Implicit information

From what I’ve seen, puzzles and exam questions share two un-real-worldly characteristics. Firstly, you are guaranteed that a solution exists. Secondly, you are given that all the information provided to you is relevant. (Well, not always. Some case studies I’ve seen have had their share of contrived irrelevance. But that’s often what it is, I think. People fill in the relevant stuff, and then try and distract by adding irrelevant material in the hope of making it more real-world-like. But that’s just a guess).

These are very powerful constraints. I know of nothing that has given me as much confidence in solving puzzles as the assurance that a solution exists (and that someone thinks me capable of getting it).

But it’s more than just a confidence builder. The guarantee that a solution (and invariably it’s a unique) is a very powerful one. An extreme case is an objective type question, which explicitly provides three guarantees:

  1. There is a solution
  2. There is only ONE solution
  3. It is among the choices listed below

(Some papers try and take away the first guarantee by having an (E) None of the above category. But that’s still leaving behind the other two more powerful guarantees.)

Marking answers randomly, or marking (A) for every question would still get you 25% in an exam with 4 choices. (Marking (C) would prove just as good, unless you had a kind professor like this.) That’s better than any real-world scenario I’ve seen. (Real-world strategies aren’t much better, though.)

Using guarantee 2, you can eliminate choices easily. If (A) and (B) do not satisfy some property of the solution, they CANNOT be the answer. There’s only one solution, and these are not it.

Using guarantee 3, you can pick the last remaining choice wihout having to check it. The solution is definitely among the choices listed. So you don’t need to solve an objective type question. You just need to pick the right answer — which is completely different.

The principle applies even outside of objective type questions, especially in mathematically-oriented problems, or puzzles. And you can solve it by trial and error. For example, try this one from Martin Gardner‘s Mathematical Magic Show:

Two brothers own n sheep, each of which is sold for n dollars. Thus they have n2 dollars in all. This is in the form of 10 dollar notes and 1 dollar coins, the number of 1 dollar coins being less than 10 dollars. The elder brother divides the money as follows: he takes a note for himself, gives one to his younger brother, takes a note for himself and so on. At the end, the younger brother complains that the elder took the first note as well as the last. So the elder gives the younger all the one dollar coins. The younger brother complains that he still has more. So the elder brother writes the younger a cheque to equalize their share. What was the cheque for?

Now, this is a weird problem. Think about it. You’re told almost NOTHING. And you have to guess what the amount is. (Note: you don’t have to guess what ‘n’ is. That’s impossible.)

Here’s how I solved the problem. I said, let me find even one case where the elder brother gets the first and last note. Let’s see what the answer is. Whatever the answer is for that case, it has to be the answer for all other cases — because otherwise, the problem does not have a unique solution.

So I tried n=1. n=2. n=3. For n=4, the amount is 16. That’s 1 $10 note and 6 $1 coins. The elder brother would get the first and the last $10 note. The younger would get $6. So the elder would have $4 more than the younger, and would write out a cheque for $2. (It’s amazing how many people get as far as the $4, but forget to divide by two.)

You can try if for any other value that has an odd number of $10 notes. It has to be for n ending with 4 or 6. That means n2 ends in 6, and the cheque has to be for $2.

Notice that you didn’t need number theory to get the answer. The assurance that there is a unique answer is enough.


There’s another kind of implicit information usually available: the amount of information there is. For example, take the following question:

Which city has a higher population: San Antonio or San Diego?

Children in the US apparantly had difficulty answering it. Children in Germany had less trouble. The reason? The German kids had heard of San Diego, but not San Antonio. They figured the one they’d heard of was more likely bigger. Knowing less may be better.

It’s the same principle you use to check spellings. Run a Google search on two spellings. The one that returns a higher number of results is the correct spelling. (Of course, Google has a spelling correction mechanism that works well, but I use it for Tamil words. I can never tell if I should use ர or ற.)

Of course, the fundamental assumption here is: MORE INFORMATION = MORE CORRECT, which is not always the case. But the point I’m driving to is this:

You’re always given additional information. Even if you’re not given any information, that’s informative.

Solving multiple choice questions

How would you solve this multiple-choice problem: What is 12345 x 45678?

  1. 201932843
  2. 563894910
  3. 402394820
  4. 384718349
  5. 938491834

It always amazes me when people try and multiply the two numbers. In any objective-type test (multiple choice question), the aim is not to solve the problem — it is to pick the correct answer!

Most people don’t seem to realise the difference.

If I had to solve the problem, I’d look for shortcuts. For example,

  1. All answers have 9 digits. So that’s not going to help.
  2. 12345 ends with a 5. All multiples of 5 end with 5. So the answer is either (2) or (3).
    1. 201932843
    2. 563894910
    3. 402394820
    4. 384718349
    5. 938491834
  3. Multiplying the first digits, 1 X 4 = 4. So the answer’s got to start with a bit more than 4. (3) starts with 40. That’s too low. C’mon, the second number STARTS with 45. So…
    1. 563894910
    2. 402394820

This takes me 10 seconds. Multiplying the two takes me ten times as long.

Let me repeat the point: You DON’T have to get to the answer. You’ve already been given the answer. You just don’t know which one it is. And you don’t have to solve the entire problem to pick the right one.

