Senior Supply Chain Manager

Business, Government & Military

Senior Supply Chain Manager, Consulting Organization for Government

Date of Interview: February 25th, 2017


Q: Alright. Would you please state your job title, where you currently work, and how long it’s been since you graduated from college.

A: Sure. I’m a senior manager in advisory services in the government and public sector at Ernst & Young, and it’s been 12 years since I graduated from college.

Q: Perfect. Can you provide a brief description of your primary job functions?

A: Sure. I predominately provide consulting services, more around – I’m in supply chain management – it’s around performance improvement, so how can we enhance a particular agency’s internal supply chain. We’ll go in and maybe do a current state assessment, and identify what are they doing today, and then looking at leading practices, and help them to get to a future desired state.

Q: And are all the clients government agencies?

A: Predominately yes. My focus is on the federal government. I can also work on the commercial sector, more if there’s any downtime, but there hasn’t been at this point.

Q: Okay. How frequently are you required to write, and if possible, maybe you can estimate sort of in a given week, what percentage of your time is spent writing?

A: Sure. So definitely write on a daily basis. We’re always working on a particular– there’s always a document or some end product that we’re working towards, and it’s a process of writing to get to that, whether it be through interviews, or drafting different documentation and materials. So it’s not always that I’m physically actually actively writing, but probably anywhere from 50 to 75 percent of the time that we’re actually pretty much writing.

Q: Got it. What forms or types of writing or kinds of documents do you most often complete? What are sort of the typical genres of writing that– ?

A: Sure. So we have informal, where I’m writing emails, and that might just be on a daily basis, whether it be to a client, or it could be internal to team members. I work on draft work products for a client as well. Then we have more formal-type products that we work on – one’s external-focused, so with a client focus. We have final deliverables that we’re always working towards. I also write white papers, which is more around thought leadership in a particular topic or area, highlighting case studies. And then I do proposals or responses to requests for information from the federal government, and then–

Q: Are those, sorry to clarify, are those two different things?

A: Yeah. The government issues a request for a proposal, which is the second half. The first half is a request for information. Government doesn’t always issue a request for information, it’s more if they’re trying to find out from industry what’s possible. What are the current service offerings? How would you go about doing a particular strategy? They might want something in particular with supply chain and to look at, maybe it’s a holistic end-to-end supply chain transformational project. A lot of the times the government’s trying to identify what small businesses can perform the work. But as a large business, either we work with a small business to respond to them, or we try and articulate why it’s important to have a much larger business perspective, because we have the reachback support across– I mean, Ernst & Young has 210,000 employees, so we have reachback support across the entire world, and we can leverage other leading practices, other experiences at federal governments that smaller businesses might not have. So that’s the first piece, and then once the agency identifies really what do they exactly want, then they issue a request for a proposal, and that’s the formal documentation that they are intending to award a contract with real dollars tied to it. And then that is our formal response as to how we would actually go about doing the work. We put in– typically you’ll have resumes, past performances, where have we done something like this before. Then we also build up a whole entire pricing volume, where we’ll say based on what individuals, what labor categories, what’s the price for that labor category, how many hours, and you really build that whole entire cost proposal out.

Q: Excellent. And does that complete the sort of different types of genres, or are there anything else that you– ?

A: Yes, the other key one is formal documentation, it’s around internal doing performance reviews. It’s every six months and then at the end of the year we have formal, documented performance reviews. I’ll also put in there that I do and develop training documentation for both clients, but also internal to the firm, so that’s another major, major work product.

Q: And are those, they’re documents that the trainees are using, as well as lesson plans that you’re using?

A: Yes. So it’s the training content as well as the trainer guide materials. Yep.
Q: Perfect, okay, great. Some of these are obvious from what you’ve said, but could you describe sort of the primary audiences that you usually write to, and what the primary purposes are of your sort of most typical kinds of writing?

A: Sure. So, take it from the client side – it’s more around the service delivery. So we’re on contract for x particular service, and so we’re always looking at, okay, what are our methodologies and approaches that we’re using in order to develop that work product? We might be doing and performing research, and also providing with the client with guidance and advice on a day-to-day basis. We look at it from an internal standpoint, so I typically have a team of individuals that I’m overseeing and guiding. So I’m providing daily guidance, whether it be written through email, we use a lot of Skype or Sametime, sometimes it’s even text messaging, in order to communicate to the team as to – or through phone as well – what are the key activities that we’re working on, provide direction, provide written feedback to every team member who’s working on a team. It’s required by the firm that if you work on a project for more than I think it’s 40 hours a week, that you’re required to have written, documented feedback. And then, I’d say the other area is around coaching and mentorship, which is more informal. But if you gel well with an individual and kind of respect them and look up to them or they look up to you, take them under your wing or you take– basically providing that advice and guidance throughout their career.

Q: Great, okay. Were you familiar with the typical writing genres that you work in now when you were a student?

