Finance Recruiting in 2019: What’s Changed, and What’s Next
When I was visiting family over the holidays, one of them asked me a tough question:
“So… your online business has been successful. What is your goal now? Are you trying to become better-known? Are you trying to expand? Do you want to launch something else?”
I thought about it for a few seconds and responded:
“Actually, I’m not sure. I had more concrete goals when I was just starting, I had student loans, and I had to fight to survive. I guess I’m just maintaining things and saving money now.”
Ironically, this “goal” could also describe banks’ approach to recruiting: maintain things and save money.
Let’s dive into the details and do a quick summary of how recruiting has changed, what might happen going forward, and how I’m changing my “portfolio” in response:
Which Fields Are We Discussing Here?
I’m limiting this article to investment banking and private equity because I follow them the most closely, and most of this site is geared toward them.
Also, recruiting in other fields has not changed to the same extent that it has in IB and PE.
Finance Recruiting in 2019: What Has Changed?
I think about recruiting in terms of five components:
- The Timing – How early do you need to look for internships/jobs? How far in advance do interviews begin and end?
- The Pre-Requisites – What do you need to be competitive in terms of university reputation, grades, and work experience?
- The People – What types of other students and professionals are aiming for these roles? What’s your competition like?
- The Process – How many interviews do you go through? Are they video-based, phone-based, or in-person? Are there case studies, modeling tests, or other non-interview assessments?
- The Questions and Assessments – What types of “fit” and technical questions will you receive? How difficult are the case studies, and which topics do they test?
The first four elements have changed a fair amount over the past decade and are likely to change in the future, but the last one has been fairly steady.
Banks have approached recruiting in a schizophrenic manner, unsure of exactly what they are trying to accomplish.
On the one hand, they claim to want “more diverse candidates”; on the other hand, by hyper-accelerating the recruiting process, they inevitably get mostly wealthy students from the top few schools who get exposed to finance at a young age.
Here’s a run-down of the insanity:
1) The Timing
On-cycle recruiting for IB and PE roles in the U.S. is now hyper-accelerated.
To win investment banking internships, you must start networking and preparing in your first year of university, and recruiting now starts nearly ~2 years before the internship.
It’s similar for mega-fund PE recruiting – the process begins and ends within several months of your full-time IB role beginning, which is nearly two years before PE roles begin.
Up until 2014 or so, IB internship recruiting was not hyper-accelerated, and most firms still interviewed and awarded offers ~6-9 months before internships began.
PE recruiting had been creeping up earlier, but it moved into “ridiculously early” territory within the past few years as well.
Caveats: The timing has not moved up at the MBA level because it’s not possible to recruit MBA students before their programs begin. Recruiting begins the moment you set foot on campus, and it always has.
Also, the process is not accelerated in the same way in EMEA and Asia, though it has been moving up earlier there as well.
Future Outlook: I do not think hyper-accelerated recruiting will last.
As soon as the next recession hits and deal activity plummets, banks will realize that they’ve over-hired years in advance.
That will lead them to the only possible solution: rescind offers because of “market conditions.”
And that will piss off everyone and produce even more negative PR for the banks… in the midst of a downturn.
Also, the “yield” (i.e., the percentage of interns who become long-term bankers at the firm) from this hyper-accelerated recruiting will end up being quite low – and that will be a problem for regional offices and less-popular groups that already struggle with retention.
I don’t think banks and PE firms will return to the old timing completely, but there will be more variability across different regions, offices, and groups.
2) The Pre-Requisites
A long time ago, if you went to a good university, had a good GPA, and had some interesting activities or work experience, you could win full-time IB offers even without previous IB/PE/VC internships.
Today, this is essentially impossible because you need multiple finance internships even to win IB summer internships – let alone full-time jobs.
And even in PE recruiting, you often need more than your IB role to stand out and tell a decent story.
This has been a worldwide change, though there are a few exceptions in smaller emerging markets.
Caveats: At the MBA level, some people still manage to win IB roles without relevant full-time work experience or pre-MBA internships, but the odds aren’t great.
Future Outlook: I don’t see this one changing because it’s an issue of supply and demand.
You can join a 12-week coding boot camp and then win 6-figure job offers as a software engineer because there’s huge, unmet, and rising demand for engineers.