There are many ways of picking the right answer. One is what I just used: the answer must satisfy some property. In this case, the answer must be a multiple of 5.

In other cases, the answer must be close to something. For example, what’s 37463 x 28438?

  1. 532686397
  2. 1065372794
  3. 2130745588
  4. 4261491176
  5. 8522982352

Well, let’s just multiply the first two digits: 37 x 28. That’s 1036. So the answer’s got to be close. OK, (2) is the answer.

These are not one-off techniques, nor are these applicable only to numbers. You can always pick the right choice without solving the problem.

A weaker, but more general version of the above rule is: you can always eliminate choices without solving the problem.

I’ll blog more on this shortly.

Case interview frameworks

Structuring a case

Most importantly, smile, be confident, and relax.

After the interviewer has explained the case, I like beginning with “Could you tell me something more about…” First, it buys time to think about the situation. Second, you get to find out more. More often than not, the case description alone is completely inadequate to make a stab at the case.

I follow this up with the objective: what am I supposed to do in the case? Sometimes, we need to ask. Sometimes, we need to state and clarify. Either way, I prefer to determine the objective upfront. I would also clarify the role of the interviewee and the interviewer. Is the interviewer acting as the client and the interviewee as the consultant, for example?

Then I describe the structure that I’m likely to follow. Some people think its better to develop a structure as you go along. I think its better to state a structure, and deviate from it if needed. That way, the interviewer has an idea what you’re doing. Remember: half the problem is to making your thinking understandable to the interviewer.

Then I analyse the case based on the structure, come up with possible hypotheses, and test each of them. Finally, I list options based on the hypotheses, and their implications.

I prefer thinking in terms of patterns rather than frameworks. A pattern is nothing but a small framework that’s easy to remember, and can be used for a single small specific purpose. Such patterns are often seen everywhere, and can be put together to form frameworks. I am documenting some of the recurrant patterns that I have seen while solving cases, and a few frameworks that I use.


Framework: Decision making

Broadly, for any decision, I use the following framework.

  • Find out the reason behind the decision.
    • The reason could be strategic.
    • The reason could be project feasibility:
      • The market attractiveness could lure us, through
        • its demand pattern
        • or supply pattern
      • but competition needs to be considered
      • along with risk.
  • Find out the cost of the decision:
    • in terms of new resource allocation, and
    • existing resources to be reallocated.
  • Determine if it is worth it. This is subjective.
  • Figure out how to list options based on the decision:
    • using timing
    • and mode (4Ps, OLI).

Pattern: Strategic reasons

Objective: Determine strategic reasons for a decision.

The following are specific strategic reasons for making a decision.

  • Externalities. By making the decision, the overall company will improve, although the project itself may not yield positive benefits.
    • Overall cost reduction. Opening a factory that is unprofitable can still lead to economies of scale yielding an overall profit.
    • Cross selling or bundling. For example, Gillette subsidizes shaving sticks, so that they become a vehicle to sell the profitable blades.
    • Learning: Learning can be about the market, operations, management, research, or any part of the business. Eg: Xerox learnt operations from its Fuji Xerox venture.
  • Pre-emption — either competition or the market. Do it before someone else does, or asks. For example,
    • Filling a gap in the market, so that the competition cannot enter.
    • Creating options. For example, brand building to unleash latent demand
  • Reaction. Someone else is doing it, and we have to do react. For example,
    • Competitive: If Pepsi offers an orange soda, Coke will have to offer one of its own.
    • Complementary: If Microsoft develops software that runs multimedia slowly, Intel responds by speeding up the multimedia component of its chip.
  • Unusual reasons:
    • A one-time opportunity is available. Eg: A country is deregulating, and issuing licenses. Or, the industry is in a slump and acquisition is easy.
    • Constraints. The company may not have a choice. Eg: contracts. Dhabhol has no choice about paying Enron.
    • Temporary reasons (a dip in the existing markets etc. – if it is only temporary less resources need to be invested.)

Industry forces

Objective: Determine if industry is attractive.

Porter proposed that the success of the company is determined by the structure of the industry. The 5-forces framework helps us analyse the industry structure.

Another theory is that the success of the company is determined by a company’s unique resources and capabilities.

Yet another theory is that it depends on the parent or holding company.

Studies (including Porter’s) have shown that the industry determines 20-25% of the company’s success. The resources & capabilities determine 30-35%, the parent company determines 2% or so, and the rest is unexplained.


Competitive Advantage

Objective: Determine if company will do well in industry.

For more details on this, refer Chapter 8 of Hill & Jones.

Competitive advantage stems from the common elements of the key industry success factors and the distinctive (i.e. unique to the company) resources and competencies of a company. There are four places to look for such competitive advantages:

  • Innovation
  • Responsiveness
  • Quality
  • Efficiency

Pattern: Context

Objective: Identify and subjectively evaluate risks. Think of recommendations.

