Tales From The Back Office: How To Take No Prisoners And Fight Your Way Into The Front

78 Comments | Investment Banking - The Back Office

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So it seems the back office vs. front office discussion last week touched quite a few nerves. In addition to some interesting comments, I also received many stories of those who made the jump from back office to investment banking or trading.

I’ll go through 3 here: The Exception That Proves The Rule, The Banker Formerly Known As Quentin Tarantino and The Best Trader Ever.

The Exception That Proves The Rule

One reader who works at a private equity firm wrote in with the following story:

“One of our former interns took a compliance job at Goldman, and a few years later impressed the right person and made the jump to Goldman Sachs investment banking as an Analyst, advanced to Associate, and recently made another switch once again, moving into prop trading.

I’ve never heard of such a story happening before or since, so I think you could call this one “the exception that proves the rule.”

It’s similar to staff attorneys at law firms – theoretically, they can never become Associates and are therefore not eligible for Partner track. However, at a firm one of my partners worked at, a staff attorney actually became an Associate and eventually a Partner!

This was a one-in-a-thousand case, but these 2 stories show that it is possible – in both law and banking.”

Lesson Learned:

1. If you want to move up from the “back office,” regardless of your industry, make sure you impress the right people.
2. Never say “never” even when everyone else says “never.”
3. There’s no one “path” you need to follow – no one really knows what they want to do, no matter how old they are.

The Banker Formerly Known As Quentin Tarantino

This might be my favorite back office to front office story. It concerns none other than Charles Chen, a Wharton student who was born in Taiwan, raised in the US and explored a career in…. film, before making the move to finance. Here’s his bio:

“Following graduation, Charles explored one of his passions – film – by assisting on a Pepsi spec and a documentary featured in the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival. Realizing his preference for cinematic scholarship rather than production, Charles left the independent film scene for Deutsche Bank Securities, where he strengthened his understanding of bulge bracket operations as a Fixed Income Control Specialist.”

I love film too, so I see where he’s coming from. It would have been more amazing if he had worked in Deutsche Bank investment banking rather than in the back/middle office, but on the whole I’m still impressed.

“One year later, seeking more qualitative work, Charles joined Scura, Rise & Partners, a boutique merchant bank focusing on specialty finance, as an Analyst. Charles made an immediate and striking impact on the firm’s transactions in mergers and acquisition, capital raising and private equity, playing lead roles in the arrangement of two distressed real estate funds and the restructuring of a protective equipment maker.”

Aha. Keep this one in mind if you’re working in the back office at a large bank: he left for a boutique so that he could work in the front office.

Being Quentin Tarantino in a former life is cool, but knowing the right people (and going smaller) trumps your background.

“He also developed a taste for small business management by heading the firm’s recruiting and IT initiatives. For his efforts, Charles was rapidly promoted to the Associate position and entrusted with managing a small team of analysts.”

Another one of the virtues of boutiques: if you’re good, you can indeed move up quickly. I’m not sure what “rapidly” means, but I assume less than the standard 3 years.

Lessons Learned:

1. If you’re switching careers, get into finance any way you can;
2. If you want to move from back office to front office, going to a smaller firm is often a good move; and
3. You really can break in from any background, even film-making.

The Best Trader Ever

Our last story of back office to front office success concerns none other than The Best Trader Ever.

Yes, that’s right – Jerome Kerviel of Société Générale.

Yes, that Jerome (for those living under a rock, he was responsible for the biggest trading scandal ever).

Reading through his resume, we come to an astonishing finding: he rose up through the ranks of the back office to become a trader!

You’ll see he starts out in the “Middle Office – Referential Team” from 2000 to 2002 before moving to “Trader Assistant” in 2002-2004; from 2004 until the scandal, he was a real trader.

