How to Break Into Investment Banking as an Engineer With No Finance Background: Case Study
There’s no mystery why the (newly revised – check it out!) article on How to Break Into Investment Banking as an Engineer is one of the most popular on this site, with over 100 comments: it struck a chord with many readers.
You’ve studied engineering or you’ve been an engineer for awhile, and now you want to make the move into investment banking… only you don’t have much business experience.
Here’s how one reader did exactly that and defied the odds to break into investment banking in a terrible market.
Q: You have an interesting story, so let’s go back to the beginning – tell us about how it all started.
A: I came to the US when I was 13, and I didn’t know a single word of English – I moved here from an East Asian country and had to learn everything from scratch in high school.
Despite that handicap, I was able to get into a good university in the US that a lot of banks recruited at.
The only problem was that I couldn’t get any interviews up until my junior year, because I was an engineer and my only internships up until then were technical or quasi-technical (e.g. IT consulting and the like).
Q: Ok, so you have this engineering background, you’re very accomplished quantitatively, but it’s the start of your junior year and you have no finance internships. You’re probably not going to get any interviews – what did you do?
A: I got a school-year internship at a local hedge fund. Since it was informal and since they were looking for someone with good quantitative skills, they were open to my background – at least a lot more so than large banks had been.
Q: Right. But that internship didn’t just fall into your lap – how did you find it, how did you put yourself in the running, and what was the process like?
A: I went through an organization at my school, which set up students interested in finance with local firms. I’ll admit that I did have an advantage going to a “target school” here – you could not pull this off as easily elsewhere.
There were 3 rounds of interviews, and the first few focused on the “why finance”-type questions, my story, and basic technical questions on the financial statements.
In the last round they actually gave me a financial modeling test, even though I was an engineer and had had no classes on the subject.
Q: I’m guessing you passed that one, since you got the internship. How did you do it?
A: I went online and looked at the simple models I could find – basic DCF, comps, and so on. I also asked professors for help.
M&I Note: Asking professors / teachers for help, either with anything technical or even with networking, is an effective and often-overlooked strategy.
About That Summer Internship…
Q: Ok, so you have this school-year hedge fund internship lined up and you at least have something to write on your resume by the time summer recruiting rolls around. How much did it help?
A: It was huge. I didn’t even do that much real modeling work in the internship, but I could write about financial statement analysis, investments, and include banker buzzwords like EBITDA on my resume now.
It probably wouldn’t have worked as well for full-time recruiting since they look for more substantial experience, but it got me a lot of 1st round interviews at bulge bracket banks.
Q: And how did that go for you?
A: The market was really, really bad. I had a decent success rate in terms of getting to Superday interviews, and I got to the final rounds with 2 bulge bracket banks – but it was all downhill from there.
So I didn’t get any offers from banks that recruited on-campus – which meant that I had to find an internship at a very late stage, using whatever methods I could.
Q: You said that your “story” needed work initially. What was the refined version that you ended up using in later interviews?
A: Similar to what you recommended before, I said that I was interested in being an investor or doing venture capital in the long-term – which worked well for tech and TMT groups.
For other groups I just talked about my transition away from the purely technical side and into business, and how I saw that continuing into the future.
The key was to focus on long-term goals in addition to summarizing what I had already done – lots of people miss that in their stories.
Q: Ok, so it’s early spring and you still have no internships lined up. Did you hit the panic button?
A: I looked online and found a list of boutique banks in my area, and called around 120 banks to ask about summer internships. I spent hours just talking to people on the phone and then meeting with them in-person – I also realized that I should have started that way earlier.
Q: What was their reaction when you contacted them at such a late stage?
A: A lot of places just said, “Sorry, it’s too late,” while others said, “We just don’t accept interns” because of their small size.
Finally I found one that didn’t “officially” accept interns, but which seemed more open to the idea than other banks.
I called an Analyst, Associate, and MD there and made a strong impression on all of them – so they invited me into interview, and I went through 3 rounds to get the offer.
It was an unpaid position, but at this point I didn’t care because it would allow me to write “Investment Banking Summer Analyst” on my resume.
M&I Note: Often you can “wear people down” and get what you want simply by asking for it repeatedly – never underestimate the power of directly asking for what you want.
Q: Wow. So you cold-called your way to success – how did you get around “objections” that firms gave you when you were cold-calling, like “We’re not hiring” or “We don’t need anyone”?