For evaluating the environment, context, or risk, I use the PLEST framework: Political, Legal, Economic, Social, and Technical. These are environmental isses that can determine the success of a company. When evaluating a specific country, the following need to be looked at:

  • Political risk includes political stability, corruption, shifting borders (a city in one country could move to another tomorrow).
  • Legal risk: How strong is the judicial system? Property rights? Is intellectual theft punished? What are the contractual problems?
  • Economic risk includes a currency stability, fiscal discipline, repatriation, taxation, restrictions on FDI.
  • Social risk includes the country’s culture and management practices.
  • Technological risk of obsolesence of product or resources.

Pattern: 4Ps

Objective: Determine marketing strategy.

Very little to say here. Just a note on how to price and distribute globally:

  • Pricing: can be uniform across markets, cost-plus, or based on affordability or competition.
  • Channels: consider the role of an international marketing headquarters, which channels will be used between nations, and which channels within a nation.

Pattern: OLI

Objective: Determine nature of venture.

Please refer any text on the Ownership – Location – Internalisation framework.


Pattern: Manufacturing

Objective: Determine where value can be created through manufacturing

Value can usually be squeezed from one of these areas. Problems are also typically in one of these.

  • Which product: Segment the company
  • Factors of production
    • Plant (equipment, capacity): Is it old? Is is small? Is it large?
    • People: Are they old? Are they few or excessive? Do they have the skills?
    • Process: What is the process? Can the existing processed be corrected or improved?
    • Product design: Is the product designed for manufacturing? Can design be changed?
    • Parts: Are your raw materials fine? Is your inventory rising? Is there too much scrap?
    • Planning and Control: Are you monitoring the right things? Is forecasting good?
  • Supply and Value Chain
    • Supplier
    • Product development
    • Procurement
    • Production
    • Demand Management
    • Logistics and Distribution
    • After sales service

Pattern: IT

Objective: Determine where value can be created through IT

When somebody says ‘e-commerce’ don’t believe them. They’re usually talking about IT. IT can be applied to each of the functional areas: marketing, manufacturing, finance, human resources, and overall strategy. Its benefits arise through:

  • Increase in reach
  • Lowered cost
  • Reduction in time
  • Increased scope of communication and feedback
  • Improved standardization

Pattern: Profitability

For profitability decline cases, I segment the income statement along various dimension. At the end of it, the problem is usually obvious.


Pattern: Segment the company

Objective: Determine which ‘division’ of the company has a problem.

  • Business. A diversified company may have many business divisions. Eg: A restaurant business may have a catering service, a delivery business for the restaurant, and the main restaurant. The product is the same, but the mode of delivery is different for each business.
  • Product line. Eg: The restaurant may be serving Indian, Chinese and European food. Each product may have different profitabilities.
  • Location. Eg: The restaurant business may be doing well in Chennai and Bangalore, but not in Mumbai and Pune. It may be doing well in urban areas, but not in rural. It may be doing well when located on the main roads, but not on small lanes.
  • New: Is there any new business line, product or location?

Pattern: Segment the revenue

Objective: Determine which component of revenue has a problem.

  • Type: One-time, fixed or variable. Eg: A mobile phone company charges a one-time deposit (non-refundable), and a fixed monthly charge, plus an amount per call. The one-time revenue is earned only for new customers. Fixed is earned for existing customers irrespective of usage. Variable is proportional to usage. The percentage break-up of these revenues can lead to insights.
  • Customer: 20% of the customers bring in 80% of the revenues. Focus on them. Segment the market, and look at the different kinds of customers and their revenues.
  • New: Is there any new revenue source? Or a vanished revenue source?

Pattern: Segment the cost

Objective: Determine which component of cost has a problem.

  • Source
    • Equipment: could be old, etc.
    • Scale: could be too small or large
    • Labour: could be unskilled, etc.
    • Location: could be unsuitable
    • Laws and regulation: could be unfavourable
  • Type: One-time, fixed or variable. Eg: A manufacturing company sets up a plant (one-time cost) and keeps it running (fixed cost), producing output using raw materials (variable).
  • Component
    • Raw materials
    • Labour
    • Inventory
    • Transportation
    • Selling & Administration
    • Tax
  • New: Is there any new cost? Or a vanished cost?

Prof Vijay Kumars Interview tips

Prof. Vijay Kumar was kind enough to give us hints on how to prepare for placements.

How to prepare for interviews

  • Have a list of intelligent but unoffensive questions for each company.
  • Contact alumni who are working there, and find out what work is like.

What should I find out

  • How does the work improve my employability or value? Specifically in terms of the
    • Nature of work
    • The experience that I get
    • Skills acquired
  • What will the salary growth be over time?
  • What are the perks at different levels?
  • What are the promotion and growth opportunities?
  • What industries does the company focus on?
  • How many people are there, and what is the employee growth rate?
  • What do clients feel about you? (Talk to clients themselves — maybe friends in client organisations.)
  • Which is the largest office? Where are most of the projects executed? (It makes a lot of sense to get into this office. Project staffing is usually done with people in the same office.)

What should I question

  • Revenue per employee. Is the denominator total employee hours or billable hours? That makes a big difference. Usually its the former, to make it look inflated.
  • Why are you giving me international figures? What are the Indian figures for revenue per consultant? Revenue per partner? Salary per consultant? Billable hour percentage? Consultant to partner ratio? As a rule of thumb, the consultant’s salary is one-fifth of the revenue per consultant. For partners, its usually half.
  • What components of the cost-to-company will come to my pocket? Could you break down the components of the cost-to-company?
  • What component of the pay is sign-on? The larger the sign-on, the less the basic pay, and hence the less the next year’s pay.