A: I would say the main one that I was familiar with was like a work product development. I went to Lehigh University, and specifically majored in supply chain. The supply chain department was very heavily focused on case studies, and that really I think helped us to get acclimated to what to expect from doing our research, from presenting materials, from developing a final potential work product. Granted, those work products differ based on whatever project that you’re working on. I would say the other things, no. So back to, even in a client work product, at Ernst & Young I learned that there are what we deem as “bad words” that pose the risk to the firm that I wouldn’t have thought of before, either through academia or even in my past life where I worked for the Boeing Company for seven years. You can’t use the words like “ensure”, like, “we’ll ensure that we will do this.” Well, legally, anybody could come back to you and say, “Well if you ensure, like you absolutely will do this, and how can you ensure it?” or “We will provide the best resources available.” Well, you think that it might be the best, but somebody could always say that, well in a firm of 210,000 employees, they could always say, “Well, this person technically might be better than Matthew is, so why did you have him and not this other person?” That I would have never thought of.

Q: Do you think that that’s internal to Ernst & Young, or is that supply chain on a larger scale?

A: I think it’s on the Big Four accounting firms. It wasn’t the case at Boeing. Now, not to say that it hasn’t evolved, now that is a broader topic, but that was new to me coming in. And it makes sense once I hear the legal ramifications of it, but the firm is very risk averse, and that helps to also justify it a little bit more. And I would say that academia didn’t prepare me for giving performance reviews or feedback, because really it’s more project-focused, versus you work with other individuals on teams but you’re never, because you’re peers, you’re not giving them feedback and critiquing somebody. So I understand why that doesn’t happen, but that I wasn’t prepared for either. But that is an evolution of, as you make it up into a career, I mean you go from the worker bee to managing and overseeing, and that’s the natural progression of any manager or leader is developing those skillsets.

Q: And are there – I’m jumping ahead a little bit here – but are there specific things early in your career when you were more at that sort of worker bee level, strategies that you used specifically for the kinds of, we’ll talk about overall strategies in a minute, but strategies for adapting to genres of writing that were new to you?

A: Yeah, I think from proposal development, I mean when that was new, it was more let’s start to look at previous proposals, really you don’t want to reinvent the wheel. Or where you know that you did something really well, let’s leverage that. At least at Boeing, and even at Ernst & Young, you get scored on your proposals by the client, and therefore you can look back and say, “Okay, these areas were technically compliant,” or “They really liked how we laid this out.” You get to know a particular client.

Q: That’s really interesting, I didn’t realize that. So is that only if you win the– ?

A: No, everybody gets scored on their proposals.

Q: Oh, interesting, okay.

A: And then you can request a debrief. Now, when I was at Boeing, your proposals are, I mean the one was 40 billion dollars, so there’s of course, you are spending a year of your life just going into a proposal development when you’re looking at selling hundreds of aircraft, it’s a lot more at stake than – I mean not to say that what we do is not important as well – but when it’s a million dollars or a few million dollars, it’s not as big of a loss whereas, there are so many clients out there who are going to buy a Chinook or an F-22 or something like that, that we can sell to [laughter] as America.

Q: Yeah, okay, alright, that makes sense, yeah. Could you tell me a little bit about your writing process, both how tasks or assignments sort of come to you, and how you prepare and the steps you take from the beginning of a project to the end? And if it’s useful, you can pick just any typical writing project that you think might be a good example.

A: Sure. Usually it’s a work product of some sort with a client, is the typical type now. The challenge is that that varies from project to project. But usually there is a more standard process and methodology to it. We would, if we use an example like I talked about earlier, where we go in and maybe we’re doing a current state assessment of an organization’s supply chain and trying to help them to get to what their desired future state is, we don’t have any foregone conclusions when we’re going into it. So it’s trying to figure out, okay, first, you want to perform research on the topic and really know the key areas that are important to the client. Usually it’s in your statement of work, so you know what’s in scope, but you still reconfirm that with the client, and making sure that these are the targeted areas that they want to focus on. And then from that, developing an outline, as to okay, here’s our plan of attack, here are the key components that we’re going to focus on. From there, I would meet with my internal leadership to make sure that they are in alignment and that they can provide guidance and editorial process, even say, “No, let’s not focus on this particular area, let’s tweak this area.” Meeting back with the client, making sure that they’re on the same page – because the earlier you can meet and define what your deliverable is going to start to look like in that shell, and you can help to shape it, the more time that you save on the back end. The earlier that you can lock down yes, we want to work on or focus on these particular areas, then increase less rework potentially. From there, then really it’s going through and developing that first draft, so to speak. My style is more overly verbose, I don’t think as much about like, let me just do a brain dump on these key areas and do research and pull in information. Some of that research may be from client interviews as well, in order to understand their current state. And then from there, it is just going through the editing process. I go back through my whole entire document and redline it, and really figure out where do I need to focus on streamlining and consolidating and being articulate. And then that goes through a final editing process back up through my boss for comments, and then we will work with the client to see the final draft, they’ll provide any comments, and then we’ll deliver the final, final–

Q: So the client actually will give you feedback before they see the official final version?

A: Yes, that’s our best practice, because otherwise if you just throw it over the fence and they’re not happy with it, then usually there are very strict timelines as well incorporated into the contract as to how much time they have to review it, how much time we have after they review it. Sometimes we might only have two days, and if they completely say, “This is not what I wanted or what I was looking for,” – I don’t want to be up for 48 hours straight working on something [laughter]. So yes, to the extent possible, we work with them and share the near final draft.

