From Big 4 Restructuring to Investment Banking: How to Make the Leap
“Help! I hate my accounting job and want to move into banking, what do I do?”
“What group should I transfer to if I want to get into finance?”
“My Big 4 salary doesn’t give me enough cash for bottles!”
If you’re at a Big 4 firm right now, you’ve had one of the thoughts above before – maybe multiple times.
We covered how to move from accounting to investment banking before, but this time around there’s a different twist – an interview with a reader who moved from a Big 4 restructuring group to investment banking.
Here’s how he made the leap, and how you can do the same:
Background & Culture
Q: Let’s start with your background – how’d you end up at the Big 4 firm, and what did you do before that?
A: Sure. I actually started out as an athlete, and played at the college level for a few years before I got a serious injury that ended my career.
Then, I transferred to a smaller and lesser-known school in the Midwest, and got more interested in finance once I knew that being a professional athlete was no longer an option.
The investment banking industry is smaller in the Midwest, but there are still a few local banks there and they were doing a lot of distressed M&A deals for the auto industry, so I started contacting them and asking about internships each week.
After a ton of networking, one bank finally caved in and decided that they needed an intern – so I joined and got to help out with a few live deals there.
As graduation approached, I continued networking and found a few guys who used to work at a very well-known PE firm.
They had just started a lower middle-market fund just for family/small-business investments, and they needed some analysis done on Project Finance-type investments (power plants and such). I volunteered to do the modeling for that, and they were impressed with my work and turned it into a full-time internship.
Since I had so much experience in restructuring, I went to a restructuring group at a Big 4 firm after my internship at the middle-market PE fund. I stayed there for around a year, and then recently moved to a bulge bracket bank.
Q: That’s a great story – before we jump into it in more detail, I think a lot of readers might wonder what it’s like working at a Big 4 firm in their restructuring group.
We’ve covered the work and culture in IB and PE before, so how would you say the Big 4 firm compared to those?
A: There was definitely a skill set overlap – we did lots of cash flow modeling, presentations to lenders, and distressed M&A deals where we advised the company on selling, restructuring, or bankruptcy options. We also worked with the big auto companies, so you got good exposure to their finance teams.
The financial modeling and deal skills were similar, but there was a big cultural difference because we only worked on 1-2 projects at once and the hours were very, very tame. I only worked on one weekend, and a “late night” was staying to 8 or 9 PM.
Q: Why do you think there’s that cultural difference? Deals are still deals, so I don’t understand how you could “choose” to be less busy if you’re working with Fortune 500 clients all the time.
A: It’s mostly because financial advisory services were a very small part of what the firm did. At an M&A boutique bank, 100% of revenue comes from advisory, but at this Big 4 firm advisory accounted for maybe 2% of revenue.
Their focus was accounting/audit and consulting – they had investment banking and restructuring services, but they were an afterthought next to everything else there.
Q: OK, so it sounds like they consciously chose not to take on as much business as they could have since it wasn’t their core focus.
Obviously you did well moving into banking from restructuring, but what other groups would be good if you wanted to make the Big 4 to IB move?
A: As you’ve mentioned before, Transaction Advisory Services (TAS) can be good since you get exposed to bankers in some scenarios.
But I don’t think it’s necessarily the best group all the time because many TAS groups focus on accounting and due diligence, and you may not get exposed to valuation, financial modeling, or other aspects of the deal. They may also spend a lot of time on tasks that bankers don’t care about, such as making sure that working capital requirements are met when a deal closes.
So I would recommend looking at the internal middle-market banks that all Big 4 firms have – they do mostly sell-side advisory, and while it’s not comparable to the experience you’d get at a real bank, it’s closer than most other groups at the Big 4. Here are links to each firm’s internal bank:
- Deloitte – Corporate Finance
- KPMG – Corporate Finance
- PricewaterhouseCoopers – Corporate Finance & Investment Banking Services
- Ernst & Young – Transactions
And then anything transaction-related – like the restructuring group I was in – could work as well.