What does an interviewer want

  • Brains: logical thinking, primarily
  • Creativity
  • Hard-work, but one can take that for granted for a person from the IIMs
  • Willing to take direction, and yet is a self-starter
  • A person who can explore new ideas on their own
  • Good interpersonal relationships
  • A person who can make casual conversation
  • Can suavely deflect objectionable questions
  • Well dressed, good posture, etc.

Should I go for consulting?

If you like solving problems, want to move quickly from one assignment to another, and like helping people, you’re good for consulting.

How are consultants evaluated?

  • Quality of assignments
  • Followup on assignment
  • Client feedback
  • Budget overruns (applicable more to PLs and managers)
  • Input into thought leadership and knowledge-base
  • Strengths and weaknesses
  • Future directions for improvement.

Boston Consulting Group Interview

First Round

On Saturday (25th November 2000), I dress up in my best suit (only suit, really), and find my way to the Green Park station for an interview with the Boston Consulting Group. Of course, being terribly conservative, I arrived an hour early, so it was time to walk around Green Park and have a look at the Buckingham Palace, while singing “I have confidence…” from Sound of Music. The walk did lift my spirits a bit. There was this tiny poodle that was busy licking a bulldog. The bulldog didn’t seem to mind, though it was large enough to eat up the poodle. Then the poodle’s owners picked it up, and walked away. The poodle was reluctant though. It just hadn’t finished licking the bulldog. After about 5 minutes, the bulldog (and owner), were about half-a-kilometer away, when the poodle was finally let down. Being the determined creature that it was, it ran ALL the way to the bulldog, and proceeded to lick. The bulldog, right through, was wearing a puzzled expression on its face, as if to say, “Are you sure you don’t want me to smack this little white fluff?”

At 10:15AM, I walked in to the BCG reception, and was led to the cafeteria. I was only carrying an umbrella (which I left at the reception), and some sheets of paper. There were to be 2 case interviews, each for 45 minutes. I was told that I’d be interviewed by Danai and Kim Wee. Danai (who’s from Bangkok) came along, and took me to a conference room. The interview begins.

Danai: “Hi Anand. Let me tell you a bit about how this interview is structured. We’ll begin by discussing your resume a bit. Then we’ll move on to a case, and finally, you can ask me any questions that you want. The reason we do a case interview is to test the candidate on 3 things: their enthusiasm for problem solving, their analytical skills, and communication ability. Let me begin by introducing myself. (Introduces himself in detail). Could you tell me a bit about yourself?”

Me: “Uh, sure. I studied at IITM. Nice place. Then I worked at IBM. Nice place too. Then I went to IIMB. Yet another nice place. Now I’m at LBS. Pretty nice. Uh…” At this point, I completely ran out of things to say. I mean, I’d been training for this and all that. But at the point, your mind just goes blank. So I said, “My hobbies include…” — and couldn’t think of a single hobby. My resume lists several, but the first thing that came to my mind was one that was NOT on it: “Acting.”

Danai latches on to this. “Wow, that’s interesting. So what would you like to be? Director? Actor?”

“Oh, acting itself. Writing the script too. One of my dreams is to be a film hero. ” I actually said that. It had gotten to the point where I was desperate and willing to blabber anything to recover. “I like it because it involves a lot of communication and I’m good at communication.”

Danai neatly caught on. “Yeah, there’s a lot of communicating that you’ll have to do in consulting as well. Good. Tell me about (some point on my resume).” Then we discussed my resume a bit. Then we got to the case interview. Right through, Danai was taking notes on what I was saying — in fact, he wrote nearly 3-4 pages of what I said, as opposed to me who scribbled in half a sheet.

“I’m going to give you a cement company case, because I’ve worked in the cement industry.” Fine by me. “Our client is a global cement manufacturer, who operates in North America, Europe and Latin America. They buy some of their cement from other companies, and produce the rest. They are evaluating entry into Asia. Could you help them?”

Me: First, I’d like to know more about the company. Why are they buying cement from others?

Danai: They’re not all that good at manufacturing. I mean, they’re pretty good, but nothing extraordinary. Their main strength lies in marketing and logistics. They only have 50% of the capacity of their sales.

Me: OK. Why do they want to expand to Asia?

Danai: Why do you think?

Me: Several possibilities. Maybe they want growth, which they don’t have right now. Maybe there’s a one-off opportunity in Asia right now. Maybe there’s tremendous growth in Asia and they don’t want to miss out on it.

Danai: What could a one-off opportunity be, for example?

Me: Deregulation is a classic. Another is just a first mover advantage. Hmm… that’s all I can think of.

Danai: You’re quite right about all three. Their growth is slow. There is a window of opportunity in terms of regulation, and the company believes there is lot of potential in Asia. Let us take Thailand as a representative market and work on it, because I have worked there, and can give you answers to your questions. How should our client enter the Thailand market?

