Alumni Q&A: Michael Proudfoot on Kicking Off a Problem-Solving Career in Consulting
Based on July 2020 interview
- ACME Class of 2017
- Cicero Group, Associate Consultant
- Management Consulting, Business, Strategy
- Management consulting gives you experience with business problem solving in multiple industries.
- To break into management consulting requires practicing the “case interview”.
- When going into a non-technical field, find someone to work with whose skill set complements your own.
Tim Riser: Can you zoom out and give context for who you are, where you came from, and how you got to where you’re at?
Michael Proudfoot: Well, I’m Michael Proudfoot, obviously. I graduated from applied math at BYU three years ago, and I’ve been working at Cicero Group for the three years since. I started at Cicero as a business analyst, worked as a business analyst for two years, and for the last year as an associate consultant. Now I work with a small team of analysts to solve business problems.
Tim Riser: How did you select ACME as a major?
Michael Proudfoot: As a child I loved math and was quite good at it. In high school I was good at math, but I hated it. I wanted to be, you know, a scientist. It turns out, I didn’t end up liking science, but I had begun liking my math classes. I thought, “Math is the one.” I got interested in economics, so I decided I’m going to do both math and economics. ACME wasn’t a thing at that time, but right as I was leaving on my mission, they announced ACME. I thought, “Perfect. This is what I’m going to do, it’s exactly what I want,” and then disappeared for two years. I come back and ACME seemed to be going. I think the first cohort was about to graduate when I got home from my mission. After I met with Dr. Jarvis to chat about the program and what it entailed, I was super excited and signed up.
Tim Riser: Having spent two years in the ACME program, what drew you to your current job?
Michael Proudfoot: That’s a great question. Again, going back quite a long way, I always knew I wanted to end up working broadly in business. The sort of the family I grew up in, the role models I had around me, it seemed like a pretty solid place for smart people to make money. And so I decided that given my background being more on the sort of quantitative, STEM side of things, going to consulting would be a great application of that, as well as a great way to develop my non quantitative skills or soft skills, as well as apply domain-specific knowledge.
Tim Riser: As you were preparing for the job, what got you excited about Cicero in particular?
Michael Proudfoot: The thing I was most excited about with Cicero is that it was locally based and that they have really interesting clients. Cicero does a lot of really good work for large foundations, educational organizations, and other social impact organizations. We also have bigger clients that we do bigger projects for. For example, I’ve worked on a couple of projects with tech companies in the Bay Area. I’ve worked with a concrete company, a food manufacturer, and a bank. Quite far back, I’ve worked with various local government agencies putting smaller plans up to the public. Going back to why I was excited about Cicero, I think for me the exciting jump was going from school to work. I’m naturally a school person. I like to think I’m quite good at school. But school is about solving problems that other people know the answers to and work is about answers to real questions that no one knows the answer to. You’re actually being helpful by coming and giving the answer. No one is happy but you when you finish your homework or get an A on a test, but you really impact companies and ideally people by solving problems in the realm of consulting. So I was looking forward to that, and that is one thing that has just a hundred percent panned out.
Tim Riser: Consulting is probably something that’s foreign to most ACME students as a concept, as an industry, and as a profession. Can you give a brief overview of what is consulting, what is management consulting, and what are the different types of consulting?
Michael Proudfoot: There are all sorts of consultants, and all sorts of people that call themselves consultants. What we do at Cicero is called management consulting. Management consulting is very broad, but at the highest level I’d explain it this way: a company has a problem that they need to solve and that problem is outside of the capabilities of the people that they have, so they go to experts. These management consulting firms employ people who solve problems and sometimes those problems are very obviously material to the business. So, maybe it’s how can we sell more? How can we launch this new product? How can we run more efficiently? A lot of what we do is operations, or how to make the organization run more efficiently. A good example is that I’ve worked on a couple of mergers. Two companies have merged, and how do we work that out? How do we integrate things while keeping the business running and keeping everyone happy? There’s a whole lot to consulting, and although on the surface it can seem easy, none of these things are easy once you dig enough into the details.