Networking & Interviews
Q: Can you talk about the networking you did to get the bulge bracket offer? What was the best source for finding contacts and meeting bankers?
A: Keep in mind that I had been networking all along, ever since I got my original internship via aggressive cold-calling.
So it was just continuing what I had already started – I took the Big 4 offer knowing that I still wanted to move into banking and would have to continue networking.
It was difficult to find bankers at first because few alumni worked in finance, I didn’t have co-workers I could reliably ask, and headhunters were useless unless you had at least some full-time work experience.
Q: So where did you find bankers if not through the usual sources like your alumni database?
A: A couple ways:
- High School Contacts – Even though my university had few alumni in finance, there were quite a lot from my high school who worked in the industry.
- Random Online Contact – I would just go through LinkedIn and look up bankers in the Midwest and start reaching out them like that.
- Cold-Calling/Emailing – This is how I got my first internship. It’s time-consuming and has a low hit rate, but it does work.
- Upscale Gyms – I joined a few higher-end gyms in my area and ran into a bunch of financiers there. I met a few bankers, people in private wealth management, management and turnaround consultants, and even a PE Partner like that.
All of that helped, but the most helpful thing for me was always asking, “I’m interviewing with this group / interested in this area – do you know anyone else I could speak with?”
I got tons of referrals with that line at the end of each call or meeting. It sounds very simple, but you’d be surprised at how many people are too afraid to make simple requests in a conversation.
Q: I really like the tip about upscale gyms; it reminds me of Gordon Gekko playing racquetball.
So it sounds like your networking was pretty similar to what we’ve covered here before with getting names and contact information, setting up informational interviews, and then following up aggressively.
How did you spin your resume when you were applying, since the Big 4 firm was your only full-time experience?
A: I actually downplayed the Big 4 experience, because I felt my banking internship and my work at the middle-market PE fund were both more relevant. So I focused on those and described my transaction experience using the template you’ve suggested before.
For my Big 4 experience, I focused on the valuation and modeling work and left out anything that was closer to accounting/audit.
Even though I had worked in restructuring there, I was interested in moving to industry or M&A groups in investment banking, so I didn’t want to make myself look too specialized by writing 100% about restructuring or distressed deals.
Q: That makes sense, and it’s great advice for anyone who has worked in a more specialized group and wants to move elsewhere.
What about the interviews themselves? Were they mostly technical or deal experience-focused?
A: They focused a lot on my deal experience – and more my experience at the bank and PE firm rather than in my restructuring group.
There were technical questions, but they were more curious about why certain deals happened, potential complications, and what I thought of the valuation and the process for different companies.
For some of the industry groups, a key question was “Why this industry?” They get a lot of people who don’t know why they want to work with financial institutions or industrial companies or whatever they cover.
Q: We covered a few possible answers to that one before, but what did you say?
A: In my final year of university I had completed a finance course where we valued companies in different industries, so I used that as my “spark” to show them how I got interested at first.
It didn’t work for every industry group, but by using that I could at least talk about my interest in the more common ones, like energy, financial institutions, and industrials.
I also used a few of your industry-specific modeling courses to demonstrate my interest and they were really impressed with that, since hardly anyone else had gone to the effort of completing entire case studies on these companies.
Q: I’m surprised by that one, because we generally tell customers that the industry-specific courses are more helpful once you’re already working – but you found them useful for interviews as well?
And these were lateral interviews at the top bulge bracket banks – even there most other interviewees still hadn’t done as much as preparation as you might expect.
Q: Well, glad to hear the courses were helpful!
It seems like the interview process was straightforward for you, but I’m sure bankers had at least a few “objections” to your background. What were the key issues, and how did you overcome them?
A: Their main concern was that my academic experience looked very spotty.
I had taken a year off after I got my injury back in college, and then had to enroll in another school and ended up missing another semester, so it looked like I had taken forever to graduate and had been to school twice.
Some bankers just focused on that for 100% of the interview – they asked about all my gaps in education and why I had gone to schools they never heard of.