Me: Well, this is what I’m going to look at: the market in Thailand, the competitors in Thailand, the resources of the company (people, money and machines), and the regulatory environment (repatriation, licenses, etc). What can you tell me about these?

Danai: Let us assume that the company has the requisite resources, though that is a good point. The regulatory environment is also friendly and the clearances are easy. The market is dominated by 3 groups of buyers — government contractors (40% revenue), private contractors (30%) revenue, and a network of retail shops. There are a few large players in the market, the top 3 taking up 70% of the market.

Me: What are the parameters on the basis of which customers base their decision to buy?

Danai: It’s as follows (in decreasing order of preference)

Government contractors: Price, reliability of supply, relationship

Private contractors: Price, reliability of supply, brand name

Retailers: Brand name, reliability of supply, price

Me: OK, looks like price and reliability are pretty important. What is the competition like? Is it stiff? Are there price wars?

Danai: What causes price wars?

Me: Well… is there excess inventory?

Danai: Precisely. There’s a lot of excess inventory, and that has resulted in a price war.

Me: Are these companies inefficient?

Danai: In manufacturing? No. The whole world is pretty much the same in terms of efficiency. They are not that good in marketing and logistics though. But this constitutes only 10% of the costs.

Me: Right. The way it looks now, it seems crazy to enter a market that’s got high inventory and price wars. I mean, even if you cut the logistics cost by 50%, it’s still just a 5% reduction in a market that goes by price. No way. Looks very unattractive. But let’s not dismiss it. How about a joint venture?

Danai: Why would a company do a JV?

Me: We’ve got the marketing power. We’ve got the logistics capability. We can partner. We should just pick a company that’s going almost bankrupt, and tell them to sign up.

Danai: Would that suffice? What would they want from us?

Me: Well… access to international markets, I guess. So we can ship the excess inventory to neighbouring countries using our superior logistics.

Danai: Good. How would you go about such an exercise?

Me: (I explain how to pick a company, how to negotiate the contract, and so on.)

Danai: Fine. Do you have any questions for me?

Me: I want to teach part time. Can I do that? (Yes). Is it true that consultants are only rubber stamps of the CEOs? (No. Otherwise, we would’ve lost our reputation.) What does your day look like? (Go to office, have meetings with clients, have meetings with team, solve problems, travel a lot).

By then, it was time to meet Kim Wee, who was in the next room. The previous night I’d run through their website, and had found out a bit about Kim Wee, which I remembered. That kind of gave me some confidence, and I thought of a nice opening line like, “You look much better than in your photograph” or something like that. But when she started off, I realized I had no chance of getting a word in.

She began with, “Hello Anand. Nice to meet you. This will be the same format as Danai’s interview. I’ll quiz you on you resume, then we’ll do a case. Then you can ask me questions. Can you tell me about your experience at Lehman Brothers?”

This entire speech took 3 seconds or so. At least, that’s what it seemed like. Completely expressionless, and ununderstandably fast. My response was very coherent, though.

“Sorry?” (This was my most frequent phrase through the interview, followed by, “Huh?”)

“Can you tell me about your experience at Lehman Brothers?”

The meaning was obvious. So I said, “I never had a choice. The tyrannical placement rules at IIMB don’t give me any choice at all. So I was tied in chains and forcibly shipped to Tokyo for slave labour. I didn’t eat or sleep. Of course, I like that sort of a thing — even if you slave-drive me, I’ll be happy. But I want to have an influence on the world, and make it a better place to live in, which I can’t do from a bank. So I’ve decided to be the knight in shining armour (OK, consultant), and…”

She cuts me off with a monotonous, but quickfire, “What’ll you do in the future?”

Me: I’ll become a freelance consultant.

Kim: Why?

Me: That way, I can say no to a client if I want to, and still solve problems, which is what I like doing. Besides, there’s a visiting Prof at IIMB who’s doing that, and I’m kind-of using him as a …

Kim: What challenges will you face as a consultant?

Me: Huh?

Kim: What challenges will you face as a consultant?

Me: (a few ‘huh’s later) I hate telling CEOs what they want to hear. If they’ve made up their mind, I’ll tell them to shove it and walk away. In fact, I …

Kim: What is your most memorable accomplishment?

I was lost again. My prepared answer was the IBM India home page. But NOTHING came to my mind. After a few blank seconds, I figured I had to say something. So I said, “I shared reports at IIMB.” She stared, and I figured I had to elaborate. “I wrote great and wonderful reports. The Gods praised them, and ordered me to be fruitful and share. So I did. Then everybody started sharing.” (I was completely out of my senses by this time) “So now, there is a HUGE library of reports at IIMB. It’s going to be extended to all IIMs. Maybe all universities in the world. And it’s ALL my work. I’m terribly proud of it, etc. etc.” (OK, I didn’t say all that, but I came close.)

Kim, for the first time, not interrupting, and speaking relatively slowly, “There was a problem at NTU with this. The professors stole the reports and passed them as their own.”

Brilliant. All I could come up with was, “Thanks for pointing that out. I hadn’t considered that. I’ll let the students at IIMB know of this danger.”

