Last month, I noted that about one-fourth of my blog traffic found their way here through search terms like “life of an investment banker”, “investment banker”, “investment banking associate” or some variations of these keywords.
So far, the closest post where I mentioned my investment banking past was the one I wrote last December about "Corporate Camelot." But that one barely scratched the surface, and I intended it that way because writing about my previous incarnation was not my objective when I started this blog. Truth be told, my desire was to muse about life and I used the “investment banker” tag basically for SEO, or search engine optimization purposes. Meaning, I used it as a crutch in my blog title to drive traffic to this site. Having succeeded in that, however, I realized that there’s a catch and it’s called Pyrrhic victory. Attracting blog readers only to disappoint them when they come is not sustainable blogging.
Reflecting on this over the Lenten break, it was obvious that I needed to serve what the 25% came here for. Were they interested in the qualifications to get hired as an investment banker, what questions are asked during interviews, what a typical day in the life of an investment banker is like, how stressful is investment banking, etc.? Actually, there are a good number of authoritative sources for such information, which a routine Google search can generate. So what value, if any, can I still hope to add to those materials already available on the Web?
Offhand, an honest personal experience, not a generic insider view which represents a composite experience of investment banking professionals . Also, an investment banker life not lived in Wall Street and therefore has a different cultural milieu, which blog readers in markets outside North America and Europe could relate to. Lastly, a story of an accidental investment banker that could serve to reassure people who doubt if they can hack it in this business.
Connecting The Dots Took An Awfully Long Time
How did I find my way into investment banking? Answering that would require charting the dots which zigged and zagged in my distant past. Somehow they connected and I marvel at how they did when they did, to bring me to the happy place where I am in now. Steve Jobs was right--you can only connect the dots looking backward and that you have to trust that they will connect somehow in the future. The more I pondered this, the more I appreciated how chance and people, who either showed me the way in, the way up or the way out, played a big part in my life. It’s a humbling thought. And I have all of them to thank through this post.
A dead end is an unlikely place for a future investment banker to start, but that’s where my dots began. In the 1960s, a degree in pre-medicine was the entry requirement for medical school. Failing entry, it was inconceivable then how a pre-med graduate could find a decent job resembling an allied medical field other than as a med rep for multinational drug companies. I might have ended up as one had my mother given up on me.
For my second wind, I placed my bet on an experimental degree program offered jointly by the school of economics and the college of business of the state university. Though unsure of where this degree would take me, I thought “Business Economics” had a nice ring to it so I enrolled there. Surprisingly, I enjoyed the two years of additional course work required to get the degree. The subjects were interesting but the report writing and problem-solving involved were punishing. I may have impressed one of my professors as she took me in as a research assistant after graduation. After a long absence my self-confidence returned. What André Gide, a French author and winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, said about the most decisive actions of our life being most often unconsidered actions was probably meant for me.
I entered the labor market roughly two years into what turned out later as a decade-long martial rule in the country. Democratic institutions were shuttered to give way to new governance mechanisms and organizations. In particular, a new economic planning agency was established to formulate new development strategies. My boat was lifted by this tide of change and I soon found myself joining the government as an economic researcher.
It wasn’t long before I felt that my luck was changing for the better when the office sent me on my first foreign travel as part of the country’s delegation to an ASEAN trade negotiations conference in Singapore in the summer of 1976. And then in the autumn of that same year, the office sent me this time to Europe -- Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands – for further training. This was followed by more such travels and trade/tariff negotiations over the next five years of my stay in the planning agency. Ahh…those were heady years for an impressionable young man.
Joining government, as they say in our country, is like taking a vow of poverty. But pay was never an issue for me when I started my government service. Foreign travel and the kick I got out of doing ASEAN-related work was enough psychic income at its possible best. Having a family, however, suddenly unsettled this equilibrium. Suddenly, the pay I was comfortable with and the psychic income that I treasured so much were no longer enough reasons for me to stay. It was time for me to move on.
In material terms, my next job at the development bank was satisfactory. But then, I was unhappy with the corporate culture there. So much intrigue from so many bitches. Indeed one can’t have it all. Because of my miserable life at the office, I began to notice three things: I was happiest on Friday evenings, at peace during Saturday mornings, and cranky during Sunday evenings. I was like that for one year. Then one afternoon, as I was idling in a horrendous traffic I heard my name called by somebody in the next car. He was a former colleague at the planning agency but he could very well have been an angel sent my way. In that traffic, he shouted across to me a great piece of insider news, just the kind of news I've been waiting for. To this day, I can’t get over that amazing synchronicity which brought me to a new orbit where I could slingshot my way to the investment banking universe. The precious takeaway from this little incident is to never burn your bridges and to always leave as quietly and as professionally as possible even if you wanted to nuke your former employer.
In 1982, I landed in commercial banking as a junior officer. It would still take me 13 long years to land in investment banking. In retrospect, the delay may have been necessary to allow me to mature for such a job. My early incarnation as a young economist working on ASEAN economic matters provided me the platform to learn useful skills that were not normally taught in classrooms. That brief stay in the development bank, though forgettable, introduced me to the world of banking. These experiences may have given me some depth, but I still needed to gain more breadth. This was where my commercial banking years went--mostly to polish a still rough cut.
The Final Dot: Serendipity Took My Hands
The final dot came in 1995. I was then vice president for corporate planning, vaguely aware that my world as I knew it was about to end. The first sign: my father passed away after Valentine’s Day, surprising us with the speed with which his illness zapped his will to live. The other sign came two weeks later, after I returned from my leave.
I was summoned by my boss; the meeting was brief and the message, clear. One of the VPs in the bank’s investment banking group will be leaving soon for an overseas assignment so there will be a vacancy. Also, the bank planned to create a new project finance group to support the country’s thrust to build more infrastructures. Somebody had been chosen to replace the former so would I consider the latter?
Up until that point, all my assignments had been in staff departments (research, corplan). Inertia made me feel comfortable with staff work. I was 43, already with some telltale signs of grey hair, and doubtful if I could still reinvent myself and cope with the stress and aggravation that a career change late in life will bring to me. I had expressed my reservations to my boss about shifting to investment banking, a field totally outside my comfort zone. Unknown to me, serendipity was taking my hand. This magical moment took a long time coming and when it finally did, I almost missed it. Yes, I nearly refused the offer had not the boss assured me that I would be appropriately trained for the job if I so decide to accept it. I did and so in May 1995, I stumbled into the exciting world of investment banking and never looked back. Now I know that every exit is an entrance to a whole new world of opportunity and quite possibly, even a whole new life.
Continued in Part 2 (Day 1: Starting from Zero)....
(The clipart shown above courtesy of Barrysclipart.com)
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