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New York, New York

Columbia '14 | urbanite | foodie | explorer | aspiring ukulelist | wanderlust 

Thought Sketches

 

 

The 6 Month Test & Why It's Powerful

Sarah Chang

Every once in a while, I like to take a moment to reflect with what I call The 6 Month Test. I find it incredibly illuminating and motivating to benchmark things into perspective. 

The test is simple -- there are only two questions: Am I a fundamentally different person than who I was 6 months ago? and Is this difference a good thing?

Try it.

Let your mind wander to half a year ago -- What were you doing, working towards, hoping to have? What were your concerns? What did you want to be better at?

Now fast forward to where you are today -- Has there been measurable progress towards those things? Are you now facing a new set of challenges? Are the walls towering in front of you different than those that appeared before? Do you feel any differently?

Most of the time, I'm astounded by how much of a difference 6 months can make.

I'm intrigued by the sheer volume of new experiences I've had, people I've met, and ideas I've come across. It's fascinating to relive how and why these events have impacted me. A few times, I truly question why I said or did X, Y, Z things just a mere few months ago and feel so relieved to have moved beyond that.

If the answer is no, not much has changed, then I also know I've been spinning my wheels and need to be more deliberate in architecting my life or putting myself in situations to be exposed to more opportunities. 

I love this test because it's so revealing. There's no hiding from your progress. The only question more powerful is, "Where do you want to be 6 months from now?"

        

Case Interviews: Why The Right Answer Is Not Enough & What To Do Instead

Sarah Chang

The recruiting season for summer consulting internships is kicking in, and many friends have been asking me to case cram in preparation for their upcoming slew of interviews. I'm more than happy to share tips from my experiences, as I've found the general advice of "case, case, case until you've practiced at least 50 cases" to be a bit misguided.

Being exposed to so many different scenarios may let you "crack" any case, but often it's not sufficient. I think there are a few things people tend not to do enough, and these also happen to be the things that really impress interviewers. As you ramp up for your big day, I hope you'll find the following helpful to keep in mind.  

Aim for specificity and ask for more details during the case setup. Immediately after the case narrative is a perfect time to ask questions for more strategic details that can help you form an attack plan. In some of my interviews, the interviewer surprisingly hinted at the "key" to the case when I probed a bit more about the industry. For instance, if it's a market entry in a particular country, asking "Just curious, why this country?" can give you some clues and motivations behind why there's a problem in the first place. Careful though - strike a balance between asking for contextual background and overly detailed information that belongs later in the case.

Isolate the real crux of the problem. Too often, people try to force-fit canned frameworks without thinking about where the core of the problem hinges, and it completely defeats the point of doing a case. Instead, it's helpful to rephrase the objective. For example, if the question is whether or not to launch a new line of business, say "So what we're really trying to determine here is if the incremental increase in revenue outweighs the incremental increase in costs", not just "I want to look at profitability broken down into Revenues and Costs". 

Be conversational and raise interesting points. In general, the interview shouldn't be one-sided. Don't suggest that you're looking for guidance from the interviewer, but it is perfectly acceptable to ask questions and make the the interview seem more like a discussion rather than a quest to find the "key" to the case.

Be mindful of your frameworks in terms of depth vs breadth. Be exhaustive in the minimal amount of information you need to form a firm conclusion, but within this breadth, develop several nested layers of analyses that show your depth of thinking.

Communicate clearly why you're asking every question. The easiest way to lose your interviewer or appear unstructured is if you haphazardly ask questions, even within each section of your framework. Say explicitly why you need this piece of information and what it will allow you to confirm or disprove once you receive an answer. For instance, "Do we have a breakdown of customer segments? I'd like to see which of our customers contribute most to our profits in order to know who we should prioritize in customer retention."

Make sure every question you ask leads you to an actionable answer. This is a followup to the previous point. Try not to ask seemingly related questions that don't actually get you closer to a recommendation. If the case is on cost-cutting strategies, sure Profit is made up Revenues and Costs, but you don't have to analyze revenues just because it's in the Profit equation. This also goes back to an earlier point of isolating the crux of the problem. Otherwise, it seems unfocused and directionless. Essentially, before you ask a question, check to see if it's oriented towards giving you something that helps you get to a conclusion. If not, you probably don't need to ask it. 

