The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted nearly every facet of our lives and business operations. Summer internship programs too. Many companies chose to postpone or even cancel their programs, but not SSA & Company. This program is a significant part of our culture and we felt it was critical to go uninterrupted. We were confident we could adapt to a meaningful digital and virtual experience, and on cue, our interns, Edmund Garno and Brian Zaffino, and summer associate, Ian Page, provided exceptional value to our firm and clients, and we all learned a great deal.
Below, some reflections from our 2020 Summers and SSA & Company teammates who helped develop the virtual program. Here are a few highlights:
Q: How has your time at SSA compared to previous internships or previously held notions of what a virtual program would be like?
Ian:Going into the program I was most worried about being underutilized – I was worried that I wouldn’t feel like I was part of a team. That didn’t end up happening. I felt like I could provide value and be part of the team right away. I felt like I connected with the team – I enjoyed getting to know them – and I was still able to get a good sense of the culture (even if I wasn’t physically a part of it).
Brian: The transition to virtual was seamless. Once we got our legs under us, we were able to dive right into our work. We had the chance to work independently and gain experience in that way – all while still benefiting from the mentorship of a ton of different people. We had a lot of people there to help us succeed.
Edmund:The internship didn’t really change all that much from what I expected. We still got to work on two great projects and deliver two big deliverables – a research project and an analytical project. It was great. The only difference I could tell was that there was more flexibility. I was able to accomplish the same quality/quantity of material as I did at previous in-person internships.
When asked about aspects of the virtual program they enjoyed that may not have been possible through an in-person program, our Summers mentioned increased availability and access to co-workers as well as work flexibility as some of the highlights.
Q: Have you noticed any upsides to the virtual format of the program that might not have been possible in person?
Ian:It’s easier to have impromptu meetings virtually (as opposed to trying to corral people into the same room). I did like how the program was structured, but also at the same time allowed for some independence. I had direction, but flexibility with my work.
Brian: I got a sense of the culture when I first came into the office for an interview back in March, but once I started, I was surprised at how great the culture actually is and how much that came across virtually. SSA’s culture came through really clearly – everything was great – the intern socials, the all hand’s calls. It was easy to connect with anyone virtually. For example, I had never met my peer mentor in person before, but I was still able to form a great relationship with her. Everyone was so helpful and kind. I knew that it would be a great experience, but it was even better than I expected.
Edmund:Familiarizing myself with communicating and collaborating virtually was a great learning experience – I’m sure I’ll take this with me through the school year and also my professional career going forward. I think it took time adjusting to remote communication in the beginning – it’s strange getting to know people virtually, but everyone was proactive in reaching out to us, made us feel comfortable, and was generous with their time. Everyone speaks about how flat the organization here is, and that was really true in my experience. Everyone was really open to answering my questions – I never felt intimidated asking anyone for anything.
Despite the virtual format, our Summers were still able to contribute value to our firm and work on some exciting initiatives. Some of their favorite contributions from this summer are mentioned below:
Q: What were some of your favorite projects you worked on this summer?
Ian:We had an executive session with a major oil producer; it was great just to be involved in that. It was a meeting with the top 20 executives at the company – I was brand new to SSA and was still able to prepare, contribute, and observe. It was a great experience and I learned a lot about the soft skills of consulting.
Brian: I got to learn a lot about the business development side of SSA. My favorite project was the “outside look-in.” It allowed us to go through the problem-solving process: we created a narrative and ultimately were able to generate actionable recommendations for clients. It was really interesting to be able to identify how COVID is impacting things in real time.
Edmund:I enjoyed doing the “outside look-in” project with the retail team because it allowed me to learn about an industry that I had very little experience in. We started by researching a company, then looking at it from their consumer’s perspective, and ultimately turning around and figuring out how SSA could help that company.
Finally, the trio reflected on their biggest takeaways from the summer:
Q: What will you be taking away from this program?
Ian:I learned about operations and what goes into creating an operational improvement plan for a company. I did not have a grounding in lean or six sigma, but I learned and developed an appreciation for how involved these processes are. I now understand the value that SSA can provide to their clients. I had a very positive experience.
Brian: I think the biggest thing I’ve learned is how to think and problem-solve like a consultant. I learned how important it is, whether it’s just in your head or on paper, to come up with a plan/roadmap to accomplish a task at hand.
Edmund: I took away a lot of skills that I can add to my toolkit. I got valuable work experience – my research project for the summer was in fintech – so I was able to get more experience in the tech/insurance sector. I also learned business development skills, analytical skills, and PowerPoint skills.