On the other hand, demand for financiers is flat and unlikely to increase much in the near term; the world does not, in fact, need more investment bankers.
And despite the lure of tech, consulting, and other fields, tons of students and professionals (“the supply”) still want to get into finance.
So, given the supply/demand mismatch, I don’t see how the work experience, GPA, and degree requirements could decrease.
3) The People
Just as you can divide political parties into segments, you can do the same for job seekers. Here are a few of the main categories in finance:
- Ambitious, Self-Motivated High Achievers at Top Schools – These are people who are internally motivated and always want something bigger and better.
- International Students – International students have been flocking to the U.S. and U.K. over the past decade. They are often more motivated by family/peer pressure, and there are huge variations in ability, experience, and “on paper” vs. “real life” personas.
- Diamonds in the Rough – These are students who ended up at non-target schools or in less-appealing professions because of bad luck, lack of knowledge, or a critical mistake. They will now do anything to make a big change and get into finance.
- Career Changers – The motivation here is some variant of “I’m bored with my current job, advancement opportunities aren’t great, and I want to make more money.”
We’ve seen a big drop-off in category #1 and increases in categories #2 and #3.
Students in the first category have been drifting toward fields like technology and consulting, driven by narrowing pay and prestige gaps.
Caveats: I don’t have the data to support this, but I suspect that this change might be a bigger factor in the U.S. and less so in EMEA and other regions.
Pay at big tech companies in Europe tends to be lower, and the startup environment is less favorable, so more students in category #1 are still likely to tilt toward finance.
Future Outlook: I don’t see this one changing a whole lot, but due to the backlash against tech and falling stock prices (and, therefore, falling compensation), we could see more students in the first category aiming for finance roles.
4) The Process
The major change here is that many banks now interview candidates in the first round using pre-recorded video, often via HireVue.
But you still submit your application or resume or win interviews through networking, and if you pass the first round, you’ll move onto subsequent rounds and then the Superday, which might include 4-10 interviews.
And in EMEA, there are still assessment centers and additional online testing.
People have made a big deal out of the pre-recorded video interviews, but I don’t understand why.
The questions asked are generic, and passing these screens is more about avoiding silly mistakes than showing off your sparkling personality or technical knowledge.
Caveats: Nothing here – I don’t see this as a big change.
Future Outlook: I see why banks like automated first-round interviews from a legal and cost perspective, but I’m skeptical about judging your potential based on your body language and tone of voice.
If you want to assess someone’s ability, give them the task in question and see how well or poorly they complete it.
Big banks will continue moving in this direction to save money, but I don’t think pre-recorded videos will ever replace in-person and phone interviews, and I doubt that smaller banks will use them to the same extent.
5) What Has Not Changed?
The last element of recruiting – the questions and assessments – has not changed that much.
People sometimes claim that interviews have become significantly more technical, but they are conflating separate trends: the rise of elite boutiques and interview differences at EB and BB banks.
Elite boutique interviews have always required more critical thinking; it’s just that EBs now have far higher market share than they did ~10 years ago.
At the bulge-bracket banks, investment banking interview questions still tend to be paint-by-numbers.
People also claim that case studies and modeling tests are becoming more common – but, again, that reflects the rise of elite boutiques more than a market-wide change.
Food for Thought: If interviews have changed significantly or become far more technical, why would people still be using some of our old/bad guides from 2008-2009?
As the creator, I think they’re horrible, but others think they’re “good enough,” even if there are issues and oversights.
Caveats: Case studies and alternative assessments have always existed in EMEA, so I don’t think much has changed there, even factoring in the elite boutiques.
Future Outlook: In the long term, investment banking interviews could shift to include more of a programming or data science focus.
Given how little has changed over the past 10-20 years, though, these changes are much further away.
Also, I would argue that fit questions have become more important and will be more important because so many people look the same on paper.
If 20 candidates all have high GPAs, top schools, 2-3 previous finance internships, and good technical knowledge, how do interviewers decide?
The only way they can: by each person’s personality and interests outside of school and work.
Finance Recruiting in 2019: My Plan Going Forward
Once again, the same formula applies: “Portfolio = market view + personal circumstances.”
In this case, my “portfolio” is the set of products and services we offer as well as the policies that guide them.
