It takes 10-15 years of focused efforts for Pharmaceutical companies to design, develop and establish a drug that is safe and efficacious.

Kunal Lal, our next pathbreaker, Consultant – Strategy & Change at Red Nucleus (UK), works within the Pharmaceutical R&D Regulatory Affairs domain, helping companies with setting up and improving their systems/processes to achieve compliance and better their operations.

Kunal talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about the significance of learnability in the Pharma industry because there is always something new to learn about the latest regulations and developments in the industry in order to be able to architect the most suited and cutting edge solutions for clients.

For students, Pharma consulting is not your typical consulting role, because you play a significant part in making the world a better place by addressing the business pain points through ideas, processes and implementation !

Kunal, Your background?

I grew up in Gujarat. My father worked in a nationalized bank, while my mother was an academician in the Labour Welfare and Public Administration field. 

Since childhood, my parents exposed me to many books because of which I became an avid reader, which also fueled my understanding of what good writing requires – at the very least a logical flow and structure that keeps a reader interested. This helped me work better as a Technical Writer. Further, the logical aspects developed during the preparation for and during my engineering studies which has helped me shape my career as a Consultant, analyzing and asking the right questions to plan and deliver projects for my clients. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

After my 12th Standard, I decided to study Electrical Engineering. 

I graduated as an Electrical Engineer from Laxmi Narain College of Technology from Bhopal. I did my MBA from IIT Madras, Chennai. 

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

After graduation, I worked in the BPO industry as a Customer Support Executive for about 8 months, then as a Research Assistant at an MBA college and subsequently as a Technical Writer for about 3.5 years after that. After that, I completed a 2 year MBA course at IIT Madras. My job since then has been majorly in business analysis and consulting in the Information Technology industry and the Pharmaceutical Research & Development (R&D) domain. 

I got into my current work area almost entirely due to chance. I was placed in Chennai with Cognizant Technology Solutions after a Pre Placement Offer (PPO) after completion of MBA. I was working on the product management team there, but after a few years wanted to move out of the city for personal reasons. I got an opportunity to move to a Pharma R&D (Research and Development) domain project within the same company in Pune. To be honest, I did not know much about the domain. I took it up with an idea to move to a new place closer to my home. This also gave me an opportunity to work within a domain other than product management. I took it up a bit tentatively, thinking I will learn and try my best, but was open to hopping onto something else if it did not sit well with me.

It was a good move, ultimately, because the workings of the industry interested me. As I went from one project to another, I learnt how the domain does rigorous Research and Development – hence called R&D – for years to target a disease and create medicines that help its consumers save and improve their lives. From the time that a company starts thinking of targeting a disease to the time when it releases the drug to the public, it takes 10-15 years of focused efforts to establish a drug’s safety and efficacy. I am proud about the fact that I play a role in some way helping save lives and make them better. This keeps me motivated to stay on top of industry developments and acquire required skills to stay relevant and keep contributing.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

My initial foray into the IT industry as a Business Analyst came through my internship with my former employer, Cognizant Technology Solutions. Three of us were selected as interns to help develop the product development roadmap for an internal product and evangelize it. We also defined processes related to technical product development. We performed well enough to receive Pre Placement Offers (PPO) and I joined the same team after MBA.

While working with the team I was personally responsible for developing the social media component of the product within the organization. It was a challenge, but an interesting one where I conducted indepth research, brainstormed with internal experts and leaders, and was involved in multiple product releases for the product that helped it’s uptake within the organization. 

As I wrote earlier, I left the product management team because I needed to be in Pune, closer to home. There I started working for a Pharma R&D project. Though I wouldn’t say that I had a natural inclination towards the area, I was, though, well supported in scaling up through detailed internal training courses. There were the initial teething troubles. However, I persevered by doing whatever was required e.g., for a project, I took to learning SQL though I didn’t have a programming background. 