Note to readers: This is a terrible resume. Never list an objective, never write 2-3 word bullets, and never list “English” and “Microsoft Office” under “Skills.” Those are like listing “Proficient at Breathing Oxygen” under skills (obviously if your resume is not in English, then English is fine to list).

Lessons Learned:

1. You don’t need a good, or even passable, resume to become a trader at Société Générale;
2. It’s much easier to move from a support role to a client-facing role in the world of trading; and
3. Traders who move up from the back office are likely to cause scandals that result in the loss of USD $7.1 billion.

(Kidding on the last one, of course.)

About the Author

is the Founder of Mergers & Inquisitions and Breaking Into Wall Street. In his spare time, he enjoys learning obscure Excel functions, editing resumes, obsessing over TV shows, and traveling so much that he's forced to add additional pages to his passport on a regular basis.

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78 Comments to “Tales From The Back Office: How To Take No Prisoners And Fight Your Way Into The Front”

Comments

  1. Nick says

    Great read- as is the whole blog. Can you please shed some light on working in Debt Capital Markets in a mid-market bank in London (work content/tasks, hours vs. other I-Banking departments, exit opportunities)? I remember you mentioned in an older post that PE firms aren’t too interested in capital markets experience (and obviously, being mid-market isn’t going to help me either). I’m an undergrad student by the way – not back office.

    I’m also curious about NY vs. London working environments in investment banks if you have any thoughts on the topic. Thanks in advance.

    • says

      London is a bit more laid back since it’s Europe, obviously hours are still not great but on the whole you probably work less.

      DCM is mostly about writing memos for financing and modeling of deals. Hours probably better than other IBD especially these days. Most likely exit is to PE since you work with debt so much.

  2. Laszlo says

    Nick Leeson came from the back as far as I remember.

    These two guys axed a few hopes to move from back to front.

    Good blog, keep on writing.

  3. smartrip says

    This is a really interesting article. I am a little confused on how people break into the analyst role. I assumed that if you didn’t land one of those roles your first or second year out of undergrad, then your next shot to get into Ibanking was to get recruited as an associate after you’ve got an MBA. Does it work differently?

  4. MJ says

    very interesting site indeed! I have a short question: Having joined the firm as an analyst in the asset-management division; whats the best way (strategy) to move to the investment banking division, M&A?

    The Constraints: a) joined 4 months ago. b) leaving in 6 months time, meaning in June 2009, for a masters in finance.

    • says

      It’s really hard to do in that short a timespan. You need to get a “champion” on the other side in IBD to pitch you to the team and make a case for you – so you need to have a really good relationship with someone senior there who can pull you over.

      • MJ says

        I am just following up my question with another scenario. So suppose I stick to the analyst position for the next 6 months and then go for my Masters in Finance (tulane, Freeman School) , does that make my chances any better at getting into IBD?

        • MJ says

          hmmm.. but evidently all the b-schools that are offering MFin programs seem to be suggesting that this what their program is aiming to provide. what’s the other option,short of an MBA (b/c I only got 4 month exp, 10 by June ’09).

        • says

          There’s a big difference between an MBA program at a business school and just a Master’s program… and trust me, banks only care about the MBA, you will not enter at a higher level or anything with only a Master’s degree. It’s just like the CFA, lots of people think it actually helps you but its not useful at all for banking/PE, only for portfolio management.

  5. Leo says

    I enjoyed reading all the articles you wrote. All the information is valuable, but I still have some questions regarding people in other fields breaking into investment banking. Hope you can give some thoughts.

    1. As an insurance agent, what is the difficulty of breaking into banking, assuming getting an MBA degree is a real option? When recruiters look at the work experience, will they consider selling insurance products part of the financial transaction type of work? And what more can I do to increase my chances? I am also going to pass the series 7 & 66.

    2. If I choose to work as an accountant, and get into the more transaction- oriented area of work, is it considered more related to banking than as an insurance agent? Assuming it will also involve getting an MBA degree at a target school, is an accountant considered more qualified than some other backgrounds, other than the real banking jobs?

