Editor's Three Key Takeaways:
- Get as many perspectives as possible from as many people as possible. Only the people, who are currently doing what you think you want to do, will be able to give you an accurate account of what the job entails.
- Find something you can quit. Don't jump into the pie-eating contest. "I've been doing it forever" is not a good reason to continue.
- Sleep more.
Alexandra Ressler graduated from the Jerome Fisher Program in Management and Technology at the University of Pennsylvania in 2006. She worked a few years for McKinsey before quitting and starting her JD/MBA dual degree program at Stanford University in 2009. Since her graduation, she’s been working at Facebook as a data scientist.
Editor: Alexandra and I got a chance to sit down for coffee a few weeks ago at the Starbucks on 34th and Walnut. Later that day, she gave a very passionate presentation on her career path and how she ended up at Facebook. Her perspective as someone who left her consulting days to work in the tech industry is very valuable to any student considering either paths.
Do you want to start off by giving an account of your time at Penn?
When I was at Penn, my whole thing was self-driving cars. I wanted there to be self-driving cars, in part because I didn’t particularly like driving and thought it was all very unsafe. I was basically taking all of the classes so that I would be able to take part in the self-driving car industry. When I got to my engineering orientation, they were telling us about all the different majors that we could do, I basically stood up and said, "Hey! I wanted to do transportation. What kind of engineer am I?" And they said that I was a systems engineer. And I said fair enough, and started to reverse engineer all my course planning so I would be able to take this one particular automation class.
How did that go?
I took all the transportation classes that were available in systems engineering, which mostly focused on public transportation because the professors did not like cars very much. Every time I took a class that was cross-listed in the mechanical engineering department, I got a bad grade in it. I was just not very good at mechanical engineering and the kind of thinking that was required to visualize things. I was fine in all the system engineering stuff, all the advanced linear algebra stuff, but I was not a visual learner. When I finally got to that automation class, I had spent so many hours working on an assignment that eventually turned in 50 pages and I still wasn't able to answer half the questions. The question that really convinced me [to stop pursuing mechanical engineering] was:
Write an equation to parallel park a car.
I couldn't parallel park a car in real life, I was completely incapable of visualizing how the wheels turned and at that moment, that I was like, "You know what, I am never going to be able to help on the engineering side of automating vehicles." It is just not my gift, and I dropped the class. And I feel really bad for the TA that had to grade my 50 pages of crap.
What happened afterwards?
So that was what I thought my whole career was going to be. Turned out to not quite be the case. Meanwhile, the second interest that I had was the entertainment industry. I'm hugely into TV, movies, and books. Without the entertainment industry, life is really just surviving. With my very few opportunities to take classes that did not fulfill my plentiful degree requirements, I managed to take Intro to Acting [THAR 120], a class on fairytales [FOLK 206], and a Wharton class, randomly taught by a Shakespeare professor on the entertainment industry. We met a lot of guest speakers from different parts of the entertainment industry, and it was one of my favorite classes at Penn. We got to meet one of the producers of the Broadway productions of Wicked, which I was a huge fan of.
I didn’t feel like I could go straight into entertainment (there wasn’t anyone at Penn to teach me how), so my plan at the time was to try to get to entertainment via consulting. I really liked all my management classes and it’s what everyone else was doing, so there didn’t seem to be many downsides. I went to McKinsey New York because I was told their Media & Entertainment practice was located in New York.
You've spent a few years in consulting. Do you have any advice for our audience currently considering it?
Consulting can teach valuable skills but for most people is extremely stressful. You have very little control over your life, don’t get to be your authentic self (you’re a representative of the firm), and there is often no one looking out for you. I personally was very unhappy in consulting, as were most of my friends, and do not recommend it to anyone. Many consulting skills are available in books (e.g. The McKinsey Edge, Say it with Charts, Case in Point) and I personally teach them at Facebook- you can get them from places other than management consulting firms.
If you do go into consulting, find a partner at the consulting firm who is going to look out for you.
