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Consulting is a career path that requires you to be an expert in a particular field so that clients will turn to you for your services. Sometimes recent graduates or new consultants may not have that expertise or experience right off the bat, and it may be difficult to find a job, projects or clients right away.

However, IBM’s Consulting By Degrees (CBD) program helps entry-level consultants gain experience, develop skills and grow their network through mandatory online and on-site training.

The program gives consultants exposure to the different areas of consulting to find the niche they want to pursue. This way, they can go into the right field for them while developing the valuable skills and experience consultants need to be successful and make a name for themselves.

“Once you find out which area you prefer, you can start to expand your skills and expertise in that particular area and really grow into a true subject matter expert,” said Damir Kostic, senior managing consultant at IBM.

Program for starting consultants

Consulting By Degrees is a two-year rotational program across sectors to prepare an entry-level undergraduate candidate to a senior consultant position. It’s divided into four quadrants, each with its own curriculum.

In each quadrant, recent graduates are required to complete training. They learn the basics and eventually move on to high-level skills like leadership.

“This program really forces you to go through all these different curriculums and really learn some of the key skills that are required for consulting,” Kostic said.

The program also enables consultants to dabble in various niches. For example, you might work as a finance consultant for two months, then two months later you might be working as a human resources consultant.

“It vets you as a candidate for a more seasoned role, especially in areas where you’d like to grow your career in and focus on,” said Fariha Khan, strategy management consultant at IBM.

Find your path

Both Khan and Kostic are CBD graduates. Kostic has been with IBM for four-and-a-half years and graduated from the CBD program two-and-a-half years ago.

He was first introduced to IBM through a session at his school where the president of IBM Canada was speaking. He was immediately drawn to his leadership style and thought IBM would be a great place to work.

Kostic said he had a good experience with the CBD program. Coming straight out of school, the program, especially the training, helped him get some basic consulting skills.

The program also showed him different areas of consulting and, from there, he was quickly able to identify which field he wanted to pursue. Unlike most graduates, he already knew where he wanted to go and “the program gave me the exposure to get into that area, which I probably wouldn’t have thought of before,” he said.

Kostic also says that if recent graduates are looking for consulting experience, the best thing to do is go into a company that’s done the most transformation than any other company.

“(IBM) has been the company that’s done the most transformation than any other company in the world,” he said.

He says one of the reasons why new graduates should consider IBM when it comes to consulting is the brand name.

“When you’re a consultant, it’s all about having a brand attached to your name. There are two aspects to that. One is your personal brand. If you’re coming from IBM, you’re getting a major global image attached to your name,” he said.

Opening doors

Khan, on the other hand, has been with the company for seven years and was part of the first batch of consultants in the CBD program in Canada, joining in February 2010.

However, Khan wasn’t brought up to be familiar with the consulting profession. She pursued a Bachelors of commerce degree at the University of Toronto, specializing in accounting and majoring in economics.

When she graduated in 2009, the economic crisis was at its peak, affecting job vacancies in the market. But in hindsight, Khan believes the uncertainty in the markets worked in her favour, “because it gave me greater ammunition to challenge the path of seemingly least resistance to a profession.”

She took this as an opportunity to research positions on par with her interests and also those that were aligned with the strengths she felt she could offer then. She networked with industry professionals, interviewed and started her journey at IBM as a business transformational consultant as part of the Consulting By Degrees program.

She encourages students to challenge their status quo and to ask themselves two simple questions: “What do I want to do in this one and only life I have?” and “Where is the best place to start that can help me get there?”

A hands-on experience

Through the program, Khan gained valuable knowledge and skills very early on in her career.

Over the course of her two years in the program, Khan was able to work on several projects. She used to work for different industries: the government of Ontario, large financial institutions and a leading consumer packaged meats company and also contributed to an internal project.

Khan did everything from “conducting financial analysis, identifying client pain points and strategic imperatives, constructing a baseline costing model, creating a benefits model for initiatives proposed to help the organization meet their five-year growth strategy, conducting market research, validating IBM’s end-to-end recruitment process, managing offshore resources, helping with the project management of a large IT transformation and managing its financials, and documenting business requirements and contributing to the development of a new operating model for a client.”

Some of the skills she uses on a daily basis, that she believes would help students excel in the consulting practice, are collaboration, critical thinking, adaptability, dependability, being a curious learner and having an aptitude to accept challenges.

But most important, “CBD provided sound conditioning into integrative rather than binary thinking,” she said, which means being able to “weigh in different stakeholder perspectives to formulate final conclusions to a problem as opposed to linking one cause to one effect.”

The program also allowed her to build her network in a safe environment, which is important as a consultant “because the more seasoned you are in the organization, the more you’re expected to find projects on your own, and the CBD program trains you to get to that.”

Despite being exposed to so many skills and projects, Khan did not run into any significant challenges, but she said being an entry-level consultant for “an organization representing renowned Big Blue,” was a responsibility she never took for granted.

“I recognized I was given the privilege to be in a position to influence real change, the practice of which can be daunting to a new hire, but the CBD program provided a solid support network to navigate the complexities of a large organization and to provide adequate coaching as and when needed,” she said.

Modern direction

Max Howarth, a senior consultant at IBM, just like Khan, did not study consulting at school. Howarth graduated from Queen’s University with a degree in geological engineering.

He started his consulting career similar to others, “by making some killer power points,” he said. He helped around the office as a new hire, and by helping out with a presentation, he was transferred to his current team and has had the opportunity to work on “some amazing mobile initiatives.”

He advises new hires to help around the workplace as much as they can to show off their skills and get to know their colleagues.

Howarth was also able to work on several projects. He worked on an app that helps people pay for fuel. “I’m well on my way to becoming a mobile payment and loyalty expert,” he said.

As a consultant who works in the world of apps and mobility, Howarth recognizes that IBM has a legacy of innovative, secure and successful solutions.

“Anybody can make an app, very few companies can create a beautiful, intuitive app that is supported by highly secure, scalable and most important, reliable infrastructure,” he said.

As a company that is always moving forward and transforming to meet current demands, working with data is turning into an essential skill for contemporary consultants. Every consultant should be an Excel expert, Howarth said.

Consultants should not only be able to parse and analyze, but also present that data in a meaningful way, and this requires creativity in the presentation and the ability to interpret the data and develop hypotheses, he said.

Your future awaits

Graduates who want to be consultants, especially with IBM, should not fret too much about their educational background. “IBM doesn’t necessarily recruit ‘degrees,’ we recruit people,” Howarth said.

He added that his educational background isn’t closely related to what he does now for IBM and his clients, and this is true for many IBM consultants.

“We work on a massive array of projects spanning every industry imaginable. This means that there is no shortage of opportunity for people who seek it out at IBM,” he said.

However, Howarth says that becoming a well-balanced individual is valuable as a consultant. He advises students to take advantage of extra-curricular opportunities and snag student leadership positions during university and use that experience as a proxy, as many recent graduates lack job experience.

“Success in volunteer work or extra-curricular activities shows that you can apply some of that knowledge to make improvements,” he said.

Khan also adds that even though maintaining a certain GPA benchmark is important, a candidate who applies to the CBD program is evaluated holistically. The program recruits students from many degrees and course work, and a student should aim to show how their experiences have helped them be a good fit for the consulting role.

Khan’s experience in the program enabled her to become a better consultant.

“(The program) helps accelerate who you know and who knows you,” she said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better accelerator, a better platform to a career and personal growth than the CBD program.” 

To find out more about IBM's Consulting By Degrees Program, visit: