Booz Allen consultant interview – Life as a Consultant series

This post kicks off my “Life as a Consultant” series – where, through interviews, we take an inside look at the stories of current and past consultants.Booz Allen Logo

Some background before we launch into the interview:

A reader was kind enough to reach out to me when I posted about starting this series of interviews. His background in boutique consulting and now at Booz Allen provides a valuable perspective on topics ranging from public sector consulting to firm culture to career advice.

Now on to the interview! I’ve bolded a few things that are particularly helpful for prospective applicants

1. Tell us about your background

I graduated from a large public university in 2006 and spent a year and a half at a boutique consulting firm before coming to Booz Allen. My undergraduate background is in economics, and I had a pretty good undergraduate GPA. I’m currently a Senior Consultant for Booz Allen’s Organization & Strategy team.

2. Booz Allen is one of the industry’s most respected firms. What was the recruiting process like for Booz? Any tips you can share with readers?

The recruiting process for me was extremely easy and not typical. I was “referred in” to the firm on a Monday, had a phone interview that Tuesday, was brought in for an in-person interview that Friday and had an offer the next Tuesday.

There are three main routes to working for Booz Allen – being referred by a current employee, going through the University recruiting process, or being snatched from another consulting firm. In the year-and-a-half I’ve been at Booz Allen, I’ve never heard of anyone who applied on the website and was hired. I’m sure it happens, but the overwhelming majority of our staff come through the aforementioned pipelines.

My telephone interview consisted of several behavioral questions and an explanation of my background. The in-person interview day was broken into five thirty-minute segments where I sat with various Senior Associates for discussions on where I would be a good fit, with several cases and logic puzzles mixed in.

My suggestion for navigating the hiring process is to Be Patient But Follow Up. Because the company has grown so much over the past few years, the recruiting process is still a little broken. If you have a well-respected internal rainmaker to shepherd you through the process, it will help you tremendously. I also strongly recommend applying for an internship while you are an undergrad, but they are pretty tough to get.

3. What perceptions did you have about the job before you started? Have these changed or been confirmed?

When I applied to Booz, it was still a “top tier” management consulting firm. Since then, the reputation has taken a hit from the separation and those of us who had an opportunity to work at more “prestigious” firms have been somewhat disappointed. Besides that, everything that people have said about the firm is true – everyone is smart and qualified. They may not have all gone to Princeton, but they are driven and fun to work with.

I did not expect the culture to be so buttoned-down, but I like it. Monday through Thursday dress is business formal – suits and ties. Fridays are technically business casual, but that generally means that guys just take off their ties.

4. Many readers are interested in government and public-sector consulting. What has your experience been working in these areas?

Public-sector consulting is very similar to doing commercial projects, but it gives you some nice perks. First, it allows you to do work that you can easily explain to people outside of the consulting world. While it might be challenging to explain the fine points of change management at a large corporate client, you can tell your parents that you are “fixing the IRS” and they will understand what that means.

Second, I’ve been surprised at how easy it is to get your clients to accept your recommendations in public-sector work. If you are really interested in public policy, this is a great place to be. Economic regulation, health care, and national security work are popular within the firm and if you show an interest it is pretty easy to find work.

Finally, you don’t experience some of the project low balling that corporate clients hit you with. Government clients are more interested in making sure that the work is done right than if it is done quickly (partially, I think, because it isn’t their money). You never have to share hotel rooms, almost always get your own rental car, and use a General Services Administration per diem for most of your travel so the client can’t ask you to go cheap on food.

There are some negatives: It is really easy to get stuck in staff augmentation-style work, particularly at pre-MBA levels. Because junior consultants are less expensive and much easier to bring in than hiring a Fed, clients frequently use them to fill a hole in their staff. Doing this kind of work isn’t sexy, but it does give you unbelievable access to senior government executives that you can use later on to build a business.

5. You mentioned the recent separation of Booz Allen into a strategy-focused Booz & Co, and a government-focused Booz Allen Hamilton (acquired by Carlyle). Can you share an inside perspective on what happened, and how this has impacted your job?

There are a number of reasons why the two practices separated, but the paramount ones are corporate culture and business model:

– The commercial business primarily hired graduates of top MBA programs, whereas the government side was much more open to ex-military personnel, non-MBA masters’ degree holders, and recent college graduates.

– The commercial side utilized Up or Out, while the government practice did not, resulting in a significant age disparity between government and commercial partners.

– The government practice grew out of the commercial practice but has been significantly more profitable. In FY 07, roughly 70% of the firm-wide profit came from government business, which accounted for only 30% of the partnership.

– Because of the work that the government practice does within the intelligence community, the commercial practice was precluded from providing similar consulting services to foreign governments. With the separation, Booz & Co is free to build that business without restriction.

– From my perspective, I can add another dimension to the cultural divide – the top focus for the government side is ensuring that our clients get the best possible service, whereas my colleagues in the commercial business tended to be much more focused on doing the most interesting, cutting-edge work.

The capital infusion hasn’t affected my work at all. Carlyle has been very hands-off with the firm for good reason: a consulting firm has to rely on its people as the “product.” If the people aren’t happy, they leave, and Carlyle’s investment is in danger.

6. One topic that I often address is the differences in culture between firms. Can you tell us about Booz Allen’s culture?

The culture is the reason why people stay at Booz Allen. I’ve rarely been in a situation where I felt the firm was abusing consultants or had a backwards policy. The firm is tremendously respectful of your personal life, and while there are frequent occasions where you need to put in lots of hours to meet a deliverable, your work does not go unnoticed. Most consultants don’t travel and work between 40-50 hours a week. If you do travel, 50-60+ hours is normal. If you work on the flight or travel during core business hours, you are allowed to bill time while traveling. You aren’t issued a smartphone (most people have their own, anyway), but you are not generally expected to respond to email after 5 pm (though most people do, anyway).