If you’re interested in a particular area, find a partner in that area and meet with them as soon as possible after you join. Tell them why you find their work interesting and ask what you can do to get staffed in that area as soon as possible.
What you don’t want to have happen is to get a reputation for being good at something you don’t like which happened to almost all my friends. Whatever we were assigned to first, we got a reputation for being good at, and we weren’t allowed to leave. The projects we wanted to be on (in my case, entertainment) didn’t want us because we had no relevant experience, and the projects we didn’t want (in my case, finance) wouldn’t take anyone but us. A total Catch-22. I was stuck in finance dying to get into entertainment, sitting next to a guy stuck in entertainment dying to get into finance. By the end of three years I never got to work in entertainment, but I worked for five banks. This was a very common experience.
I know two people who had good experiences in consulting and were happy to go back to it after business school. I know over 60 former consultants. The math is not reassuring.
Some of my MBA classmates went back to it just because it paid off their student loans, which is a ton of money and is pretty important. However, they were miserable when they went back and they could not wait to leave. Some of them could not even stick it out for the full two years to pay off all their loans. The numbers are not comforting when it comes to former consultants — how many had a good experience in consulting and would do it again, would recommend it for someone they cared about. And I can honestly say that from what I have heard, finance is not much better. I can also say from friends and personal experience that law is exactly the same thing — it's just for people who aren't as into math. Consulting, finance, and law are all not all they’re advertised. Be very clear about your goals and before you apply, talk to people already doing what you think you want to be doing and get their opinion.
Besides McKinsey, were there other career paths that you could have considered?
Honestly, if I could go back in time, I would definitely have tried to apply for Facebook. I would be a multi-millionaire and would not be working right now. I sometimes wonder — what if I had gone to LA and tried to make it in the entertainment industry from the ground up? I have a friend from my class who did exactly that, and now is writing for fairly major TV shows. That could have been a possibility. Going to work for an early tech company could have been a possibility. I should have put more effort into considering what my alternatives were.
What were some of your thoughts when you started the JD/MBA?
I encourage people to talk to others before they sign up for these kind of things, because I didn't do enough of that with the JD/MBA. I knew that I wanted to do the MBA, which was basically more Wharton. Everyone who went into consulting would go into MBA afterwards — either right away, or they would go do a bit of private equity first. Again, it was where the entire group was going, so it seemed like something that didn't have any downside attached to it. I did not fully appreciate how burdensome the student loans would be afterwards, and I didn’t do a good job of figuring out what the opportunity cost would be. Nevertheless, getting an MBA was a very easy choice for me, and I don't regret it.
I knew what I wanted to get out of the MBA: I wanted exposure to the startup and entertainment industries, and I wanted to figure out what would be the good next steps for me.
Law school is where I screwed up. And the reason why I went to law school was because people had told me my entire life that I could be a really good lawyer. I liked arguing people, I liked debating, I liked full sentences, which are things we are not allowed to do in consulting. I was exceptionally logical and detail-oriented, and a little bit cynical. I have the right skill-set for law. But the only two lawyers that I talked to before applying to law school were teachers at Wharton and I should have thought about that a little more. Why are they teaching at Wharton instead of being full-time lawyers? I did not talk to many people who were in big law at the time.
If you are going to a top tier law school, which you want to because it’s much more important for law school than business school to go to a top tier, in my opinion, you are going to have to get a really well paying job to pay off the enormous loans — which means going into big law. If I had talked to people from big law, I would have figured out right away that it has all the same crappy parts as management consulting. While I was in law school, I was trying to focus on areas that I was interested in. For example, I took a class on "Entertainment Law and Intellectual Property Law". But these were all things that I would have studied for funsies and not paid $200,000 for.
If I had talked to lawyers, I could have saved two years of my life and a ton of money. Now, anything I apply to, I try to talk to someone who is doing it first. When I graduated from MBA, I talked to dozens of Stanford grads who were working in the entertainment and tech industries to get an idea of what was good and what was not. For Facebook, I talked to a friend who was not a data scientist at Facebook, but had been at Facebook for several years, and she told me that it was a very great company to work for, and that has turned out to be entirely true.