When you calculate something, see if there's a simple follow-up calculation you can do to put the number into context. It's always good to put any calculation into context. If you've just discovered that you can save 25% by outsourcing to China and know that your total costs right now are $100m, you should apply both these numbers together and conclude that "Outsourcing seems financially viable since we could save $25m in costs, which is significant considering that profits are $90m." The calculation suddenly gives meaning to the data you already have and supports the decision to outsource.

At the end of any calculation, proactively discuss the implications and what they mean. Don't wait to be prompted by the interviewer! Once you reach a number, immediately jump into why this number is important and what it means for the situation. Explain the impact and how it informs the rest of your analysis. 

Work your math out loud. Talk through equations you're going to use as well as your calculations. If there's a mistake in the logic, it's possible the interviewer will correct you if you've done well so far. Always double check your final answer before you announce it. For the non-engineer, you should also be able to do simple math calculations in your head and be very familiar with manipulating the zeros in millions and billions. Practice percentages - you should immediately know that 60% of 3 million is 1.8 million, etc.

Incorporate recent real-world trends into the discussion. This helps the case be more conversational and demonstrates applicability of your analysis in the real-world. For instance, if the case is on healthcare or hospitals, find a way to tie in how ObamaCare might impact the situation.

Look for second and third level insights. This is perhaps what people forget to do most. You're not there to crunch through numbers to determine that indeed, a particular market is big enough for a new business to reap a sizable profit. Anyone can do that. The interviewers are testing you to see if you have the business acumen to, for instance, figure out the relationship between adjusting price and how customers/competitors will respond, why they might respond in that way, and what this means for your approach to the problem. Always probe beyond the "no-brainer" surface level observation and show you're considering multiple tiers of the problem.

When asked to brainstorm, create categories before listing ideas. Ask for 15 seconds to think, form some groups such as "Internal" versus "External", and list your creative, brainstormed output within these categories. Then you can report back and say "I believe there are two categories of risks--internal and external. For internal, I'm thinking X, Y, Z." It creates so much more structure and makes it easier to follow your logic.

Summarize before moving onto the next area of analysis. At any given time, the interviewer should know exactly what you have already analyzed and how that relates to what you're currently analyzing. 

To find risks, revert back to assumptions. This is something I've found really helpful. If you're being prompted about potential risks for your recommendation, go back to the initial assumptions you made and say why they make your recommendations less reliable. For example: "One risk I see is that we previously assumed the military was X million people. However, if the government decides to downsize the military in the next few years, then our market may not be as big as we projected." It may not give the most insightful risks, but at least you've got somewhere to start.

Give your recommendation first in your summary and then back it up concisely with one quantitative and two qualitative pieces of evidence. Most case interview books suggest this, but it's easy to get jumbled in all the data you've uncovered by the end. Depending on your case, you may have more quantitative evidence, but it's good to give some specific numbers at the end to highlight the most important of what you calculated earlier.

It's okay to give conditional recommendations. It doesn't have to be black or white. You can say "Company A should enter Market B only if they are sure they can capture 20% market share in the first year." It adds complexity to your analysis but still keeps it highly actionable and specific.

Outline risks and next steps at the end. Again, don't be prompted by the interviewer to bring up potential risks for your recommendation. You should be thinking ahead and explaining what your assessment may have missed, or other data that would have been helpful to formulate a more robust analysis.

 

It takes much more than just getting to a final answer to pass a case interview. Case interviews are 50% content and 50% how you present your content (in a clear, structured way). If you simply barrel through to arrive at a final answer, but miss the nuances and extra considerations that prompt discussion, chances are the interviewer never had a chance to really see how you think. At last, some good general advice I heard was to "bring a high energy version of yourself," as it shows you're genuinely interested and curious about solving problems together. It's a lot to keep in mind, but I think while most of these points are never explicitly covered in any of the popular case interview books, they're equally if not more important than reaching a "right answer". 

 

        



Backpacking Bonanza

Sarah Chang

Backpacking_Bonanza.PNG

At the request of a good friend who's planning to backpack in Europe, I've catalogued some tips and tricks that I used when I trekked through Europe for three months with one carry-on suitcase. It's everything I found useful or would have liked to know, and I hope it makes your trip a little more about the experience and a little less about logistics. 

How to pack:

This video shows you, literally, how to pack like a pro. Although I didn't discover this until afterwards, it would have made bulkiness so much easier. Alternatively, vacuum bags are magical. 