I answered those questions by explaining that for my first 2 years in university, I was practicing constantly, still doing well in school, and working 1-2 part-time jobs at the same time. So I spun a negative into a positive, and pointed out that I was working crazy hours a good portion of the time and could therefore handle the hours of a bulge bracket bank.
And then I also had my previous IB and PE internships, so they weren’t too concerned by the end.
What If? And the Future
Q: Since you had those internships, you had 100% relevant experience when applying to larger banks.
But what advice would you give someone who’s at a Big 4 firm in some other role, like audit? What should they do if they have no transaction experience and want to get into IB?
A: First, get out of audit immediately. Do something – anything – more stimulating.
People make fun of investment banking for being mindless work, but in my opinion audit is even worse because it’s so mundane.
At least with deals, you witness drama as different buyers and sellers express interest, back out, make different proposals, and negotiate. In audit you’re staring at numbers all day unless you happen to uncover the next Enron.
Most Big 4 firms are fine with internal transfers – it’s often easier than it is at a bank. Sometimes the Partner you’re working for may take it personally, but that depends on your group.
You should reach out to the other group you’re interested in first, contact people there, and make sure they know what you’re interested in doing before you even run the idea by your current boss.
The Big 4 firms all have lots of events and internal mixers where professionals in different areas can meet each other, so it’s easier to get to know other groups than it would be in IB – most people don’t work more than 50-60 hours per week, so they have the time to help you.
You really have no excuse not to move to a group that’s more closely related to banking – I would recommend restructuring, valuation, internal M&A, and TAS as your best options.
Q: It’s interesting to hear that the internal transfer may be easier at Big 4 firms, but I guess the culture is just more relaxed across the board.
So now that you’ve won this bulge bracket offer, what’s next for you? Will you stay at your new bank for some time, or are you thinking about moving to the buy-side?
A: Unlike most other bankers, I’m actually interested in staying in IB for the long-term.
Back when I was interviewing for this role, a number of distressed investment funds also approached me, but I wasn’t interested in PE back then and I’m not interested now, either.
My key issue is that you must put your own money to work to progress in PE.
It’s not just Partners investing the fund’s capital – they also put in their own funds, so a poor investment could wipe out a good chunk of your personal savings.
Yes, the pay ceiling is higher and you could make mind-boggling money – but let’s be honest, at the MD/Partner-level, the average is about the same in both industries. The outliers in PE make far more, but for me the risk isn’t worth it.
The other issue is that private equity is much less of a team environment than banking, and coming from an athletic background I enjoy working in teams more than the solo work that you see in PE.
Q: That makes a lot of sense, and that point you raised about putting your own money to work is a great one that often goes overlooked. Thanks again for taking the time out to chat, I learned a lot!
A: You’re welcome, it was my pleasure.
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Money, Hours, Models, Bottles: Investment Banking in New York, California, and Everywhere In Between
“Are you guys even in the office past 8 PM? Whenever I call no one’s there.”
“New York is hella lame, people are so much better out here.”
“If you say ‘hella’ again I’m going to make you pay for the bottles next time – and maybe the models too.”
“Fine, I’ll do some research and see what I can send over. NY is still overhyped, though.”
No, it’s not a short story or a new TV show about bankers – it’s a banker from NYC and one from San Francisco talking to each other.
And you read that headline correctly: today you’ll learn how banking differs in different regions of the US rather than going off on adventures to distant lands.
As one reader pointed out a while back, “Hearing about all these different countries is great, but what about how banking is different on the east coast vs. west coast of the US and everywhere in between?”
The Most Common – and Wrong – Arguments
Many people claim that the pay and hours differ significantly and that New York is more “hardcore” than other regions.
That makes sense intuitively: New York is the biggest financial center and the biggest deals tend to happen there.
But in practice, these differences are greatly exaggerated – pay is standardized at the junior levels in finance and bonuses depend more on your bank and group rather than the city you’re in.
At the senior levels, geographic differences become more important because certain offices have better deal flow and clients, and senior bankers’ bonuses depend 100% on performance.
New York bankers like to argue that they work way more than people in other regions, but there are no scientifically controlled surveys to support these claims.