Another aspect is learnability. As I have moved through projects, I realized I was working in a knowledge intensive industry and it was important to invest in acquiring contemporary skills through certifications. A particular one I am proud of and would like to mention is a niche regulatory domain certification (RAC – Regulatory Affairs Certification) that helped me stand out from everyone, as, at that point in time, there were only about 5,000 people in the world with that certification. A trusted friend and colleague helped me prepare for it, himself having cleared it the year before. I pushed myself hard and prepared for it alongside the usual work of about 12 hours per day – it took me 9 months to prepare. This certification has helped me establish my credentials and gain trust with clients quickly. 

In summary, I didn’t plan to be where I am, but was open to testing the waters, persevere when I waded in and learn along the way to ensure I have the requisite skills and knowledge to be a competent professional.

I started as a Business Analyst within the Product Development team at Cognizant Chennai. After about 1 year, I moved within Cognizant to Pune where I joined the Pharma R&D Center of Excellence within the Life Sciences vertical. There I was initially working in the Pharmacovigilance area – this is the area which records and reports any side effects that you get if you take a medicine. While working here, I learnt a lot about the Pharmaceutical industry and understood that its bedrock are the stringent regulations promulgated by health agencies the world over. That is what prompted me to learn more about the regulations and acquire a regulatory certification – the RAC certification which I referred to earlier. This really gave me a very broad overview of regulations and set me up for the current role that I am working in. After completing the certification, I was invited to join the Regulatory area within the same Center of Excellence. 

The certification got me identified as someone with robust regulatory knowledge and also helped me land my first project in the UK. 

I got to learn a lot from my projects and colleagues at Cognizant and I was able to reach the position of a Manager there. However,  I felt that I wasn’t challenging myself and had probably entered a comfort zone after 12 years with the same company. With my knowledge and experience, I interviewed with multiple companies but chose to go with Accenture because of its strong consulting practice. While my work was termed as business analysis within Cognizant, I did quite a lot of consulting as well in the garb of a BA. On the strength of my experience, knowledge and skills, I was able to switch to the Strategy and Consulting practice at Accenture. Even now, after switching from Accenture to Red Nucleus, I am working as Consultant in their Strategy and Change practice.

How did you get your first break? 

My first break into the IT consulting domain was through the Preplacement Offer (PPO) that I have mentioned previously. It was through my campus internship program, where Cognizant Technology Solutions leaders arrived seeking people to join them for defining the product roadmap for an internally developed innovative product. It was challenging but interesting at the same time. We defined the aspects of the roadmap – process maps, features, internal evangelizing etc. and divided it between ourselves to be developed. We researched a lot on the Internet and sought input from our seniors and IIT professors so we could build presentations and reports. The final deliverables were well received and that was the basis for our PrePlacement offers. This was a huge blessing as in 2009 the market was still down after the Subprime mortgage crisis and recruiters were hardly turning up at campuses. This job set me up for my future course as a Consultant.

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Network (People ): I have been in many situations where I was not sure of the way forward – technically and people-wise. I have relied on my seniors, friends and colleagues at such junctures. So it is very important to have a support system whom you can reach out to and the right mentors to advise you on how to manage your stakeholders and deliverables to the best of your capabilities. 

Domain and Technical Skills: To be able to deliver projects seamlessly, I had to learn quickly about industry requirements, technologies and project delivery frameworks. 

I was able to get an understanding of the domain by leveraging the training courses offered by my employer. I also signed up for relevant and employer-facilitated, technical, product and delivery methodology training programs. In addition, I invested time in training and certifying myself in contemporary technical and domain certifications to ensure that I stay relevant to the demands from clients and the industry.

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve in Pharmaceutical Strategy & Consulting?

I currently work with Red Nucleus, a premier provider of learning, performance, and process solutions for the life sciences industry. I work as a Consultant with their Strategy and Change unit.

I work on solving the pain points and delivering growth priorities of our clients in the Pharmaceutical Research & Development (R&D) domain through functional and technical consulting. This takes the form of process definition, technical solution ideation and implementation. 