Q: Great. And you talked a little bit about this when you talked about redlining your own work and getting feedback from above you, but are there specific approaches in revision – in that stage when you have a draft but you’re trying to improve it – are there specific strategies or approaches that you take during that time?

A: My strategy’s more I review the document from start to finish, and I will just go through and figure out, I mean I’ll go through the rewriting process from line one. With that said, I will usually not write the executive summary, I’ll save that until the full document is written, and then let the document kind of materialize those key findings, and then pull that out and make sure that that’s up in your executive summary. If there are certain areas where I’m struggling with as to it’s taking me too much time to rewrite or to really the words just aren’t flowing, then I’ll flag it and come back to that paragraph or section. That’s more my process, was there anything else that you– ?

Q: No, that’s great, that’s great. So you talked about how sometimes the deadline will be really tight, based on the client’s responses, but for a typical writing project, say like a medium-sized proposal, how long do you typically have for something like that?

A: Unfortunately with the federal government, things are sometimes very quick timelines. You can as little as five days to turn around a proposal, which is really then all hands on deck, and you job for the most part everything you can. Not as realistic, usually it’s closer to sometimes two weeks to three weeks, which still isn’t a lot. Now, this might be going to much into the business side of it, but usually then if we see something that comes out and it’s a request for a proposal and we only have x number of days as a shorter window for it, as a business, we take a step back and say, “Okay, has somebody else been shaving this? Is somebody else in the marketplace having these conversations, trying to shave that work? Or is this really that they don’t know, they haven’t had conversations before?” – not to say that it’s wired for anybody, but if it’s more of a, does anybody else have a competitive advantage in this, and what’s our probability of winning it by not having the context? Do we know who’s the buyer? Have we been in their office? Do we understand what they do, some of their paying points so we can resonate with them? And if we know what the other competition is, we might not bid on it at that point. So we try to focus more on building those relationships and anticipating these proposals, so that we’re already aware of their paying points and have had conversations with them and to help to kind of talk to them about some of the things that we’re seeing in the marketplace, and really things that they might want to consider as a potential solution.

Q: Excellent. This is another point of clarification for me – so when you talked about the sort of first stage, pre call for proposals, the request for information – does that go out to specific organizations, or to anybody who might be in the market to pitch a proposal?

A: That’s a good question. It depends. Sometimes it can just be up to if a potential client has no idea of what’s even in the market space, that could just be full and open to anybody. They may, because the federal government has small business targets for their contracting, they may just be putting it out there to really focus on small business first, just to see if– and at that point, if it goes small business, we wouldn’t even see it because we’re a large business. And then there are even further subsets of that – there’s an 8(a), there’s woman-owned, there’s small disadvantaged woman-owned businesses, there’s a whole slew of different levels that they can specifically reach out to.

Q: I see. And so when you mentioned maybe a call for proposals with a very tight turnaround, and as a business you would look at it to say, “Has it been shaped by an organization that is likely to win that business?” – is that a product of a request for information? Or not necessarily?

A: No, a request for an information point, no. We make the decision on – if we find out that it did go to small business, a request for information – we can, if we obtain that piece of information, we could still reply back to them to try and shape it and to say, “Have you really thought about it this way?” or “We think of it in this context, and it’s much bigger than, we would recommend you’re focusing on this lever, but really in clients with similar problems we also see that they have these other areas that you’d want to focus on.”

Q: That’s great, okay. What is at stake in your writing?

A: Reputation [laughter], credibility in the space – my credibility as a supply chain professional in the federal government space is probably the biggest thing that’s at stake for sure. The other thing is, even internally with my writing focusing on performance reviews, is just really building that relationship with individuals and being fair, open, honest to them.
Q: And that’s a big part of the culture at Ernst & Young, is that a fair– ?

A: Yep, no that’s fair. People is our number one focus, because if you do not have happy employees, and you don’t treat each other nice and well, then they’re not going to want to continue to work for you. And if they’re not empowered, then they’re not going to be doing as good of a job as they could be. So it’s really heavily focused on people.

Q: Excellent. Who oversees your writing? Could you give me a brief description of their title and their role in the organization? It’s probably not the same person every time, but–

A: It’s not always, but there is always somebody more senior. Now that I’m a senior manager, it would be the next level up is a partner, principal executive director. Therefore anything that I write that is a true deliverable needs to be reviewed by them at certain points if– based on the dollar threshold of the work that we’re performing, we also have a quality executive that is assigned to the project and any deliverables. When I say the word deliverable, it is specifically written in the contract that you are contractually required to deliver this particular work product, this particular document, whatever that end product is. And that quality assurance executive has to review it and make sure that we are in alignment with the firm’s quality standards. So there’s a whole other level of review on major, major work products.

