by Andy Sondag Comments (48)

Busting the Front Office Analyst Myth: Three Unexpected Truths You Need to Move from Admin to Analyst

The Myth of the Front Office AnalystAll finance-minded students and professionals are bred to eat, sleep, and think that the “front office” is the only place to be for their first position.

But I’m here to set the record straight – there is no such thing as a “front office analyst.” It’s an oxymoron.

Especially when you’re just starting out (like I was).

And I believed the myth so much that I didn’t focus on a lucrative industry and nearly lost job offers over it.

But I ended up in a very different place, using what I learned as a grunt worker to propel me into a full-time position in the world of finance – almost without me knowing.

Bad Grades, Double Major, State University – Ouch?

My story starts as a “hopeless” future IBD candidate. While everyone else was running for the hills during a market meltdown, I discovered a passion for finance and my second major (Economics).

I began researching the industry like crazy, trying to find any edge before recruiting season began… and I realized I was lacking in three critical areas:

  1. My mediocre GPA. Luckily, I still had time to improve my GPA since all of my economics classes were still in front of me.
  2. My state university pedigree. I had no idea that this would later help me get the job.
  3. My lack of internship experience. Not only was I already a junior, but in order to graduate in four years with my new double major, I would need to fill up my summer with extra classes instead of finance work experience.

Fixing My Undergrad Woes

I ended up getting nearly a 4.0 in my economics classes by working hard to fix my grades over my last year in college.

Employers are generally willing to overlook that you got a C in “Intro to Frosh Booze” freshman year if you get an A in “Economic Forecasting” senior year (as long as it fits into the story that you tell recruiters).

And more importantly than the grades – I honestly felt that the state school aspect of my background was holding me back from a lot of opportunities.

But in the real world, few people care where you went to school as long as you can prove that you can handle the job (i.e. you have the experience).

And sometimes, they just want to see someone like themselves.

So when my senior year began, I started pounding the pavement to address the biggest problem of all – my lack of internship experience.

What’s interesting is that career centers at a state school can actually be an advantage over those at the Ivy League and other top universities.

The difference at state schools is that while fewer alumni go into finance, the ones that do are more eager to help.

Like other M&I readers, I cold-called firms extensively but found that networking via the few alumni we had was far more effective.

Admin, Intern, Analyst?

Through networking, I ended up landing a small VC internship during the spring of my senior year.

The internship was mostly terrible, mind-numbing admin work, but it looked great on my resume, and it gave me something to talk about for future interviews.

After graduation, I was able to score another internship at a small investment bank, again through a contact at my school’s career center.

It wasn’t exactly an analyst role, but it still made an impact on my resume.

And then I thought: I’ve won the battle!

I figured that since I had two internships, the job offers would just start pouring in and soon I’d be sitting at a table with the entire Victoria’s Secret catalog.

…which wasn’t exactly the case.

But something else also happened as a result of that internship: I realized that the life of a pure investment banker wasn’t for me.

I did still want to do something related to finance/business, but I didn’t care enough about money/prestige to put in the required hours.

How I Got a Job Referral from an (Almost) Stranger

So a year and a handful of botched interviews later, I interviewed at a real estate private equity firm.

I had blindly sent in my resume for the position on Craigslist and thought, “Yeah right! No way, I’m going to get this job!”

Miraculously, I made it to their final round of interviews, but then lost out to someone with more experience.

Luckily for me, the interviewer liked me enough to give me referrals to a bunch of other firms that were hiring analysts.

One of them was my current firm, a CRE brokerage that deals with investment properties.

The point of networking is to create your own luck.

The job I got wasn’t advertised at all, but someone else who was interested in the position had dropped out just a few days before. My timing couldn’t have been more perfect.

I had a huge advantage with a referral from the PE firm… and they were desperate to get a warm body at that desk.

I like to think of the job itself as “i-banking-light.” We pitch for deals, sometimes win them, sometimes just waste a lot of time, and sometimes go out and sell them if we do win them.

Although the workload fluctuates based on the season, my workweek generally hovers around 50 hours.

Compared to the other positions I was originally considering, I think it’s a great balance between getting paid decently while also not working yourself to death.

