What he does:
Nate Singer graduated from Berkeley in 2004 as a math major and now works as an Associate Consultant at Bain & Company, one of the world's leading management consulting firms. His job at Bain is multifaceted and includes working to help solve and implement solutions to organizational problems, from strategy to operations, technology, mergers and acquisitions, and issues in organizational structure.
Math on the job:
“The exact nature of the problems we see at Bain varies greatly from case to case,” Nate explains. “One company might come to us to analyze a set of thousands of their products to determine which they should keep and which they should transition away from. Another might come to us because it is launching a major new product and wants to understand what structures they need to create in order to make it successful. We also assist private investment firms with analyzing potential acquisition targets.”
Says Nate, “We work on problems which can take months to work out. Some of these problems are incredibly hard. They occur in an uncertain and chaotic world, in a situation in which information is not easily available. This is different from the world of mathematics, but still pulls from the same rigorous and analytical mentality. I get both fun and intellectual satisfaction out of my job. I am fortunate to be able to say that I work alongside some of the brightest people I have ever met.”
The focus at Bain is on conducting rigorous data-driven analysis. “This might involve manipulating databases with millions of entries and creating efficient algorithms that might need to run for hours,” he explains. “Another foray into analysis might involve model building for forecasting future market conditions, an endeavor that requires a keen awareness of sensitivity testing and variable selection.”
A large part of the job includes the hunt for information. “My research skills have improved enormously during my time at Bain. We usually take it for granted that information is out there, but frequently a decision has to be made and nothing on the topic has been published. You have to be creative and extremely tenacious.” Other skills involve communication—the team structure in consulting mandates constant conversation and flow of information. He says that a basic understanding of business knowledge is also important both to understand the big picture and to help generate the insights needed to make the problems tractable. But, as Nate says, “The most important skill is in problem solving.”
“I face new kinds of problems and intellectual challenges on an everyday basis.” He says that the fact that clients are expecting/demanding an answer creates a highly disciplined and focused environment. “We are hired to solve hard problems—the fact that I can't say no or otherwise back out forces me to confront even the most difficult of problems. This regularly high level of challenge right out of college makes the job an incredible learning experience.”
Nate says that management consulting as a field appealed to him most because of this fast-paced problem solving structure. As an undergraduate he had created a class for undergraduates in mathematical modeling that eventually competed in the Mathematical Contest in Modeling (MCM) because he wanted the experience of tackling the types of problems that he had never seen before. While at Berkeley, he also took the standard gamut of mathematics undergraduate classes, “along with independent studies to get a closer look at the topics I found most interesting.” Nate's business training came through personal interest and working as a research assistant to economists.
Advice for students:
Nate's advice to those considering studying math: “Overall, no matter what path you take after university, by studying math you will be stretching your brain in ways you never imagined. Even if you want to do something more practical like enter the business world down the road, math is a strong path to go down. Being able to grapple with uncertainty, abstract structures, and competitive games all helps immeasurably in making progress in that world.”
“...But keep one thing in mind as you prepare to enter these studies: the only way to get better at solving problems is to solve more problems. There aren't any shortcuts. You had better accept going in that it will probably be very hard...” Laughing and on a lighter note he continues, “But how awful would it be if there was no challenge? What fun would that be?”