How to Break Into Corporate Development as an Engineer with No Finance Experience

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Engineer to Corporate DevelopmentNo 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.

About the Author

drinks copious amounts of coffee and now spends his time writing books and creating products.

His books are available on Amazon and you can take a look at them here.

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35 Comments to “How to Break Into Corporate Development as an Engineer with No Finance Experience”

Comments

  1. Corp Dev M&A says

    “Corporate development can be tremendously exciting when a deal goes through, but there will be long periods of boredom and inactivity.” This comment is dead on. When I first started my role in corporate development there were two deals just getting started at the LOI phase- I jumped right in to the intense process of diligence, negotiations, and ultimately the closings- it was a whirlwind experience with significant travel, late nights, and exciting work. After those two deals closed, I spent a very boring and quiet 5 months while other potential deals percolated and developed, reading information memos, talking to potential sellers, etc. While it was a bit boring, I was able to get away with a 40-45hr work week, work out 5 days a week, take an actual vacation, read and research as much I wanted. Now the heat is turning back up and I have 4 deals going at various stages of the transaction process, its exciting and intense again- but it’s still not even close to IB hours. It can be a pretty sweet gig.

    • says

      Yeah, thanks for adding that. You think getting an LOI is exciting at first until you realize it just means there’s a small chance of something happening… one day… maybe.

  2. real estate says

    Hey Brain,

    Is a background in commercial real estate (doing capital markets, valuation, property investment etc) with a professional RE firm (like jones lang LaSalle/savills) a good preparation for REPE (or maybe RE banking or other finance jobs)?

    many people talk about I-banks, consultancies, big 4 etc. but very few people talk about (or even know) property firms like JLL/Savills/KF/CBRE etc… are they less respected or simply less well known?

  3. Curious says

    Hi,

    How long should I wait before contacting a very big shot (higher than MD) at a bank? I got his info at a networking session. Should I follow the 3 day rule?

    • says

      If you met him at a networking session, contact him as soon as possible so he remembers you. No reason to wait even 3 days – the longer you wait the more likely he is to forget your conversation.

  4. josh says

    “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.”

    Sad but true. A great friend of mine still works for a large construction company, but he moved onto the competitive bidding team and works on alternative financing and procurement on the private side.

    It’s gonna be scary when all of the former engineers are trying to get back into engineering.

    Side Note: Brian, what kind of engineering did you study? Did you end up graduating with a degree in engineering? How did the education shape the way you think?

  5. Joe says

    I’m in Canada. RBC is the biggest Canadian dealer. However Merrill Lynch has got a strong presence here as well, and definitely better than other Bulge Bracket banks in Canada.

    How would you choose between RBC and Merrill Lynch in Canada? (Considering exit opportunities, pays, business school opportunities, etc.)

    Hope everyone can chip in some insight. Thanks

    • M&I - Nicole says

      I believe BAML has a better name in the States (and globally). I’m not in Canada but I presume RBC is also highly regarded in Canada. With regards to exit oppty etc, I believe , judging purely on the brand names alone, BAML offers better opportunities. With the above being said, BAML is laying off peeps and I’m not sure if the bank is doing so well. You also need to consider at the individual teams you are interviewing for.

    • says

      ML is much bigger and will afford better exit opps. But if you plan to stay in Canada, RBC is probably close to being on par with ML.

      Regarding Nicole’s reference to the layoffs, most of those are occurring at bank branches, etc. and not at ML.

      • M&I - Nicole says

        Actually BAML is planning to cut its IB employees in HK. This may not pertain to US/Canada, but they are def cutting their IB staff here.

          • Joe says

            I agree with Mike, but on the other hand, if US banks were to lay off people, it’s very likely to happen in Canada, since most of the deals here can be sourced back to New York.

  6. MDS77 says

    I’m currently president of a business club, chairman of community service committee in an honor society and secretary in another organization. Also, I’m taking 12 credit hours with a 4.0 GPA. HOWEVER, I’m at an Community College (long story)

    what else could I do to better position myself to transfer to a target school? I’m doing all I have knowledge of at the moment but I feel like I can keep moving forward.

    Maybe some sort of research publication? If you would happen to have any ideas about things like that.

    Regards
    MDS

    • M&I - Nicole says

      College admissions companies (google is your best friend) can help. We teach people how to get into finance, not universities. Sorry!

  7. Tyler says

    I have the opportunity to work in the supply chain department at a very large energy company’s start up fracking subsidiary. I am very interested in breaking into corporate development either at the corporate level of this company or at a service company in the future. Is this a good stepping stone?

  8. Razi Ahmad says

    i have done B.tech in computer science in 2010 but i have drop my degree and i have complete this year. my programming language skills is not good. but i had president in my engineering college.i have management skills. suggest me what i can do.

  9. Will says

    I’m in a dilemma. I’m a rising senior and will most likely get into at least one semi-target school(UVA), and possibly a couple others (Northwestern, Berkeley, possibly an ivy).

    The problem is that although I may get into these schools, it is unlikely that I will be able to afford them as I would have to take out extreme student loans with no financial aid.

    The affordable option would be to pay in state tuition at a Colorado school and I feel that Colorado School of Mines, a small rigorous petroleum engineering school, would be my best back up in case I didn’t make it into finance.

    Would I have any chance of breaking into investment banking from a small engineering school in Colorado? or should I really focus all efforts for finding a way to afford a more presitgious school?

  10. Cheryl says

    Hey Brian,

    Thank you for this article- How to Break Into Corporate Development as an Engineer with No Finance Experience. I am a fresh graduate in Singapore (undergraduate degree in Accountancy and Finance) and I am thinking of pursuing a career in corporate development. However, I do not think there are many entry level positions in this division and would like to seek your advice in planning a career route to corporate development.

    I would like to find out more about the background of the person you interviewed. He stated that he worked at a Big 4 Advisory role.

    Based on my understanding, I believe that the exit opportunities for Big 4 Transactionary Services, Valuations and Corporate Finance Division differ quite significantly as the skills and training obtained are quite specialised.

    My questions are:
    1) Which of these division would provide me with the appropriate exposure and skills set to increase my chances of landing a role in a corporate development division in a multinational firm?

    2) Secondly what is the number of years I must at least stay in the related division to gain substantial experience? 3? 5 years?

    3) Also, do people transfer frequently from the big 4 advisory services to corporate development divisions or was his case a one off, due to a particular competitive advantage he had?

    Thank you for your time and assistance in answering my queries.

    Warm Regards
    Cheryl

  11. Geo says

    Hello,

    First of all, really great site, so much useful information on here.

    I am a geologist working in the Canadian mining industry and I am hoping to transition into a corporate development role at a large mining company. I have 4 years of work experience and I will be attending a top 5 Canadian MBA program this September.

    Do you think that moving into a corporate development role right after graduation is possible? Or do you think some consulting/analyst experience is necessary before moving into corp dev?

    As someone with no business/finance experience, what technical skills should I focus on the most in order to succeed in a corp dev role?

    Any info would be greatly appreciated!

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