My Experience

There are two target audiences for this article. The first are those who are considering TFA, with the contingency of pursuing something else afterwards - possibly consulting. The second are those who would be calling me to talk about working for one of the big consulting firms, and want to pick my brain on what experiences I had that led me to work for this awesome company.

Contents

  1. Background
  2. So you want to Teach for America
  3. Consulting

Background

I have given my brief background below to these target audiences, so that when I refer to some lesson or experience I had along the way, there is context for how everything fits together. To some extent, I think that I hope I can build my story in such a sense that you can start to get a feel for what you want your story to look like, and fill in the appropriate blanks as necessary. My objective here is to provide context and answers to a lot of the common questions that people call me to ask about. That way, if after reading this you still have questions, when we talk on the phone we can talk about the questions that aren't already answered here.

By no means has my experience been a linear path. In fact, it's been a lot like a "choose your own adventure" series, where I honestly am not sure what the next decision is going to be beyond the one that I have currently made. When I was 18, I literally mapped out the next 10 years of my life - I knew what was going to happen and when it was going to happen. I used to think that I knew exactly what I wanted to do, and I used to think that I knew exactly how I was going to get there.

Now, after not having any of my plans work out like I thought they would, I'm realizing that responding dynamically and one step at a time seems to have its perks. Allow me to illustrate - here's a high level view of my resume from the last 10 years:

  • '02-'04 - Served a mission for the LDS church in Valencia, Venezuela
  • '04-'08 - Studied and graduated from BYU in Mechanical Engineering
  • '04-'09 - Worked as an IT consultant while in school
  • Summer '05 - CMP R&D Intern at Micron Technologies
  • Summer '06 - Founded Emagine IT
  • Summer '07 - Intern at DriveSafety
  • Summer '08 - Quality Control Engineer at Honeywell
  • '09-'11 - Taught 6/7th grade pre-algebra in San Francisco through Teach for America
  • '11-'12 - Worked on my own start-up
  • '12-present - Working in the Ops Practice at a top consulting firm
What does mechanical engineering, information technology, education and consulting have in common? I don't think I really even have an answer for that, and I lived through all of it. But somehow they combined together in a way that gave me the chance to work with a lot fantastic people.
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So you want to Teach for America

I graduated in 2008, at the height of the most recent recession, and the job market was less than spectacular. Of all the jobs that I interviewed for, none of them was very appealing to me. Until I learned about TFA during lunch with a friend. Prior to the lunch I had never heard of TFA, before the day was over my application was in the mail. I had long had a love of education, I knew that I owed a great debt to some of the amazing teachers I had had over the years, and I knew of the impact that they had on my life, and continued to have. The opportunity for me to get in the classroom with no prior education experience was too much for me to overlook. My plan was always to teach school at the end of my career, to take my experiences to the classroom and share my wisdom with my future students. TFA turned that plan on it's head, and by the time I had been given an offer, it wasn't a difficult decision for me to make.

I've tried to provide responses to some of the most common questions that I get asked. They may or may not be the same questions that you have - but even if they aren't, I suggest that you read them because it might answer the question you didn't know you had. But before anything else, please, please read the section called "Motivation". It will be the first question I ask you, and it should be the first question you ask yourself. I realize it's long, but it's also the most important part.

Motivation

Why do you want to do Teach for America? This is the most fundamental question of all that you need to be asking yourself. There are going to be many reasons why people want to do TFA - you enjoy teaching, you want to work with kids, you realized too late in your major that teaching is your real calling, you want to go to graduate school/consulting/finance/whatever and TFA looks good on the resume and will help you get in, you want to be part of the TFA network, you want to make lots of money, etc.

Except for that last one, I have heard every one of those reasons. And they're all completely valid reasons - but that doesn't mean they're good reasons. Let me tell you a story - my story.

I taught at a little school in San Francisco that had 4th-8th grade. Not the best educational model out there (4th-6th graders should have absolutely nothing to do with 7th and 8th graders. Hardly anybody should, but that's a different story), but that's what we had to deal with. And in all of those grades, we had a total of about 170 students and about 14 teachers; 10 of them in the middle school (6-8 grades) and the other 4 in elementary school and special ed. Don't let the size of the school fool you - it was a very, very challenging environment. Ask any of my TFA friends, my school was easily the worst - so bad, in fact, that at the end of my second year, they closed it down.