So I Made It to an Analyst Position – Wait, I Learned Something?

I’ve been at this job for about a year now, and sometimes I wish I could hop into a DeLorean time machine and tell myself a few things as a student…

1. M&A Isn’t the Only Profitable Industry

One of the most important things I learned was that there is money to be made in many different industries, not just Goldman Sachs IBD TMT.

I had been dismissive of the real estate industry at first, but I quickly realized the brokers at my office were pulling down huge commissions and that they work far better hours than bankers.

This opened up the idea that there are tons of financial niches that still make the big bucks, something I wish I had been more open to as an undergrad.

2. State Schools Can Sometimes Get Your Foot in the Door Better Than the Ivy League

As I finally learned, a state school background isn’t necessarily a disadvantage.

It’s actually an advantage at the right firms.

All of the brokers at my firm are from “unknown” universities.

And they would be much more willing to hire a state school grad than an Ivy grad, just because people tend to gravitate toward what they are familiar with.

3. The Glorified “Front Office Analyst” Position is a Huge Myth

The third realization I made was that the line between “front office” and “back office” is blurry at the analyst level.

I’m not going to reinvent the wheel and explain why it might be more beneficial to work in the front office of a financial firm vs. the back office, but let me reiterate something I said earlier – there is no such thing as a front office analyst.

Until you get to the Vice President level, you are a cost center – just like any other back office employee.

This is why non-performing Vice Presidents get fired and take extended vacations to Buenos Aires.

Until you are pulling in business yourself, you are a cost center.

So don’t place too high a value on any “front office” analyst or associate-type role you get – sure, it’s great that you won the role, but until you start generating revenue you’re replaceable.

But I’ll Be Working on Deals That Generate Revenue for the Firm!

While you’re technically correct, there’s nothing in that statement that a back office employee couldn’t also say.

The IT guys that make sure the computers and networks function properly?

They’re also making sure that deals get out the door.

Even the janitors can make that claim – they make sure the place is clean enough that business can be done, making it possible to bring clients in.

The presentations center? They might be more useful than analysts at some places…

But There Must Be Some Difference Between Front and Back Office – Maybe Models and Bottles?

The only single thing that separates front office from back is revenue origination – the senior guys at the firm who are pulling in business.

As an analyst, you will be doing none of this. Your job will be to slave away and be at the whims of the people who do.

I know it’s hard to see this when you’re an undergrad thinking about “models and bottles” (can we please ban that phrase?), but I guarantee you that every analyst, after the first week on the job, realizes just where they are on the totem pole.

Sure, it’s much better to be in a position that opens you up for revenue-originating positions in the future, but it’s dangerous to equate yourself with Ari Gold before that time comes.

The key to really becoming an indispensable asset is to be humble and to remember that you are in a great starting position.

You aren’t going to be critical to your firm until you can bring money in on your own, no matter what your role is – whether you’re a banker, trader, PE guy/girl, or anything else.

But once you have made that leap – congratulations!

Now you’re officially “front office.”

About the Author

Andy Sondag graduated from California State University, Chico, interned at a small investment bank, and then went to a commercial real estate brokerage.

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Comments

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  1. Does a role as a broker count as a front office role?

    1. I mean since brokers generate business could you say it counts as a FO role?

      1. M&I - Nicole

        Technically, yes. But it depends on what type of role you’re referring to. “Broker” is a pretty generic term.

  2. Assuming you are good at your job, how long should you expect to work the admin and analyst positions before getting the opportunity to break into brokerage and bring in deals?

    1. M&I - Nicole

      Perhaps a few years. It depends on how good you are, your network, and how you are perceived at the firm. If they are willing to give you an opportunity to shine, and you perform well through that opportunity, it may take a few years if not less

      1. To be honest the fast track route would probably be to take the experience and rebrand yourself with a masters or mba from leading institutions with your ‘story’.

        Costly, yes. But if your networks are lacking abd you lack the funds to go to pay the entry fee for some events, it is worth a shot, in my opinion.

  3. FO analyst and cost center comparison seems a bit weird imo. What about Research, Structuring and Quant then? Or even trading for that matter.

