Consultant Interview: How one consultant aced the McKinsey interview, broke in, and broke out again
Are you interested in understanding more about McKinsey careers – from the McKinsey case interview to the difference between McKinsey offices in the Middle East? Boy, do we have a treat for you.
If you’re thinking about applying for a role as a McKinsey Business Analyst, and especially how it stacks up vs. other Middle East consultants, follow along – how Jean Cui went from looking for McKinsey jobs to diving into her teams’ McKinsey and Company careers to becoming McKinsey alumni.
Sure, McKinsey Dubai is not McKinsey New York or McKinsey Chicago or McKinsey Boston – but it’s better in many, many ways. Plus – McKinsey is one of the companies in the Middle East hiring now. And as construction companies in Middle East countries diversify, and the Top 10 oil and gas companies in the Middle East look for pathways to the future, and retail companies in the Middle East prepare for increased disruption from e-commerce – let’s just say that McKinsey and Co. has never been busier.
McKinsey Middle East
Jean: When I first started at McKinsey Middle East, I wanted to be on this healthcare project in Saudi Arabia because I thought it would be very socially impactful, but there were a lot of complications as a woman getting a visa to Saudi Arabia. I didn’t get on that project; I got on a different McKinsey consulting project in oil and gas in Qatar.
At first, I was disappointed but then actually I realized that the oil and gas project was interesting for multiple reasons. One, it was very big picture strategy and I like things that are big picture strategy. We were setting up a new business venture for a state-owned company and that was really cool because I got to do market overviews.
Jenny Rae: Was it in oil and gas or was it an adjacent team?
Jean: It was an oil and gas related venture, the kind that accounts for a lot of McKinsey revenue, also in the Middle East. A lot of my colleagues were on engagement roles – they were people who spent time in other offices that would come for a project or two to work as consultants in the Middle East. For this project, it felt like my team was half Italian.
Jenny Rae: Was that a good thing? [Laughs]
Jean: That was awesome. These Italians – they were so much fun. I suppose Latin people in general, they are more expressive and more outgoing – dude, it was awesome. They were really so much fun.
Jenny Rae: So you did the oil and gas project. How long was that and what did you do?
Jean: It was about 6 weeks or 8 weeks; it wasn’t that long – no more than 8 weeks. That’s really fast. It was shorter than normal for sure. Then, the next project I got on was a banking project and also in Qatar.
Jenny Rae: So you were traveling every Sunday?
Jean: Eventually I decided it would be better to get there Saturday night. That way, I could have a good rest and not have a super early flight.
Abu Dhabi Housing Adventures
Let me talk about finding an apartment. I had never looked for an apartment before and there were just so many things I was just not sure about. I had not done a McKinsey internship, so I was this young kid, who had never looked for an apartment, much less in the Middle East. And I didn’t know how to negotiate for apartments or how not to get taken advantage of. Now I know that in negotiations you don’t put your reservation price up front. I was just dumb. People would send you this form for date, price, if you worked for a state agency, to help me find places. I wasn’t smart about filling it out. So, they showed me some two bedrooms and things that were at the higher end of my price range. I was thinking – this is not going to work, price-wise.
So, before I found an apartment, I got on a project. It was really hard to go look for housing and places in Abu Dhabi went fast like New York apartments, so if you didn’t say something right away, they just went. Sometimes, I just wished I was more experienced.
Jenny Rae: It was also crazy because if you were leaving on Saturday night, after going to Dubai on the weekends, you were probably barely ever even there. How many nights a month would you say you were normally sleeping in Abu Dhabi?
Jean: I didn’t go to Dubai every weekend because I needed to get my house organized and settle down, but still it was a pain. Mostly I was in Abu Dhabi on the weekends, at least initially. So, eight, maybe 10 days – maybe one weekend somewhere else. I didn’t stay in Dubai overnight, but I would go there and make a day trip. It was a lot of travel.
Middle East Banking Project
Jenny Rae: So, after the first project, which was the eight-week project with the Italians, tell me more about the banking project?
Jean: The banking project was less interesting. It was about risk, which is not really my thing – it was too dry, without lots of data. It was big picture strategy. I’ve also never been interested in banks. But even now as somebody doing stock pitches, I don’t want to focus on banks; I’m not interested in banks. I don’t want to research banks for my sector coverage. It wasn’t as interesting, but the team was good. The team was German and Austrian. They were good. They were not as funny as the Italian team. But they were good in other ways – they had really good processes.
The Austrian EM (Engagement Manager), he had this daily check in and check out: you get in in the morning, these are things to do for the day, here are the people we need to meet with, these are the longer-term objectives. At the end of the day, we would check out against them. It was very structured, very organized and I really, really appreciated it.
Jenny Rae: So you probably had to work fewer hours on a project like that, right? Or did you just get more done? What was the benefit of being more structured?