The virtual program would not have been possible without a dedicated team of individuals who worked to plan and execute it. We spoke with Associate Directors Thomas Johnson and Jim Kane who are former Summer Associates and Ryan Lazarus, Associate Consultant, all of whom worked directly with this year’s Summers.
Q: Can you talk a little about what went into planning the virtual program and how it compares to years past?
Thomas: Planning for this year’s program had the obvious challenge of a 100% work-from-home setting. How would we ensure our Summers received a meaningful experience by helping them develop professionally and enabling them to provide value to the projects they were working on while 100% remote? We carefully reviewed and rationalized each piece of training and programming with these goals in mind. Fortunately, we knew we were getting top-quality people that wanted to learn and develop, so all of our preparation was aimed at a high-caliber audience, which made things both challenging during development, but also rewarding during delivery.
Ryan: A strong focus on collaboration, both internally amongst the team and between the Summers and full-time employees. Our goal was to ensure that they were actively engaged from Day 1 through their last day. We put emphasis on a robust first week of training, one which included participation from various people across the firm. Additionally, we made it a point to ensure that engagement from the team continued well after the initial trainings were completed. We included them in as many areas of work as possible. This year’s different work environment forced the team to make more conscious choices for the program, and it resulted in a more focused, engaging experience than years past.
Q: What factors do you think allowed SSA & Company to have a successful virtual summer program?
Thomas:Teamwork, teamwork, teamwork. A small group of us planned and prepared materials, but it didn’t stop there. We needed advisory and approval from senior leadership, volunteers at all levels to deliver training and run programming in addition to their own client work, and input from various clubs and COEs to help us develop meaningful materials. After I interned at SSA 3 years ago, I decided to accept the full-time offer in large part due to the quality of people I had worked with; now, being on the “other side” of things, I get to see that quality applied to this program. This was truly an example of “you get out of it what you put into it.
Ryan: Buy-in from everyone, including firm leadership. Everyone involved put forth significant effort to make the Summers feel welcome and integral members of the team. I also believe that our significant work with MS Teams and Zoom laid the foundation for an easy transition to a fully virtual program. Significant planning from a team with different experiences allowed for the best possible experience for our Summers.
Jim: I think the engagement from all levels of the firm (Analyst to MD) played a huge role in successfully facilitating the virtual summer program. I also think that SSA’s relatively small size and small summer class allowed for a more personalized experience.
Q: Have you seen any benefits to a virtual experience compared to in person?
Thomas: A big benefit to a virtual experience was the relative ease of scheduling a wide variety of SSA colleagues to meet and speak with our Summers online. Though not in person, our colleagues were able to have video chats with nearly every person at the firm during their program. We made sure to provide them the opportunity to gain as much exposure to as many people as possible, which is made easier when they are just a click away versus trying to schedule in-person meetings with people who live and work across the country.
Ryan: The virtual program allowed for easier logistics. Summers did not have to worry about travel, client site access, etc. This allowed us to involve them in more projects/initiatives/trainings, due to their ability to meet more people remotely.
Jim: I think the virtual program did a better job of providing the Summers with opportunities to engage with everyone across the firm. In my experience, the in-person program required a more proactive approach from the interns to meet with people from various practice areas.
Q: Is there anything else about the program you would like to highlight?
Thomas: The program has come a long way since 2017, when I was a “Summer.” Even 3 years ago, I felt that the actual work I performed on a client – really, that’s the point of the internship, right? – was interesting and meaningful. Our Summers this year still got that crucial part of the experience – attending client meetings, actually contributing to real analysis and presenting their findings, and working through feedback with their managers. I’m proud of what SSA was able to provide, and I’m excited about the value that our Summers were able to provide to us. All expectations were truly exceeded.
Ryan: Our Summers did a fantastic job of jumping in and learning as much as possible. Everyone involved did an outstanding job coordinating, planning, and committing to this type of experience. I also think the weekly socials, in which all Summers met with a different leader of the firm, provided a great overview and enabled inclusion and culture building throughout the program.
Jim: I thought the social Zoom calls with the more junior team was a great way to replace more casual social experiences like happy hours and gave the Summers a great opportunity to ask questions that they would not otherwise feel comfortable asking. Overall, it was a great effort by everyone involved.
If you are interested in getting to know more about the culture at SSA & Company, or how we can help digitally transform your business, get in touch with us.