    Having worked in BO and FO, I can definitely say work as an analyst in FO is a lot more relevant, important and has a bigger contribution towards revenue.

    We all know directors aren’t less replaceable, for all their ‘revenue generation’. It seems client contact, which is extremely overrated, is all many people on these forums consider as revenue generating work.

    PS
    I’m an analyst in structuring. “Your job will be to slave away and be at the whims…” This definitely does not hold true. Might be different for banking groups though.

    FO>>BO, forget hours and bonuses, most importantly in understanding how the business works and what drives it. Not a myth. At all.

    1. M&I - Nicole

      Thanks for your input.

  4. “3. The Glorified “Front Office Analyst” Position is a Huge Myth” Could not agree more with this! Amongst fresh college grads exists an unwholesome obsession with front office v.s. back office positions. Ignoring the differences of future prospects between the two, the reality is that at the analyst and associate levels you WILL BE an excel or powerpoint monkey. Sure you will get to attend the odd meeting, but analysts are to be seen and not heard and will not make an impact. Sure the pay is better but the hours can also be much worse

    1. Yup, the obsession is quite absurd. And I realize this site has been responsible for some of it. Many people would still be better off in the “front office,” but the differences are greatly exaggerated.

  5. I say this over and over again. Most people, especially in finance are (1) smart or (2) hardworking. Its rare that people in this industry have neither. However, most people have one of the two but not both. Its a very simple game. If you are smart and hardworking, you will do pretty well in this industry. Remember most the senior guys in this industry have been in the business for 20-30 years. Your a peanut compared to these guys who have survived mulitiple downturns. Thats success.

    1. Yup that is a very good point. Recent grads like to think they have it really tough, not realizing what you actually go through after 30 years in the industry.

  6. Great stuff as usual.

    I am enjoying the BIWS tutorials. They are my Bible.

    1. M&I - Nicole

      Thanks!

  7. Hello! thanks for your awesome article!

    I graduated from a top school have just started working in a real estate services firm (like CBRE/ Colliers/ Jones Lang), doing property investment (agency work) in Hong Kong. I also have the chance to rotate to different departments (like valuation, retail leasing, research) later…

    Could you please give me some advice/ comments? Should I do the rotation?

    What sort of career path should I be looking forwards to if I want reasonable pay/ not too crazy hours?

    Is it possible that I can go and work in an REPE firm / RE fund (perhaps doing acquisitions, asset management/ enhancement or research) maybe after 2 years coming from my background (or do they only want someone from ibank)? Are there a lot of these in HK to your knowledge?

    Many thanks again!!

    PS: Brain’s RE/ REIT modeling course is really useful, been impressing people with my knowledge entirely based on the course (I have never studied finance/business before), thanks so much for making it!!!

    1. M&I - Nicole

      I’m not quite sure what the hrs of the diff departments are like.

      Re career path, I’d leave this question to readers

      Yes there are a bunch of REPE/RE funds in HK though I don’t think their hours are short …

      Yes, Brian is the man.

    2. M&I - Andy

      I would definitely do a rotation if you had the opportunity. It will give you a chance to explore many options and will just make you a more well rounded person in general.

      As for your second question about which field to enter, I would refer you to this article: https://www.mergersandinquisitions.com/finance-investment-banking-jobs-tradeoffs/

      There is no silver bullet. You’re going to have to work hard and be good at what you do to make a comfortable living in most fields (read: find what you enjoy doing so you can put up with the required work). Even 8 hours a day doing something you hate is going to be torture.

  8. Thank you for this! I think a lot of the aspiring kids still in University (much like myself) can find this to be quite a practical guide. It’s really a matter of not giving up – especially in a field as fierce and competitive as M&A.

    You are quite lucky to have gotten that referral, Andy! Just shows that the Corporate world isn’t as heartless as some people make it out to be :P

    1. M&I - Andy

      They definitely aren’t! Finance has never been easy to break into, and most people who have done it want to lend a helping hand to those who have the cojones to ask.

  9. MuscleHacks

    Brian… more like BRAIN! Very smart guy you should thank your parents lol!

    Anyway, I had a question which I’m stumped on.

    I’m currently in the process of transferring to a target public university (University of Texas-Austin) however, I have too many hours to be admitted into the Mccombs Undergraduate business program.