In the 2019 financial job outlook article, I explained why I am neutral-to-optimistic about the deal-related fields (IB, PE, VC, CD, RE) and pessimistic about the public-markets ones (HF, AM, ER), which explains the product roadmap.
The recruiting market changes above relate more to business policies and how I’m going to change operations.
My “personal circumstances” could be summed up as:
- I’ve already been running this business for ~12 years, taken significant money off the table, and I now value incremental free time more than incremental sales.
- While there is still some growth potential, this market has matured, and it’s no longer possible to grow by 50-100% per year as we did in the early days.
- I’ve been disappointed with the amount of time and effort I’ve put into new versions of the courses and how low the ROI has been.
Here’s my list of changes:
1) Change the Money-Back Guarantee, Support, and Download Policies (100% Probability)
Back in 2009 when the BIWS site had just launched, and we had ~300 initial customers, we could make aggressive promises because the customers were a small, dedicated group.
Ten years later, with ~40,000 customers and companies like Wells Fargo using our training, things have changed.
For one, there are far more “casual buyers,” i.e., people who aren’t sure what they’re doing or if they even want financial modeling courses and interview guides (see: the point above about “The People” changing).
Also, we are getting more people who sign up, ask tons of questions, and then “change their career plans” – exactly 364 days later, right before the 12-month money-back guarantee expires.
No coincidence there, I’m sure.
Having such a long guarantee also creates some strange incentives; it’s easy to procrastinate your training if you have a whole year to finish it!
So, these policies will be changing.
I haven’t decided on the exact terms, but the money-back guarantee will cover a shorter period, and content/technical support will be more limited.
I expect that sales will fall as a result, but I’m more than happy to make that trade-off to reclaim free time and sanity.
2) Simplify, Fix, and Streamline the Courses (100% Probability)
One big red-pill truth I learned over the past few years is that additional detail often makes educational products and services worse.
- Students who are smart and motivated don’t need additional detail. They can pick up concepts quickly and extrapolate from simple examples.
- Students who need hand-holding will need even more hand-holding if the examples and tutorials are more complex, and the added complexity will just add to their confusion.
- Oh, and most people don’t even use the educational products/services they’ve paid for.
It’s not possible to teach certain concepts in only 5-10 hours, but I am aiming to cap each course at ~30-40 hours, and more like ~10-15 for the simpler courses.
All the time I spent on revisions of existing products would have been far better spent on sales and marketing.
3) Ignore Online Discussions and Comments – Only Monitor Purchases (75% Probability)
People who are the most active in online discussions, comments, and emails are not representative of the market.
They tend to be younger candidates without much money to spend – or more experienced professionals who aren’t doing so well in their careers and who, therefore, have a lot of free time.
If you’re busy and have tons of clients/deals/investments to work with, why would you spend hours arguing with anonymous people online or asking questions on Reddit?
I very rarely do “customer surveys” or other polls because I have so much purchase and site usage data now.
But this change is only at 75% probability because a bit of qualitative feedback can be helpful.
The rule of thumb among marketers is that ~95% of qualitative feedback is junk and ~5% is solid gold.
For example, we came up with many of the package deals, which now drive significant sales, based on some of these “solid gold” comments in past years.
4) Avoid References to Specific Timing in Articles and Courses (50% Probability)
I’ve also learned that it’s almost always better to refer to time intervals rather than exact dates – especially if, as I suspect, hyper-accelerated recruiting does not last.
For example, I try to avoid saying that someone began networking in February, interviewed in October, and won an offer by January.
It’s better to say that the interview process took 2-3 months total and the person started networking about 6-9 months in advance.
I shot myself in the foot with some of the earlier products, such as the IB Networking Toolkit, by being too specific with the dates and then having to revise material or link to new versions.
But I learned my lesson and purposely left out dates in the current version of the Interview Guide and kept the process/timing description open-ended.
This one’s only at 50% probability because I won’t be able to change everything this year, and it’s not always possible to avoid date references in reader stories (for example).
That brings us to the end of my “2019” series.
Starting next week, I’ll return to the usual articles and tutorials.
Real estate will be a big focus this year because of my interest in it and the fact that I just spent over a year creating new training for it.
I’m still not sure about my long-term goals.
But I hope to do better than “maintain things and save money.”
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