Yes, maybe the hours are somewhat worse since more deals happen there – but we’re talking a difference of 85 hours per week vs. 90 hours per week: you still won’t have a life.
So the more substantial differences have nothing to do with pay or hours, but rather the industries covered, the cost of living, and the exit opportunities.
And yes, I’ll address the ever-popular models/bottles, networking, and a few other points as well.
This is the main difference – banks in the top 5 cities for finance in the US focus on a different industry:
- NYC: Diversified
- Chicago: Industrials
- Houston: Oil & Gas
- San Francisco: Technology / Healthcare
- Los Angeles: Gaming & Lodging / Media
There is no “best” because it depends on what you want to do in the future and how certain you are of your career.
Some of these fields are more specialized than others; something like oil & gas requires more specific knowledge than tech or healthcare since energy companies play by different rules and require different valuation methodologies.
So if you’re already interested in a specific industry, it may be a good idea to start out in the region that focuses on that industry – but if you have no idea yet, New York is the safest bet.
Just as actors get typecast, you will get more and more pigeonholed as you move up the ladder, so you need to consider these options carefully.
One friend worked on a telecom deal at a small VC firm, then got placed into the telecom group at a boutique bank, and was then placed into the telecom group at a bulge bracket bank.
Effectively, he became “the telecom guy” all because of one small deal he worked on ages ago.
And it’s even worse once you move beyond banking: good luck interviewing for that hedge fund that wants people with European telecom merger arbitrage experience if you don’t have any.
But What About Deal Flow?
“But,” you rightly point out, “There’s a difference between deal flow, hours, and industries covered – even if you’re working a lot, you might just be building pitch books all day. And what if your industry isn’t ‘hot’ at the moment?”
I don’t disagree with you there, but it’s almost impossible to determine deal flow of specific offices without talking to real people.
So if you’re such an overachiever that you’re going to pick your bank and group based on deal flow and exit opportunities, go talk to people at the different offices you’re considering and see what they say – but keep a critical eye open because they’re likely to oversell you on everything.
And no, I’m not going to rank cities and groups by deal flow here since that changes quite frequently and since you’re likely an obsessive-compulsive person already if you’re reading this.
Cost of Living
In ancient times, New York was the most expensive city in terms of real estate, taxes, food, and so on.
Now, however, San Francisco is actually more expensive, or at least as expensive, due to the tech boom and the number of high-paid startup employees there (as of 2015).
So you are not likely to save much money during the year in either place; it’s also a bad idea to live in New Jersey or another location outside the main city to save money, since you might go insane in what little free time you have.
The “cost of living” ranking looks something like this:
- NYC ~= SF > LA > Chicago > Houston
You will save the most money working in Houston because Texas has no state income tax, rent is ridiculously cheap, bottles are less pricey, and even the models are less demanding and will give your wallet less of a workout.
Cost of living shouldn’t be your top concern, but you should be aware of it.
Finance people are notorious for making millions of dollars and then blowing it all on luxury spending – so pay attention if you want to retire on more than $50K in that savings account you forgot about.
One other note: driving will be required in most of these places, especially in a city like LA where there is no public viable transportation.
So if you hate driving and owning a car, your best bet is New York.
NOTE: Ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft are actually changing this dynamic.
If you live relatively close to the office, you might be able to take one of those to and from work every day and gain some peace of mind in the process.
The main problem with exit opportunities is that it’s hard to interview when you’re far away.
You need to take time off work by using questionable excuses, hope people don’t notice your repeated absences, and then visit the firm enough times to seal the deal.
Since New York to SF or LA is a 5-6 hour trek, it’s not easy to hop from banking on one coast to the buy-side on the other coast. Pretty much all the analysts I knew in California stayed there, and pretty much all the ones in New York stayed on the east coast.
So you’re more likely to stay in your first region unless you can pull off in-person trips or interview entirely via video conference (unlikely for traditional exit opportunities).
Again, people like to argue that New York has “better” exit opportunities, but plenty of analysts on the west coast and elsewhere get into mega-funds as well; it’s just that they work at local offices rather than in NYC.
