Reflections on a consulting internship from a career switcher

It’s my second year in the full-time MBA Program. Deadlines to accept full-time offers are just around the corner. It’s a great time to reflect as I contemplate the next steps of a career in consulting.

In the past 15 months, my emotional range seesawed from absolute elation to downright agony, and everything in between.

Anyone who has been through the rigors of the consulting curriculum recognizes the high-stakes game of meticulous planning, preparation, and near flawless execution. UNC Kenan-Flagler does an exceptional job preparing us for all the three phases though career associate directors, mentors, alumni interactions and career clubs.

Let me cut to the chase. Like most of my peers, I was a career switcher. My background was in nanoscale physics and I worked in the technology space before business school. I was nervous about moving into strategy consulting so I experienced a momentary sense of relief when I signed an internship offer with Cognizant Consulting in February 2017.

As the summer approached, I felt nervous excitement. I viewed my upcoming summer experience as boot camp. I came into the MBA program looking for a different (and rewarding) career and not a job (I’d had a great job). So my goal was to use the summer to figure out whether consulting was the right career choice for me and to understand what working with clients is like as well as the impact of my work, and acquire a new skill set/knowledge base.

Getting started

The internship started with a bang with a welcome week in Orlando, Florida, where we interacted with peers and senior executives over luncheons. The ease of access to upper management was a recurring theme with Cognizant during the summer internship. After orientation, I flew to the Bay Area, California, because I was aligned with the communications/media/technology vertical within the consulting practice. Unlike most consulting firms, Cognizant places interns at the client site and summers involve no travel. My client was a tech behemoth based in Mountain View.

I spent the first week in extensive interactions with my direct manager and directors to learn, gauge and align my expectations with the overall practice. One of the first conversations revolved around topic du-jour: bitcoin and blockchain technology. As my manager quizzed me, I recognized how little I knew on the topic. While the subject had little to do with my future client work, my manager encouraged me to research the field and present at the plenary brown bag session to senior Cognizant executives. Cognizant highly encourages an entrepreneurial mindset of taking up new projects and pursuing them. I used this as a learning experience and to showcase my work ethic. In a way, this was what consulting was all about – the ability to digest a vast and complex topic.

Learning

I was on the client site and immediately recognized how much the client dictated work culture. For instance, I wore polos and jeans to work (my client was a tech firm) since the idea as an outside consultant was to fit in and not stand out.

I spent the first few days in typical consulting style. I received two projects related to operations and strategic implementation. The scope was undefined and fairly ambiguous. My initial reaction was mild panic as I was unsure where to begin. However, my extensive preparation in the MBA Program through case studies, classwork and group projects came in handy. I prioritized and then strategize the project scope as I became familiar with the technical and quantitative nature of the project material.

The next step was to understand and work with team members at Cognizant and on the client side. Nearly every client meeting was virtual since stakeholders work globally across time zones. I benefited from tapping into the extensive resources available within Cognizant, and a stakeholder mapping of clients identified key players who provided invaluable guidance.

I spent spare time devouring everything related to blockchain technology, including hours spent in rush-hour traffic listening to podcasts. I set up virtual meetings with people at Cognizant working on the topic and reached out to friends at hedge funds and financial institutions who are applying blockchain technology.

When it all comes together

Somewhere in week six of the internship I hit the sweet spot as things started falling in place. On the client side, I hit the right pace in learning to apply knowledge on the go, and set up coffee chats and luncheons with the on-site clients to seek their expertise. I interacted with Cognizant senior leadership to share my ideas and insights, while soliciting feedback that was both active and timely. Cognizant’s HR central did a wonderful job connecting the entire intern class across the country to share experiences and share common resources at various checkpoints throughout the summer.

As the final two weeks rolled around, my excitement tinged with nervousness reached a fever pitch. First stop was my blockchain presentation where I presented a strategic roadmap to Cognizant’s executive management to expand the firm’s footprint in blockchain consulting with applications in cryptocurrencies, financial services and media. For the client side, I presented an automation strategy deployed using a learning management software tool, which increased efficiency by 90 percent. A second project involved developing a time-series forecasting expected to optimize staffing efficiency by 70 percent.

A few days after my internship ended, I realized I’d hit the three milestones I envisioned at the outset. I learned a lot from my talented peers and managers, worked with fantastic clients and could see the impact of my work. I also developed a breadth of knowledge about blockchain technology and its vast potential.

My final thoughts are that consulting is, in essence, a lifestyle that requires extraordinary discipline if you want to enjoy and succeed in it. The lifestyle includes stress from travel, working with challenging clients and projects with steep learning curves.

Treat the lifestyle like an adventure in terms of the variety of work, the opportunity to work alongside talented and diverse peers, and the travel that will take us to new places to explore new industries. Learn to innovate and have fun along the way!

By Gowtam Atthipalli (MBA ’18)