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Rising Stars: Starting at the Top: IT Research for the Fortune 500

By Sarah Shapiro

Sean graduated with a degree in philosophy, but his first job, at the Corporate Executive Board, has taken him from asking existential questions to solving business problems, using the same rigorous analytical processes he learned in school.

Name: Sean Grundy
School: Princeton
Major: Philosophy
Years Out of College: 0-2
Title: Research Analyst
Company: Corporate Executive Board
First Steps

Sean says he "tried to fit in as much fun and adventure as possible in the short period between the end of college and the beginning of the 'real world.'" The day after graduation, he left for Ecuador with a few friends, where they took an amazing road trip through the country, visiting "everywhere from the major cities, to small towns in the mountains, to an international hippie/surfer colony on the coast."

Sean's first post-college job is in Washington, DC, with a company called the Corporate Executive Board (CEB). About CEB, he says, "We might just be the most influential company you've never heard of--unless you live in Washington, where we are quite well known." The company serves as a network for executives helping leaders of the world's largest public and private organizations solve their business problems.

From Then to Now

"As a philosophy major, I was never able to view my coursework as a stepping stone to any particular job or career, since our subject matter was so impractical. I don't think it's possible to find jobs outside of academia that deal with the type of questions I studied, like 'what makes you the same person today that you were as a child?'"

"However, at CEB I quickly realized that even though the subject matter was entirely different, the analytical and logical processes used in philosophy could be applied to business issues as well. Philosophers examine very difficult questions about the nature of humans, the universe, etc., trying to break down these questions logically in order to come to the most valid and sound conclusions. CEB employees take the same rigorous approach to analyzing problems--only these problems come from top executives at Fortune 500 companies."?

"One really neat experience I had was my first phone consultation. I was already used to talking on the phone with senior executives to get an understanding of their problems, after which I would conduct some research and get back to them. But then, during my first long-term study on the role of IT in mergers and acquisitions, a distressed CIO contacted us because of a costly post-acquisition integration."

"I was pretty shocked at the in-the-moment value I was able to provide by speaking to the member about his problems and walking him through potential solutions. I view that as one of my 'breakthrough' days, since I suddenly realized just how much I had actually learned since joining the company. Only a few months earlier, I would have been clueless listening to that same conversation, and there I was having a detailed, intelligent discussion of M&A with a seasoned veteran."

Challenges Faced

"Waking up in the morning, as opposed to the afternoon!" jokes Sean. He says more seriously that the transition to a set schedule was tough for him. "In college, I tended to take lots of breaks throughout the day, and it took me a while to get used to sitting down for three or four hours and just working. Luckily, though, we are pretty flexible here, and it's perfectly acceptable to take, say, an extra half-hour break during the day, as long as that time is made up at some point."

Another challenge involved entering the business as a newbie: "I came into the job knowing nothing about the content I would be dealing with on a daily basis. This was problematic at first, but we all do so much reading here that I was up to speed in a couple of months. In IT, though, there are still always new topics that pop up, that neither we nor our members know much about - and it's our responsibility to get educated on them quickly, despite scarcity of information. In that sense I am always facing new challenges."

My Experience

"I work in CEB's IT Practice, where our membership consists of CIOs and other IT executives. Generally, I spend about 50% of my typical day in the office helping our members with requests that we can answer relatively easily, usually because we have already conducted research on these topics. These requests vary significantly: members might need us to help them find or analyze data, they might want to learn about the market for certain software, they might need advice on managing their staff. Often, they want to draw upon our network and speak to executives from other companies who can share similar experiences."

"The other 50% of my day is the really neat part, spent doing more long-term research. When numerous members express having challenges in the same areas, we set out to solve their problems through research and analysis. Our research often involves interviewing our members to find innovative and successful practices--personally, my favorite part of the job--and finding ways to apply their methods to our membership at large."?

"The cool thing about our long-term work is that it's largely proactive, in the sense that each researcher has a major say in setting a project's agenda. A project starts when members come to us with a problem, but it's our responsibility to determine what the real causes of that problem are, and find examples of how companies can address these causes. We also have to decide the best way to share this information with our membership--a decision that can determine whether we'll spend the following weeks writing case studies, organizing teleconferences, or designing tools in Excel."

Next Steps

Sean says it's hard to think about other jobs right now, since he's still so new to his first one. He expects a couple of years at CEB will open doors he didn't even know about.

"Chances are I will go to graduate school in about three years, but I want to wait until I'm really sure of my course of study. For a while, I thought about getting involved in journalism, largely because of the writing, editing, and interviewing skills I continue to develop on the job. More recently, I've considered environmental law or environmental science, but it's highly possible I'll have a new idea in a couple of months."

Ideally, Sean would like to attend grad school in Brazil, a place he makes a point of visiting at least once a year.

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