*At the time of this interview, Usman was the Director, Information Technology Lead at KKR Capstone
Take me through your early career, from Massachusetts General Hospital, to Scient, to Pfizer, and finally to starting your own company. How did your career outlook change at each step?
Originally, I planned to become a physician. I was Pre-Med in college, but I also majored in Computer Science and Psychology. I found that technology intersected with medicine and biology in an interesting way, and I wanted to connect my practical goal of becoming a doctor to the things that I really enjoyed doing in technology. I thought I would become a surgeon, but I decided that before signing away eight years of my life to medical school, I should try something that I knew I was excited about. That’s how I ended up at Massachusetts General Hospital. I was a software developer building electronic medical records and physician support systems, and working on how algorithms could help physicians make better healthcare. It was an attempt to keep my foot in two different worlds – healthcare and technology.
As you moved forward, did you commit more to the technology side?
What happened at Mass General was that I got first-hand exposure to the evolution of medical care in the US and I realized that I did not want to be a physician at all. However, it was clear to me that I enjoyed working with technology, and it was a very exciting time to be in technology, so I decided to double down on that. I got my Masters in Computer Science and then left Mass General for a technology company, Scient, where we were building technology platforms for small startups and midsize companies.
And after that, you went to Pfizer.
At that point, I was still very interested in the impact that technology could have in for-profit healthcare. Pfizer had an emerging technologies group that looked at these issues, and I thought that I could combine my interest in technology and software with a sector that I believed was ripe for technology innovation. But in retrospect, I was right on the opportunity, but wrong on the timing. People today are still talking about the impact technology can have in healthcare, and the conversation is pretty much where it was in the ’90s. At the very least, Pfizer and the pharmaceutical industry wasn’t the right place to drive change. I learned a lot about enterprise technology in the process of discovering that, though.
And it was there that you decided to go to business school, correct?
Yes. I knew that I wanted to leave Pfizer, and I knew that I wanted to change some things in my career. At that point, I kind of gave up on healthcare. I wanted to make a much bigger difference than I was able to make, and the industry was so big and so complex, and the issues so rooted in politics and regulation, that I felt we were ten, twenty, maybe even thirty years away from technology making a meaningful impact there. I started focusing on the software and tech sector itself – I wanted to join a technology company at that point. I thought business school could be an interesting opportunity to reset, reboot, and look for new opportunities.
What career options were you considering post-business school? What drew you into McKinsey?
I had a lot of offers to join technology companies, both small and large, but I just couldn’t get excited about any of them for one reason or another. I also had an offer from McKinsey, and because I couldn’t figure out which company I was most excited about, I joined McKinsey to buy myself some more time. I thought I would be there for two years maximum before leaving to join a technology company, or to start my own company. I had started my own company during business school, and that was a great experience. But while I was evaluating these options in my first two years at McKinsey, I grew to love the Firm, the people, and how much I was learning and growing. Before I knew it I was elected Partner, and I was able to focus exclusively on technology. But the funny thing is I joined McKinsey with a very specific plan to leave McKinsey, and I left McKinsey having just written a very specific plan to stay at McKinsey. So you never know how these things will happen.
How would you describe the transition from CTO and software development work to McKinsey? Was it easy from day one?
No, it was a tough transition because I had to unlearn a lot of things. I had been working in a variety of different settings, including larger organizations, and in roles with more responsibility. At McKinsey, I had to reset. Most of my peers at that time were people who had worked for a couple of years had gone to business school, and then joined as an Associate, whereas I had close to ten years of experience when I joined. And that experience didn’t make any difference in the first couple of years because the first two years in consulting are about building basic, intrinsic problem-solving skills and learning how to work with teams and experts. It was very painful but very necessary, and in retrospect, it was probably the best investment I ever made in my career. I had to let go of everything I thought I knew .. and became a clean slate, and retrained myself to do a wider range of things in different ways. McKinsey is very good when it comes to that kind of professional development and mentorship.
Do you feel your experience prior to McKinsey gave you a leg up in other ways? For example, a lot of consultants tend to be generalists, but it seems that you were able to specialize more than most.
For the first two or three years I don’t think my pre-McKinsey experience made any difference, but in years four and five, it really helped me build better client relationships, be more effective with large teams, and be a better leader within McKinsey. All of the experience kicked in during those years.