    • says

      1. Difficult, MBA is your best option but selling insurance products is fairly far away from finance/banking. I would try to get some type of informal experience at a local financial firm doing analysis/quantitative work prior to business school.

      2. Yes, but it’s still decently far away from what bankers actually do. Going to get an MBA at a target school to become an accountant is kind of a waste though, if you do that it’s only worth it to go for banking positions.

      • Leo says

        Thanks for your opinion! If I take the accountant route, I am really going to go for banking positions after getting a MBA degree. Just because it’d be hard to get finance jobs in the first place, I try to get into some related fields before business school.

  6. TomTom says

    I’m currently trying to figure out a way into I-banking from a Tax Accountant role at a hedge fund. I have an under-grad in finance, but then went back to school and became CPA eligible. Then, I interned in tax at a public firm for six months and then moved full-time to work with a high wealth family in dealing with private equity and hedge funds. Since then, I have moved on to a rather large and reputable hedge fund and have my CPA (not that it helps with I-banking). The whole time I’ve spent in tax was really just trying to get me back into the finance side of things (I currently hate tax with a passion but it has been a great learning expirience). What is the best course of action and most likely way for me to break into an I-bank role??

    • says

      Cold-calling / tons of networking… depends how long you’ve been out, though, if it has been several years then business school may be better.

      • TomTom says

        I’ve been out of school 2 years… I’m concerned about getting an MBA and then ending up right back on the back office and accounting side again…

        • says

          If you get a top MBA that won’t happen… you’re not going to go from HBS to trade settlement, I don’t even think they would recruit for that type of job at top business schools

  7. Hyun says

    googled your blogs and they are very interesting indeed! I am currently working at Ops Corporate Actions as a summer intern, dealing with any stock-related actions (dividends, rights issue, etc). I would like to ideally get into Fixed Income division, maybe as a trader. How possible would this be? Would it be a good idea to speak to the HR at the end of internship to refer me to the Fixed Income recruitment team? Could I hope for a full-time offer from Fixed Income, if the company likes me, or would I have to go thorough interviews in any case?

    • says

      You need to get to know people in Fixed Income now and then make the move over through them, HR tends to be useless. There is an upcoming case study / interview on this topic.

      • Hyun says

        Who exactly do I need to know in FID? I know a couple of interns there, but thats about it. My manager is gonna try to get some 30-mins meetings with a couple of VPs in FID to give me an overview of what they are doing. I was thinking of getting name cards off them, then send my CVs towards the end of my internship. Would this work?

        • says

          VPs are good – meet anyone you can, especially senior bankers because they have decision-making power. Definitely follow-up with the VPs and ask about full-time positions at the end of your internship.

  8. Trisha says

    I hold a PGDM (equivalent to MBA) from one of Indian Institute of Management (IIM) based at India. My primary goal is to move into core front-end IB. I have two career options as of now and want your inputs as to which might be better to achieve the goal:
    1. Become a derivatives (futures mainly) trader at one of prop trading firm based out of India. Its mainly futures trading and more of intra-day stuff.
    2. Join a financial research KPO which provides financial research services to PE and Ibanks. My work would involve conducting indsutry study, build valuation models using DCF, comps or other such methodologies.

    Now which one should i choose? Would it b possible to make a move to IB from such a KPO or trading profile?

      • Trisha says

        Thanks a lot for response.

        How possible/feasible is it to move from trading role (option 1) in a prop trading firm (plain futures intra day trading in commodities like oil, sugar) to a trading role in an I-Bank ?

        I have heard that traders there rise up the ranks (like being analysts preparing reports or fetching coffees for senior traders) with IB and not much recruitment happens from outside. Could you throw some light on this aspect?

        The prop trading is kinda good place to make money but the complexity is much less and is high pressure..