    I however, will probably get into the Economics program, however, it is in the college of liberal arts and not the college of business.

    My question to you is, since recruiting occurs through the business college and only the business students have access to the mccombs career center, would I be better off Applying to SMU (Semi-target for Dallas and Houston) to their business program? Or should I go to a target school as a non business major? I’m concerned about not having the same opportunities as the business students.

    Thanks again
    MuscleHacks

    1. M&I - Nicole

      I don’t think the major you choose matters as much as the school you went to

      1. MuscleHacks

        True, but as an Econ major I won’t have access to the career center that the business majors have. UT is known for their business program. Are you sure about this?

        Thanks Nicole.

        1. If you will not have career center access, then yes, a business major is a better idea.

          In general majors by themselves do not matter that much but they do matter if you gain better or worse access to recruiters as a result of picking one or the other.

        2. M&I - Nicole

          Honestly, you’d know your situation better than I do. In my college, I was a business major but other majors had access to the career center/info sessions etc I had so it was all fair game which is why I said the name of the school matters the most.

          1. MuscleHacks

            Ahh I see, well then it’s probably game over for me because I don’t have many contacts in the industry and this was only my trump card. I guess I’ll wave to the guys driving porsches while I drive my camry :(

          2. M&I - Nicole

            Persistence and unwavering faith in yourself and your ability to achieve your goals pay off.

            You might find this book interesting. http://www.amazon.com/Think-Grow-Rich-Napoleon-Hill/dp/0449214923

  10. Thanks to you guys, another great article.

    I relate to the interviewee too in the way that IBD looked less like a dream after my first internship.

    I’m just being paranoid and wanted to make something clearer:
    There is nothing wrong with double major (except the fact that he had to go to school in summer instead of completing internships in the interviewee’s case), right?
    Obviously, I’m saying that because I’m a double major too (but I still have my summers free).

    Anyway thanks again for the output!

    1. M&I - Andy

      There is definitely nothing wrong with a double major, all it can really do is help. It might be a little strange if your majors were extremely unrelated AND rigorous (i.e. Chemical Engineering and Finance), as an interviewer might wonder what your real passion is, but it’s nothing that can’t be easily explained away by a good presentation of yourself. If you have two majors that go hand in hand (Business Marketing and Business Accounting), or a marketable paired with unmarketable major (like me with Economics and Philosophy), then you’re golden.

      All in all though, it just makes you look like a more well rounded person, and gives you one more thing that can be related to while networking!

  11. Some great advice in this article, and the story was inspiring.
    However from someone who finds himself in Back Office / Middle Office hell at a large bank right now I’d tend to disagree with the whole blurry lines between FO and BO. I’ve developed a great deal of product, commercial and deal knowledge but it is irrelevant when none of the “masters of the universe” I serve will ever ask my opinion on anything. I have very little prospect of moving to a FO role now so I’m getting out and seeking solace at a top15 bschool.

    I agree that M&A at a BB isn’t the be all and end all but your exit opportunities at such a role are inifinitely better than a BO role blurry lines or not.

    Please learn from my lesson. I went to a top undergrad but due to a lack of career focus and poor economy I got stuck in the BO. There are other options to FO Analyst positions but there are also terrible mind numbing roles that can lead to a lifetime of irrelevance.

    1. GL,

      You sound bitter about your situation and perhaps that is what is holding you back. You don’t have to work at a BB to make a lot of money or feel accomplished. I too, started my career in the “BO/MO” of a BB. I understand the frustration you feel when the “masters of the universe” look down there noses at you and blame you for things beyond your control. I took that frustration and the understanding of how impossible it can be to move from BO to FO and went a different route. I left the BB for a smaller institutional investment firm. The name of the BB on my resume does wonders at smaller firms, even if it is a BO/MO position. From there I was exposed to buy side private equity funds and now I’m working primarily within that asset class in a “front office” role. I make just as much money as anyone at a BB would make in a similar position and I’m much happier. Your future is not set in stone, you have to be willing to network like crazy and not limit yourself to just BB banks. I’ve never read a single line on this website stating that working at Goldman, DB, or JP Morgan guarantees you eternal happiness. Good luck to you.