I currently work within the Regulatory Affairs area within the Pharmaceutical R&D domain. This is a very busy and active area because health agencies across the world who are responsible for ensuring medicinal safety and efficacy, are proposing changes to current regulations or implementing new ones. Working in this space gives me the opportunity to learn about and analyze new challenges. It helps me advance my own current knowledge about the requirements that I must be familiar with as a Consultant. I also relish the next steps of ideating and implementing the required processes and solutions for each client. This gives me job satisfaction.

What are the skills needed in your role? How did you acquire them?

I need a problem-solving approach to be able to understand what the client wants to achieve. I also require to be a good listener to understand the goals of the client and be a good communicator in order to be able to work with a geographically spread out team and deliver projects seamlessly for the client. Learnability is a valued virtue as there is always something new to learn and be able to keep track of the latest regulations and industry developments to be able to architect the most suited and cutting edge solutions for my clients.

What’s a typical day like?

A typical day starts with checking the day’s to-do items as per the project plan for the current project/s. It will require me to brainstorm the proposed processes with my team, document them clearly and then communicate it to the client. I may also look at project management aspects like milestones, deadlines, risks, issues, etc. and will need to reach out to the extended team members, clients or stakeholders to secure information on project delivery timelines, quality and cost. In addition, I may also help with crafting proposal solutions for problems that current or prospective clients have. I may also guide, mentor and train junior team members or colleagues who may reach out for inputs for their deliverables or project situations.

How does your work benefit society? 

My work helps pharmaceutical clients with setting up and improving their systems/processes to achieve compliance and better their operations while they go about their objective of saving lives and making the world a better place. For instance, some of the work that I am doing will help avert instances of vaccine scarcity that was initially experienced during the pandemic.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

Something that is very close to me is the experience I had while working on a project with a Pharma major which involved analyzing their data in order for them to be compliant with an upcoming regulation. It is memorable because I had just completed my Regulatory Affairs certification before the start of the project and had been educating myself about the regulation. When I got an opportunity to work on it, I was able to apply all the knowledge acquired along with my skills in business and data analysis. I was able to help my client get ready for regulatory compliance through an in depth analysis of their data sources, data issues and the process they must undertake to remediate it.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

  1. It does help if you do well in studies during school and college, as it gives you a very solid ground to take off from and build on early success. The habits of excellence serve you lifelong. I sometimes do think that I could have done better in school, which leads me to the second advice. 
  2. The alternative to not doing very well in school or college is to be true to yourself and not cheat yourself, to identify your natural skills and inclinations and choose the appropriate path that leverages your strengths.
  3. Be flexible and adaptable. Be ready to experiment with various domains after taking an educated guess about what will fit you best. Also, be ready to move positions, careers, cities and companies if it helps you get better work.
  4. Don’t demean any experience you have. Doing something is better than doing nothing. I graduated at a time when the job market was extremely difficult to break into for a fresher.
    Some people questioned me for joining a call center in spite of being an engineer. However, I credit that experience for helping me articulate and communicate better, something which I still use to my advantage  almost 17 years after I quit my job there. My work as a Research Assistant at a reputed MBA institute exposed me to management theories that I was able to leverage during my MBA group discussions and personal interviews as well as during the studies there.
  5. Keep yourself relevant to the industry you are operating in and be a learning machine. This will take the form of finding knowledgeable colleagues and mentors, staying abreast of the latest developments and getting yourself trained – even if you need to pay for it from your own pocket at times.
  6. Don’t underestimate the value of luck, of being at the right time, at the right place and uttering the right words. But for this to crystallize, it is important that you be prepared. So keep chipping away at your goals even if they seem far off. You will be amazed how things align all of a sudden when you are prepared and ready to move to the next step. And yes, keep praying as well and keep the faith!

Future Plans?

I would like to keep working on the latest regulations and resulting projects for my clients to help them achieve their objectives. I relish this profile and would like to grow within this space to lead a bigger team on bigger projects and programs.