You talk a lot about your interests in the entertainment industry, what made you decide not to go into the industry after interning at Lionsgate?
Editor's note: Lionsgate is a media company known for producing "Mad Men", "The Hunger Games" series, and the "Twilight" series.
It was like management consulting version two but you get paid less. I had wanted to do more of the creative side of entertainment and actually produce. What I figured out was the studios would hire me to do math for them. It wasn't even the type of math that I wanted to do for them. I would have still found it very interesting to do data science for the studios and figure out what movie they should be making, but the type of math that they wanted done was finance-type math. Like, "We are considering buying the distribution rights to this property, can you value this for us?" Those are the questions that I don't find very interesting. The ones that are interesting are looking at what affects whether or not the movie will be successful creatively, so we can make better movies. That wasn't what most of the strategy stuff for movie studios was going to be.
What are some of your recommendations for Penn?
Always be ready to step back and look at how you're spending your time.
Of my activities, if I am not already doing this, would I keep doing it? The best things I did at Penn were quitting things.
I went into Penn having played french horn from sixth grade and up, so I went straight into the wind ensemble and became the co-president. I finally got into an argument with the director at Penn when he said, "You know what, I don't actually think you like playing French horn." It was absolutely stunning for me. Then I thought about it for about two seconds, and I said:
I think you're right. I quit.
Best decision I made at Penn. My life would have been way different had I come in freshman year and said you know what, “Screw french horn, I'm gonna go join Bloomers or the debate team." I could have pursued other interests and allowed myself to branch out and try new things. You always have to be really conscious of sunk cost, and look around and say, is this actually making me happy and leading me to be where I want to be in the long run. Often times it's not.
This is especially true in undergrad where you spend so much time building the resume for where you want to go next, you can end up doing some pretty stupid things. For example, when I was there, they were trying to start some business fraternity. Everyone was very hyped about this new thing, and it took me a week to discover that I did not enjoy working with the team and I quit. Great lesson: don't necessarily look at what the crowd is doing — just be honest with yourself, and say, "Hey, does this sound like a good investment of my time?"
Be really honest with yourself about what you are going to actually enjoy, because you want to find the intersection of the Venn diagram of what you enjoy, what you are good at, and what people will pay you for. And people tend to leave out the "what I will enjoy" part at Penn.
Did you do anything different in grad school?
In grad school, I did it right this time. When I got to law school, everyone was like, "Oh my gawd, law review, law review, I have to be on a law review." And by the end of my first semester, I figured out that I didn't actually want to be a lawyer. If you manage to get past the crazy application process, then you just get a ton of work to do for several years. Screw that, not doing it. So the only extracurriculars that I did in my grad school education were the musicals — the law school musical and the business school musical.
Frankly, it may not be obvious how directly those will impact my future career. But, I believe that they will and they made me really happy.
You can go on YouTube today and find Jay Gatsby OS&M which is a parody that I wrote for our optimization simulation and modeling class based off of Rihanna's song S&M, and it is the dirtiest song ever about math. And I am so proud that I helped create that.
My strong recommendation is to screw FOMO [fear of missing out], screw what you think you need to do to build your resume, because chances are if you are doing something to just build your resume, it's a pie-eating contest. It will get you more opportunities you don't actually have a good chance of enjoying.
My biggest recommendation for people who want to have a better time at Penn: quit something.
Editor's Note: Here's the video that Alexandra is referring to. It's really, really good.
Can you talk about some of the things that you learned outside of school that was meaningful?
Two subjects that are not taught at Penn back in the day, that I strongly recommend that every Penn kid read and work on during their personal time:
1: Soft Skills. There are not nearly enough classes at Wharton for undergrad on things like how do you talk to strangers, or how do you influence people who have no reason to help you. Wharton still has the negotiations class [OIDD291], which is the closest that they have, but they should have something along the lines of how do you have an effective meeting. They give us all these classes that require group projects, but apart from Management 100, they don't actually go into much detail on how you create the psychological safety net that is necessary for a well-functioning group? Frankly when it's your very first semester of college, you don't have the experience to understand how to actually work effectively in a team, so I wish they had a senior version of Management 100. After you have all of this experience of working with other people, revisit a lot of the Management 100 content. Then we can ask, what does this actually mean out in the real world? How does this work in the real world?