One legitimate difference is that there are more exit opportunities in New York just because it’s the biggest financial center.
And you also run into the pigeonholing problem if you start out in another region: go to Houston and you’ll more than likely recruit only for energy-focused PE firms and hedge funds.
But aside from those differences, the actual quality of exit opportunities doesn’t differ as much as you might expect.
Networking opportunities are another more significant difference, and one that people overlook all the time.
Since NYC is much bigger than the other regions, you’ll simply meet more people there and you’ll be better equipped to network your way into other roles.
Just as with other financial centers like Hong Kong and London, sometimes half the people you meet in NYC will be in finance (the other half will be “aspiring” artists or models, which is great for you as a financier).
How much does the quality of networking really matter?
It depends how certain you are of your “career path” – if you’re interested in doing tech banking and then doing venture capital in California, you’re better off starting in SF and networking with tech and VC groups there.
But if you have no industry preference, you’ll gain more options by starting out in New York.
How to Satisfy the Models
Ah, now to the fun part.
The main difference is that the New York models tend to be higher-maintenance, more expensive, and more demanding; LA comes close since everyone is required to get plastic surgery, but you’ll still spend more overall in NYC.
But flashing around wads of cash also doesn’t impress as much in New York because $200K is barely middle class – not enough to satisfy models who are expecting a new bag every day.
In all seriousness, you really will spend a lot more money going out in New York if you actually enjoy it.
LA and SF can also be expensive, while Chicago and Houston are more reasonable. Some also argue that people in the South and Midwest are “friendlier” but I don’t want to get into a debate over that one.
I’m not qualified to comment on the quality of men in each place, other than to say that SF is probably the worst place to find hot guys unless you’re into tech guys with a ton of money from startups.
(Yes, a female friend recently asked if there were a lot of tall, muscular blonde guys in SF and I started laughing.)
“Aha,” you say, “But even if the pay and hours are not much different, surely they must ask completely different interview questions in each region, right?”
Sorry to disappoint, but no, not really.
No one sits down and says, “Well, in Chicago we should ask this specific set of questions but in Houston it will be completely different.”
Once again, the main difference comes down to the industry focus: you don’t need to be an expert on the industry of focus in each city, but you should know something about recent deals and any industry-specific valuation methodologies.
It’s not really “easier” or “harder” to get into finance in different cities – there are fewer spots outside of New York, but there’s also less competition.
Yes, there are banks in places besides NYC, Chicago, Houston, SF, and LA – but the offices tend to be much smaller and they don’t always recruit on-campus.
Other cities with a presence in finance include Boston (similar to SF due to the industry focus), Washington, DC (aerospace/defense), Atlanta (lots of wealth management), Miami (healthcare, Latin America), Dallas (got equities?) and maybe a few others.
I can’t recommend starting out in these places if you have the option to go to one of the 5 major centers listed above.
Maybe if you’re interested in only a very specific industry, like aerospace and defense, then DC makes sense – but you’ll be at a disadvantage in terms of deal flow and exit opportunities.
A lot of boutiques are also based in other regions, so you should jump at the opportunity if you have nothing lined up in a bigger city – but otherwise, stick to the top 5 above.
Outside of IB: Sales & Trading, Hedge Funds, and More
You run into the same differences in other fields like private equity, sales & trading, hedge funds, and asset management: a different industry focus and more geographically limited exit opportunities.
Some cities also tend to be stronger in certain fields.
For example, Chicago is great for prop trading and the SF Bay Area is the spot to be for venture capital.
One downside to any type of markets-based role such as trading or hedge funds is that you have to wake up very early if you’re on the west coast because you work New York market hours.
If you’re fine waking up at 4 AM, getting off work at 5 PM, and sleeping at 9 PM every night, you might be OK; if you’re not a morning person, though, you may want to stay away.
So, Where Should You Work?
If you have absolutely no idea what you want to do and don’t mind spending more money, New York is your best option – there’s more networking, more opportunities, bigger deals, and you don’t even have to drive.
