The Nightmares Before, During, and After Christmas on the Graveyard Shift at The Most Successful Bank in the World

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The Nightmare Before Christmas at a BankSanta: [from inside the bag where he is kidnapped] “Me on vacation? On Christmas Eve?”

(The Nightmare Before Christmas, Tim Burton, 1993)

Merry Making

“You better watch out, you better not cry,” sang the voice.

We could hear it from far away, and, thankful as we were for the advance warning, hurriedly hiding our just-bitten-into sandwiches under a stack of project papers, we also could not help wincing.

It was a learned response, triggered by frequent negative stimuli.

“Better not pout, I’m telling you why,” sang the voice, much closer now. The voice resounded loudly, even if it didn’t always hit the right notes.

It was the voice of our master, or rather, our mistress for the night. Long experience with the acoustics of the vast empty night time floors around us indicated that she must be just around the corner. We bent our heads.

“He’s making a list, and checking it twice; Gonna find out who’s naughty and nice”

Singing the lines with relish, our Shift Leader entered the Center of Global Excellence.

Everyone looked straight into their screens and moved their hands as fast as possible, something that was actually counter-productive to the execution of the complex graphics we were working on, but was considered evidence that we were not slacking off.

“Santa Claus! Is Coming!!” Walking between the rows of desks (which involved a lot of squeezing and near-misses with foot tripping bags and fallen documents because we were packed in so tightly), she raised her volume even further. “To Towwwwn!!!”

Once, only once, my desk neighbor, who was a struggling artist during the daylight hours, had called up a cartoon image of the Shift Leader driving a sleigh spiked with red pencils, swinging a fearsome whip over a group of cowed elves with reindeer antlers, wearing leg irons that looked like the gaping mouths of our foot rests.

I let him know that I had seen it, but said nothing. This is a place where alliances are unreliable, but blackmail can save your skin any night.

I didn’t dare to look, but I could hear her breath as she passed behind me.

“You better watch out, you better not cry.” The singing stopped. I felt a tap on my shoulder. I froze. My desk neighbor couldn’t hide a sigh of relief, then assumed an innocent expression. I felt everyone’s attention on me, although nobody was looking.

“Sit up straight!” the voice shouted, next to my ear. I jerked up and assumed what I hoped was the correct position.

“He sees you when you’re sleeping / He knows when you’re awake,” she sang triumphantly, passing on to the next row.

“Santa Claus! Is coming!! To Towwwwn!!!”

Skeleton Staff

Every year, between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, the Most Successful Bank in the World is taken over by a gaggle of Zombies, called the “Skeleton Staff.” I know because I have been part of that Skeleton Staff myself several years running. And just like you, I was human once…

Two main methods of Zombification are practiced: one for the bankers, and one for everyone else.

The Zombie Banker:

Officially, of course, the Bank supports family values. Everyone proclaims they want to go home and spend time with their loved ones.

But when it comes to the point it turns out that the Bank can, of course, never close down completely.  It just is not possible. The planet would come to a standstill, and then what? We would all fall off (This year we may have fallen off already of course, if the Mayans turn out to be right after all).

Deals are still being done in the “non-Christmas” zones of the world, and emergencies can arise at any moment.

And once that has been established, it often seems that the holidays are an excellent time for the 27th revision of a pitch book that will ultimately be used sometime in February. Or maybe never.

So, like fire fighters and doctors, some bankers have to sacrifice themselves and become Skeleton Staff, roaming the deserted floors in search of – what is it, again, that Zombies are so notoriously in search of? Can’t remember… These Zombies are essential to the Bank. Or are they? The very highest of bankers take the last flight out on Christmas Eve.

The Center Zombie:

My own zombification is a lot less distinguished.

In the Center of Global Excellence, we, too, are reminded of family values, but in our case it is to encourage as many of us as possible to “take time off” over the holidays.

