DAO LE – The Journey to Investment Banking

Definitely one of the best story about Wall Street wannabe!

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Overview

By way of introduction, please find my profile here.

Below is a graphical synopsis of my journey to get a job in the U.S. for the last two years. Had I known my chance is a measly 0.9%, I would’ve given up before I even started. But life doesn’t work like that – it can only be understood backwards, but must be lived forwards. I was persistently living forwards then (when I sent out the first resume), and this is my attempt to understand it backwards now (when I start my first fulltime job).

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It was junior year when I decided to start looking for a job on Wall Street. No, it was not because I love risk and want to make a ton of money. Quite the contrary, I was going because I hate risk and terrified about what to do next. The three-and-out program conveniently, keeps me from having to make these hard decision about the rest of my life – an alternative for extending college. Of course there also are the whole steep learning curve, smart and motivate people, hard finance skills, blah blah, but really the point is: regardless of my personal beliefs and rationales, I created an explicit goal for myself. Such a goal and clarity of purpose help me through the darkest time of self-doubt; it is hard enough to be persistent, and it is much harder if you don’t know why you need to be.

By that time, I was way behind the recruiting game. While my friends already had three finance internships and studying for the CFA, I spent my sophomore summer sleeping on strangers’ couches and backpacking through Europe. Also as a cynical philosophy major, I was more interested in Aquinas’ First Cause argument than in a Discounted Cash Flow model. Coming from a non-target school (i.e. no campus recruitment from major banks) did not help either. The odds were stacking against me, and I was told that I had “virtually no chance” to break in this highly competitive industry. Well, that person was probably right (0.9% is virtually zero, right?), but I was unfazed at the time, thinking how hard could it be. Wouldn’t hurt to try…

I was wrong; it was damn hard. Having an explicit goal alone is not enough: one wouldn’t succeed purely on the virtue of success being his goal. After a few lost months of randomly applying online, and of course in vain, I learned my second lesson: a defined action plan is mandatory. In my case, I realized there are two most important elements in recruiting: 1) networking, and 2) interview preparation, and each merits a close examination as follows.

Networking  

Hands down, networking is a must, especially for a non-target candidate like me. To step back a little for, again, clarity of purpose, the goal of networking is to develop personal relationships, which in themselves are, and should be mutually beneficial. I believe many people are doing it for the wrong reason: to serve their personal agenda. I would be a hypocrite to say I don’t have a personal agenda – it’s clear that mine is to be on a referral list for interviews – but I don’t simply network for the sake of self-interest. I judged a quality of a networking call by the value of the life stories and the lessons I can learn from them. The best way to learn is through experience, so leveraging others’ experiences would surely expedite the process. Simple advice such as “never cold-call on a Monday and Friday,” when accumulated, could be tremendously helpful.

So network I did. The key is how to do it systematically and strategically. First, find a credible lead: start with your family and friends, then move on to alumni network, networking events, local gym, bar, etc. Personal examples: I went to alumni office asking to dig into their database, aggressively but politely added people on LinkedIn, disguised as Harvard and MIT students to attend their networking/recruiting events. Devoting at least an hour every day for cold-calling and cold-emailing people, I was surprised that a lot of people genuinely want to help. But here’s the catch: you need to ask for it and don’t stop asking until life eventually gets annoy at your constant nagging and finally give you what you want.

However, networking doesn’t simply mean shaking hands and exchanging business cards. According to my aforementioned definition, it’s about building relationship, so the key, then, is to follow up. I made a spreadsheet (btw get used to this little program called Excel if you want to work in banking), to database my contacts and track my interactions (see below). Most important column is the “Next Step” one, which serves as a reminder to follow up every month or two. Fostering a relationship is like growing a tree: it takes time. After two years, I have accrued a total of 79 contacts, many of whom I become good friends, and 4 of them got me into the final rounds interview.

Long story short: network, network, network.

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Interview preparation

 This part is fairly boring and mostly tailored toward finance and specifically investment banking, so I’ll just dabble in quickly; if you have more detailed question, email me (again, network). IB interview is notoriously hard (second only to consulting interview, I guess..), and networking can only get you so far as obtaining a first round interview, which is only 30% of the battle. For those who are newly interested in the field, read M&I and WSO for industry info, and BIWS for modelling. Yes, you will need to be an Excel monkey (believe it or not I got asked about INDEX MATCH function and paste special formula shortcut in interview before), but more importantly you will need a basic understand of finance (e.g. what’s enterprise value, free cash flow, etc.) to ace the interview. Because I was extra nervous about my liberal arts education with a grand total of two finance classes, I took the CFA just to be sure but would only recommend it if you have ~200 hours to spare. Anyway, there are tons of prepping materials out there so not sure I can add value here.

There are so many caveats in this tiring recruitment process that I haven’t been able to cover, topics like dealing with rejections, how to self-motivate, or the power of consistency, but I think it’s a good start. For those investment banker wannabe out there, I’m happy to be a sounding board. Not sure if you will still want to be one after talking with me though, but hit me up anyway…

TL:DR version: how to get a job in the US = have an explicit goal and a defined action plan, including network aggressively and prepping diligently

P/s: You read Dao’s story and even got his email address. Check him out on LinkedIn and hit him up to learn more about how he built a strong investment banking profile. Most importanly, have a defined action plan and work on it as soon as possible!

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