MIT Grad’s Education Continues, Or Why A Good Night’s Sleep Costs $16,000

MIT grad Kieth Yost’s piece in today’s MIT newspaper The Tech is a must-read for anybody earning or trying to earn a strictly ethical living in the business of technology / business consulting. The remaining 99.98% of consultants may safely skip it.

Aspects of Yost’s absurd experiences with Boston Consulting Group in Dubai will be familiar to anybody who has faced a client more concerned with appearances and status quo than with fixing any of its problems. Unlike the vast majority of such kabuki, invisible to outsiders yet ubiquitous in big business, Yost’s story is told in full color, changing him and illuminating us. He even contrasts his experiences at BCG against his own stated, simplistic free-marketeer moral philosophy – and comes away the better person for his real life experience having shattered that glib nonsense.

Better, but poorer.  His forthrightness about his experiences came at a price: he passed up a payment of $16 grand in hush money from BCG upon his leaving the company.  Why?  To retain the right to tell us about his experiences. For doing the right thing: kudos, Kieth. Now spread the word.  You may as well – you paid for it.

I’m a free marketeer. I believe that voluntary exchange is not just a good method of incentivizing people to provide their labor and talents to society, but a robust moral system — goods and services represent tangible benefit to people, market prices represent the true value of goods in society, and wages represent the value that a worker provides to others. Absent negative externalities or monopoly effects, a man receives from the free market what he gives to it, his material worth is a running tally of the net benefit that he has provided to his fellow man. A high income is not only justified, but there is nobility to it.

My moral system is organized around a utilitarian principle of greatest good for the greatest number — that which adds value cannot be wrong. It did not bother me therefore when I was handed consulting reports that had been stolen from our competitors. If the information in those reports would help us improve our client, then who could say we were doing wrong? Like downloading MP3s, it was a victimless crime.

What I could not get my head around was having to force-fit analysis to a conclusion. In one case, the question I was tasked with solving had a clear and unambiguous answer: By my estimate, the client’s plan of action had a net present discounted value of negative one billion dollars. Even after accounting for some degree of error in my reckoning, I could still be sure that theirs was a losing proposition. But the client did not want analysis that contradicted their own, and my manager told me plainly that it was not our place to question what the client wanted.

In theory, it was their money to lose. If they wanted a consulting report that parroted back their pre-determined conclusion, who was I to complain? I did not have any right to dictate that their money be spent differently. And yet, to not speak out was wrong. To destroy a billion dollars is to destroy an almost unimaginable amount of human well-being. Spent carefully on anti-malarial bed nets and medicine, one billion dollars could save a million lives. This was a crime, and failing to try and stop it would be as bad as committing it myself. And if I could not prevent it, then what reason was I being paid such a high salary? How could I justify my income if not by prevailing in situations such as these?

Read entire piece here.

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April 2010

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