      1. ED

        I envy your optimism and am impressed with where you have ended up. I do say I’m a bit bitter about my predicament, but I don’t feel that thats what’s holding me back.
        The point to my post was to inform aspirants that despite the fact that a FO analyst – at a BB or otherwise – is effectively still a cost centre, it is still a far better position to be in than a BO anywhere (MO/BO suck equally).

        Point is its dangerous to think that as a BO analyst you have anywhere near similar opps as a FO analyst even though neither of you are truly FO.

        As for me. I made a similar move to you a year ago. To a boutique IB. I started as an analyst, took a 50% pay cut but the work was interesting and fulfilling. But the work never came in as predicted and I along with half the company was laid off. So I went back to the BO to regroup and apply for bschool, which Im hoping to use to propel me into a fulfilling role. Wish me luck =)

        1. Yeah, I don’t think anyone would say that it’s actually better to start out in the MO/BO instead – Andy’s point was just that you are still a cost center even in the front office, at least at first.

          Opportunities are of course different, but the problem many people run into is assuming that once they’ve made it to the front office, they’re “set” for life… which isn’t even close to true.

          1. M&I - Andy

            Yes, this is the idea. It’s easier to transition to revenue origination roles from “front office” analyst positions, but the work itself in these positions are still admittedly very “back office!”

      2. ED,

        Nice post! I’m in a somewhat similar position with GL.. GL, best of luck and always be optimistic! :)

  12. Very interesting story. There is so much competition for these so called front office analyst positions its just not really worth it unless you are prepared to work like a dog for a few years… with probability of not being promoted to VP being pretty high too… the odds are pretty grim. I’m also in a similar situation since I’ve realised I do not enjoy Finance as much so I’m looking to go into a totally different industry

    1. Yup – if you’re not really into it, I can’t recommend these types of roles. There are advantages to working in IB but it’s not the only thing you can do in life, and plenty of other business roles work as well.

  13. Great read!!! I guess you can still find success as long as you work hard at it and most importantly enjoy what you do!

    1. Yes, pretty much. IB is not the end-all. And you can still make a lot of money in other fields.

    2. M&I - Andy

      I couldn’t agree more. There’s always bags of money waiting for people who are willing to work hard and provide value, whatever the niche may be. And no amount of money is worth doing something you don’t enjoy for the rest of your life.

  14. I thoroughly enjoy reading these pieces.
    Straight and to the point without an air of superiority or hyping what finance is all about.
    Thank you :)

    1. Thanks! Andy may drop by later to answer any questions.

      1. Perfect.
        Thanks

  15. This story lines up exactly with what I’ve seen in the financial industry as well. People really don’t care where you went to school if you can do the work. When you first enter the industry after school the lines between back office and front can be quite blurred. Often times operations are asked their opinions on investments and even sit in on deal flow meetings with front office investment staff. It is also a lot easier to move from “back office” positions to front office at institutional investment firms where typically the staff sizes are smaller.

    1. Yeah, pretty much. I think there’s still some elitism at the “top” banks and PE firms but at most places they really don’t care about pedigree so much as ability.

    2. M&I - Andy

      Yep, what school you went to is something that firms sometimes use to “weed” applicants out, but once you are in, people have better things to worry about.

      And you are right, at smaller firms, many many people are directly involved in the deal process. Working in the “back office” could be a great way to break in as long as you don’t let yourself get pigeonholed.

  16. Great statement about “cost center”! So how do you make the leap to revenue origination role?

    1. You advance up the ladder until the late associate / VP level, when you actually start bringing in deals. You do that by performing well and by always asking to do more.

      And it happens earlier in trading and on the buy-side – even associates in PE are expected source investment ideas at many places, and you need to come up with at least a few good leads that might eventually turn into good investments.

    2. M&I - Andy

      Brian nailed it. As an analyst, your main focus should be learning as much as you can about the numbers/marketing side of the deal. That way, when it comes time to build your own book of clients, you can actually talk the talk to win business. Once you understand how assets are valued and how marketing packages are put together, it becomes possible to convince other people that you are the best person to sell their assets.

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