        • says

          Not hard at all to move between different trading roles… in fact it’s quite common to go from banks to prop trading firms and vice versa. As long as you’re always doing prop trading (e.g. not working with clients) it’s very similar work.

  9. jane says

    its true, its very hard to move from middle office to an M&A job. i tried for internal transfer for many years and failed. when i was pretty downcast one day, i saw an article reporting on how this onementor.com prepared a candidate for the demanding M&A and ECM interviews. since its free, i tried and i followed the steps, didn’t work immediately but after 9 months, i managed to secure an M&A job at a mid tier bank. in total, i tried for 4 years

  10. Sumit Malhotra says

    Great insights. I also wanted to ask a question. I am currently working in JP Morgan Chase as credit analyst for their credit cards division. I have had previous work experience in pay day lending as a senior analyst. But I want to move from this role in unsecured loans to a field of valuations where I am able to assess credit risk in terms of evaluating businesses. What are the fields for that and how can I do that. I have a B Tech degree from IIT Bombay and have had 3 years of work experience.

    Thanks,
    Sumit.

    • says

      I’m not sure about that as I know little about credit risk – maybe the risk management group at a bank or going to a credit rating firm like S&P or Moody’s.

  11. Nicky says

    So if I am back-office VP for example, and by a stroke of luck I make it to front office, will I then be a front-office VP or have to start from the bottom (Analyst)? Just wondering.

  12. Rob says

    I am currently in the corp finance department of a Fortune 500 media company. I have an offer to do Trade Support/Middle Office at a Middle Market bank. If my ultimate goal is IBD or buyside Equity Research (rather do IBD but have CFA level 1 done and ER seems to lend itself to that more)would my chances be better of staying put and networking/applying for MBA or move to middle office and try to network into these divisions within a 1-2 years.. Also will sacrificing promotions at current gig to move to entry level MO job hurt me in the MBA admissions process? Thanks in advance.

      • Rob says

        Thanks, I wish I had this site 2 years ago, I wouldn’t have to be making these kinds of decisions.. Just FYI, the corp finance department I work for isn’t internal M&A and ex-bankers galore (they sit in next to me and eat T-Bone steak for lunch while I eat Subway), I am mostly reporting and basic product analysis that I can spin is used for strategy but Im not doing the broad strategical analysis that gets presented to Executive levels. Does that change if Middle Office is really a step down?

        • Rob says

          And after doing this for 2 years, going to non-target school (hockey rival of Boston College with similar name), would I have a legit chance to cold call my way into a boutique/lower wrung MM bank to try and pound a 2 year analyst stint before b-school or basically should I put all my eggs in the MBA basket right now and hope for the best.

  13. Ming says

    Hi Brian, here is another one.

    Quote from WSJ:
    Before trading, Mr. Adoboli worked for three years in a “back office” position as a trade-support analyst, according to the LinkedIn profile. Back-office employees input transactions and carry out accounting relating to trades, while so-called front-office workers execute trades and speak with clients.

    Mr. Adoboli appeared to have initially worked with the technical side of these trades before becoming an employee executing these transactions. Some banks have restricted the shift of back-office, technical personnel to the client-facing trading desk because of the risk of their exploiting their knowledge to manipulate trades.

  14. Nathan says

    I actually have a question about moving in the opposite direction. I was in investment banking (M&A and private placements) and am interested in equity research. Might seem crazy but it really appeals to me. I am currently doing an MBA. Any thoughts or advice on making the move? Thanks

    • M&I - Nicole says

      This doesn’t seem crazy. I think your quant/modeling skills should be useful in ER. Have you networked w analysts? Perhaps you can email research analysts in some of the sectors you are interested in and see if they are hiring? I’d also try to dig up equity research reports online. Such reports also list analysts’ contact details. Better yet, email head of research in the banks and ask them if they are hiring

  15. Odilon says

    Hi Brian,
    This Bak-office/Front-office move made by Jerome does not happen that easily in France anymore. In France, once you are back-office, it takes at least 6 years until you move up to a decent Trader position (especially if you start from a real back office position, not middle office, like compliance). If you don´t have a business school or engineering background, its even more impossible to make you way up.
    Nice work with the web-site.
    Best

    • M&I - Nicole says

      Thanks for your input Odilon! We were referring to cases in the States/Asia but yes moving from back to front office isn’t easy at all!