Booz Allen consistently gets high marks for training, and it’s very easy to find interesting courses that the firm offers for free. While the firm does not currently sponsor your MBA, there is some chatter about increased educational allowances over the next few years.

The firm is somewhat parsimonious with vacation time, but they make up for it with incredible flex-work arrangements. Depending on your project, you may be able to work from home a few days a week. If you live in DC there is a free, WiFi equipped shuttle from the metro to the main campus in McLean running every twenty minutes. The offices are simple but well equipped.

It has surprised me that some consultants at other firms don’t get exposure to their clients. I have always been in direct contact with my client, and much of our work is done in tandem with them. Because Booz Allen does strategy and implementation work, a lot of the time you will sell a client on a particular course of action, then hold their hand while they implement your recommendations.

Contact with senior leadership is frequent, although you tend to build the most meaningful relationships with your Senior Associate. With that said, contact with leadership and the type of projects that you are staffed to are most highly dependent on the team you work on. Some teams are relatively small and give you a lot of flexibility. Larger teams, however, can be disjointed and may make it difficult to network.

Incidentally, it might be useful to explain Booz Allen job titles: most entry-level hires come in as Researchers (and are informally referred to as Level A’s) or Consultants (Level 1’s). People with a few years of experience or MBAs are generally hired as Senior Consultants (Level 2’s) or Associates (Level 3’s). The firm is managed by Senior Associates (Level 4’s), Principals (Level 5’s) and Partners (Officers).

Finally, it is worth mentioning salary and benefits. For entry-level employees, salaries are generally competitive with most other consulting firms. Having a security clearance, excellent internship experience or other credentials will bump up your offer. I’ve seen people complaining about low salaries at Booz Allen as opposed to, say, Deloitte or BearingPoint, but there isn’t much in the way of facts substantiate this whining. I have friends from college at Accenture, PwC, E&Y and Deloitte and we all make roughly the same salary.

Similarly, Senior Associates and above are fairly well-compensated, and Booz Allen partners are paid much more than their colleagues throughout the industry. With that said, Associates (Level 3’s) frequently grumble about being underpaid in comparison to similar positions at competitor firms. To some degree, this is true – they are paid less than what they could make at another firm. With that said, there is a reason for this. Booz Allen doesn’t use Up or Out because the firm is totally comfortable letting someone hang out at the Associate level for ten years, provided they do good work. Not everyone wants to make partner, and it shouldn’t be easy to do so unless you are serious about building a business, managing a large team of people and working pretty heavy hours, which Senior Associates and above are tasked with.

There are a few performance-based cash awards you can win, but no bonuses below the Senior Associate level. If this bothers you, take solace in the fact that your friends who are getting bonuses lose about 40% of it in taxes.

Benefits are fantastic. The firm provides a contribution of 10% of your base salary into a profit sharing account every year and the health insurance is strong.

Team dinners, activities and other freebies abound as well, all you have to do is pay attention.

7. Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?

I’m planning on getting an MBA when the time is right, but for now, this is a good place to be. As the firm grows and I continue to be promoted, there are more and more opportunities to jump on cool projects. During the separation from Booz & Co, the two firms agreed on a timeline of when we could re-enter the commercial market (and, similarly, they could pursue government contracts), which is fast approaching. There will be some really great opportunities for junior people to stand up this practice within the firm.

8. Any last words of advice for prospective consultants?

If you have never worked a 90-hour workweek, it is pretty easy to shrug it off as insignificant. The same thing goes for traveling Monday through Thursday for months on end, memorizing the room service menu and living out of a suitcase. It definitely takes a certain type of personality, and you have to make sacrifices in your personal life. It can be fun, challenging, miserable and boring at the same time. Do your research and ask questions!

9. How should readers get in touch with you?

I don’t refer people into the firm unless I know them, but I would be happy to answer questions via wtbbah(at)gmail(dot)com.

That’s it, folks.

Booz guy has been getting a lot of follow-up questions through email. I thought I’d post some of them here:

Follow-up 1. If I were to start my career at Booz in, say, your Health Group, what doors would that open/close? What kinds of jobs do people step into when they leave your firm?

Our health group is growing in both size and market. If you have an in with them, I would encourage it. They are going places.

Follow-up 2. Are advanced degrees required/encouraged at Booz in order to get promoted?

Advanced degrees are not required, at a certain level. Booz Allen likes to hire two types of people – recent college grads or people who are going to stay in the job for several years. The firm does not like it when people leave to go get an MBA, it is expensive to train someone and build a team around them, only to lose them three years later when they go off and get a higher degree. Obviously, for certain technical work an advanced degree is required, but by the time that I have five years of work experience (which is what most top-tier programs expect) I will be making roughly what I would make coming out of an MBA program, so the additional degree might not be necessary. With that said, Booz Allen likes MBAs and Ph. D’s, and won’t discourage someone with one of those degrees who want to work here.

Follow-up 3. Who are your firm’s main competitors in the public-sector space?

That’s an interesting question because it depends on what market we are going after. By the time you graduate, we will be back in Commercial consulting work again, so I don’t know who we will be primarily competing with. For DoD/DHS clients, we compete with Deloitte, Accenture, SAIC, Lockheed Martin, et al; for Executive branch agencies like the Treasury department, the FDIC, and others we might be competing with BCG, McKinsey, Accenture or IBM.

Are you a current consultant or someone who recruited successfully? Interested in being interviewed? Please get in touch to be featured in the Life as a Consultant series.