But if you have a more specific goal such as going into VC, joining a tech startup, or working in the oil & gas industry, you could make a good argument for starting out in a different city.
There may be slight differences in pay, hours, and how much you save in your first year (with bigger differences on that last one), but those don’t matter much in the long-term.
To figure out which office has the best deal flow, network with bankers and ask directly – that information changes quickly and you’re always better off going straight to the source.
And whatever else happens, make sure you don’t end up doing equities in Dallas.
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From London to the Middle East: How to Break Into Investment Banking in Dubai
The interviewee you’re about to hear from went from spotty A-Level performance and low first-year university grades to multiple bulge bracket offers.
And if you think that’s impressive, you’ll also learn all about:
- How to apply to both London and Dubai, and how different banks recruit in both places.
- The key differences in the recruiting timeline and interviews.
- Whether or not networking “works” – and the best way to break into Dubai if you live halfway around the world.
- What to do if you’re already working full-time and want to move to the Middle East.
Let’s get started.
How to Spend 4 Years on Your A-Levels and Still Come Out Ahead
Q: You mentioned you had poor grades and A-Levels – what exactly was your background? And what was your connection to Dubai?
A: My only connection to Dubai is that I was born in the Middle East and knew a little Arabic – but other than that I had spent my entire life in the UK.
My story began before I ever reached university, when I failed every single A-Level after my first year studying for them – and in the UK if you don’t immediately pass those exams after 2 years, few target schools will accept you.
Part of it was because my parents wanted me to do medicine, which I had no interest in. So I switched schools, and then changed my A-Level subjects to math, business, and I.C.T. instead, and passed those after 2 years with average results.
But by then I had taken 3 years altogether just to pass my A-Levels, so things weren’t going so well.
Then, after I got into a university here, I didn’t enjoy my courses and didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life. By the time I had figured out what career I was chasing, I was 3 months into my course at university but knew something had to change.
I knew that getting first round interviews at banks would be incredibly difficult because of my A-Level performance, lack of experience and being based so far away from any sort of networking hub such as London.
Q: At this point I would tell someone, “Study harder or start networking like crazy to have a shot at breaking in.” What did you do?
A: Neither one – I decided to change universities yet again, and got accepted to a different school by improving my A-Levels one more time. So now I had spent 4 years just getting my test scores up to a reasonable level.
This time around, I moved to London and completed all my classes there because I knew how important networking was.
I met lots of people in finance there, including some fairly high-up senior bankers at global firms – just from being out and about and chatting with people.
Q: Let me stop you right there because that sounds a little unbelievable – you networked with bankers just by bumping into them in bars and such?
A: It may sound ridiculous, but keep in mind that there’s an extremely high concentration of banker and finance-types in London, especially when you’re close to The City. So if you go out or even go to events there, you’re likely to bump into bankers.
It is random and it won’t always work, but I think you’d find a similar situation in other financial centers like New York and Hong Kong, and I’m not the only one of my friends that has had this experience.
Q: Fair point; pretty much everyone I’ve ever met in Hong Kong has worked in finance. So you’re out and about, networking with all these bankers – what happened next?
A: Toward the end of my first year at university I was offered a summer rotational internship, more on the markets side, at a global bank and spent 10 weeks there.
I also did a spring week at a different bank and another spring week in the corporate finance division of a Big 4 firm.
M&I Note: For non-European readers, a “spring week” is the opportunity to come in and shadow people at a bank for a few days – sort of like a mini-internship, but it’s more about how well you present yourself and network rather than your work performance, since you can’t do much real work.
They’re most common in Europe (and pretty much non-existent in the US), but you may also see them in other regions.
Q: Right, so what was this internship like?
A: They had no structured program for first-year students, so I did a rotation between capital markets, sales, trading, research, and more. I wasn’t doing much hands-on work – it was more just shadowing other people and helping them with random tasks.
But I told them at the beginning that I was more interested in investment banking rather than markets, and made this point again at the end of the internship.
