What We Tell Aspiring Finance Professionals

I started on Wall Street in the summer of 1984, working in the mailroom at Alliance Capital while in college. A career in finance was not my goal; my undergrad degree is in Near Eastern Archaeology. But hieroglyphics textbooks don’t buy themselves, and the job was easy and paid well.

Every professional role I have had since stemmed directly from that experience. My interest in an academic life waned my senior year, so I joined Alliance full time. The professionals there were mostly Chicago MBAs, so that’s where I went to B-school. That got me a position as a senior auto analyst at First Boston (now Credit Suisse). From there I went to SAC to learn trading from Steve Cohen. Fast forward another 15 years, and now I write for you.

This serendipitous path to a successful finance career is largely gone now.Consider that Goldman Sachs opens up their application process for 2019 summer internships in 23 days. And their window closes before the end of the year. Morgan Stanley’s college recruiting website is slicker than Amazon’s, and funnels you into suggested roles. For a summer internship!

All this leaves thousands of young people – college/B School students and recent grads – with the daunting challenge of finding their way in our profession. I have mentored dozens of people over my +30 year career and have developed a toolbox of skills to help them on their way. Here are the important ones:

#1. Finance is your profession even before you get your first “real” job in the business.

I had a B-school professor who gave my class a pop quiz on the first day of school. The questions were all simple: where did the S&P close the prior day, what’s the price of a barrel of oil and an ounce of gold, the dollar/yen exchange rate, etc.

Every single student failed miserably. The professor was not impressed. “Do yourself and this school a favor: never walk into an interview without knowing what’s happening in global capital markets. If you can’t do that, please quit this program because you’re wasting your time and, more importantly, mine.”

The lesson: it has never been easier to keep up on capital markets, so know what’s going on. Read the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, CNBC, Bloomberg, etc. every day. Business news is like a soap opera; as you learn about the characters it gets a lot more interesting. If all this is unpalatable, you should strongly consider taking the advice my B-school professor offered.

#2. Know what sort of job you want

The skills required to be a productive analyst, salesperson, trader, or investment banker are different. Yes, all require you to follow point #1. But after that, they diverge.

  • Analysts love piecing together intellectual puzzles and getting to an answer before anyone else.
  • Traders are students of the market, learning to recognize patterns in asset prices driven by human behavior.
  • Investment bankers live and breathe a particular industry or slice of the capital market. And they have an unnatural ability to work 100 hours a week well into their 50s.

The lesson: take time to understand what these positions require and which fit your personality best. “Working at a hedge fund” is not a career goal. Being an investment analyst, or a programmer, or a banker… Those are professions, and that’s what you are after. More on how to do this in a moment.

#3. Commitment matters more than grades or schools

In the late 1990s I interviewed a second year MBA student with a B+ average from a no-name Texas school that wanted to be a tech analyst. Two minutes into the interview, we were having a conversation about Dell’s asset-light business model (novel at the time) and how that fed the company’s negative working capital cycle (good for cash flow).

Not only did we hire him, but he went on to have a fantastic career. He later joined a VC firm that ended up being the first investor in a little company called Uber.

The lesson: firms use grades and schools as shortcuts to evaluate your ambition and dedication to hard work. If those don’t represent who you are, prove it. Trust me: Wall Street doesn’t care what you look like or where you went to school if you show you are the best-qualified person for the job.

#4. Develop and follow a process

Earlier this week I sat down with 4 summer interns at a prominent NYC financial technology company. When I asked them what challenges they faced, their unanimous response was “Managing complexity”. When is Morgan Stanley on campus and what’s their application deadline? What other firms should I consider, and how do I get in front of them?

My life hack for this: I always work backwards from a goal and list what steps I need to take to achieve it. In the case of your career planning, there’s a specific number sequence I recommend:

  • 1000: the number of hours you need to spend learning about finance in the real world. This is 1 hour a day for 2.7 years. It doesn’t have to be just reading the WSJ website and memorizing the price of stock price indices. Attentively watching business television counts, as does viewing a business-related TED talk or YouTube video. But you have to do it every day, seven days a week. Skip a day, and you’ll need to do 2 hours the next day.
  • 100: The number of live (phone or in person, not email) informational conversations you need to have about the job(s) you are considering. These can be with alumni, family friends, contacts, recruiters, and cold calls. There is simply no substitute for this step. Ask them about their careers, what they think about your aspirations, and if they would refer you to other people who might be able to help you.
  • 10: The minimum number of initial interviews you want to schedule for jobs you really want. If you are well prepared, most of those should lead to follow up interviews. Should that not work, it is a good sign that you need to go back to the previous step.
  • 1: the number of offers you need to accomplish your goal

The lesson: the only answer for a complex task is to break it down into manageable pieces and start chipping away every day. No process assures success, but not having a process does ensure failure.

One final point: Jessica and I have started a weekly product for young professionals with career planning advice such as what we’ve presented here. It is called Roadmap to Wall Street, and you can check it out here: https://readbackline.com/