Tim Riser: For someone coming out of a math program, how do you break into consulting, which on the face of it is very different?
Michael Proudfoot: Yeah, that’s a really good question. When you interview at a consulting firm you do what’s called a case interview. A case interview is like a homework question. They know the answers, but they’re asking you to solve a very simplified business problem. People do all sorts of crazy things to practice and prepare for these types of interviews. I spoke to one of my interviewers after I was hired and said, “I’d love more feedback. Obviously I did well, but what can I still work on?” The interviewer said, “You know, it was obvious that you didn’t necessarily have a business background, but all of the quantitative portion, the part where you have to come up with ideas and think in a structured way, was really impressive. Although I probably could have been more prepared on that pure business side, the quantitative background that I have really did help me with that part.
Tim Riser: You said you prepared for consulting by doing a case interview. Did you do other preparation like outreach or talking to people?
Michael Proudfoot: I actually found Cicero on the TV screen in the Tanner building. They were having an information session and I thought, “You know, I’ve been applying to the Big Three consulting firms [Bain, McKinsey, BCG]. These guys look interesting. I’m free tonight. I’ll go.” So I went and sat through the presentation. It was very similar to a lot of the presentations that companies do. Afterwards I went and spoke with the guy that presented and talked about what Cicero does, the types of people they are looking to hire. It was quite helpful to talk to him and kind of understand a little bit more about what was going on, especially because Cicero is a smaller firm, right? We have about a hundred consultants. It turns out this person was in charge of recruiting, so the fact that I’d made that personal connection in the information session did kind of help. It’s actually really interesting because as I went through the interview process, I had an interviewer ask me how I heard of Cicero, and I said in an information session. He said, you are the first person I’ve interviewed in this interview season who doesn’t know anyone. And so I gather that most applications are by word of mouth. But I was just looking out for opportunities and found this one.
Tim Riser: You’ve been in industry and worked alongside colleagues from different backgrounds. How well would you say ACME prepared you?
Michael Proudfoot: I think ACME prepared me to do hard things in terms of the specifics of working with people and my specific day-to-day job. ACME honestly taught me to work hard. And that has been invaluable, because work is hard. I don’t think anything else can give you as much of a challenge or as much of a good learning experience. My little brother is in ACME right now and I couldn’t be happier.
Tim Riser: You said ACME is a place to learn hard work. People are balancing a lot. I’m wondering what the Michael Proudfoot advice would be to people in ACME right now?
Michael Proudfoot: My advice to people in ACME is breathe. Just take time to chill. I don’t know if this is what you’re looking for but treat school like a job. You’re there to learn and if you take it seriously and put in the time during the day, you’re going to learn a lot, and you’re going to grow, and it’s going to help you grow scales and be qualified for a good job and good career. It’s also going to improve you. Learning things is a great way to grow quickly and ACME is a great way to learn a lot of things. That’s my advice for ACME students.
Tim Riser: Are there other questions I should have asked, or that you would have liked to respond to?
Michael Proudfoot: My one piece of advice for technical/quant/STEM people going to work in a non-STEM-type environment is to find someone whose skill set complements your own and work with them. My manager for the last two years is a great guy and we get along really well, which is helpful because we’re traveling together all the time. He was a high school quarterback, his background is in sales, and he studied finance in college. On top of that, he’s a Utah fan, so on paper we have nothing in common. But our skill sets are perfectly complementary. When we’re taking our team’s work to the client, I’m able to take the quantitative side, he has the qualitative and people skills locked down, and what we produce together is excellent. I learned so much from him and he to his credit learns a ton from me. I think you’re going to want to develop people skills, and the best way to do that is to learn from someone. And what do you have to offer them? You have the quantitative skills to offer them. If you can team up like that, I really think you can grow a lot and you can magnify your contribution. That’s my soapbox.
Tim Riser: Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences with us.