The bankers, as higher forms of Zombiehood, have salaries. We are contractors (when it suits the bank to treat us as such), which means “no work, no pay.” The Bank may need us in its last line of defense against chaos, but, please, do watch the bottom line.

So there won’t be enough shifts for everyone. So – see above.

Every year, around the time of writing this article, we Center boys and girls engage in a high-stakes gamble: take time off, or scramble for whatever shifts we can get.

It’s not unlike the trading floor: we make blind bets, and we don’t control the outcome. All we can go on is a gut feeling.

I hope it’s not going to be like last year, when all throughout the twelve days of Christmas, we got four-hour shifts instead of eight-hour shifts, “to make it fair,” resulting in long, extra-expensive commutes for half the usual money almost every day.

Maybe we’ll get just three or four full shifts over the duration – but then, of course, the shifts could get cut short and would be only four hours anyway. There is no way of knowing.

Is it worth the investment to gamble on the shifts? Well, if I take time off I don’t get any money at all – plus I have to pay for my travel.

Is Zombieland a good deal or a bad deal? I am betting on an unknown future of a commodity – just like the brokers downstairs (Maybe I could apply to upgrade? I feel I’m prepared).

The only difference is that now I risk my own money.

Nevermind, it’ll all be alright in Zombieland.

Festive Feasting

Mince pies after midnight

“You better watch out, you better not cry…”

The Shift Leader was singing again, and why not? She was bringing us Christmas cheer. And the closer we got to the holidays, the cheerier it all became.

We knew that Zombieland was near when she started to bring in THE BAG.

This Bag is filled with mince pies from the local supermarket, where they have been marked down repeatedly until our Shift Leader gets them for ten pence apiece just before midnight.

Add lying around for a few hours on the dusty desk next to the printer, and who can blame the pies if they go very dry and suspicious-smelling inside, while their crust goes hard and soft in all the wrong places?

And who can blame us, you may well ask, if we are less than delighted when the Shift Leader comes around and puts them on our crowded desks during the small hours?

Well, the Shift Leader can, and she does. She watches all of us with an eagle eye, and those who, for whatever reason, don’t eat up find themselves on the short side of any favors, such as the better Christmas shifts.

Some people try to hide their pies by crumbling them down the narrow slits of the desk partitions, but of course that only encourages the mice. Yes, we have plenty of mice, as well as fleas, in the Center of Global Excellence and elsewhere in the Most Successful Bank in the Universe.

Maybe a pitcher of mulled wine might help those nightmarish pies go down, but, of course, alcohol is strictly prohibited in the Bank, at least officially, as are all other drugs (also “officially”).

Christmas Parties

The bankers go to the company Christmas party, unless it is cancelled for “macroeconomic reasons.”

If it goes ahead (and sometimes even if it doesn’t), we help them prepare their ‘jokey’ presentations. Whatever happens, we must enforce the style guidelines. And, of course, there’s always a comedian who tries to sneak in a picture of naked women.

We take those out and endure the stupid comments. If they put them back in we don’t know, because, mostly, we are not invited to the party.

“Permanent employees only.”

Once in my seven years here, when the Bank had made a record profit and someone apparently suggested that the real-life male/female ratio at those parties could use some re-balancing, we were actually invited.

Some of us went, “just to see what it was like.”

Those who went said there was good, but not fantastic, food and later some attempts at dancing. I don’t know because that night, too, I was part of the Skeleton Staff. The bankers who were non-essential that night and could therefore attend, told themselves (and each other) how fun the party would be and hopefully exchanged hangover cures well ahead of the occasion.

More cheer was introduced by the raucous telling of boast stories about Christmas Parties Past. The universally acknowledged winners of these boast competitions were those who had drunk so much that they could not remember the parties.

I suppose the Bank could have saved itself a lot of money and bother by just taking them all down to the Third Basement and no one would have been the wiser, as long as enough alcohol was injected into their systems. We Skeletons upstairs could have Photoshopped their pictures into the most exclusive night club backgrounds.