Then we moved on to the case. “Our client is a food processor. One of their products is Cool Wave (or something like that). It’s a non-dessert cream topping, with 40% of the market share. They have excess capacity. Though the industry is growing at 6%, the sales of Cool Wave is flat. You have to find out why and give recommendations. Then you have to move on to other products.”

The interview went on for a gruelling half-hour. I can recall the details, but it’s too painful for that. Most of the time, I kept asking questions to which the answer was, “We don’t have that information right now. Maybe it could be this. Maybe it could be that.” Then we’d agree on something. After 5 minutes, I’d say something, and she’d come back with, “But how can you say that?”

“Because we agreed on this 5 minutes ago.”

“Well, we don’t have that information. Maybe it could be this. Maybe it could be that.”

Wonderful!

Finally, I did manage to piece together that the dominant competitors were pricing 15% lower, and the rest (fragmented) were pricing it 30% lower. The lower-income group was now able to afford the product. So the market was growing at the bottom, and since Cool Wave was a premium brand, they couldn’t capture that market share.

Me: One possibility is to reduce the price of Cool Wave. But that’s a bad idea (I give reasons). Another is to introduce another brand at the low end.

Kim: Anything else?

Me: (Struggle for 2 minutes. Then…) No idea.

Kim: Well, they could just sell the capacity to Wal-Mart or somebody, who could make their own-brand of the topping and sell it at the low-end.

Then I caught on to this idea, and began giving recommendations on how to do it and stuff like that. I was into my conclusion, “So they should ensure that the contract with Walmart does not appear hostile to their other retail customers…”

Kim: OK. Case is over. Do you have any questions for me?

Me: Sorry? The case is over?

Kim: Yes. Any questions?

Me: About the case?

Kim: No. Case is over. Any questions?

Me: (After about 10 seconds) Yeah. What is work like at BCG?

I don’t remember the answers. I don’t think I even heard them. They were too fast for me. Anyway, she ran me out of the building, and, as I picked up my umbrella from the reception, said that she’d let me know by Sunday evening if I got through.

I made my way to LBS, wondering if my chances were even 50-50.


Second Round

Anyway, I got through to the second round, to be interviewed by Marcus and Joon. Marcus asked me, quite casually, “This isn’t a case, really. It’s something I’ve been asking a lot of people and haven’t found a satisfactory answer to. Why is it that hotels charge you when you book a room and don’t turn up, but rental car companies don’t charge you if you book a car and don’t turn up?”

To cut a long story short, I really thought Marcus (who was a VP) was just casually interacting. So I just had a casual conversation with him, exploring some possibilites. I wasn’t getting anywhere, but I didn’t worry. I thought the point was to test how cool I was under uncertainty. Turned out to be a complete mistake. Anyway, after half an hour of pleasant conversation, Joon came over.

Joon said, “There’s an airline company that ships freight. It has passenger planes as well as freight planes, and uses both to ship. They have been losing money recently. Why do you think this is so?”

This proved as straight-forward case, and was over in 15 minutes or so. In fact, Joon volunteered most of the information himself. I was so thrilled that I left my umbrella in the office and walked off in the rain.

A couple of days later, Joon calls up from Kuala Lampur. “Hello Anand, this is Joon from BCG.”

My heart starts thumping. Is it a yes? Is it a no?

“We were very happy with your resume and your qualifications. However, we are very sorry to say that we are unable to take your application forward at this point.”

It’s a long distance phone call, so he had to pause for my response. Which was something like “(croak) Of course.”

“We are extremely sorry, but hope you had a good experience through the interviews.”

“(cough) Of course.” I was brain-dead by the time anyway.

“Would you like some feedback about your performance?”

“(glug) Yes, of course.”

“We felt that you did not have the analytical skills. When Marcus and I discussed, we felt that your interview did not have enough structure.”

By this time, I’d found my voice, so I managed to mutter something like, “Thank you very much, Mr. Ooi, I’m sure the feedback will be very useful. It was a pleasure interviewing with you. Bye.”

So there it is. Lack of structure. I’ve been told that before, of course. Got to work on it…

Student Exchange Interview

There were 22 vacancies, and 45 were shortlisted (out of less than 70 applicants). We were interviewed by 5 panels, each with 2 professors. We had submitted our resumes, a writeup on why we were applying for the programme, various declarations and our grade sheet. Though it was rumoured that grades played a 50% part in shortlisting, it was not so. Each panel ranked their candidates independently (in which grades played only an implicit part) — so it was the interview that really counted. After ranking, they pooled the rankings across panels (this is probably where grades might come in) and allocated the first available preference by rank. If the universities you opted for are not available, you would not be considered for other universities even if your ranking is high. So it makes sense to fill out all the universities of your choice if you’re keen on going.

One standard question acroess panels was on aspects of Indian culture — particularly in Prof. CM Reddy’s panel. Questions ranged from “What was the Yaksha’s last question to Yudhisthira?” to “What is the essence of Indian spiritual philosophy?” Other standard questions were “What will you do for IIM-B once you come back?” and “How will you serve as the ambassador of IIM-B?”

Interview

  1. How did you break your leg?
  2. Do you think businesses have a social function?
  3. What will you do for IIM-B when you come back?
  4. Tell me more about your social contributions. (From my resume.)
  5. What is the central message of Indian philosophy?