Before you leave: 

Download the metro/bus map apps for all the cities you're going to. There's nothing worse than trying to squint at a faraway map in a foreign language for the next stop on a crowded subway.

Download a currency converter app. Who would have thought your dollar would get you so far (or so little). If you're going through Europe, make sure you know which countries don't take the Euro (UK, Scandinavian countries, Czech Republic, Hungary, etc.)

Scan a copy of your passport and email it to yourself, just in case.

Get a Google Voice number before you leave so you can make/receive calls and texts abroad for free via your laptop or phone. Make sure you do this when you're still in the US since you can only sign up for the service with a US IP address.

I've found skyscanner.net, booking.com, and hostelworld.com to be reliable sources for booking. Anything above a 7.5 rating on booking.com is generally decent. Flights are often cheaper than taking the train, but add in transport time/costs. 

Figure out how to get from the airport/train station to your hotel and back for each of your stopping cities. This means knowing the bus/subway number and route stop names for your hotel. You should keep this with you. The rest of the trip can be planned at the hotel, but make sure you do this while you still have internet access, aka before you leave so you're not stuck unable to make international calls or load a map without data.

It’s nice to have a detailed itinerary of where you’re supposed to be in your phone that you can access without WiFi. It keeps everything in order, and you’re never scrambling for the exact time the train leaves. Here's a PDF screenshot that I carried with me:

Screen Shot 2014-01-07 at 11.55.39 PM.png

What to bring:

If you're flying with budget airlines like Ryanair or easyJet, many of them only allow you one carry-on item. One. As in, if you have a suitcase already, you can't bring another backpack larger than a small purse. Solution: Pack a foldable backpack in your suitcase so you can repack necessary day gear without paying for another carry-on. 

Look at weight requirements. easyJet doesn't have one but Ryanair is adamant about weight restrictions, and you get slapped with a hefty overweight fee (something like €20 per kg). This was a godsend. 

Definitely bring a water bottle so you're not paying tourist fees for water. The Brita water filter bottle is great for most countries (probably not Morocco) for fill-ups throughout the day.  

Things to make life easier when you're there:

There’s no need to buy an international data plan. Simply load the Google map of the city before you leave the hotel, and you’ll have a fully functional map as you navigate within the city without WiFi. The GPS location tracker still works, and you’ll never get lost. I usually “star” my hotel on the map so it’s easy to locate.

If you need free WiFi, McDonalds and Burger King are your best bet. They're ubiquitous, (un)fortunately

If you're doing a short overnight trip and wear contacts, leave the contact solution bottle. Just fill your empty lens case with fresh solution so you can use it night of.

What to do, see, and eat:

Wikitravel will get you through anything. It's a great start to understand the history and customs, figure out how to get from the airport/train station to the city, make a list of which local foods are not to be missed, and know what to watch out for in terms of safety and staying away from sketchy neighborhoods. 

Don’t get caught in tourist trap restaurants. Find a few restaurants on TripAdvisor before you venture into the city and “star” them in Google maps. It’s good to have a few pre-researched options for every meal - sometimes restaurants close on random days or are too full for walk-ins, and you'll never be without options.

If you’re on a budget, make lunch the main meal of the day. There are usually good set lunch deals at most restaurants, especially in Prague. Picnics and farmers markets are also great options. If you're venturing into Scandinavia, staying at a hotel with free breakfast is essential. 

Via Wikitravel, find out the names of the major grocery stores nearby where you’re staying and pick up the next day's breakfast on the way back from a day out. 

Due diligence:

If you're flying with Ryanair, sometimes the airports they use can be remote and far from the main city airport (such as Luton, Stansted, Gatwick, versus London Heathrow). Make sure you check the airport code to see if the lower-priced plane ticket is worth the extra hassle and cost of transportation into the city. 

Do some Google searches on any sort of day/museum passes for the city. Some are rip-offs (London, excluding the 2 for 1 London Eye deals) while others save you so much time by bypassing lines (Paris Museum Pass). The Amsterdam one is wonderful if you like Rembrandt, Anne Frank, Van Gogh, etc. In general, do some research if you can skip lines by printing off tickets beforehand (Vatican Museum), or if you need to pre-book before showing up (Borghese Gallery). Almost all London museums are free. 

Check which days museums are closed! Especially in France, there's one day of the week when museums are not open. The Versailles Château is closed on Mondays, and Centre Pompidou is closed on Tuesdays.

 

That's all for now. Happy travels!