No force on earth could have prepared me for what I encountered that first day in the classroom - I had never seen anything like it in my entire life. I literally didn't have any idea that school could even be like what I witnessed. I won't go into details, but suffice it to say that from that day on, and for the next 4 months, there was a continual battle in my head about whether I could do this or not. And thanks to a lot of incredible support from family, friends, a few key colleagues at the school, and sheer stubbornness and a refusal to cede victory, I was able to stick it out and get through that first year. If you want more detail about that year, I documented a lot of it on my other blog.

Like any first year teacher, it was hard. Like any first year teacher, I had very little idea of what I was doing in the classroom, and there were a lot of key lessons that I needed to learn. But there was one thing that stuck out in my mind, that I didn't realize the impact it really had until the following year. That was when the new special ed teacher quit the day before school started. Since I was so focused on trying to control my own classroom, I didn't really notice the effect it had on the rest of the school. But the following year, when I had a much stronger presence in my classroom and the school in general, I witnessed first hand the effect of having 10 different teachers quit throughout the year. Our middle school science and english classes were literally a carousel of teachers - I would hear my students talk about it, and they took it as a game - how fast can we get this teacher out of here? Let's see if we can beat our 2 day record...

It was complete devastation - the effects of which of school was never able to recover from. So due to this experience, when I talk to people about TFA, I'm not going to overhype the glory stories and build up some incredible experience. I want to make sure that your motivation is in the right place, because if it's not, to me you're just going to end up another number in the list of teachers that let me students down. I would rather have you make the decision right now that TFA is not the place for you, than pass through the interview process, do all the pre-work, participate in summer institute, get placed in an urban school, and then quit because it wasn't what you were expecting. In this instance, you become part of the problem that you were sent there to help address.

So where does your motivation need to be? I like to use this example. Make a pie chart of all the reasons you want to do TFA, and assign each one a value so they all add up to a total of 100%. If the biggest chunk of that pie has to do with something non-education related, post TFA - then don't do it. I can't guarantee that your experience will be as hard as mine was, odds are that it will be better. But are you willing to take that chance? The biggest chunk of that pie needs to be something related to being an actual teacher in the classroom, and having an impact with the students themselves. Even if it's just 51% of your reason, that's enough! It's ok to have secondary objectives, but it's vital to know that you have the proper primary objective as your motivation. If that's set in place, I'm confident you'll be able to handle anything that can be thrown at you.

For you LDS missionaries out there, people as me if it was as hard as my mission. My answer? No, not even close. TFA was 100x's harder. Remember all those people who would slam the door in your face? Those who told you to "fxxx-off" before giving you the bird? At least in the mission field, if you didn't want to see those people again, for the most part, you didn't have to. Imagine having a classroom full of those people, and you have to go back day-in, day-out and try to get them to learn something.

Ultimately, TFA was possibly the best experience that I have ever had. I love my students dearly, and the lessons that I learned while out there have fundamentally changed me. But the price I paid for it was extraordinarily high. It's a price you'll have to pay as well if you take the TFA route - the question is - is your motivation anchored in the right place?
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What was your experience like?

How do you sum up any huge, life changing event? How was high school? How were your years 21-24? The answer is, as life is, quite complex. I kept a blog while I was teaching, go check it out.

If I had to sum it up though, I will say this. As with any huge, life changing event that you persist and stick to, it had its ups and downs. While the downs were really, really low and extremely challenging, the lessons I learned and experiences I had made up for it in Aces. I wouldn't trade them for anything. So while I may not have enjoyed every minute of my TFA experience, there were many moments of brilliance, and as it always does, the people I worked with made it so worthwhile - particularly my students. I love them dearly, and I try to continue to keep in contact with them as much as I am able to do so.
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What did you do during the summer?

I'm assuming I get asked this question frequently because people want to know how to plan out their TFA experience, and figure out what they can do to best position themselves for what they are going to do post-TFA. I applaud these people. I don't think my answer is going to help you though.