Prof. Mahadevan and Prof. Prakhya interviewed me. Both were IITians, and I discovered that Prof. Prakhya was also my school senior. Prof. Mahadevan was genuinely seeking an answer to all his questions. That is, he was really interested in how exchange students could improve IIM-B’s functioning. Prof. Prakhya was pretty sharp, and tried pricking holes in my arguments. Before I left, Prof. Mahadevan commented, “This is nothing to do with the interview, but I just wanted to say that, based on your resume, you have a great future.” Pallavi and I were selected for London Business School.

Learnings

  1. I had ready-made answers to all their questions, and that helped.
  2. I was passionate about all the answers. I think a feeling of genuineness came through.
  3. As always, the resume counted for a lot.

Citibank Leadership interview

Citibank awards Rs. 50,000 to 2-3 candidates from IIM Bangalore based on leadership traits. We had to submit ‘brief’ writeups on what leardership is, why we’re good leaders, what our social contributions and academic achievements are, etc., along with our resume. We also had to turn in a student and faculty nomination. Since I had lots of time (I was bedridden with a fractured ankle) I prepared quite well for this interview. 11 were shortlisted. The interviews were scheduled for 20 minutes each.

My preparation largely involved reading what I’d submitted, and preparing for some standard questions like ‘What are your career goals?’, ‘Strengths/Weaknesses’, etc. In our previous batch, 3 people won the award — Hemalata, Saurabh Singh and Sahil Bhandari. All 3 were good speakers with accents. So I brushed up my accent too — turned out to be unnecessary, though.

Prof. Umesh Rajamani & Prof. Rupa Chanda were on my panel. They asked me about my leg (I was on crutches), and went on reading the writeup. All questions were directly based on the writeup.

Interview

  1. Who do you think are easier to lead? Tamilians or Kannadigas? (Prof. Umesh Rajamani asked this question, and soon said that he wasn’t really looking for an answer.)
  2. Tell me about your experiences as a project leader at IBM.
  3. Some details on your social contributions… (based on the writeup)
  4. What are your extracurriculars at IIM-B?
  5. What did you learn as the captain of your basketball team?

Mostly, they were asking me to expand on what was there in the writeup. It was a relaxed atmosphere, and Prof. Rupa Chanda was very encouraging. The results were announced on 3rd March. Sunny Sharma and I made it.

Learnings

  1. I think they were looking for a well-rounded personality.
  2. Personal experiences were given a lot of weight. They were especially interested in what I had done in such-and-such a situation.
  3. all questions were based on the writeup and resume. I feel they gave equal weightage to the interivew and the writeup — but the writeup may have been used only for shortlisting.
  4. Confidence during the interview was very important.
  5. They were looking for someone with the ability to communicate well, too.

Lehman Brothers interview

Lehman Brothers was recruiting Sales, Trading & Research in Tokyo, and Investment Banking in New York. If that sounds like greek, read Vault’s report on investment banking.

They seemed disappointed at the number of questions that came their way during their pre-placement presentation. There were hoping for a lot more, and agressive, questions. The people who came included Alan Cutter, Pamella, Isabella, Sarab Bhutani (all from New York), Dalip Awasthi and Sumant Gupta. They shortlisted 21 people for New York and 9 people for Tokyo. Rajesh Dalmia and I were on both shortlists.

My preparation for the interview was minimal. I went through the day’s newspapers; found out Lehman’s and IBM’s stock price (IBM because I used to work there); the Sensex, NASDAQ, Nikkei, etc. Read an article in the Economist on Central Banks (Sept ’99). Overall, I put in about 3 hours on the previous day.

The first interview was with Dalip and Sumant. They had split themselves into 3 panels. Dalip and Sumant were for STR, while the others interviewed the remaining candidates. Sumant’s opening question was, “So you were at IIT Madras?” He was from IITM too. A year senior to me. I said, “Yeah. You were at Jamuna Hostel, right?” We went on a bit about IITM after that.

Interview

  1. What were you doing at IBM? (We went into quite a bit of detail.)
  2. What are your hobbies? (Again, quite a bit of detail.)
  3. How do you value technology stocks? (This is where I scored. I said nobody knows.)
  4. How did you find Japan in your earlier visits?

Sumant advised me to speak a little slower, and sent me to the next panel. Isabella and Sarab asked me about my long term plans, my intentions to work abroad, and whether I preferred I-Banking or STR. I said, “Equity research looks the most attractive, based on what I hear.” After a while, Sumand and Dalip called me back and asked a bit about basketball. With that, the STR interviews were closed. By 11PM, they announced that Manoj would be going to New York, and I would be working in Tokyo.

Learnings

  1. The resume matters a lot. I filled mine with what looks ‘impressive’, and was shortlisted for both I-Banking and STR.
  2. Lehman’s shortlisting parameters are: a good academic record, work experience in a reputed firm, and extra-curriculars — strictly in that order.
  3. It helps to have a senior in the panel. (Manoj is from the IITs too.)
  4. I think my work experience and prior travel to Japan worked in my favour too.

If I were preparing again for the Lehman Brothers summer interview, here’s how I’d go about it.