But of course, that never happened. “Cost-cutting measures” that sometimes took our very tea bags away never extended to the locations of Christmas Parties, even in the years of austerity.

NYE

New Year’s Eve, as it is traditionally called (but the Bank doesn’t have the time for fully formed words, and, in the interest of efficiency, uses acronyms wherever it can), was in many ways the opposite of Christmas in Zombieland.

While it was considered almost a compliment to be indispensable over Christmas (and perhaps, if truth be told – which it never is at the Bank – occasionally a secret relief to some of us to exercise our family values from the safety of our desks in the City), working on NYE would make a banker not only into a Zombie, but a very sad Zombie indeed.

NYE was another one of those occasions when a banker could (and probably should) get so drunk that he couldn’t remember anything, but this time all on champagne. Opinions varied on the relative boasting rights of paying for this yourself, especially when it was an opportunity to impress less fortunate friends, or being invited by those who could extend more privilege.

Unfortunately, the public celebration of NYE also carried the risk of being outed.

Outed as one of the 99% of entry level bankers who didn’t have a girlfriend, or who had lost her in the course of duty at the Bank. Or perhaps didn’t really remember what she looked like because they never saw her.

Frantic attempts were made to find a legitimate escort for NYE, and no, it couldn’t be your mum, however much she might be the killer cougar.

I’ve known quite a few bankers (even on higher levels, after a divorce or three) who preferred the quiet of Zombieland on the working floors, and looked up in irritation from their spreadsheets when the fireworks went off over the Thames, a spectacular show that we always watched from the windows of the Center. After all, we did have the best view in London. And we weren’t the most senior Skeletons here.

But whatever happens over the holidays, come the first week of January it will be business as usual again at the Most Successful Bank in the Universe, except for those who broke a few limbs on the slopes and now really do walk the Zombie Walk.

And if you miss out on all the Secret Zombie fun this year, don’t worry: Just stay close, and one day, you, too, will become what we are and join us as one of the Skeleton Staff.

About the Author

has been working in the London presentation centers of several of the Most Important Banks in the Universe for seven years.  Unlike most of her colleagues, she has never been fired.  Nyla is the author of ‘Heart of the Desert’ (Drollerie Press 2009) and ‘The Midnight Moralist’, winner of the Seven Fund International Essay Contest 2010.  Just published: ‘The Widow’s Man’ in ‘Thrones of Desire’ http://www.amazon.com/Thrones-Desire-Erotic-Tales-Swords/dp/157344815X (selected by 6 major US book clubs) by Cleis Press, September 2012.  Her novella ‘The Green Shadow’ is coming out in 2013.  Nyla was also shortlisted for a UK first novel prize under a different name.  Her epic novel ‘The Graveyards of the Banks’, the ‘War and Peace’ of Investment Banking, will be published soon.  Nyla lives an exciting double life and enjoys both parts of it tremendously.

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57 Comments to “The Nightmares Before, During, and After Christmas on the Graveyard Shift at The Most Successful Bank in the World”

Comments

      • Chronic says

        The transitions between ideas seem faint to me, and the words zombie and skeleton don’t take on a clear meaning for me throughout the article. I.e. towards the beginning she refers to herself as Skeleton Staff but later on says she’s in Zombieland, while also referring to Zombie Bankers.

        And I’m probably missing something, but it wasn’t immediately clear to me that this is about the presentation’s department. I only fully figured that out at the end when I read Nyla’s bio.

        Finally there doesn’t seem to be any explicit big idea to be learned from this. But, might just be me.

        • says

          There isn’t a big idea, it’s just a story about what it’s like behind the scenes and about her experiences. All of Nyla’s features are about the presentations department if you look at her previous articles.

          Point taken on your other points above.

        • Chronic says

          Basically it’s just really apparent that you didn’t write the article, it misses your voice which is what’s awesome about M&I.

          • says

            You do realize that most of the content over the past year was written by guest authors, right? Including some of the most popular articles. Just saying…

            But yes, there will be changes next year.