Jean: People knew what was on the table. People knew where others were at different steps of the process. I’m a pretty structured person – I like structure, I like to know what’s going to happen. So I personally appreciated it. And there’s another reason: I had to run a team after that, and I used that process for myself. It was a good learning experience for me.
Dubai Banking Project
About that next project: it was another bank. I’m thinking, where do all these banks come from?! It was in Dubai and it was one of my favorite projects – I’ll tell you why. I had more responsibility, I got more visibility, I could apply functional knowledge, and it was successful. It was a lean transformation, which made the bank part more fun because the operational part was interesting. I’d never done that before. It was interesting to learn about – for someone with an engineering background, lean was very structured and process-oriented and very organized and I appreciated that part of it.
Also, when I took more responsibility, across the team we were doing transformation across the bank in Dubai and the bank group had multiple components like large corporate banking, SME, and retail banking. There was only one McKinsey person at each one of those parts of the bank. In fact, we were each located at a different building or in a different part of the city. So, it was just me in this Western Dubai location of the bank. And I saw my engagement management maybe 30% of the time.
Only 4 months into my McKinsey career by the time of this project, it was scary at first, because I did not really know what I was doing yet. However, it was great.
There was a client change team doing this transformation at the large corporate part of the bank and the client change team had a leader. I was going to be the McKinsey person working with that change team to get this transformation going. We did a lot of diagnosis to see what was an issue with the bank or issues with the design, recommending that they implement a better system – and then they would do implementation. This is where I used a lot of the same things I learned from the German-Austrian team: the check-in, the check-out, how to keep stuff on task. It was really helpful because it taught me how to run something effectively in an organized, structured way. I really liked the process from the German-Austrian side. The Italians were not as good at that, but just really fun!
Process For The Win!
Because of the process, my team and I were effective. We got a very successful project done and eventually a year later I checked in with them to see what the impact was – they had doubled high-impact events, and relationship managers liked it. They were client-facing and managing these large corporate clients and now they spent more time meeting with clients, making more loans, etc. When we reduced the time they spent on useless value stuff like admin or just outsourced it to somebody else, they doubled output in a day. There was also a credit process that was super convoluted. It was just a mess, and we made that better. I was happy to see a year later that things were getting better.
Personally, it was a successful project for me as a McKinsey Business Analyst – and my team and I got along really well. We had a good time. They were not as fun as the Italians, but they were still great people – really nice, really awesome client team – in fact, the client leader invited me to his house for Diwali. We still keep in touch, and they were really awesome. In fact, the client sent me a picture of great chicken wings (my favorite) just a little bit ago.
Some Projects Are Psycho
Jenny Rae: Okay! So, where did you go from there?
Jean: The next project was a psycho project. The project lengths varied. The bank project was one of the longer ones -maybe 10-12 weeks? It was from October to like almost Christmas.
Jenny Rae: Did you ever count how many projects and how many different industries you worked in while you were McKinsey?
Jean: I could count now. I remember a lot of stuff pretty well. One, two, three – hmmm, let me just list them. Maybe that’ll be easier. Oil and gas, bank, bank, bank again at that same client doing a different kind of function. Telecom, that’s five. Infrastructure (asterisk). Check-in at the bank (which I mentioned), telecom, internal knowledge project, telecom in Saudi Arabia (asterisk again). And then infrastructure.
Female Consultant In Middle East
So, 11 counting the ones that were internal and the asterisk ones in Saudi Arabia because it’s hard to be a woman in Saudi Arabia. Even getting in is a pain – the first project was this big family conglomerate and at first I was working remotely from Dubai or from my apartment in Abu Dhabi. After two weeks, they said – forget about it. We’re not going to bother you to try to put you through the visa process. There was another American woman, who was single – under 30 – who was working remotely for four weeks for this client. Then, she got rejected for the visa at four weeks. Because that was a bad experience, they just took me off the project without trying to get a visa. The fact that I was a woman was the main concern. At that time, if you were single, under 30 and a woman, it was just really hard to get a visa. I’ve heard anecdotally that things might have gotten a little better now.
My second asterisk was another Saudi project – a telecom one. This time, I made an attempt to get a visa. I got one single entry visa for 30 days. With that, I felt really committed – like, I’ll just watch Downton Abbey on the weekends in my hotel in Riyadh. The client was a state-owned organization – 17,000 employees, all guys, no women. And even though I got into Saudi Arabia, I couldn’t go to their office. I was working from the Riyadh McKinsey office. Even though I landed in the country, I was not able to go to the client’s site in the country. I was working remotely in the same city.
Jenny Rae: So that that was also obviously annoying, right?
Jean: Yeah. I was not happy with the location. So McKinsey staffing was just like, let’s call it and not try again.