You spent 8 years at McKinsey and left as a Partner. The tech world was on fire at this time, and we’re sure you were called by recruiters regularly – what made you stay?
When technology started to really heat up, I got a lot of calls from recruiters. I used to seriously consider one or two opportunities every year, and I think that’s a healthy habit for people in management consulting. But I never found a mix of things that was as compelling as what McKinsey had to offer until Raines International called about the role at KKR. At that time, I had written a plan to stay at McKinsey for the rest of my career, so while I was open to new opportunities, I felt that there were very few things that could be as compelling as what I had. KKR happened to be one of them.
What did the KKR role have those other opportunities lacked?
I felt that the KKR opportunity had everything that I valued at McKinsey, and then much more. The people, the professional development, the level of responsibility, the autonomy, and the sense of ownership are all unbelievable at KKR. The quality of future opportunities is probably higher here than at McKinsey. And one of the biggest things for me was content that I personally am excited about. At McKinsey, even though I was focusing on technology, I didn’t have the luxury of only focusing on technology. McKinsey is a client service firm, and you have to do whatever the client needs done, even if that client is a tennis ball manufacturer in Idaho. If there’s a tech client, that’s great, but if there isn’t, you still have to stay busy. At KKR, I focus on technology 100% of the time, whether on the investing side or operating side of the role. So the role was perfectly designed around my interests.
Did you hesitate to relocate?
No, not really. I’ve sort of known all along that my career was going to be in technology, and for probably too long I tried to make it work in New York City against the grain. The opportunity to move to the heart of Silicon Valley, where it’s all about technology, was a no-brainer. This just made all the sense in the world.
Your role is pretty different from others that we’ve seen, even within the context of private equity. How would you describe your role? What was it about your experience that made you a fit for such a unique role?
Half of my role is to look at new technology investments and be credible with entrepreneurs and management teams. The other half of my role is to lead technology operations across the private equity portfolio and be credible with CIO’s and CxO’s. They were looking to check a number of boxes, and luckily, I had all those boxes checked. I think they were looking for someone with a technical degree and a technical background, with hands-on software development and technology experience, large enterprise IT experience, and some entrepreneurial exposure, at a Partner or above level at one of the Top 3 consulting firms. Of course, I didn’t plan it this way, but somehow I ended up doing all these things at some point so it was a good fit.
Have you had any insights in your new role that you wish you could share with your younger self, which would have impacted how you did your job at McKinsey?
Believing what I believe now about how fantastic opportunities come along (it’s quite random), I’d say don’t manage your career around specific jobs or titles or companies or even sectors, but pick a theme that you care about. For me, that theme was information technology in the business world. And then be very flexible around that theme. Being in a hospital as a software developer was kind of weird at a time when people were going to Yahoo and Amazon, but it helped me differentiate a bit. Don’t be afraid to be different in the choices that you make, especially early in your career when you have the flexibility to take some of those risks?
Have you had any big surprises at KKR, maybe something that was unexpected or drastically different from consulting?
One surprise I’ve had is that people don’t communicate via email as much as we did at McKinsey or other organizations where we had long, detailed email threads. And also, people don’t generate documentation unless it’s absolutely necessary.
Do you think that’s in the name of efficiency?
There are confidentiality, archival and retention and compliance reasons for this, but it’s also cultural. It still feels like a family and relationship-based firm … and Henry and George are trying to preserve that culture because it has historically led to great performance. It also goes back to what matters and how to have impact, and asking whether spending four hours preparing a document for a meeting is actually going to lead to a better investment outcome or not.
Do you have any pointers for Engagement Managers, Associate Principals, and Partners on how to be better consultants?
I think most people know what matters but the day to day sometimes pushes it to the background – it’s all about the impact you can have in a specific situation, and changing the trajectory of people and/or companies in a material way. Sometimes it takes analysis and data and compelling documents to convince people, and sometimes it takes going to lunch with an executive for 10 months in a row to build a relationship and influence their thinking. I think all consulting firms at a macro level care about having impact, but at the micro level, there are sometimes layers that create insulation and drive research, activity, and analysis instead of impact. I didn’t ask myself and my teams often enough, “How is what we’re doing (right now, in this meeting, on this document, on this analysis, etc.) going to impact the trajectory of this client?” It’s important to have a clear line of sight to the difference you think your work will make.