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From Lab to Laptop

– After toiling in a laboratory at Stanford for four years, Yen-Hsiang Wang was eager to try something different. He heard about McKinsey, and the work we were doing to combat malaria. After several conversations with friends, Yen-Hsiang applied for a summer associate role in the Taipei office.

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After completing his internship, Yen-Hsiang returned to Stanford to finish his PhD dissertation. His topic? How to use RNA to build “genetic computers” in living cells. His thesis focuses on synthetic biology, an area which many scientists are actively exploring. His work was published in the December 2016 issue of Cell Systems, a prestigious scientific journal.

Last year, Yen-Hsiang rejoined the Taipei office full-time. He has since worked on several engagements, including a few in the banking and high tech sectors.

Yen-Hsiang recently spoke with Glenn Leibowitz, McKinsey’s head of external relations for Greater China, about the decisions that led him to change from scientist to consultant, and the surprising things he’s learned since he joined.

Glenn: Okay, in layman’s terms, tell me what your PhD research was about.

Yen-Hsiang: Basically, my research was about programming living organisms. Consider yeast cells as an example. They receive tons of inputs – food, information about predators, etc., and evaluate that information to decide whether and how to react (e.g., eat, move, grow, or die).

That is essentially what computers do – receive inputs and make decisions. Like a computer programmer, a synthetic biologist tries to hack these genetic machines and figure out how they work, with the ultimate goal of re-engineering them, improving them, or building entirely new machines.

If we succeed, the implications are huge. For example, most complex diseases stem from cellular or genetic malfunctions – like bugs in a person’s genetic computer. If we know how to re-program these genetic codes, we can cure diseases at the root.

For my thesis, I designed a programming framework that outlines simple rules engineers can follow to build complicated genetic programs.

Glenn: What was 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 the article was printed in December, I’ve been receiving a lot of requests through email. People want to talk to me, something that rarely happened in grad school because I was in the lab all the time. People have started to recognize my name. It’s exciting.

Glenn: How did you hear about McKinsey, and what got you interested in joining?

Yen-Hsiang: There wasn’t really a single moment in which I decided I wanted to work at McKinsey. I remember reading an article about the firm’s work on malaria. I was surprised McKinsey worked in the public and non-profit sectors, not only for Fortune 500 companies.

Still, I was interested in working in the start-up space. One of my friends was running a new venture in Taipei, so I approached him about spending the summer there. He told me that, even though I had a strong biotechnology background, he couldn’t offer me an exciting position because I lacked a business background.

I started talking to some of my friends who were in MBA programs about the best way to learn more about business; they suggested McKinsey.

Glenn: What was it like when you first joined the firm?

Yen-Hsiang: I expected McKinsey consultants to solve problems like we did in academia: first, understanding a problem from end to end, then solving every step in a logical, coherent way, checking everything before moving from one step to the next. I quickly discovered this was not the case. As a consultant, you check the most important things, then move on. You don’t flesh out every single detail.

This approach made me extremely uncomfortable at first. I constantly wondered if I was missing something. Now, this method makes more sense: you don’t go over every single detail of a problem because you don’t have to. You prioritize the pieces that have the biggest impact on the end goal. That’s the essence of the 80-20 rule.

Glenn: What kind of engagements are you working on at the moment?

Yen-Hsiang: I’m helping an original design manufacturer in the high tech industry transform its organizational structure. It’s exciting because I’m collaborating closely with some of the company’s top talent and helping them to think beyond their current day-to-day jobs.

What fascinates me most is that in this situation, my role is mostly to listen. The clients have strong skills and know everything about their industry. They just need people to help them reflect on the structure of their organization, align on a path forward and make change happen. It’s amazing how much impact we’ve had by providing a platform for them to express their challenges and concerns.

Glenn: What do you like most about working in McKinsey’s Greater China office?

Yen-Hsiang: The Taipei office is like a family. People here (and across Greater China) work as a team and have a lot of fun together.

It’s an extremely risk-free environment. I have often said, “I need help with this,” and my colleagues are always willing to help me think through a solution, teach me new skills and/or point me to people who can help. As a grad student, I never did that because I felt the expectation for a Stanford PhD student with a fellowship was that I should solve problems independently. At McKinsey it’s the other way around; it’s a real team effort.

Glenn: What’s your advice for PhDs and other advanced professional degree holders deciding whether McKinsey is the right career choice?

Yen-Hsiang: I would encourage them to go for it! I spoke with a lot of people before I applied and they all seemed to love the firm, like I do; it provides an indispensable experience and many opportunities to shape your career around the things that most excite you. There are many opportunities for you to experience our culture, get to know our colleagues and explore the work we do – check them out:

If you’re interested in learning more about life in our Beijing, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Shenzhen & Taipei offices, please join our colleagues for a webinar session Mar. 23 from 9:00-10:00pm EST. RSVP here and note, the discussion will be in Mandarin Chinese.

If you’re an MD or PhD student, medical intern, or postdoc in the United States or Canada like I was, join us for our three-day Insight program June 18-21 to learn about opportunities with McKinsey throughout Asia-Pacific. Learn more and apply by April 9.