be wrong in the real world. Sometimes you presented a half-baked idea. Sometimes your logic was correct based on your information, but you didn’t know that there was additional information hidden from you. And sometimes you will be wrong because of politics. All of these will end in the same result - you will rework your ideas, and you will learn to try again.

You will encounter control freaks. Everyone around you will be a control freak, because this the type of person who is drawn to consulting. The entire client service business model, however, is based on a totally subjective thing - client acceptance of your work - and suddenly everything will be out of your control. This is difficult at best when one control freak is trying to deal with intangible and unknown requirements. This is nearly impossible when four control freaks are placed in a room with no clear leader and asked to produce some sort of report to turn in to a manager. This devolves into insanity when these four control freaks suddenly have three sets of review by control freaks and a client who might decide something differently based on whether he had a burrito for lunch. You will learn to enhance your calm, or you will explode.

You will learn that the megacorporate world is neither fair nor unfair - it simply is. You will work extremely hard and receive the praise of your superiors only to learn that the client decided not to choose your project for the next fiscal year, and your performance review goes down the tube accordingly. You will see that the person sitting next to you also worked extremely hard, and the client did choose their project, and now their performance review shoots through the roof but they have to spend six months in the Sacramento suburbs. You were dropped from your existing client and placed on a new client with offices on the beach in L.A. You will learn that these things simply happen, with little to no rhyme or reason.

Above all, you will learn how to articulate your ideas in a way that turns them into a final action. You will learn how to make things happen with your words, and you will realize how important it is to be able to do this in the business world. This is the heart of consulting: your ideas may be brilliant, your work product may be exquisite, but your words will be what brings them to life. There are few other jobs that can teach you this as quickly as consulting will.