  16. Erik says

    Hello Brian,
    I began my financial career at CS, working in trade delivery and settlement. Pretty menial, click submit, send trade to market through DTC, trades settles if enough shares available. I worked at CS for 2 1\2 years, through the recession of ’08-’09. By September ’09, I had made it through 3 rounds of lay offs, but my number came up and I was out of work. From there I got my 7 & 63 and moved into a front office job. I am not a fan of front-office and I would like to know how to get back to a back-office job. The problem I run into is, the terms I use to search for my old job as CS is not used industry wide, as far as I know (I was an “Operations Analyst”). I’ve tried searching for jobs using terms like: Financial Operations, Operations Analyst, trade settlement, fail control, DTC, and DTC settlement (I plan on even applying for a job at DTC). I know there are firms out there that send, receive and settle trades through DTC. I want to get back to that. Any advice on how to find these jobs?

    • M&I - Nicole says

      Network with people in those areas and tell them your story! Ask if they know which firms are hiring and to forward you contacts! I think some good jobs one wants aren’t found online. You need to speak to as many people as you can!

      • Erik says

        Thanks Nicole, I appreciate the response. That’s the major problem I run into though – I don’t know anyone in the field (other than old colleagues at my old job), so no one to network with. Searching for the jobs myself is only yielding me limited results. I would tell my story to anyone willing to hear it. I’ve gone to multiple recruiting and temp agencies (to no avail) for those sorts of jobs. I’m kind of stuck.

        • M&I - Nicole says

          No you aren’t stuck. Just go do some research on the companies you work for, find out who has the power to hire you, find out their contacts and contact them directly re your situation and your intent to work for them. Not that hard!

  17. says

    I deffinitely feel in tune with this one.

    After graduating in 2009( best year ever to do so !) there were no chances for a guy from Barcelona into banking. So I found internships in marketing in US and LONDON still hoping to find a way to step in the industry.

    Finally found a spot in a top tier bank in Singapore BUT in operations, as an Dividend Analyst, they offered me a 6 months contract. Once i finished i knew that my chances to move to front office were slim so I decided to move back to Spain ( now im looking for jobs in an economy with a 24% unemployent rate ).

    It’s been a good ride but would’t recommend it for people aiming to front office positions. I hope it helped ;)

  18. Zev says

    I am talking to a family friend who is a MD (CFO of a division) at a BB and they are telling me they would have more pull to help me get into a finance/accounting function istead of IBD/front office. Which division would be best to work in and either —
    1) get an MBA and rebrand then apply for IBD
    2) work and try to transfer within to IBD or PE
    3) stay in the job because I have client interaction and its not a dead end.

    This is the most comprehendsive list of divisions i could find.
    http://www.goldmansachs.com/careers/choose-your-path/our-divisions/index.html

    • M&I - Nicole says

      Best if you can work in IB directly. Try to apply for mid/lower tier banks.

      Otherwise, perhaps middle office at IB but it isn’t the best and most direct way to break in

      • Zev says

        Thanks. However, division do you think is the best division for future IB (which is not IBD) that is middle office?

        • M&I - Nicole says

          Hm, middle office for IB roles? I’m not quite sure because I don’t think breaking in from middle office is the most ideal way

  19. AC says

    I work in the back office at JP Morgan. I have a background in accounting but I am currently getting a second bachelors in finance at a non target (may transfer to columbia). Would you think it is best for me to apply for investment banking summer analyst positions or try for full time analyst positions since I am already a full time employee at JPM?