Team Makes The Difference
Jenny Rae: Crazy. Well, you have these 11 projects. Were there any other ones that you wanted to highlight? Did you have any work with Aerospace companies in Middle East?
Jean: Not Aerospace. I really liked the bank ones because for the banks, while not my favorite industry personally, everything else was good. I learned so much. When you work with really good people, it makes all the difference – my McKinsey team on that project was amazing. On the first project – the lean transformation – my Engagement Manager was amazing – he was really, really big picture. He recommended we really ignore details. He was also really chill because he didn’t stress about things that were not important, and he was really good at handling the client. Not everyone likes transformations at the client. They’re the hardest.
Double-Check The Numbers!
Outside of the daily work we did, there were client challenges, but my Engagement Manager was really, really good at dealing with them – so a lot of it didn’t fall on me. I escaped a lot of it and I’m very grateful for that. For example, I remember there was one meeting we had with the client change team and we were presenting to the large corporate organization. There was one guy who was not very pro-transformation.
Now, I was still learning how to become better at client skills and I could be a bit oblivious sometimes, but one of my team members noticed this guy was taking our numbers from the slide and crunching them on his calculator. He was double checking the numbers. Thank goodness, we were right – there were no issues with my numbers, but we could just tell that he wanted to find something that was wrong.
Jenny Rae: Well, you talked about your favorite projects, and you talked about some of the challenges. Why eventually did you decide that it was time to move on from McKinsey? Did you ever look at McKinsey Digital or McKinsey New Ventures?
Jean: Honestly, there were two other things I wanted to do. Before I started at McKinsey, I was reading through all these books about the financial crisis. I read The Big Short…
Jenny Rae: You read The Big Short – the actual book, not the movie?
Jean: I read it the year the movie came out and I found it really inspirational, which is not obvious for a book about a financial crisis. Right? But I found these untraditional investors – not your Goldman Sachs MD kind of investor – thrilling.
These contrarian thinkers were able to see something that people were not able to see – this massive fraud – and then they bet against the fraud and they won. That was inspirational. I identify with people who are plucky and willing to be offbeat and different in a good way. I identify with taking out frauds. Remember, I wanted to be a lawyer at one point and I like justice and if you can profit from it, that’s great. Some would say that’s the best, actually.
McKinsey To Startup
Jenny Rae: So, did you identify that as any specific function or role or type of organization? And did you look at working with any major executive placement firms in the Middle East?
Jean: I was thinking, “investing.” But I hadn’t fully figured out exactly what about it was so appealing. The second thing was startups. Both were international. Before I started at McKinsey, I had thought of a fashion startup idea – when I was growing up, I loved pretty dresses and I still love writing and I like art and design. I had an idea for customized prom gowns / fancy dresses where you can change dress parts like sleeves, mid-line, hemline, color, fabric and you just mix and match and you have a wardrobe that can match but be designed around. That was the idea. Those two things – investing and dress startups – were not things I could do at McKinsey. I decided to leave to go after those two things.
It was tough, especially on the investing side, but also on the startup side too. I think I’ve gotten better now, but I was not always a good interviewer or just not a super polished person. Through networking, I discovered this startup in New York that was doing something pretty similar to what I just described. Awesome. I talked to the person over the phone, and they seemed excited to meet in person.
I flew to New York to meet in person, but the meeting didn’t go well. They asked me where else I was applying to and I didn’t have an intelligent answer because I was also looking into investing, and that’s not the kind of answer you want to give – other options should be similar, and they would wanted it to be at least functionally similar or related.
There were also other responses that just were not intelligent, polished or straightforward enough. So, I didn’t get that opportunity. I was pretty disappointed because that sounded like the kind of place I wanted to be – although they pivoted into a different direction afterwards from customized dresses to custom logo products, like shirts… so maybe I wouldn’t have been happy to go there anyway.
And on the investing side, it was also hard. I had no banking background, a little bit of finance, and looked up people from my MIT network and my McKinsey alumni network to find people who were doing investing, and I sent them cold emails. I met a number of people in person, for coffee, for informational interviews. I also cold messaged Ben from The Big Short on LinkedIn.
Jenny Rae: Crazy. Yeah?
Jean: Well, I guess one thing I’ve got is guts. He was really nice. He said they didn’t have a job, but he connected me with an ex-McKinsey person who joined after the Big Short. I met with him, and I still keep in touch with him. It was a nice informational interview, but again I couldn’t exactly pinpoint what I wanted to do. However, in one of these meetings, somebody pointed out – “Oh, you like to like short bad companies.” And it dawned on me – yeah, that’s what I want to do.
However, I had no success getting a job in the investment field. I had no experience and it was, as I said, a hard industry to get into to begin with. But on the retail angle, something did turn out pretty well. It wasn’t an early stage startup anymore. It – Zulily – was post-IPO, but it had launched only four years ago, so it was still rather young. A McKinsey alum at Zulily connected me and was looking for talent.
