Emerging leaders

How to sketch out your career, an engineer’s guide

Many of us tend to believe that the “planning” stages of our professional lives reach a ceiling, be it after a certain academic degree, or a dream job, or a promotion. However, consciously and continuously checking in on our own progress and development can have surprising benefits. Case in point: Mekala Krishnan is a senior fellow at McKinsey Global Institute, McKinsey & Company’s business and economics research arm. An engineer by training, Mekala currently leads the firm’s research efforts on gender economics, inclusive growth, and economic development. But finding her perfect fit took time, reflection and planning.

During the Women Deliver 2019 conference in Vancouver, Mekala shared with Joanna Socha her career path and tips for consciously managing a career. 

Have you always wanted to be an engineer? 

When I was growing up I loved maths and science. I have memories about doing mathematical puzzles and enjoying that very much. And I come from a family of engineers, so it was a field I was exposed to quite a bit. I did my undergraduate and master’s studies in mechanical engineering. I also did my Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at Cornell University. My research focused on the topic of microfluidics, the study of flow at small scales, a few hundreds of microns. I loved it. But I also realized that while people have been talking about microfluidics for a long time, devices that use such technologies have not really been properly commercialized. This is why I thought I should understand how business works so I can understand what it takes to make the technology commercially viable. This is why I joined McKinsey after finishing my PhD. 

Could you describe your career progression at McKinsey?

In the beginning, I worked in many different functional areas. Over the years, I became more focused on working with companies in the advanced industries space. But I realized that I missed doing research. One of the great things that McKinsey does is a program called “Take Time,” In which you can take a sabbatical from work and basically spend the time however you want to. I used the time to introspect about what really inspires and drives me. One thing I discovered about myself during that introspection was that I love doing research, but applied research that has an impact on the real world. I decided to transition to the McKinsey Global Institute where I can do economics research. I think this is a perfect place for me, where I can learn a lot and have an impact, as we are working on large scale problems and we can engage with the leading thinkers and decision-makers in any spheres.

You have an academic background. How do you find working for an international corporation and functioning in such a formal setting? 

McKinsey is a very non-hierarchical organization with a very collaborative style. It amazes me how well we work with colleagues around the world.  I think the hardest transition was from my relatively slow-paced academic life to the fast-paced world of consulting! But it’s also incredibly energizing. Another challenge was reconciling two different parts of my personality. One part likes exploring new things and learning about new areas, the other part values seeing the impact of my work quickly – which implies being on a single, concerted path to impact. And that caused a lot of internal conflict in my life at that time, as I’ve explored and weighed different career transitions over the years. For instance, the relatively easy thing to do for me would have been to finish my PhD, become a professor and teach at a college, right?

Would it be a comfort zone? 

Exactly.

Sometimes I ask myself if I made the right choices; should I have been doing something else? But when I have conversations like this one it allows me to reflect and realize that I am really happy with the decision I made and where I am right now. 

What advice would you give to people who want to consciously manage their careers? 

I think the word you said — “consciously” — is key. I found that it is often easy to be doing one thing and the next thing and the next one. And rarely do we take a step back to reflect on what really drives us. What are my values? What are my strengths? How do I want to have impact on the world? This is why I try, at least once a year, to spend time to assess where I am and where I want to go. Every year or every six months just stop and think about your life. You do not have to be very specific but really think with intention about the steps.  Plan ahead.

Interview by Joanna Socha

Edited by: Diana Asatryan, Phyllis Budka

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