Q: Interesting, yeah. And that quality executive in particular, but also your person who’s above you, a partner that would review it – are they looking at writing style? Or are they looking at more content-based– ? I’m trying to, that’s not–

A: The person who’s above me is looking at style as well as the content. It should be that look on, okay, is this technically sound, and does it make sense? Or does it sound like a second grader wrote it? But yeah, they’re looking at it from that lense, because I’ll get feedback that, “Okay, these paragraphs really need to be either tightened up,” or “It’s not just that carte blanche (23:06?),” like, “Yeah, it looks good, it passes the test.” But the quality executive is more looking for, it’s more of like a legal compliance on again, some of those bad words, more of like the style and are we hitting the key points on the executive summary, and do we have enough detail that resonates with the client to support our theories or our results? So it’s a higher level, but from a different angle on it, which is good. And that quality executive is usually somebody outside of, for me, it’s outside of supply chain. So it’s a good different perspective that they bring to the document.

Q: Wonderful, okay. And how do you think they judge – either the quality executive or a partner – the success or the quality of the writing?

A: If I don’t have to rewrite everything [laughter]. I think that it’s, if we’re able to articulate what are kind of like the key paying points or our key findings, and the key next steps, I think that that is something that they’re looking for. Does it flow well? Does it read nice? Do we think that it’s just going to be shelved? I mean if you’re creating a 40-page document, and it is only text-based and single-spaced font, guaranteed that thing is going to get shelved. And therefore, at least your executive summary has got to be very succinct and concise. Sometimes it’s, can you completely reshape and redesign it so that it becomes something that the client reaches back to and grabs on? And I’ve worked on a few things on revising how we change a– it used to be, not joking, over a 100-page document with all of the logic and methodology and it just got shelved. It’s like, this isn’t what we want, we need the client to be coming back to this and really relying on this on a regular basis. We completely scrapped the whole process and redesigned it, based on what we thought that would work really well and would be tangible with different graphs and charts. So it’s a different style of writing and communicating, and they clenched onto it, and basically they use that type of a work product on a regular basis now.

Q: That’s really interesting. So when you talk about that redesign, if I’m understanding you right, you’re talking both about the physical look of it, and the way the information’s presented.

A: The physical look and the way that the information is presented, yep. The one thing – we changed from a Word document to a Powerpoint presentation. There was a Powerpoint presentation that was in the format of a book, so you could flip through and it kind of tells the story, and you focus on the key areas of interest and key pieces of information that are relevant for specific areas.

Q: Gotcha. So you sort of changed it, is it fair to say that you in a sense changed its purpose? Rather than just being this thing that someone slogs through once, you want it to be a reference guide in some way?

A: Yeah, initially it was still meant to be like a reference guide, but you kind of take a step back and realize people aren’t using– we definitely scrapped a bunch of the information because there was so much on the logic and the methodology behind it they were like, “Just give me the results. What can I see?” And then put that stuff maybe at the very end, if they really still care about it, or put it in the appendix. And if the appendix gets shelved, that doesn’t matter, because at least they have the content that you need them to be focusing on. It’s more of – I don’t even know what to call it – you have the executive summary, but then it’s all your key work products or key documents up front before you get behind all of the background and the minutia that is important behind the process and really validating how you got to all of this goodness, but if you put all of that up front, the reader just starts to fall asleep, essentially. They don’t even get to the important stuff because they don’t know to look that far in advance.

Q: That’s really interesting, that’s great. Have you had any writing training or education since graduating from college, specific training to writing?
A: I don’t think it’s really been specific for a formal writing training course. There have been things on effective client encounters and some proposal training, and even giving feedback, but it wasn’t like you write down and then somebody analyzes your writing and provides you feedback on how could you better articulate yourself. There wasn’t really anything that I’ve had like that.

Q: Okay. What challenges did you face when you entered the workforce for the first time as a writer?

A: Some of it was really not knowing where to start. You come in from academia and it’s all more, it’s technical based, but it’s conceptual, as to what’s art of the possible, what can you– you’re just learning methodologies. But yet, you come into a company or a firm, and you now have to learn what’s their style, what’s important to them, and then how do you even start to– like proposal – if you’re in college, you’re not introduced to what does it mean to write a proposal? What are the key components of it? How do I write it? Or what’s the flow of it? What’s the right length? What’s the right amount of area on the technical content versus the upfront introduction, versus your bios, all that stuff. So I think it was really just, I had no idea, you don’t know where to start, what to do. It’s more reaching back on either your boss or other subject matter experts in that area to help you and to look at past documents that you can leverage, and say, “Okay, this is kind of this company’s style” – which, everybody has different writing styles, right – but at least from an outline standpoint, you get a better understanding of what is expected of you.

Q: Great, great. Are you able to identify a change in your writing between college and now? If so, what are the things that you most attribute to that shift?

