When Arun Balasubramanian first began his consulting career, he was quick to observe that many strategy projects tended to end one of two ways: Either problematic data had led to incorrect conclusions and poor decisions, or answers still needed more data, requiring a longer walk to get the right people, processes, and technology on board to reach a solution.
“If firms applied these findings, it would eventually create the foundation for a truly transformative set of capabilities: analytics,” he recalls. Then the opportunity arose for him to join the Advanced Analytics team at EY. “I jumped at the offer and haven’t looked back.”
Balasubramanian says that teamwork and critical thinking, two skills emphasized during his time at the Comm School during the Integrated Core Experience, remain essential to the work he does today.
“There is no substitute for technical skills, but the soft skills to work with (rather than simply at the direction of) a client and the ability to team with very different skill sets are differentiators I rely on every day,” he says.
The value of interacting with others continues to be one of the main draws for the EY Senior Manager, who notes that coaching and teaming, which afford him the opportunity to share his knowledge and learn from the experience of his colleagues, “are easily the most rewarding parts of the job.”
Balasubramanian recently served as a featured guest speaker for McIntire’s Careers in Analytics virtual event, hosted by the Center for Business Analytics (CBA) and Commerce Career Services, where he shared his expertise and career advice with students. We took the opportunity to ask him about his journey in analytics and the challenges he faces in his position, and to get his thoughts as both an exemplary alumnus working in the field and as an active board member of the CBA.
Throughout your time at EY, you’ve held consulting and management positions and have focused on strategy, asset management, M&A integration, robotics process automation (RPA), and risk management. What are some major takeaways that you’ve learned about analytics from your time in those roles with the company?
I feel fortunate to have had many different opportunities and experiences throughout my years in consulting. From those, I have three takeaways related to analytics:
First, analytics and automation are broad categories, and it’s helpful to think of them as a golf bag. No single tool or technique can be applied to universally; each is a club to get you to the right shot. For example, RPA was hailed as an answer to expensive and time-consuming transformation initiatives, but the pipeline for opportunities seemed limited or provided smaller returns, and momentum began to stall. However, when RPA was combined with natural language processing techniques, machine learning, and workflow tools, it found new life as holistic “intelligent automation” became the industry approach.
Second, analytics is a capability that requires a journey, so you might have to crawl, then walk, before you can run. Your clients—and you—should be aspirational, but ground it in the reality that organizations are often not ready on Day 1 to support the capabilities executives want. For example, data quality is a critical factor in building models and is foundational for success; said succinctly, “garbage in, garbage out.” If you don’t understand your data (crawling) or cannot be sure of its quality (walking), you cannot hope to drive accurate and meaningful insights (running).
Finally, analytics, or really any technology, is impossible to scale and sustain without two prerequisites: a passionate group of advocates and a demonstrable path to drive long-term value. Analytics and automation can be disruptive, so champions have to facilitate strong change management by communicating the benefits—and alleviating any fears—if you want strong adoption and a successful transformation.
What do you find the most challenging about the responsibilities that come with your position?
At least for me, it’s in finding balance. I’m not someone who paid much attention to it early in my career, and so it was an underdeveloped skill. In my current role, the challenge has boundless scope and no consistent answer (other than the consultant’s favorite: It depends). It manifests in everyday questions and decisions: “How much direction should I give my team vs. letting them figure it out on their own?” or “Will this tactical solution for the client interfere with their longer-term vision?” or “What can I do to improve my team’s work-life balance without sacrificing quality?” Maintaining it demands constant mindfulness and is something I hope to continue improving at every day.
How did your pre-EY employment and internships prepare you for where you are today?
My pre-EY roles were all in consulting, and they informed two tenants I truly believe. The first is that in consulting there is one asset that matters above all others: people. If people see opportunities to grow, feel like they’re part of a culture, and believe their health and happiness are priorities, they will return that investment 100-fold. The second is that there is no substitute for hard work and good leadership. Consulting is a career from which you largely get what you put in; if you generally work hard and collaboratively, your engagements and clients will see positive outcomes. When you contribute to positive outcomes—for yourself, your firm, and your clients—it is the hallmark of good leadership to identify, encourage, and reward that behavior. Find an organization that believes in both tenants, and the sky is the limit.
How might your own career experience be instructive to students?
I would encourage every person to take a leap of faith early in their career. Some will work out; others won’t—but take the leap regardless because you’re in a red-hot space. I began my career in federal consulting in D.C., then moved to New York to focus on strategy for financial services, then moved into analytics. At each stage, I could’ve opted to stay with what was familiar and safe, but I instead turned to something new. I didn’t expect analytics to be a part of my career journey, but I would have never found it without taking the opportunity.
For students interested in entering the field of analytics, what skills might best serve them in their future endeavors that they might not be aware of?
McIntire is incredible at sharpening the foundational skills you may not get anywhere else (I mentioned teaming and critical thinking), but I would ask students to not shy away from the hard skills. There is no substitute for truly understanding technology or having the ability to get your hands dirty with a tool or language. The good news is that technical skills often stack or snowball, meaning that it will make understanding the next skill just a little bit easier.
You were a guest speaker for the Careers in Analytics virtual event. What stood out to you about it?
The annual Business Analytics Colloquium has been one of my favorite events at the University, but this year’s pivot to a virtual forum showed the resiliency and flexibility of McIntire and the students. I particularly enjoyed being on a panel with both Professors Trey Maxham and Brent Kitchens; they’re both incredible leaders, and I appreciate the opportunity to be a part of the facilitated conversations.
You’ve been a board member with CBA now for more than four years. What do you find most valuable about that relationship?
It’s been an honor to serve on the CBA Board, and what I personally find most gratifying is the end goal to serve students. Understanding their skills and interests helps us create the right environment for them once they graduate, from both a mentoring and career opportunity perspective. Professionally, some of our best talent are Commerce School graduates, and the ability to support the McIntire community has been (hopefully) mutually beneficial.
With the recent change in leadership for both the CBA and McIntire overall, I’m incredibly excited to partner with the entire board over the coming years and to see how UVA can continue to be a hub for excellence in analytics education.
*Please note that the views stated in this article are Balasubramanian’s own and not necessarily reflective of those of EY.