How to Break Into Corporate Development as an Engineer with No Finance Experience
No one wants to be an engineer anymore.
Engineering graduates are no longer going into engineering, and even current engineers want out.
The cream of the crop moves into finance and consulting, seeking excitement, glory, and more bottles than a meager engineer’s salary could afford.
The interviewee you’re about to hear from was an engineering graduate who came to that proverbial fork in the road and decided that the engineering path had one too many potholes.
So he moved into corporate development in the oil & gas industry instead – which took a lot of hustle and a few extra steps – and is now considering another career change, after getting an offer on an oil trading desk.
Here’s what you’re about to learn from him:
- How to leverage an unrelated degree into a career in corporate development.
- How to make the jump from Big 4 advisory to corporate development.
- What to expect in the recruiting process as an Asian multinational.
- What the working culture at a Korean firm is like – and how many bottles of soju they’ll make you drink every night.
- The pros and cons of working in corporate development, and whether or not it’s right for you.
Let’s get started:
I Don’t Want to Be an Engineer!
Q: So, tell us about your background and how you got interested in corporate development.
A: I studied electrical engineering at a local university in Singapore, and during my 3rd year there I went on a student exchange in Germany. It was my first time out of Asia for a long period of time, and I loved every minute of it!
I wanted to extend my stay and do my industrial attachment there, so I started knocking on doors in the telecom, semiconductor, and oil & gas industries, despite knowing only limited German.
Surprisingly, that actually worked and I secured an internship with an oil & gas super-major at a refinery near Cologne, and spent 6 months there beta-testing new control software they wanted to implement plant-wide.
During my 6 months there, I decided that I wanted a more exciting and commercial role after graduation.
Q: Right… so you were pretty certain back then that you didn’t want to work as an engineer after graduation?
A: Definitely. When I was still in school it seemed that there were a lot of promising engineering jobs in Singapore, but as I moved toward graduation I started to feel that a career in engineering wouldn’t satisfy my personal ambitions.
The starting pay was lousy and it didn’t improve much over time – and like most ambitious people I was drawn toward higher-paying jobs in investment banking and management consulting.
But I didn’t want to work 100 hours per week and I didn’t want to travel to the middle of nowhere in a jungle in Southeast Asia each week for business, so I felt that corporate development would be a better fit so that I could get a good balance of lifestyle and pay.
Q: The best of both worlds! So did you start applying for corporate development jobs right after graduation?
A: I was realistic enough to know that it might happen from the get-go, so in addition to corporate development positions I applied for more “commercial” technical roles that might lead to corporate development in the future.
I got a job in a US-based multinational corporation supplying process technology to oil & gas companies as an “intellectual property analyst” – I had to find licensing opportunities and search for infringement of the company’s patents, technologies, and trademarks.
That may not sound much better than engineering, but the job also got me involved with the valuation of intellectual property in the company’s M&A and licensing activities.
I worked there for about a year, and then spun the experience to land an offer at a Big 4 firm in their petroleum advisory arm.
The Arm of a Big 4
Q: OK, so let me stop you right there – how exactly did you make that move? You don’t just “accidentally” end up at a Big 4 firm.
A: I was transitioning from the US to Shanghai on an internal posting, and spent about a month in Singapore – when I returned home, I casually applied for a few positions on an online job portal and I got an interview for a valuation position at a Big 4 firm.
I went through three rounds of interviews – a technical interview with a programming test using Excel, a phone interview with the UK valuation team leader, and a final interview with the Singapore hiring team.
The company was looking for someone who had experience in the oil & gas space as well as valuation and programming skills – even though I had limited experience in oil & gas, I managed to get the job because of my strong technical skills. Guess my engineering degree was good for something after all!
Q: Yeah, I guess there’s merit to the “nerd meets oil & gas baron” angle.
This was closer to what you wanted, but it still wasn’t corporate development – why didn’t you try applying to corp dev jobs directly at this point?
A: I felt that my experience was still not relevant enough – and that I hadn’t networked enough to have a shot at corporate development at a large firm. And I thought that the Big 4 advisory role would put me in a better position to move into corporate development in the future, since it was more relevant than the IP analyst job.
Into Corporate Development?
Q: Right, networking is a fantastic tool but it’s even better when coupled with solid working experience.
So how did you finally make the move into corporate development from the Big 4 firm?
A: I actually got the job through a headhunter – what I did in oil & gas advisory at the Big 4 firm was directly relevant to what I would be doing in the new company.
So unfortunately I don’t have an epic networking story that involves contacting 500 people, having more persistence than Rocky, and pounding the pavement until I got interviews.
The main piece of advice I would offer is that there are many paths into corporate development.
In my case, I switched between several different jobs that looked increasingly relevant, and then used all my full-time work experience to win the attention of headhunters and get placed in a relevant position.
If you’re an undergraduate that approach wouldn’t work as well; and if you’re an investment banker, you’ll probably have better luck going through referrals or clients.
Q: That’s great advice. So what’s your current company like? Let’s hear everything, from the good bits to the bad bits to the bottles of soju.
A: I’ve been working for a Korean multinational in the oil & gas space. I can’t talk too much about it but you can probably guess which company it is if you did enough digging.
