Consulting for the Public Good

“Consulting is a career where — these companies, what they offer is their people; their people are their product,” said Simon Chen ‘15, who during his time at Wesleyan was an Econ and East Asian studies double major, and is now an IBM consultant. “It’s not like they’re trying to sell iPhones, or sell computers — they’re really investing in you.” An obvious lifelong learner, Simon was searching for a starter job where learning was a near guarantee — and knew that he would find this kind of support at IBM.

Statistical consulting isn’t a new notion for data students. According to Simon, it’s actually considered one of the better starter jobs right out of college. One of this position’s biggest pulls was the comfort of knowing that this was not a job that people did long term. It was perhaps because of this exact reason that Simon was worried about sounding like an echo of previous alumni interviews on DataCrunch; even so, his specific work reveals an interesting perspective on the role of a consultant.

A little about the company’s inner working; clients come to IBM with data-driven problems and an interest in tech-driven solutions, with some of the most common issues being declining profits, desire for more revenue, and faulty supply chains.  While most of the consulting work done at IBM focuses on the commercial sector, Simon’s work gravitates towards the public service sector. This typically encompasses federal agencies, public clients, and education clients, all of which fall under the services of the business and strategy wing. Simon’s work focuses on advanced analytics and WATSON (IBM’s machine learning software).

When people think consulting, they don’t often think of FEMA and the Postal Service, yet both have been clients of Simon’s at one point in time. It’s common for IBM employees to specialize by working with a particular group of clients, and expected that this partnership often grows with every solution. “I think on some days you feel like you are working for the company that’s your client than you are for your own company,” he said. “It’s this weird job where you get to jump between different jobs. There were a couple of months where I had a USPS badge and was going into their headquarters every day and had lunch at their cafeteria.” These partnerships are enduring not only through individual experience; the postal service has been a client of IBM for over twenty years – so there is a world in which a single consultant could have been working with this client for more than two decades.

Aside from immediate and close connections with his clients, the direct ramifications of Simon’s work have proved exceedingly rewarding to him. Many of us know that data has a clear real life impact, and doing statistical consulting work at places like IBM can come with the knowledge that crunching numbers can literally help save lives.  Knowing of these real world implications has been one of the most rewarding aspects of this position for Simon.

“When I help a federal agency better process or cut down their spending, ultimately who it helps is their constituent,” he explained. “If they have more budgeting, then maybe, who knows, FEMA could reach out to more people and provide aid during natural disasters….If we’re helping cut down the supply chain, it means like instead of taking two days to provide disaster relief from the hurricane, it only takes twelve hours to reach there immediately.” Work in the public sector shows that finding standard solutions in optimization could be used not only to generate revenue, but have a greater humanitarian impact – a result that might be slightly unexpected, but all the more powerful in its ramifications.