  20. Newbie says

    Hi Guys!
    I am really interested in making a career in finance but I couldn’t land a decent offer. So, I am going to join a boutique consulting firm specialising in HR strategy. My question is, will it be possible to switch back to finance in 1-2 years? If yes, how?

    • M&I - Nicole says

      It can be challenging so you may want to go back to get an MBA/Masters to increase your chances of moving to front office.

      • Newbie says

        Thanks for the quick reply Nicole!
        I already have an MBA in finance from one of India’s leading B-schools. I also have an offer from DB’s back office here in India, profile involves developing cash flow models of CDOs on a customised software. The other offer from HR consultancy is also a desk job, but atleast there’s a chance to move to client facing roles.
        My ultimate goal is to work in finance, can you advise me on which offer to take?

  21. Not quite Mr. Smith says

    I would like to balance the summary bashing you always do. Having myself previously always had a small summary of 2 lines and landed quite a few interviews(without any stellar internships). Maybe it is because Europe is a little bit more informal and not so very much straight to the point as the US. Particularly if you lack any demonstrated experiences, stating a short objective/summary can be a good idea – at least in Europe.

  22. Clayton says

    So I just graduated and recently got a trade settlement support job at Macquarie (1 month at it in the Philippines). Reason for this was I really didn’t have that much knowledge on how investment banking works and that there were so called BO, MO & FO. Thankfully enough, I discovered this site which has given me tons of information! I’m now aspiring to transfer to the front office. My problem now is would it be stupid for me to quit my job this early and try to land a front office role (consulting, M&A advisory) in any of the firms here? I’m also planning to get an MBA at a top 15 B-school (have a green card and migrating to the US in about 2-3 years). Any advice would be greatly appreciated! Thanks in advance!

  23. Antonio says

    Hi, I recently found this website, congratulations. I’m currently a financial analyst in a telecommunications company, trying to break into IB. I studied Finance at the best university in Mexico, summa cum laude, but I need a visa sponsorship. My IB experience has been brief (similar tasks at the company and a VC analyst internship), but not as good as an IB internship.

    What are my options to go into IB (BB) in the medium-long term? After reading many articles and comments in this page, I consider so far:

    1) Getting into a BB in MO/BO (e.g., Asset Management analyst), similar to what this article has been talking about (saying it’s hard).
    2) Going to a small boutique here in the US o Canada (might be easier finding one with an important Latam group).
    3) Working at a BB in Mexico and then later shoot for a transfer.
    4) Study a MsC at a target school (in Europe), so I could take advantage of the recruitments and have a degree from a more worldwide reputable school (but it costs and I’d “miss” one year, so I’d be hoping my chances really increase).

    I know going to a target Business School helps a lot, so whatever option I choose would have to also consider how it helps me enter a target B-School. I just wanna get closer to IB the soonest.

    • M&I - Nicole says

      If you need a visa sponsorship 3 and 4 are probably the best options. I’d network and try to land yourself a job (3). If this doesn’t happen, 4 can increase your chances.

  24. Rico says

    Hi, I graduated at the end of 2011 and worked in an IB MO (FICC) for 1 year in an internship role. Finished my tenure and decided not to stay and traveled the world instead for a bit. (I kinda regret this, as I have always been under the impression that BO —> FO is almost impossible and I do not want to get stuck). Do note, I tried to use my contact to look for FO job, but there was none as my company has actually been downsizing really hard due to recent scandals, gfc and what not.

    My goal has always been FO, specifically S&T. I am now back from my travel, at home without anything. To realise my dream, what would be best to do M&I ? Should I take another MO gig to try to break-in or should I do Masters to enhance my qualification and try to join S&T as analyst?

    I am so confused now :(. Any advice?

    • M&I - Nicole says

      A Masters at a target can potentially help. You can take a MO gig in the time being and try to transition into FO though it can be more challenging.

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