Career stories

Sara Ikonen, McKinsey & Company

Consultant; organizer of the first Shaking up Tech event in 2018

“I hope to become a manager in a company that solves problems that are central to our society, such as climate change or public health.”

Sara Ikonen

What have you studied and what influenced this choice back in the day?

I studied industrial engineering and management at Aalto University. I applied for a science major in high school because I thought I wanted to become a doctor. At the time, it was only possible to apply for one medical school at a time, so when I was looking for a second choice in another field, my mother (a doctor) recommended industrial engineering and management. Eventually with a little guidance from my mother, I found that the more diverse career options in industrial engineering and management suited me better and I primarily applied to study that.

How did you end up in your current position?

During our studies, we visited many different companies. There we got to hear about different career options and talk to various people. Rather than consulting itself, I became interested in the people at my current company. I found I got along particularly well with company representatives. They had a similar 'can-do' attitude and ambition to make a difference to society and solve major problems in a scalable way. On the other hand, consulting also gave the opportunity to use engineering skills in a people-oriented work environment.

What is the best thing about your job?

  1. Working closely in teams - We work in small teams of around 3-5 people, sitting in the same room. The spirit is great and although we are serious about our work, we don't take it too seriously. You are never alone with problems; you always get help and support.
  2. Constant opportunities to learn new things - Work consists typically of 3-12-week projects about a variety of topics. This ensures that you never get bored. At my workplace, we put a lot of effort into ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to develop. Once a certain amount of responsibility is achieved, our supervisors create opportunities and actively support taking the "next step" towards a more responsible role.
  3. Meritocracy - we value everyone based on their skills and our working environment is very inclusive. Opportunities are not limited by one's background or demographics but are offered to everyone based on their own pace of development, skills and aspirations.

What have been the highlights and most important lessons of your career?

Focus on your strengths! In the early days of my studies, I sometimes worried that I was inferior to others in a particular area. For example, the Data structures and algorithms course caused a real identity crisis. Now, in my working life, I've realised that it doesn't matter if I'm not as good at algorithms as the average engineer. I wouldn't want to work on them for a living. Instead, by following my strengths (logical common sense, a solution-oriented attitude, and good interpersonal skills) I've come a long way and found a job I genuinely enjoy.

What do you expect from the future?

In the next couple of years, I'm taking my first supervisor role - an opportunity I'm looking forward to.

In the longer term, I hope to move into a management role in a company that solves problems that are central to our society - such as climate change or public health.

For whom is this a suitable career option?

For people who, by default, want to do their best and continuously improve, and enjoy logical problem solving. We don't have difficult math (or any other science) at work, but the ability basic math gives to connect things logically, understand the big picture and causal relationships - is needed every day.

What message would you like to send to a young person pondering their career?

Follow your strengths and interests. By strengths I mean your best qualities, not what 'school subject' you are good at. Consider how society and the expectations of those around you influence the career options you consider. If these influences conflict with your strengths and interests, then go ahead and take your own path!

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