“Business development” for an energy company means knowing every last detail about what’s going on in the region, i.e. what projects are being built or planned, the development status of projects, what other companies are doing, etc. You need to develop a system to monitor the market efficiently.
Like every other job, it has its good bits and its bad bits. The fun parts are when you get to develop a promising project from start to finish for the company – origination, development and management of the project. You really get a sense of fulfillment working on these large-scale projects because you can see the results of your work.
The bad bits are when these projects take an extremely long time to complete. There’s a lot of to and fro between counterparts, a lot of internal politicking and general indecisiveness. Sometimes, management has no clue on how to proceed and you have no investment guidelines to assist you in originating projects.
Without proper direction, it’s like finding a needle in a haystack. You have to constantly search for new projects and it gets tiring to see a high percentage of your recommendations shot down.
Also, a little too much time is spent on “internal strategy development,” coordination and making sexy PowerPoint decks. Sometimes what we do really does seem to come straight out of a Dilbert comic.
That said, for a great balance between lifestyle, pay, and interesting work, I think it’s hard to beat a career in corporate development.
Q: Very interesting, but you still haven’t answered my question about those soju bottles.
Can you tell us a bit more about what it’s like to work in a Korean company? How is it different from the Big 4 firm you were at?
A: You could say that it takes some getting used to. The Korean work environment is very traditional and the mentality is not to open up so easily – the pace is a little slower and people really deliberate before making decisions.
It’s also more hierarchical in the sense that senior management is less approachable; you should always discuss things with your immediate senior first before going higher up. In a Big 4 environment, there’s still a hierarchy but there’s more of an open door policy where you can approach someone higher up more easily.
The hiring process takes longer, with many rounds of interviews to check cultural fit. They prefer to hire individuals who have more patience and latitude toward understanding them and their culture.
Other than that, not too much is different – you just need to have the right skills and be someone they think they could get along with.
And as far as drinking, they definitely enjoy going out after work but you’d likely be pressured into drinking a lot more if you actually worked in the country instead of working at a foreign branch of the company.
Advice on Getting Into Corporate Development
Q: Interesting, so it sounds like the culture is not quite as different as you might expect.
Let’s go back to how you broke in and what you’d tell to anyone else who’s interested – how valuable is a reference from someone in the company? Does it help substantially with getting an interview?
A: Definitely. Trust is an important part of Korean corporate culture and internal references are taken very seriously – much more so than in the other companies I was working at.
But also keep in mind that references aren’t given out that easily – you know just how much your recommendation can weigh on a hiring manager in their final decision.
Q: So it’s like sponsoring someone to get into the mafia. You’re basically telling your hiring manager that “this guy is a friend of ours” – it’s a pretty heavy responsibility.
A: Pretty much. Fortunately, though, you don’t get whacked when you leave the company.
Q: Do you have any advice for fresh graduates looking to work in corporate development? Not everyone can follow your exact path of getting lots of full-time work experience before breaking in.
A: This varies from industry to industry but corporate development positions in the oil & gas sector are seldom available to fresh graduates, as you need a lot of industry knowledge to succeed in the role.
It’s not impossible but you’ll really have to work at it – I do see a lot of people coming into this sector from different backgrounds within the oil & gas industry, so it’s not like investment banking where the back-office-to-front-office move rarely works.
If you can’t get a corporate development job from the get-go, find something relevant to do within the oil & gas sector (or whatever your preferred industry is) and move in from there.
Also, understand what you’ll be getting into – the job isn’t suited for everyone. Corporate development can be tremendously exciting when a deal goes through, but there will be long periods of boredom and inactivity.
You need a lot of patience to originate a project and you need to spend a lot of time on research and internal presentations, which sometimes seem like a gigantic waste of time; very often, you go around chasing a lot of dead ends.
But overseeing a project from start to finish is an incredibly rewarding experience, and it provides a scope of learning that’s similar to investment banking – only more in terms of corporate strategy, management reporting, project origination and post deal management.
Q: What about advice for career switchers? Any tips based on your own personal experience?
A: Well, you already know my view on industry experience – it’s very important especially for the oil & gas sector. If you don’t have any experience in energy, an MBA from a top school still has some cache in terms of getting your foot in the door of corporate strategy.
A consultancy can be a good place to start building industry knowledge, and oil & gas companies are quite keen on hiring individuals from consulting backgrounds.
Q: One final question before we call it a day. You mentioned to me before that you’re currently entertaining an offer to become an oil trader in your company.
I’m actually quite surprised because it seems like such a big change – and getting into trading from your background seems like a pretty drastic career change.
A: It does seem like a pretty drastic switch, doesn’t it? But that’s the beautiful thing about working in corporate development – since you interface with all the departments internally, you get to know a lot of people and that makes it slightly easier to transfer internally.
I can’t say too much about the trading job yet, but I didn’t actively campaign for the offer. I’m very happy working in corporate development, so this was more of a great fit combined with some luck than anything else. As of right now, I’m not certain which direction I’ll take but I’m still entertaining the offer.
Q: No problem. Maybe we’ll do another interview a year later after you decide what to do. It was great to hear your story. Thanks for sharing!
A: No problem. It was fun chatting.
Shen Han Lee lives in Singapore, where he drank copious amounts of coffee and worked as a stock broker for 4 years before taking off on a whirlwind tour around the world, which you can read about on www.knackpacker.com.
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