Nothing. It was absolutely glorious. My first summer after teaching, I moved back to Utah to save some money (I could live gloriously for 3 months in Utah for 1 month of expenses in San Francisco). While there, I spent time at Lake Powell, dated, spent time with the family, did a ton of biking, hung out with friends. It wasn't all complete glee, as I did study for and take the GMAT, as well as spend a fair amount of time planning out my second year of school. But for the one summer I had between years, I had no set plans, and I loved every minute of it.
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Why didn't you continue in education?

A number of reasons, but the biggest is my students. I have a strong love for education, and ultimately feel that my future is tied to education in some degree, but my TFA experience was tied to my students. It was for them that I was battling every day. So when they closed our school and sent my students to each of the far corners of the district, how could I ever make that decision? Where would I go that I could be with these kids with whom I had shared so much over the last two years? It was a natural transition point and I was ready to move on. 

Now, had the school stayed open another year - would I have stuck around? I'm not sure. I had applied for graduate school at the time, but I wasn't thrilled at the prospect of attending, and so teaching may have been a more appealing option then.
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When did you know what you were going to do after TFA?

About a month before school ended. I knew from the start of the year that the school was going to close at the end of the year, so I knew I wouldn't be sticking around in that school. I toyed with the idea of transferring to a different school, but I also thought about a lot of other things. Like joining an EdTech start-up full time, finding a different job in San Francisco not education relation, work for TFA as a PD, but ultimately decided to apply for grad school and work on my MBA. But I didn't know that's what I really was going to do until most of the other options I was pursuing at the time had dried up. 

The decision to not attend the MBA program came about two weeks before it started. That's another story, important, but not relevant here.

With all other options off the table, I decided to pursue starting up a company that I had long dreamt of doing. So I devoted the next year of my life to learning PHP, MySQL, CSS, HTML and Javascript, learning how to make them play together nicely, and working on my own website.
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Consulting

It wouldn't take much work to figure it out, and if you're here, you probably already know the Firm that I work for. For personal reasons, I will not be naming them here. As you read this, just know that I am speaking from my own personal opinion, and in no official capacity for my firm. 
When I was in college, I was certain that I wanted to do consulting. I interviewed with all the top firms, but for one reason or another, the timing just wasn't right for me. I didn't get any offers for second rounds, and in some cases, I didn't even get through the first interview (long story)! 

It wasn't until I was happily working away at starting my own company that I got contacted from my current employer. They had received my resume as part of a resume portfolio that Teach for America had sent around to all of their business partners. They told me that they liked what they saw, and encouraged me to fill out an actual profile online so we could begin the interview process.

This is an important point for me to make to anyone who calls me, because they always want to know how I stood out and how I made it through the screening process. I personally wasn't looking for it
at the time, and if it hadn't been for TFA, I don't think I would have had it happen. At the same time, after getting hired, I spoke with a TFA representative who wanted to know this same question, as I was one of only a handful of other TFA alum who had not only gotten an interview, but an offer. That is to say, having done TFA alone was not sufficient to get me on my firm's radar.

So what did I do to get an interview and get through the screening process? Actively? Not a whole lot. It's a crappy answer, I know, and it's one of the reasons I have a hard time talking to people on the phone who come to me wanting to pick my brain. I know this is one of the key things people want to call and talk to me about, because I was in that same position once. I remember thinking "What experience/things has this person done that I could do, and help me land a similar position?" It just so turns out that I had a mix of experience such that it appealed to and fed directly into the Operations (Ops) practice of my firm, which I was interviewed for, and hired directly in to.

It isn't well understood outside of my firm, but the way that Operations work is quite different from the rest of the Firm. I'll describe that in a bit more detail in the next section.
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My position in the Ops practice

There are 6 different practices in my firm, and over 30% of the work we do is in Operations. Operations work includes service operations, supply chain management, purchasing supply management, product development, capital productivity and manufacturing. By total number of engagements, it is by far the biggest practice in the Firm. The other 5 practices are:
  • Finance
  • Marketing and Sales
  • Organization
  • Risk
  • Strategy
It is possible for people to get hired directly into any of the practices, in the same way that I did with Ops. But for the most part, Ops operates like a completely separate business unit from the rest of the practices. Operations engagements can take place anywhere across the country, and will pull resources from any office. Generally the other practices will work on engagements within their region, and try to staff people from within the same area. These consultants are called generalists, and can be staffed within any of the practices. Now, this isn't a hard and fast rule, as we sometimes will have generalists on Ops studies, but it doesn't happen too frequently.