Editor's note: Wharton recently changed their curriculum to do exactly this — MGMT100 will be replaced by Wharton 101, in which students won't pursue a lengthy, team-based project until senior year.
2: Personal Finance. I TA-ed a finance class at Wharton, and I didn't know a damn thing about personal finance when I left college and that was a shame. If I had, I would have understood much better what kind of student loans I was getting myself into, and the practical implications that would have on my quality of life after school. Check out "Rich Dad Poor Dad", Dave Ramsey's "Total Money Makeover", and Tony Robbin's "Money: Master the game". If you read those three books, you will be in such a better position financially than many, many of my peers when you hit my age.
Thought process behind becoming a data scientist?
Oh, mostly by accident. I'm going to tell you why I'm a good data scientist. To give you a little more detail about why I applied for the data scientist role, know that it was called a product analytics role then. I took a very fun class at Wharton, called Product Launch [OIDD415], that was taught by Karl Ulrich. Product Launch was super fun for me, and analytics is something that I’m really good at. Data science at Facebook let me use what I’m good at, and let me dabble in what I find really fun. Product analytics is basically me doing math to tell the designer how we should build our products. It captured a few important things for me:
1) It let me touch product design.
2) It let me play towards my analytical strength.
3) Facebook can afford my massive student debt.
Editor’s note: Professor Ulrich is still teaching the same class now called "Product Design" [OIDD415]. It's my favorite class this semester, and Professor Ulrich is one of the most engaging professors I've had at Penn. If you can, sit in on his lectures Tuesdays 3:00pm to 4:30pm in Stiteler Hall B6. They are very well-structured.
What is a reality about your job that students should know before considering it?
Not just about my job, but in general:
Every job sucks. Every company sucks. You just get to choose how yours suck.
I can tell you that the thing that probably sucks the most about my job was I ended up working too many nights on the weekends because I couldn't concentrate in the open office. So what have I done? I have built up a lot of credibility that I can actually get my work done, I worked with my manager to figure out how I can work from home a few days a week. I'm actually talking to you from my kitchen right now. And hopefully that would make my job suck less. For any job, just figure out what are the things that are going to fill you up, and what are going to wear you down? Put together, are these things sustainable?
If I were to consider a role for data science at Facebook, what could I be doing right now?
Learn SQL. The other general tip: being an active product user (the way that people told you to be an “active reader” growing up). Any time that you catch yourself being frustrated with something, ask yourself, "Why is this frustrating me? Is this actually a solvable problem?" That is how you develop product sense: being able to have empathy for the user.
Editor's note: OIDD105 is a great course for SQL. HackerRank is also a good online challenge-based learning program for SQL.
Anything else that you want to share?
The one last tip-bit: sleep. When I was in your shoes, I didn't sleep nearly enough, and I thought I could get away with that forever. To this day, I have moderate to severe medical problems because I did not take care of my body. I encourage every student at Penn to track how much sleep they are getting, figure out how much sleep they should be getting and find a way to make close that gap. There's a lot of research on this stuff nowadays. Arianna Huffington just published a book called "Sleeping Your Way to the Top: How to Get the Sleep You Need to Succeed", about how to get enough sleep that your brain can function at its best.
Even as an almost 33-year-old professional with basically four Ivy League degrees, on my refrigerator, there's a calendar with smiley-face stickers to mark that I got enough sleep this week.
I read "Smarter, Faster, Better" and they talk about how physically manipulating data actually gets us to process it better as human beings. So stickers on walls — they make a difference.
And how many smileys do you see right now?
This month has been awesome, I'm four for four right now.
Editor's Update for March:
Disclaimers: The views presented here are solely those of the interviewee. They do not represent Facebook, McKinsey, LionsGate or any of the other individuals or institutions named above.