A: Yeah, there definitely was a change. I think it’s more of like, once you have the real world experience, that starts to shape your perspective on your writing, as well as better just understanding the technical jargon, or you better understand the big picture. When you’re in school, you focus on, for me I was focusing on supply chain, but not all of the other components that could be impacted by supply chain. At Ernst & Young, we have tons of just different competencies that we also cowork directly with that I would have never thought, coming right out of school, that, oh, what happens in IT advisory, or cyber security? Or what’s the impact on, okay, we now have cyber security and supply chain, and looking at what’s the risk of, I don’t know, somebody hacking into a tier 3, tier 4 supplier? And can they control that supplier and basically cripple your whole entire supply chain? So now it’s more who else could i work with? How else could that affect a solution, have you, in the proposal? Because I may have just only written from supply chain, but now I know that there are these other components that you might want to lead into a better solution. But I also just think being on the ground and working in industry definitely gives you that better understanding. I was fortunate that in college I had three internships and a coop in supply chain. So for me, I found even when I was in school, that those internships, that work experience, I could relate better to the academia. I could ask more informed questions and I could even challenge the professor, not necessarily challenging a professor, but more thinking about it from a different angle. Example would be in supply chain, it’s very big on Walmart as a case study, where it’s more near-time or just almost just-in-time, where their suppliers push their inventory to them. They’re monitoring on the shelves when they have a low stock. So basically Walmart requires that as soon as they’re low in stock, that they are resupplied with it, so there never is a shortage. Well that’s great, but when you’re at Boeing, and titanium has a three year lead time, and then to manufacture a blade for the propeller, how are you forecasting two and a half, three and a half years out? It’s not the same concepts that you would think about, and it’s not talked about in school because it’s much, much, much more complicated, and you can’t forecast down to, you can’t do just-in-time when it comes to that. I think those perspectives have really helped to shape just my writing and better knowledge around what’s realistic in that particular industry and not just putting out there like, “We’ll be best in class, and we’ll ensure and do xyz,” when it’s not actually executable.
Q: That makes a lot of sense, okay. So when you think about what you were able – my next question is about the ways in which your academic background prepared you or not to write in the workplace – and it seems like those internships and the coop were pretty central actually to the academic work.

A: Yeah, they were huge to the academic work. Trying to think anything else that would– I would say the case studies that we went through as well in school really helped just to give you different perspectives. It was almost like a role play in some instances, where we had negotiations class, and you would be given a I don’t know, I’m a supplier from China and you’re a company in America that’s trying to source this product, and you’ve got to come– here we have our own objectives going into it on a piece of paper, and then we’d negotiate and come back and debrief to the class as to what happened. And it was what are the negotiation strategies? Is there a common element of a win-win versus a win-lose or a lose-lose? So those types of things really helped to just think about the dynamics of interacting with other stakeholders. But yeah, and definitely the internships and the coops really helped me to again, just think about supply chain differently. I worked at different levels in the supply chain, I’m probably going too detailed in the specifics– but it was even working at a warehouse, I was a forklift driver. So understanding logistics, and from a warehousing and inventory management and product placement on the side of the warehouse, and how do you load a truck? And what’s the best way? Or that there would actually be different ways of staging product inside of a truck. And oh, by the way, there are weight limits in the truck, and so you’ve got to be cognizant of how large, how much your freight weighs, and you have to stage it in a certain way so that it doesn’t overbalance on the back end and the front end.

Q: That’s so interesting. Do you think the internships at that level where you’re really understanding how the work gets done, is that typical of supply chain managers?

A: No, I was definitely, I think I was one of the only people at my school that had that much experience. I remember going into the resume writing shops, and they were basically like, “If everyone had this experience, this would be much easier to place everyone.” And I don’t know what it was, but I think I was just right time, right place, or part of it was also that I was able to, spend isn’t the right word, but most people are like, “I don’t want to work in a warehouse, I don’t want to drive a forklift.” Not that I really wanted to do it, but I understood that that’s a part of supply chain, and better to understand what you don’t want to do now, or at least understand that that grunt work, and having a better understanding of it early in your career, and being able to apply it to, okay, understanding that there are implications and impacts in these areas, was important. So I didn’t care that you made $8 an hour or $10 an hour, because I was always went into the mindset of, this is preparing me for the workforce, and I’m learning part of the supply chain. I don’t want to do this for the rest of my life, but at least I understand more about logistics and what it actually means.

Q: Gotcha, that’s great. In what ways do you think you were unprepared as a writer as you entered the workforce?

A: Again, like in performance reviews, but that wasn’t more until later in the career, until I’m actually managing somebody else. Proposal writing, we had nothing, no experience on. I feel like those were the big areas. Last year I wrote my first white paper thought leadership piece, which was new, I wasn’t prepared for that. But that was more, I’m more senior in my career now, and I understand these methodologies and this particularly around implementing a category management program in the federal government and doing it best in practice, where I’ve been helping an agency to transform their entire procurement shop around this concept of category management. It’s a huge focus on the federal government lately. The challenge there was you’re writing this document, but it can’t be 10, 20 pages long. You’ve got to be short, sweet, get the reader’s attention, not that, “Yep, okay, we’ve heard these concepts – oh, you’ve actually done this before and you’ve achieved results and here are those results, that’s pretty cool. And oh, we want to call you and contact you and try to get you in.” So there are all different angles that you are trying to hit at, but you don’t want it to come off as “I’m just selling here,” it’s, “Hey, we’ve done this before, we know what we’re doing. This does work.” So that was really interesting writing process. Any external facing publicly available documents, so a client’s work product isn’t publicly available, it just stays with that client. But in this instance, a thought leadership piece had to go through our whole entire score process. So supply chain has an operating reference, I believe, I could be completely wrong with that. But basically it’s a very, very prescriptive – there were well over seven to ten additional people who reviewed and scrutinized every single word in that document.