  1. Tom says

    This piece was even worse than the original presentation team article, and I don’t think it belongs on M&I. If I wanted to be a hockey player, I wouldn’t want to read an article complaining about hockey players written by the guy who drives the zamboni.

    I get that it’s tough to get a job right now, and that dealing with some arrogant SOB banker on a contract-only basis must suck. But for SEVEN YEARS? If it’s that bad grow some balls and get a new job.

    And yes, Chronic and Justin are correct; the writing here is awful. I can only imagine how terrible “The Graveyards of Banks” will be.

    • says

      Sorry you feel that way. The original presentations center article was actually quite popular, judging by comments/views.

      If you don’t like reading about areas outside of pure investment banking, we’ll stop publishing them. Believe it or not, we actually do get questions about what the back and middle office are like and some people are curious about what goes on there. And you do need to know how to interact with teams in the back/middle office even if you’re in the front office.

  2. ED says

    Don’t listen to them Brian. This is an interesting article as are all of the others I read on this site. People like Tom are why bankers are always getting a reputation for being arrogant and self-centered. How can you say you want to be in investment banking, but not care what goes on behind the scenes of your own job duties? Are you going to show the same type of narrow minded thinking when conducting due diligence or reviewing earnings statements? I always go out of my way to treat support staff as equals whether it be an operations analyst, accountant, or the janitor mopping the floor in the lobby. Just because someone doesn’t do exactly what you do for a living makes them no less of a human being. They all deserve the same respect.

    • says

      Thanks. I don’t expect that everyone will like everything here, but lots of readers actually have liked these articles more focused on the back/middle office, even if others don’t. I was a little surprised at the violent reaction this one got, though.

    • says

      Thanks ED. I treat everyone the same, too, whether they are a Partner, an Associate or Cook in the Canteen. Clearly, not all of them return the courtesy…
      Thanks also for pointing out that some bankers give IB a bad name by being ‘arrogant and self centered’. In a way, Tom&co. illustrate my point and thus underscore my Big Idea. When I tell people outside the industry that a lot of bankers are always angry and very rude, I can tell they don’t believe me. Well, don’t believe me, read their posts responding to a harmless Christmas article that still vastly understates the reality of what goes down in Zombieland.
      Now if I could only get these people to come here and read M&I…

    • says

      PE interview guide: No, because the new IB interview guide is over 500,000 words and covers most of what you need for PE interviews, plus there are modeling tests and case studies in the modeling courses.

      We will be adding another big case study to the modeling courses in January as well. And releasing part of it here.

  3. Mark says

    The author is creating an artistic, impressionistic, personal and sarcastic account of her experiences at at the Center of Global Excellence. Its not a checklist for new bankers to memorise regarding the duties and how to get along with the back office. It is a good piece of work successfully conveying the mood at Most Successful Bank in the Universe over the holidays.

  4. Nina says

    I really love this piece. I didn’t have any problems following it (couldn’t imagine why?).

    But maybe people who are not used to read literary texts and texts that are a little complex in language, style, and imagination might be confused. This is no tutorial, statement, or “content,” this is well written fiction based on personal experience.

    It shows what is really happening in the nightshifts. The focus is on the human beings working there and their experiences. This is a truth that is more important than rules and regulations. People are at the core of any organisation, aren’t they? If you want to understand a bank, you will have to see and understand the people who are forming the bank. Also those working in the presentation center. They can teach you. Even, and perhaps particularly, when you are despising them (as some of the previous commentators seem to do).

    Please continue this series! It sheds light on very important aspects of a bank. Keep on writing, Nyla! I am looking forward to new pieces.

