After toiling away in a laboratory at Stanford for four years, Yen-Hsiang Wang was itching to try something different.
That’s when he heard about McKinsey, and the work we were doing to help combat malaria. It was this work, and several conversations with friends, that inspired him to apply for a Summer Associate role in the Taipei office.
After completing his Summer Associate stint, Yen-Hsiang returned to Stanford to finish writing his PhD dissertation. His topic? How to use RNA–a nucleic acid that acts as a messenger carrying instructions from DNA for controlling the synthesis of proteins–to build “genetic computers” in living cells. His thesis addresses one of the fundamental questions in the field known as “synthetic biology”, in which scientists are actively exploring systematic approaches to engineering living cells.
After approving his thesis, his advisors gave him the green light to submit it for publication in Cell Systems, a prestigious scientific journal. Their editors were so impressed with his work, they decided to publish his article in their December 2016 issue.
Last year, Yen-Hsiang rejoined the Taipei office as an Associate, where he has been working on several engagements in the banking and high tech sectors.
Yen-Hsiang recently spoke with Glenn Leibowitz, McKinsey’s Head of External Relations for Greater China, about his PhD research, the decisions that led him to make the transition from scientist to consultant, and the most surprising things he’s learned about McKinsey since joining the firm.
Glenn Leibowitz: Okay, in plain English, tell me what your PhD research was about?
Yen-Hsiang Wang: Sure. Throughout the entire time that I was getting my PhD, I was learning to become a “programmer of living organisms,” what’s known as a “synthetic biologist.”
Take yeast cells as an example. Like any other living organisms, imagine yeast cells as “genetically-programmed machines.” They’re like machines in that they receive tons of inputs like food and information about predators, and they integrate that information to decide whether and how to react (eat, move, grow, or die).
It’s kind of like a computer. And just like a computer programmer, synthetic biologists try to “hack” these genetic machines and figure out how they work, with the ultimate goal of engineering them, improving them, or even building an entirely new ones.
If we succeed, the ramifications are huge. For example, most complex diseases stem from cellular or genetic malfunctions, sort of like having a“bug” in your genetic computers. But if we know how to re-program these genetic computers, we can, technically, cure these diseases at the root.
My PhD thesis directly tackles this obstacle: I designed a programming framework to enable engineers to follow simple rules to build complicated genetic programs.
Glenn: What’s it like to have your dissertation published in a major scientific journal?
Yen-Hsiang: After my paper was accepted for publication by Cell Systems in October, I was invited to London to receive a Young Investigator Award and give a 15-minute speech on my work. Since it was officially published in print in December, I’ve been getting a lot of requests through email. People want to talk to me, something that didn’t happen in grad school because I was in the lab all the time. People have started to recognize my name.
Glenn: How did you hear about McKinsey, and what got you interested in applying to the firm?
Yen-Hsiang: There really was no single moment where I just woke up and decided I wanted to work at McKinsey. From an article I had read I knew McKinsey had worked on fighting malaria. I thought “Wow, McKinsey doesn’t just work for Fortune 500 companies. They also do a lot of work in the public and non-profit sectors.
One of my friends was running a startup and I told him I wanted to spend a summer in Taipei. He told me that even though I had a strong biotechnology background, because I had no business background, he wasn’t able to offer any exciting positions in his startup.
After talking with some MBA friends about it, I discovered that McKinsey is a place you can go to learn business skills. So I reached out to a colleague and told him about my interest in doing an internship. Yet it seemed that McKinsey only took MBAs. Are people like me with PhDs and other advanced degrees on McKinsey’s radar? He told me why not, give it a try! So he forwarded my resume right away.
Glenn: What was it like when you first joined the firm?
Yen-Hsiang: I thought McKinsey solved problems like we did in academia: First, you understand a problem from end to end, and then solve every step in a logically coherent way. Then you check everything before you move on. But when I did my Summer Associate stint in the Taipei office two years ago, I discovered this was not the case. You check the most important things, and then you move on. You don’t spend time fleshing out every single detail.
This made me extremely uncomfortable and kept me constantly wondering if I was missing something along the way. Of course, this all makes more sense now: You don’t go over every single detail of a problem because you don’t have to. That’s the essence of the 80-20 Rule.
Glenn: What kind of engagements are you working on at the moment?
Yen-Hsiang: The most interesting engagement is the current one that I’m working on for an original design manufacturer (ODM) in the high tech industry in Taiwan. I’m working with the team on an organization transformation. We’re working with the top team and trying to engage them to think a little beyond their current day-to-day job.
What fascinates me the most is that this approach is actually kind of “soft.” I rarely talk business to them. The client has strong skills and they know everything they can know about their industry. But sometimes they just need someone to listen and help them to reflect and sort out problems. Or maybe they need a platform to get together and discuss things so they can make them happen.
There are a lot of things we can do to drive impact by simply providing a simple platform like a workshop or forum. Whereas they were once resistant to new ideas, after about two or three months, you can see how they become more open to new ideas. The impact is huge.
Glenn: What do you find special about working in Greater China?
Yen-Hsiang: I would call out the Taipei office specifically. I like our office in Taipei a lot because it’s like a family. People help each other, the environment here is great. We work as a team to achieve things, and in the meantime, we have fun together.
And if you don’t know something, it’s an extremely risk-free environment. I can just say in the chat, “Hey I need this help with digitization and I really don’t know what’s going on, can someone help me?” As a grad student you don’t do that, because that just shows you’re kind of stupid. The expectation for a Stanford PhD student with a fellowship is that you should be able to solve problems independently.
But here at McKinsey it’s literally the other way around. People are willing to help you. If people asked me for help I would do the same. It’s a team effort. I can usually find someone who will say, sure, I know something about that, I’ve been on an engagement for years, let’s talk now, I’ll give you a quick download so tomorrow you can just go and present to the client.
Glenn: What’s your advice for PhDs and other advanced professional degree holders trying to decide whether McKinsey is the right career choice?
Yen-Hsiang: To be honest with you, I actually did a lot of due diligence before deciding to rejoin McKinsey after my Summer Associate job. I talked to 20 people who either worked at or knew McKinsey. The key take-away was that if there’s something that people love about it, I want to experience it myself. If I put it into the bigger picture of my career and my life, I see it as being an indispensable experience.
Glenn: What are you planning to focus on here?
I’m in the process of figuring out what that is. I’ve joined the firm for almost a year now, so I’ve had some time to reflect. I believe the answer lies in what is known as “making your own McKinsey.” And that’s just another way of saying you should find what excites you and shape your career around that.