Q: And are those communications folks? Or are they– ?

A: We coordinated it through communications, so I believe it was a branch of– because any externally communicated messages had to go through them. But that’s a whole other level of quality assurance as well.

Q: And is that the kind of writing that, now that you’ve done it once, it’s something that will come up and you’ll presumably do it again in the future at some point?

A: Yeah, I would definitely do it in the future. The challenge with the thought leadership is, it’s not just whip it out, you’ve got to really have a concrete perspective. It is more challenging to come up with that, but absolutely, I would definitely.

Q: Out of curiosity, is that something that you pitch? Or someone says, “Hey, you did this and it went great for you. Do you want to write something like this?”

A: I pitched this. This was a goal of mine was to write this, and we actually, I had additional burning platforms to really promote writing this.

Q: What does that mean, burning platforms?

A: For example, we won a spot on another vehicle, on a contract, and this was a multi-award contract, and we wanted to promote our services under that. So this was one way to get out there to say, “Hey, this is a big thing in the federal government space. And oh by the way, we really know what we’re doing here,” and credentialize ourselves – that’s more what I mean by kind of a burning platform, is something else that is driving the need for, or the business case have you, behind doing this.

Q: So two more questions: would you say that you are a successful workplace writer, why or why not?

A: I’m more of a pessimist when it comes to myself, but I would say since, now that I’m successfully been promoted and made into senior manager at a Big Four firm, to that extent I would say yes. I haven’t had major or really any feedback on, “You need to modify how you write and your style and skill needs to be drastic changes.” And I’ve been able to successfully deliver client work products and reshape work products so that, like we were talking about before, the whole the purpose, not the purposes doesn’t change, but kind of how the client uses it to move forward, make that more successful, and that is attributed to the writing process. It always trying to enhance that process and not just become complacent in what you do. So I think from those perspectives, I would definitely say yes, I’ve been lucky and successful in writing.

Q: And finally, what skills would you say are most central to writing in your specific role?

A: So one I see that people struggle with is more thinking of what’s the art of the possible? When we go into a client, we don’t always know specifically what that end work product is going to look like. Certain times you do, but a lot of it can be just on a discovery basis, and sometimes it’s hard for individuals to not have that very prescriptive, concrete, okay here are all the steps I need to take and here’s what my outcome is going to be. So I would say that that’s the biggest thing in our role as a consultant, is that your job is always changing, what you’re working on is different every single time, or at least in my case it’s different every time. And so really just being able to think outside of the box, and constantly doing other research and improving yourself and seeing where’s the industry leading. And be able to articulate and incorporate that into your work products to provide the client with the best advice and guidance and how they can transform in some instances their future state of supply chain.

Q: Thank you.

A: Sure.

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Intelligence Analyst

Government & Military

Intelligence Analyst, Government

Date of Interview: November 4th, 2016


Q: Would you please state your job title, where you currently work, how long it’s been since you graduated from college?

A: I am an intelligence analyst – I work for the US government – and it’s been almost 10 years since I graduated college.

Q: Can you provide a very brief description of your primary job functions?

A: Well, my job is to write, actually, in an academic fashion. The type of writing I do is quite similar to the writing that I did in college, or how I wanted to write in college.

Q: What forms or types of writing, or kinds of documents do you most often complete?

A: Well, we write what are called, generally across US government agencies, “intelligence assessments”. It’s a short brief in which the writing style is journalistic in nature. We’re reporting a trend or stating a– it’s sort of a blend of journalistic and academic because what we’re expected to write is not just reporting a trend or something that we see, but also what we think about it, and what we think a policymaker needs to know about that. So that’s what we’re putting up in the first sentence, and then stating supporting evidence, conclusion. But, unlike say, a newspaper, we have to be very meticulous about sourcing and so I mean, that way it’s very much like college writing. I’m sorry, did I answer too many questions? Am I going to fast?

Q: Perfect.

A: Okay.

Q: How frequently are you required to write? And if you’d give like a rough estimate on average, what percentage of your job requires writing?

A: A hundred percent of my job requires writing. I’m expected to produce on a weekly basis.

Q: Can you describe briefly your writing process, including how assignments or tasks are given to you, what steps you have to take from start to the completion of a project?

A: Well, if you’re an intelligence professional, you’re given what’s called a “requirement”, which is a question: “why is such and such going on?” or “what does this mean?”. And you’re expected to come back with an answer. It’s done in the form of a written report, with your judgement, your supporting evidence, and your documentation, and your sources.

Q: Can you describe the primary audiences to which you write, and for what purposes?

A: Well, people like me across the government, our audience is always policymakers. Sometimes Congress – congressional leaders have access to intelligence. Our job is to write unbiased judgements, considering different sources, often conflicting sources of information, to give a judgement that we believe is unbiased that would help them make a policy decision.

Q: And you can be general here: what kind of things are at stake in your writing?

A: Well, I mean, a lot. US national security, that’s a very broad concept, but within that is a safety of US military, US assets overseas, safety of our assets and interests, economic forces –  what impact a certain economic trends are going to have on our country – that’s a big part of it.