First, get a thin book about how to crack an interview from the library and read it, end-to-end. I say thin because it’s not worth spending more than 2-3 hours on the book, and you DO need to read it end-to-end. Of course, guides are available on the Internet, but it would be cheaper to borrow it than print it out.

Second, know thyself. That’s the most important part. Here are some questions for which you should have ready-made answers for. The rule-of-thumb, of course, is to be perfectly frank.

  1. Why do you want to join Lehman Brothers / Investment banking / Finance?
  2. What other companies have you applied for?
  3. How have you been doing at IIM-B?
  4. Tell me more about (any item on your resume).
  5. What did you like/dislike about (any item on your resume).
  6. What are your strengths and weaknesses (3 of each)?
  7. Where do you see yourself 5/10/20 years down the line?

Ideally, you should get someone to interview you, ask you some of these questions. Catch your classmates, your seniors, anyone. Ask them to give you feedback on their first impression of you, and whether, if they were in that company, they would hire you. More importantly, why they wouldn’t, if at all.

Third, find out what the recruiters would be looking for. My guess is, they’re looking for someone with

  1. Good communication skills — so speak slowly and clearly.
  2. Confidence — so think your answer before speaking; ask for time if you need to think; relax if you’ve made a mistake.
  3. Analytical skills and intelligence — so say “I don’t know” when you don’t, and tell them about all the analytical and intelligent things you’ve done before.

Fourth, learn a bit about the industry. Vault and Wetfeet have good industry guides. Don’t read it end-to-end. Just skim through it and get a feel of things. People haven’t gotten a feel of it after 2 months of working there, so perhaps 2 hours of skimming won’t tell you much. But it’ll get you used to the kind of words that are used there, like “80 hours a week”, “bond price”, etc.

Fifth, learn some concepts. You need to know what a stock or a share is, and what a bond is. If you’ve worked, you may like to know the share price of your former company, and why it’s there. You probably ought to have an opinion on some of the things happening in the business arena, so if you don’t have one, get one. I’ve listed some possible questions below, and my answers, had I been asked these.

Do you think dot-coms are overvalued?
Yes. I don’t think that the productivity growth will benefit companies selling computers. I think it will benefit the users of computers. (No one knows, really, but we need an opinion and a reason.)
Are the second-phase of reforms going in the right direction?
No idea.
Why is the Euro falling, or why is the dollar rising?
No idea.
How would you value a petroleum company?
(I’m a chemical engineer, but…) I don’t know.

Well, the point, I guess, is not to have answers to all questions. The answer is to have a reason for any answer that you give. So do find out about what’s happening in the world. Read the papers. But don’t bother remembering everything. Just have an opinion on a few items of importance, with a reason.

Best of luck!

Aditya Birla scholarship interview

First year students ranking in the top 20 in CAT from each of the IIMs are eligible to apply to this scholarship. It pays for the tuition fee for the two years at IIM-B, and hence is worth about Rs. 2 lakhs.

The resume is the key to shortlisting. The Aditya Birla group assigned a weightage to each achievement (depending on whether it was at the national level, state level, college level, etc.) and added up the points. The top point scorers were chosen. Some points are awarded to the write-up also. From IIM-B, Vijayalakshmi and myself were shortlisted in 1999. 8 were shortlisted from IIM-A and IIM-C respectively, while 2 more were from IIM-L. The scholarship was awarded to 10 people finally. The distribution was 4-1-4-1 across A, B, C and L. Viji won it from IIM-B.

In 2000, 13 were shortlisted from IIM-B, and the following 8 were in the 10 that won the scholarship. Vikas Purohit, Karan Bajaj, Prahlad Rao, Yashodhara Lal, Pratyush Tiwari, Lavanya Chari, Prashant Koorse, Saurabh Jhalaria

In 1999, Viji & I were put up at the Grand Hotel. They briefed us the earlier night about allowances (Rs. 1,000 + 50% of the travel fare). Since I’d flown, I ended up making a loss on the trip — but spending an hour at the Taj Hotel was worth it. The interview was spread across the next day from 9AM to 6PM, and the results were announced over dinner at 8PM. We flew back the next morning, just in time for Prof. Ramesh Kumar’s first lecture on marketing.

The interview panel was ‘star-studded’. I didn’t know anyone except Dr. Alagh of the planning commission. The others were from NGOs and big companies.

Interview questions

  1. Which is more important: character, competence or charisma?
  2. What do you think India needs to do to improve?
  3. How do you plan to contribute socially after you graduate?
  4. How can an educational institution like IIM-B take steps to improve its effectiveness?
  5. Tell us about some challenges that you faced when at work.

It was an ad-hoc interview, only partly based on the resume. The only question based on the resume was “How will you apply Chaos Theory to management?” Mine was the first interview, and I thought I had done well.

Learnings

  1. The writeup is critical. They hired an external agency to do the evaluation, and study it very carefully.
  2. The competition is the toughest I have faced. Guys from the other IIMs (they were all GUYS, except Viji) are extremely smart.
  3. I think the interview counted for more than the writeup, at least after the shortlist. I had done fairly well in the writeup, and the interview was the unknown factor.