    • says

      Hi Nina
      thank you for this vote of confidence.
      I must say I am also suprised that some people had difficulty following this little harmless article. I suppose it uses literary devices but it is hardly Literature with a Capital L!
      It’s really more on the lines of a satire in an upmarket magazine (except that what reads like satire is, alas, nothing but the truth). Most of the bankers I know come from the best universities in the world and I know for a fact that they had to take Eng Lit classes to get their degrees…
      What I could imagine is that some people have trouble with their right brain reading skills, or right brain skills altogether.
      Of course people make up the Bank as they make up all companies. Therefore, right brain skills and people skills, understanding nuances and decoding metaphors are very important skills for bankers. The most successful bankers definitely possess these skills.
      Maybe M&I could offer some training in that direction?
      Interesting point about learning from those we look down on.

  5. Sequin says

    Love it! Love it! I can just imagine the scene and really feel the atmosphere. I have a question – who pays for the pies? Is this taken out of the shift leaders personal expenses or is it a whip round kind of thing. Am assuming thr bank doesnt pay from them directly if they are cutting costs left, righy and centre?

    Also just had to add, what would I do to get into one of those Christmas parties and see what went on!

    • says

      thank you Sequin for coming to M&I, reading and loving my story. I do like a good controversy but personal attacks – not so much. So thank you. And also thank you for specially mentioning the mince pies, the bane of our holiday existence.
      The shift leader pays for those pies out of her own pocket – 10 pence per piece (after several mark downs in the supermarket). So therefore we have to eat them. Have to. If we don’t we reject her and that is insubordination. Maybe she desperately wants to be loved but all she achieves is to be feared.
      Good for the mice, too.
      To my knowledge, the bank has never fed us, but those in the know on the evening shift sometimes get the left overs from the conference rooms (before they are removed ‘for health reasons’ – really? come see our kitchen please. Nice cheese, cold cuts, nice fruit. Sometimes when I had to come in early I was able to get a little bit of that. We always clean up the plates.
      Re Christmas Party: sorry, the Third Basement is closely guarded by several levels of security and you will never get there unless you are an insider like me. Never!

  6. harrytomkinsgreen says

    The lovely Nyla arrives in time for Christmas! Wonderful to see you back here and shaking things up as usual. I may be a little over the hill but there’s nothing I enjoy more than some discourse (especially if it is about my favourite subject).

    On a side note, I will not admit to being one of the lonely lads sitting with a sneaky flask on NYE trying to look busy. No I have no experience of that (?)

    A glorious Christmas and New Year to all the M&I team. Thanks for making a difference. Here’s to 2013.

    • says

      Dear Harrytomkinsgreen, thank you so much for your endorsement, both of myself (the lovely Nyla – hmm, that sounds good), and of M&I which is indeed a very special enterprise and in a league of its own. I don’t think you could read articles like the ones M&I publishes anywhwere else, online or offline.
      A very happy New Year to you to and I am sure you have your own way of joining the festivities. I will be back here next year, so keep reading.
      the lovely Nyla (have to repeat this…)

  7. Ex-Zombie says

    Excellent writing and a valuable insight into the real meaning of Christmas in a giant enterprise.

    How could anyone not see the Big Idea? This bank that projects an image of caring professionalism squeezes the life out of it’s underclasses, and with heartless brilliance.

    Thank you M&I for showing us not only the glitter of what we aspire to but the commercial reality that drives it.

    • says

      Glitter of aspiration vs. commercial reality that drives it – what a succinct analysis. And of course you are right, this is similar at other giant enterprises.
      ‘People are our assets’, as another Big Corporation used to put it, is not the lived reality of those people. Well, I suppose it depends on how you view your assets and how you treat them. This includes the bankers of course.

      I always feel honoured and a little nervous when I get a comment from another veteran of the Banking Wars, which you seem to be. Thank you for supporting my tales of truth.

  8. ALPHA says

    A few unusualy grumpy replies to this article,can’t help thinking though that if you don’t like reading something,stop reading.Maybe?

    This post(and the others) are quite illuminating,I didn’t know that something like a presentations center even exists,and with my skills..thank f@#$ it does!

    Nyla,I urgently need somebody to write some cover letters….just saying.

