Christopher Fitzgibbon is a DISI alumnus who now works at the Triangle Insights Group, a premier strategy consulting firm focused exclusively on the life sciences industry. Chris was a Project Manager in Fall 2014 and moved onto the Executive Board as the Director of Internal Strategy. He was the longest standing DISI board member for a time. He recently returned to Duke to host a PhD consulting boot camp, which is weekend immersion program to introduce students to consulting and the transition out of academia. Chris graduated in 2015 with a master’s degree in mechanical engineering and materials science. In the following interview, he shared about his journey at DISI and his career advice in management consulting.
DISI: Could you tell us a bit about your background?
Chris: I attended Boston University for my undergraduate. I studied biomedical engineering and graduated in 2014. I came to Duke the following fall. I started as a PhD student in Mechanical engineering and Material Science department. About a year and half in, it started to become more clear that the PhD path probably wasn’t be the best option for me. I was fortunate to have found an advisor who was supportive of my ambitions outside of academia. I decided to leave Duke with my master’s degree in engineering and graduated in December 2016. I started working at Triangle the January that followed and I’ve been there ever since.
DISI: How did you explore about your career interest outside of academia?
Chris: Staring with the PhD was a really exciting way for me to continue to explore my academic interest. But also, I was able to find an advisor who’s supportive of my interest outside of academia. At Duke, that translated to me being able to find the time to participate in clubs like DISI, fortunately without stretching my schedule. Some of the most valuable experiences would include the courses I took through Fuqua alongside full-time MBA students. Through them, I was really able to get hands-on experience collaborating with business-focused individuals to solve completely new types of problems. I also participated in Bass Connections, which allowed me to work with an extremely diverse amalgam of Duke students in order to better understand and ultimately address an issue of global health. While these experiences were interesting, engaging and personally rewarding, they were instrumental in demonstrating my skill set to potential employers when I decided to transition out of academia.
DISI: Could you recall how you started to be involved with DISI?
Chris: I knew that I was interested to move outside of academia as soon as I arrived at grad school. With the support of my advisor, I pursued opportunities outside of the lab right away. As soon as I came to campus, I looked for student groups that provided the opportunity to participate on impact driven project work. So upon learning about DISI, I was interested right away and applied in my first semester at Duke. I was invited to interview to be a project manager and led a project that first semester. In the following years, I joined the Executive Board in order to stay involved in the club but also be able to help guide the (still rather young) club through its continued growth and success.
DISI: What were your most memorable experiences at DISI? Did they happen while you were a Project Manager, or while you were on the board, or both?
Chris: I would say both. But there were more unique and memorable moments while working with our team on a specific project, which is something I missed doing while taking on a leadership role within the Executive Board. Had I stayed through my PhD, I would have liked to go back and be an innovator. One of the early presidents of the group (Arjun) finished his term as president and then during the next semester came back as innovator to continue to be involved within the grass roots of the organization he loved. I would have enjoyed doing something similar, but the executive board was a rewarding experience in its own way.
One particularly memorable experience was during my first project when we worked with RAFI (Rural Agricultural Foundation International). Near the middle of the semester, we organized a team dinner on Duke’s campus and invited our client to join. Not only was Kavita (the representative from RAFI) able to drive the hour from Pittsboro to join us, but as a gift she gave us a jar of pickles, which we were really surprised by! But it was a quirky and really generous token that demonstrated their team’s appreciation of the time and effort our team was volunteering. It was a great way to build team comradery and also create a lasting connection with the client..
The project work itself is the most rewarding. You get to see, first hand, what the impact of your efforts are. Being on the executive board, you see impact vicariously through the teams, but being engaged with the client and team directly is a valuable experience. When I was at Duke, I encouraged a great number of my friends to join and I know more than a few who have since joined DISI. I had a great experience with DISI and hope others who are interested take the first step and apply.
Chris: Could you share with us more about the project you worked on?