Often there is a distinct difference between the backgrounds of an Ops consultant and the generalists. 

Usually the Ops are a bit older, and they have some significant level of experience under their belt. For instance, they have worked in industry for some extended period of time (anywhere from 2-8 years in my experience), usually in the supply chain, product development, purchasing, or service areas of a company. We also have a lot of people who come from the Navy or some other branch of the military.

Generalists often come directly from an undergraduate or graduate program, usually with some degree related to business, finance, accounting, economics, or strategy. When it comes down to it, I'm just speaking from my personal experience and observations. I really have a pretty surface level understanding of the generalists and the rest of the practices, because like I said, Ops almost operates as a separate business unit and I don't interface with them as much as you'd think.

I get the sense that a lot of the people who call me are coming from a more generalists perspective (business background right out of undergrad), so I can offer my opinion, but it may or may not be relevant for what they're looking for in the other practices. So after reading all of this and we talk, just know that the perspective I'm coming from may be quite different from the type of position that you're looking for in consulting.

What did you do to prepare for the interview?

Three specific things. Two of them were unintentional, and the other I did for the sole purpose of the interview.

The first unintentional thing that really helped me a ton with the interviews was my background in engineering. I was used to taking obscure problems, assigning out variables with various units to them, and assembling a type of solution, plugging numbers in, and solving for an answer. Then, ultimately being able to look at the answer and determine whether based on my understanding of the problem and the magnitude of the numbers whether the answer felt like it was in the ballpark or not.

This helped because as you likely know, case interviews deal with sometimes abstract questions, problems, and lots of different numbers. And you need to be able to know what to do with them, and get answers that make sense. Engineering is most definitely not the only background that helps with this, but it was a huge bonus.

The second unintentional thing was teaching pre-algebra. Weird huh? Two years of being in the classroom, and working with numbers - I spent a ton of time having to make up problems on the fly, and be able to see the different parts of the problem and have the solution in my head ahead of time so that I could stay ahead of my students. Therefore, I got really used to doing a lot of fairly simple math quickly in my head.

In the case interview, you don't have a calculator. And you really don't need one - if you're getting numbers you think you need a calculator for, you've done something wrong. But because I got so comfortable working with basic operations, it really allowed me to turn off the math portion of my brain, and focus more on the actual strategy of the case.

The third thing was very intentional, and it's how I spent all of my time preparing. I got a copy of the Tuck case interview guide, and it has a couple hundred case interviews in it. My roommate at the time was ex-BCG, and so he and I spent hours going through case interviews. But we didn't solve them. What I needed help with was figuring out how to structure a solution. So we would read a case, and then start a timer for 45 seconds. We would each take that time to literally draw out the framework that we would use to attack the problem. At the end of the 45 seconds, we would share our solutions with the other person, and then critique each others framework, and then compare our own against it. We did this over and over and over, and I think this was by far the best thing that I did to prepare for the interviews, as once I had the framework, the rest of it was just digging down into the parts and using the numbers they give you.

In the case interview, this was enormous. It allowed me to quickly be able to figure out a framework, and then proceed to have them give me the numbers, which was easily my biggest strength.

The last thing (bonus!) that I think really helped in the interview was the attitude that enabled me to really demonstrate my capabilities. I think that many of the people who get into the interviews with consulting firms could easily perform what would be asked of them, but for some reason, your brain turns to mush. I know - it had happened to me before. 

But not this time. Since I hadn't been necessarily seeking out a job with this firm, and I was so happily working on my own company, I saw the opportunity to interview as just that - an opportunity. It wasn't my goal to get hired, I wasn't pining for this job, I wasn't even sure if I would take it if I was offered one. So I was able to walk into my interviews and be completely at ease. I cannot begin to emphasize what a huge strength I believe that was, as I knew I was capable, but I had to figure out how to let them know it. Being calm, cool, and collected allowed my mind to be sharp, active, and ready to handle any type of question they could throw at me.

Will xxxxx experience help me get an interview?

Coming soon.

Enough already - what can I do to get an interview?

Coming soon.

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