    • says

      It’s the Internet, people love to complain about everything, especially when it’s anonymous. I’m fine with critical comments, but we delete anything that adds no value (e.g. “This sucks and I hate you!”).

      Presentations centers are a huge part of the banking culture… not quite so much at smaller places, but definitely at the bulge brackets.

    • says

      Hi Alpha thanks for your honest reaction here. I must say something like that also occured to me although I am of course always too much the gentleman to express it, at least in public…
      Yes, all the Big Banks in the Universe have presentation centers with up to 200 workers, and we operate 24/7, 365. The Books Must Go Out. You can read all about it here: http://www.mergersandinquisitions.com/back-office-day-in-life/
      We are always happy to do our jobs, but if you really need a cover letter done, then your best bet is the secretarial department. We mostly do technical work like layout, graphs, images and image manipulation, diagrams and drawings of all kinds and our typing speeds are not on the level of a secretary. However, on the graveyard we occasionaly try to help out if we are not too busy and if the secretarial center has closed down for the night. Having said that, typing skills come in very useful in your banking career, believe it or not! thanks for your comment.

  9. Morgan says

    Haha, what a funny little piece! I enjoyed it a lot, thank you, Nyla, and thank you, too, Brian for keeping your website open to her very insightful and entertaining writing. It beats me how some of the initial comments seem not to get the humour in there, but I suppose billdoona has it right and it is too close for comfort for some.
    This skeleton for one is looking forward to many more of your “stories from the crypt”. Have a great 2013, hang in there (and if you still happen to have a copy from that Santa sleigh from hell…)

      • says

        all I wanted to do is write a light hearted little Christmas article…that makes you smile, even if that smile shows your Zombie skull
        But at the same time everything I write is real.
        I do try to see the funny side myself…

        thank you for your comment.

  10. syed says

    Hi there,

    I hold a bachelor’s degree in business management, very passionate about merger’s and acquisition.

    Can you please advise me how and what do i do to get into it.?

    Thanks

  11. High School Kid says

    This article, and your website have basically scared me away from investment banking/finance in general. I hope you’re happy that I’m now going to try and do Law School instead haha

    But in all seriousness, is this a common occurance? Do bankers often find themselves working on Christmas and New Years Eve?

      • High School Kid says

        Do the hours ever get better? Or is it going to suck all the time? How do bankers maintain marriages/raise kids with hours this bad?

        • M&I - Nicole says

          Hours do get better as you get more senior I believe but you are still expected to work around the clock if need be. Some manage, some don’t; hence bottle and model service ;)

  12. TAR says

    Liked this piece a lot… a nice light-hearted look-behind-the-scenes. Fascinating to go backstage, behind the glittering front-desk operations. I guess it is too close for comfort for some, hence some of the negative feedback. But it reads like an honest piece, from the personal perspective/experience of Nyla.

  13. Chiara Bonalumi says

    Oh valiant Nyla Nox, turning gloom into humour. Now what if St. Valentine’s Day were a banking holiday… But seriously, appreciate your insights into that hidden world.

    • says

      thanks Chiara that made me smile. And we know we need all the smiles we can get here!
      The idea of St Valentines being a banking holiday conjurs up further visions of gloom turned into humour… It will probably need a braver pen than mine to explore the dating habits of bankers in february…
      but I will continue with my insights, so that people can see what goes on in the darkness of zombieland.

  14. ann says

    At the end of this evocative piece, I feel I have come up for air (thank you Nyla, so forcefully bringing to light the sordid side of The Bank. Similarities spring to mind here of Bangladeshi sweatshops where workers keep their heads down not daring to complain about conditions for fear of losing money.
    Those mince-pies were symbolic of the dry, unsatisfying existance and the farcical Xmas song highlighted the joyless atmosphere and the lack of cheer among the colleagues. Nyla, how much money must these people be making to make it worth their while? Personally, I’d rather be down at the rowdy soup kitchens. ‘Just like you, I was human once’ sums it up perfectly.
    Ann

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