Chris: Our client wanted our help with understanding the level of awareness of local farmers in terms of the circumstances of the county courts. The courts were creating and changing initiatives that could have an impact on how farms operate financially. It was said that there may have been a pattern of cronyism or nepotism in these county committees where single families are in dominant control and they could create rules that served the best interest of their farm but not the well-being of the whole group. Given that, we wanted to see 1) if this was an actual problem or complaint from a select group of people; and 2) how aware people were about how they could address problems like this if it was occurring. It was a survey process that involved designing the right questionnaire in order to really nail down what was going on. We implemented this survey digitally, but ultimately we each ended up calling a lot of farmers around North Carolina (you can imagine that farmers may be less inclined to complete voluntary online surveys). While it took extra time, our phone interviews provided the tone and context of our respondent’s commentary that would be lost in a survey online. Ultimately it allowed us to present our clients with a higher quality final deliverable, not to mention some really interesting and funny conversations along on the way. It is rather unique experience you wouldn’t otherwise have as a regular graduate student.
Jiang: How did you like your experience on the Executive Board?
Chris: DISI was so young when I joined the Executive Board. I was interested in internal strategy and wanted to see how the group would grow and evolve. I took a lot of satisfaction in organizations I helped grow during my undergrad, and I wanted to champion that experience at grad school. Being able to implement some of my own ideas broadly to help all future projects proved to be a challenging and but ultimately rewarding endeavor.
DISI: Do you think your experience at DISI informs or affects your career, especially in consulting?
Chris: Yes definitely. It affected it in two ways. First I was able to show my future employer that I was genuinely interested and invested in this career path. By volunteering my own personal time to do pro-bono work for non-profits demonstrates the things I care about and skills I strive to develop, such as: altruism, the ability to work with a team, the ability to work on client-facing project with deliverables, deadlines, and a multi-tasked and very diverse team environment. All of these initiatives are very valuable at DISI, but because graduate students are more often than not siloed within their own schools I found the interdisciplinary aspect very useful because the workforce within consulting is very diverse. Having the opportunity to meet someone completely out of my curricular area really gave me a more open minded perspective and I learned new problem-solving techniques from my peers. The ability to work with different types of people is consulting key foundational skill for future consultants.
The second way I think it affected me manifested when I ultimately started my consulting career and applied the skills I had developed during my time in DISI. For example, in case interviews I needed the ability to communicate complicated topics to someone who might not have share the same basic vernacular or thought process. Project based work provides a plethora of experience to learn and grow from, and often times these are experiences recruiters want to hear about during interviews. Experience where you adapt to other people’s likes and dislikes and personality traits, or resolve a conflict with a team member diplomatically can demonstrate key emotional intelligence traits to your interviewer. Alternatively, communicating to the lead of the project or your superior on the project that your work stream is too burdensome and you need extra manpower, to request to reallocate resources and to get the assistance of team members demonstrates awareness and the ability to manage upwards. The DISI experience provides the opportunity to learn and become a better leader and team member. In the end, it is really up to the individual’s attitudes and what they want to take out of the experience. When you are actively engaged and ready to learn, you receive the greatest benefit.
DISI: Apart from being engaged, do you have any other advice for current DISI members?
Chris: One thing that is usually undervalued is the relationship you build with your team. It is really difficult to get the whole team’s schedule lined up for weekly meetings. Because of that, lots of the social team outings get de-prioritized and end up not happening. Just creating chances to meet and work with people is also valuable opportunity to form friendships. Go to the Kraft House, grab a beer after a meeting and talking about things completely unrelated to project related work. That’s what you’d want to do as consultants ultimately. You’d want to take the opportunities to build relationships with coworkers. Not to mention, relationship building is another valuable skill in consulting (i.e. the airport test).
DISI: Since a lot of our members are interested in consulting, do you have any advice for them?
Chris: For people interested in consulting who don’t know much about it, they should try to come to a Triangle Insights Group bootcamp, which is a weekend immersion program to introduce students to consulting and the transition out of academia. Another resource would be the book, The Lords of Strategy. It is a brief history of management consulting; how it started, how the big three came to be, and the path along the way. Another very valuable resource would be graduate students who are still on campus but have reached a final round interview or even received an offer. They can help set a standard for what you would need to achieve in order to earn a similar job. Having an experienced candidate give you a case every once in a while helps you learn a lot faster than if you and your inexperienced case partner have to learn by yourself all along the way. And since I haven’t mentioned it, you have to do LOTS of case practice. There are useful books here as well (Case in Point, Case Interview Secrets, Crack the Case) in addition to the case books filled with examples from past years.
DISI: Thank you for all the sharing and advice!
Chris: Absolutely! It is great to recall the fond memories and be of help to DISI!