Jenny Rae: McKinsey – amazing network, right? It’s good to be McKinsey alumni!
Jean: Yes! So then, I applied. I talked to people there – and they were really impressive. In addition to the McKinsey alum, there was a VP who was number one in his class at Stanford Business School – a really smart, amazing guy. They offered me a job and there were multiple roles I could pick from. I could work with the McKinsey guy and do operations, or I could work with the VP guy, and go international. I liked them both, but I wasn’t very interested in operations, so I chose international and that was a good choice for me. The guy who was my direct manager, he was awesome. His name is Justin. He is probably one of the best bosses I’ve ever had. Ever. In any place.
Jenny Rae: Wow. I mean, you rotated through bosses a lot and you got to try a lot of them on for size.
Jean: Yeah. Justin was really smart. He was really nice, and he was just extremely good to work for – chill and understanding and really caring and just really awesome. In fact, in 2016 he launched his own startup and he got a lot of Zulily people to follow him over the next two years. Now his startup has over 90 people. He even got his former boss at Zulily to become the CEO of his new startup. So I was really grateful. I like international, but I also got really lucky I ended up choosing the team that Justin was leading.
Jenny Rae: So, you had been at McKinsey for over two years at this point. Before you left, were you thinking at all about going back to school – did you think about following the McKinsey path and doing an MBA or just continuing there? I guess what I’m asking is – was it more that you were done with McKinsey that catalyzed your searching or was it more that you had something else that you wanted to do?
Jean: Something else I wanted to do. The MBA was on my radar, but it felt like the law school decision all over again – like, why go get it? The long answer was that I tried to apply to HBS and Stanford and those were the only two places I really wanted to go. I didn’t get in and I’m thinking, I’ll try again another time.
So I committed to Zulily – not getting in and moving to Zulily happened within four months of each other. Zulily was e-commerce. It was apparel for the most part. And that’s what I like and always had – fashion. I liked startups at a later stage, but international sounded pretty cool because I honestly had international experience. So, after two years I decided to try again to go to b-school. At that point, I was willing to go somewhere else, so I applied to Columbia and got in – boom.
Now, I still had my two goals in mind and I figured I could use business school as a safe place to try a startup or to move into investing. I just wanted to use my time wisely. So, one of my top three priorities at that time was getting some kind of investing internship. I reached back out to my contacts in the industry, but still nothing.
Columbia Business School
Then, I went to CBS Connect, and they had a panel on what to do the summer before you started your MBA. Well, I landed an internship actually because there was a woman at the summer panel who had done that the year before. I talked to her after the panel and she told me about the program she had done – you could just apply to it.
However, the program deadline had already passed when I found out about it. She just connected me directly to her contact. We talked; he did a reference check with the VP from Stanford who obviously was positive on me. And then I got a job. It was a three-week, pre-MBA investment internship. So I literally left Zulily on June 24th and over the weekend I stayed in Baltimore and started at TRowe on the 27th.
Jenny Rae: Then, while you were at CBS, you continued your focus on that second thing that you wanted to do, shorting stocks and investing. Was there anything in particular that you did while you’ve been at school that you think was particularly meaningful for that?
Jean: I mostly focus on the investment side because if you didn’t, you would automatically get screened out. So, I did stock pitch competitions, took some stock pitch classes, recruited for investing interviews for the summer.
My only regret is that I didn’t have as much time to focus on the startup side as I wanted because I really, really did want to do that. If I had to choose, I would say I’m slightly more passionate about customized design than about stock picking. But it was hard to do two things that were completely unrelated that would both be time consuming. I applied to a startup class, but I couldn’t get in because I had not shown enough commitment to it. Straddling the start-up and investment worlds was a challenge. I have worked with Carly Bigi (CBS ’17) on her stocks. She is really capable, but pre-revenue, so hard to know where that will go.
Jenny Rae: Well, the final, final question would just be this: what advice would you give to your younger self?
Jean: One: prepare. The first time around, I did not show up prepared, and I did not get a job. Preparation does wonders sometimes.
Related to prepare: keep trying – just keep going for it. If you really want something, go for it no matter what. I didn’t get into McKinsey the first time around; I didn’t get into investing the first time around. Just keep going. I feel like that’s really important.
Finally, something I really wish I knew was how important your soft skills are in consulting, especially in a relationship-based geography like the Middle East. Growing up, that had really not been an emphasis of my upbringing at all. Some things I did were just not smooth or polished. I think I’ve gotten better at it. I’ve worked on it, but you don’t want to start working on it when you land at McKinsey. You want to be working on that two years before you start McKinsey. So that’s a really, really big lesson. Don’t neglect the soft skills – work on those at the same time as you’re working on your academics.
Jenny Rae: Awesome. Thank you so much. That was amazing.