A: I pitched myself as a good asset for the firm – if they said they didn’t hire interns or didn’t need anyone, I would proposed an unpaid internship and say, “You guys might need help during the summer, even if you’re not busy now – and I’ve done a hedge fund internship before, so I have some experience. It could be beneficial for you, so let’s give it a chance.”
Places were a lot more open to me when I pitched it as less of a long-term commitment and more of a “trial” for them.
Q: You mentioned finding the names of local boutiques online – did you use any other sources to find names and contact information?
A: I tried simple Google searches using “investment banking” and “partners” and similar words and the name of my region, and found some unlisted firms like that.
Q: What about the actual process when you were cold-calling? Who did you call, and what did you say to be put in touch with the right people?
A: I started by calling the main line of the office, saying I was a student at such-and-such university and that I was looking for a summer internship – I kept it very short and then asked them to connect me to the right people.
This actually worked in many cases – if you don’t have the names or contact information of specific bankers, just call the main line and ask for them.
If I couldn’t get through or didn’t hear back, I would follow-up within 2 days and repeat that until I heard something definitive.
Preparing for Full-Time Recruiting
Q: Ok, so you have this internship lined up and something even better to write on your resume now. But I’m assuming you went beyond the normal channels for full-time recruiting, even though you were at a well-known school. How did you continue networking over the summer?
A: Since my bank had never really had interns before, they didn’t always know what to do with me – which meant that I had a lot of free time.
I had a whole office to myself, so whenever I had downtime I would start emailing and calling alumni from my school – at both the undergraduate and business school levels.
I sent out around 300-400 emails and got responses from 80-90 bankers. Most people were pretty receptive, but some of them were difficult to track down.
I spent around 20 minutes speaking to each person on the phone, and got a lot of interviews like that.
Q: What about follow-up? How did you convert all these informational interviews into real interviews?
A: After the first phone conversation with someone, I would send a follow-up email 1-2 days later thanking them for their time and reminding them of what we spoke about.
Since it was already pretty close to full-time recruiting, I didn’t want to waste time on a “mating ritual” with each person – usually in the 2nd or 3rd follow-up email I would just ask them directly, “How can I increase my chances of getting an interview at your firm?”
A lot of bankers claimed they would “pass my resume along” but most of them didn’t mean it. Only around 10-20 actually sent my resume and put in a good word for me, so you need to be persistent and keep asking if you want results.
Q: You mentioned how many alumni didn’t actually pass along your resume or help you out much. Was there anything you did to boost the chances of them helping you out?
A: Part of it was persistence; if I didn’t get a response after 1-2 weeks I just emailed them again, and then again after that. If I sent 3 emails and got no response, I assumed they were not interested.
The other part of it was making a strong first impression – keeping the conversation focused on them rather than me helped a lot.
A lot of “informational interviews” were actually closer to real interviews – so when they ask you about your previous experience, keep in mind that that is an interview question and that you need to have your “story” down.
The Results, Please
Q: So how much did this massive networking effort pay off? How many interviews actually came from networking as opposed to on-campus recruiting?
A: I’d say about 30% of my interviews came from networking, even though I went to a “target school.” I got interviews at almost every major bank, and the offer I ended up with also came via networking.
I had spoken with a CFO of one company, and then he introduced me to an Associate a well-known boutique, who in turn then introduced me to an Analyst there who helped me get an interview.
Q: So how’d you end up with the offer?
A: The interviews themselves were pretty standard, but the competition was intense – for the New York office they only hired a few of the very top people from the best schools in the country.
Even though I didn’t get an offer there, I interviewed really well and my interviewers liked me, so they put in a good word about me to another regional office of the same bank.
Then when I interviewed there, I mentioned everyone I met in New York, which impressed them because most interviewees had not met people at other offices.
Q: That was a pretty cool move – they liked you, but you didn’t get an offer and you still used the opportunity to interview at another office of the same bank.
Obviously you were very successful with recruiting, starting from nothing and ending up with a full-time offer – is there anything you would have done differently?
A: I could give you a long list for that one, but here are the main areas that come to mind:
- I would have changed my initial approach to finding the summer internship and I would have been a lot more aggressive with networking – a lot of banks only hire people they know already.
- I would have figured out my “story” much earlier on and made it very clear why I was actually there interviewing.
- I would have been less frustrated at the randomness of the Superday interview process – when you interview 25 people, 10 of them have investment banking internships, and you’re only taking 1-2, it’s no longer a rational process and you have to expect random outcomes.
Q: Awesome, thanks for your time.
A: No problem.
P.S. See the completely revamped article on how to break into investment banking as an engineer for even more on the topic.
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