Q: Two part question: does anyone oversee your writing and if so, a brief or general description of their title and their role within your organization.

A: Well, lots of people receive my writing, and it’s actually very academic in nature too, because often when I write, we actually have a peer review process which, from what little I know, is far more rigorous than an academic peer review process. Say, for example, putting into an academic journal you might have about three or four of your peers read and review, see if your work makes sense, if it’s logical. There have been some things that I’ve had to write that someone from almost every US agency that has some sort of national security role, someone’s had to look at it. I’ve had as many as 36 people [chuckle] put track changes in a document that I’ve written. I’ve also write other assessments that aren’t coordinated but it goes to a supervisor, another supervisor, a supervisor above; there’s at least three levels of review.

Q: Have you had any writing training or education since graduating from college?

A: Yes, in fact, if you do work in a intelligence job series in the US government you’re going to be constantly retrained. In fact, there are programs where you are trained by other agencies. I’ve been trained by some– there’s an interagency exchange program that the training components within each agency train analysts, give them writing. Also, there’s a lot of other analysis tradecraft classes that you take and how to make a judgement with matrixes. So that’s what every analyst has in addition to probably their basic training. I had a basic training that was eleven weeks of kind of like an academic bootcamp.

Q: What do you do to prepare to write, for example, research, interviewing, drafting?

A: Well I am an all-source analyst, so I do interviews, and just also search for, depending on the type of product I’m writing, it’s primary sources. In this field, depending on what we’re writing, we have what we call “raw intelligence” and “finished intelligence”. Raw intelligence would be an interview or just, say, a message, a cable from someone on the ground saying, “I see this and this happening”. There’s no judgement, there’s no why this is important, why not. So sometimes what we’re, well, we are asked to write a product or report based just on raw or I guess in the academic field, that would be just primary sources only. So there’s actually a very big– it’s very important to many policymakers that they’re getting a judgement that’s only raw information, as it’s called.

Q: You’ve mentioned that revision plays a large role? Can you talk a little bit about what your revision process looks like?

A: Very tedious [chuckles]. I guess I don’t really understand the question, or the revision–

Q: What kind of steps you have to take to revise a document, if you’re getting track changes and feedback from a lot of other people?

A: Yeah, the track changes tool is what we use. I guess I don’t really know how to–

Q: That’s fine. Just essentially, if there are specific steps you have to take to go from one draft to another. If you’re doing additional research, or seeking out new sources, maybe collaborating with others to improve the work to where the changes/comments have directed you.

A: All the time. Intelligence professionals in the US government– there actually are written standards that, it’s not mandatory that you adhere to them, but going through a peer review process, you’re going to have people who are really going to do the best they can to encourage you to adhere to them. A lot of them is that you can’t make a judgement without more than one source from intelligence disciplines, as they’re called. For example, human intelligence would be interviews, and that’s a type of raw reporting, and then another type of source would be from signals, and that’s also considered raw, that we’ve got this raw information coming from a signal. And there’s some people in the review process that will say, “you can’t make this judgement unless the signal is backed up by human, and vice versa”.

Q: How long typically do you have to complete a writing project?

A: It depends. I’m lucky, I’m given an awful lot of– because of my matter of expertise, people are happy that I produce anything. So I can pretty much take as much or little time as I want. But there are some people who, their work is– my work is actually driven on what I think, what I judge the learning curve or the knowledge gaps of policymakers are. There’s some people that, when a policymaker asks them a question, they’re expected to come back within a week with an answer. Those are analysts that have a lot of contact with very high-level policymakers, we’re talking Cabinet-level officials, and they’re going to get questions from them and they’re expected to get back in a week. Me, thank goodness, no [chuckles].

Q: So earlier you talked about different types of documents that you write. Were you familiar with these when you were a student, the kind of writing that you do now? If so, how did this affect your approach coming to them in workplace?

A: Should we talk about my grad school? I went to grad school, I studied intelligence at American Public University which is– should we undergrad or grad school I guess is what I’m asking? What would be helpful?

Q: Maybe you could speak to each.

A: Speak to each, okay. In undergrad, no. The grad school I went to is designed for government and military professionals to do distance learning. So I was learning the lingo there of the types of documents we produce: intelligence assessment, intelligence judgement, raw reporting, not raw reporting. That was the lingo that you were taught in my grad program. Grad school, I actually didn’t go to grad school to– I never thought I’d be working for the US government and as an intelligence professional. I was in undergrad to be teacher, so I had no exposure to this world. It was a total career change for me. But to any undergraduate students that, if you’re going to get something from this, the type of products that you’re producing as an undergrad are very similar to what policymakers are looking for. It’s short papers backed up by a lot of research. That’s what a lot of policymakers care about – the documentation.

Q: Are you able to identify any changes in your writing style between college and your time now writing in the workplace?

A: Between college and workplace – yes, actually. It would be pretty pertinent here in the DC area because I imagine that a lot of students in this area will be recruited by the US government. The biggest gear shift you need to take is– if you want to work in the intelligence field for the US government, it’s good to have good academic chops. The documentation is important, but there are writing styles that are different. The consumers of your reports are going to be looking for something that’s a little bit more journalistic. They want the bottom line up front. That’s something that you’ll hear a lot and that’ll be a common constructive criticism that you’ll receive. In academia, academic papers that you read, they want to take you on the journey with them through the paper and show how they came to this great conclusion, which is fine, and it can be very interesting if it’s well written, but that won’t fly with a policymaker who doesn’t have the time or doesn’t want to– they want to know the news. But it’s better– unlike the news, it’s analysis upfront, it’s not just reporting an event. What they want to see is this blend of an event, and why that event is significant in one sentence upfront, and then, if they care, they want to see how you documented it. They’re looking for people with strong liberal arts background, strong writers, but you do have to learn to do things the opposite way, if that’s helpful.

Q: What challenges did you face when entering the workplace as a writer? In what ways did you feel prepared or unprepared?

A: I’d say it was what I had described before, being able to write backwards, write the opposite way I did in school.

Q: Do you face any challenges now that you’re a more experienced workplace writer?

A: If you want to try and teach this in writing courses in universities, I actually would reach out to the Director of National Intelligence or even CIA because the analytic standards that we’re supposed to write to, they do publish those and they’re probably available. I’d say the biggest challenge in government is everyone’s interpretation of those standards, and it’s very controversial. I have people review my writing, they review my pieces based on “did you meet this standard?”, or separating analytic judgements from just data – that’s a very important thing. You have to show what you think, your judgment, and then show the data and show how you came to that. But these standards, there’s lots of debate and every time you write something. People will tell you, “you didn’t do this standard the way I understand it,” and so that can slow a lot of things down and that’s very challenging. So I recommend asking or just googling at the Director of National Intelligence the website, the analytic standards or something like, whatever they’re called now, you’ll find it, it’s interesting the way things are done. So you’ll get to see it.

Q: So thinking back to when you first started, are there any practical steps that you took to overcome any early writing challenges, for example, looking at documents that other writers had completed, or asking questions of more senior writers?

A: My brain was a little fuzzy when you asked that question [chuckles].
Q: Sure. Thinking back to when you first started in this position, were there any practical steps that you took to overcome any early writing challenges, for example, looking at documents that coworkers had written as examples, or asking questions of more senior writers?

A: Yeah, I went to stuff that was already written because it is– the US government is really trying to standardize the style that intelligence analysts use and so that’s honestly the best thing you can do is look for something that’s been written and well-received and try and emulate that format and that style because that’s what the US government is trying to do. Are they successful? I don’t know, but yeah.

Q: Would you consider yourself to be a successful workplace writer?

A: Yes.

Q: Can you elaborate on–

A: [Chuckles].

Q: –why that is? Or I guess maybe what it–

A: Well it–

Q: What it means to you to be successful in your career– ?

A: What I, it’s hard because I don’t– the one problem in the US government is you don’t receive much feedback from– the people who appreciate the information and the analysis are never going to give you feedback on your writing, and the people who are reviewing your writing, for example, the peer-reviewers across the agencies, especially when you have to do a review across more than one agency, they’re going to rip you apart more than necessary, which is– so I guess judged on my success, you’re going to get very little feedback– and of course, policymakers are, because what you’re writing is influencing their decisions, they’re not going to tell you what they think or what they’re thinking more than, “well that was, that’s important, that seems important, thank you, thank you for raising my awareness about that” – that’s really about all you’re going to get. I guess the fact that someone even [chuckles], in the US government someone actually is reading and commenting even a little bit, that is a major success, so.

Q: So with that level of feedback, is there anything in your writing that you use specifically to judge its success, or anything that your boss uses to judge the success of your writing? Any traits or markers in your writing that make you or your boss say, “this is a successful piece”?

A: This is actually something the government’s been trying to do better. They are trying to make intelligence reports more interactive. Most of these things aren’t public, but it is popular to have online feedback forums with each agency websites. You go to the reporting and the analysis on events and after you read an article there will be a feedback form that– and the first one is, like, “was the assessment that the analyst was making, was it clear?” and that is the best thing. In fact, today I actually was teaching a class on this to trainees and I actually did use a paper I wrote and I actually had a trainee say, “oh, this is really clear!”, and so that that, it was very good feedback. And that’s probably the best– if a policymaker felt like they understood what you wrote after reading the first paragraph or two and they said, “I understand this, this is good”, and then throw it in the shredder and go– I mean, that actually is good, that’s good feedback. It is, so, yeah.

Q: Last question, and maybe you can speak to this especially since you said you’ve been teaching: what skills, abilities, or traits in a writer do you think are most central to being successful in your specific– ?

A: To put a lot of effort into the research, that is the most important component. I actually wish that when people would look at my— as I’ve been saying, the difference between academic writing– academics, they try and take you on the journey. You see their literature review up front, and we have to do it the opposite way. I actually kind of wish that people would look at all the stuff, all the sources we looked at. So that’s actually the most important trait to have, to be really curious and keep diving and just pursue every lead you have. That really is the most important thing in writing to me is the research that you’re willing to do. We use the process that is taught in universities; you come up with your hypothesis, and prove it with the research, and so it’s that effort that you’re willing to put into the research is the most important thing to me. So, yeah.

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