They told me to apply online like everyone else – I wasn’t going to get special treatment just because I had completed this this internship, but completing it certainly gave my CV a huge boost. My decision to switch schools had paid off instantly.
Applying to Dubai
Q: Right, so let’s talk about how you applied for internships the next year. What was the process like and how many firms did you apply to?
A: I applied to around 50 banks, ranging from boutiques to bulge brackets, with roughly an 80/20 split between London and Dubai. I wanted to hedge myself because I figured Dubai might be slightly easier to break into, but might also be more difficult since I wasn’t on the ground networking.
I also knew that if I wanted to work in Dubai full-time, I would need an internship there to maximize my chances.
I applied to a few banks in Abu Dhabi and New York as well, but the focus was definitely London and Dubai.
Q: So when you say “applied to London and Dubai,” were you actually submitting separate applications to both offices? Or did London handle most of the Middle East recruiting?
A: Many banks do their Middle East recruiting via London – so most of the time I was actually applying to London and just indicating my interest in Dubai on the form.
And many banks start with in-person interviews in London first even if they’re recruiting for Dubai.
It does vary a bit by bank, and a few bulge brackets (e.g. GS and CS) are actually regional and recruit through Dubai – if that’s the case, you can’t apply directly via London recruiting and you have to network your way into interviews instead (this is specifically for summer internships – GS does recruit for Dubai full-time analysts initially through London).
For banks that didn’t recruit people directly, I just went through LinkedIn and looked up everyone I could find, and then sent my CV and cover letter directly to them.
Q: So you did a mix of formal applications and networking with people via LinkedIn.
But from experience, I know that contacting people online without talking on the phone or meeting in-person isn’t too helpful – so I’m assuming you also visited the region at some point?
A: Yeah, I was just about to mention that. In London, universities like LSE and Imperial College conduct trips to Dubai and open them up to 6-7 different universities. On these trips, they go around meeting with different banks and you get to network as much as you want.
Going on these university-sponsored trips to Dubai is the single best way to network your way into interviews in Dubai.
It’s possible to get in without networking – one of the offers I won came from a blind application and simply getting through interviews – but your odds are much higher if you go there in-person.
Q: Right, but what if you’re already out of school and working full-time? Or what if your school isn’t invited on these trips?
A: There were actually a few people who had already graduated and still went on these trips with us, so it’s not much of an issue.
And you can always find a way to go there even if you’re at a different school – just explain who you are, say you’re really interested in the region, and that you want to go along on their trip. There are so many students there that an extra one won’t raise eyebrows.
Q: So if you want to work somewhere like Dubai, you pretty much have to go there and do some networking on the ground, in-person, and then leverage that to get interviews?
A: Yes. You can get lucky and get offers without doing that, but to maximize your chances you really need to go there.
Long-distance networking just doesn’t work that well – you build a stronger connection and come across as far more serious if you go there in-person.
CVs, Interviews, and More
Q: OK, so you’ve applied to all these banks via networking and formal applications, and you’ve submitted your CV and cover letter. How are they different from what you might see in the UK? What are they looking for in Dubai?
A: The biggest difference is that they want someone with a genuine commitment to the region.
A lot of people want to go to Dubai just to avoid taxes, and they can see right through that – if they look at your CV and have no idea why you’re interested in Dubai, you’re out.
Your reason could be anything: maybe you have family in the Middle East, maybe you were born there or studied there, or maybe you have friends there.
I had an advantage since I knew the language and had a name that “looked” Middle Eastern, but anything could work if you’re creative enough.
And if you have no connections to the region, get them – you could always just travel there on your own or go on a university-sponsored event like I mentioned before.
Q: Right, so CVs are pretty much the same, but you must demonstrate some kind connection to the region. What about interviews?
A: One difference is that you must apply early in London or you have no chance – summer internship applications open in September, and I didn’t submit mine until late October, which pretty much ruined my chances.
In Dubai, though, summer recruiting starts in April with the exception of the banks that let you apply there directly via online applications for their EMEA recruitment (e.g.UBS and Citi).
The interviews themselves were not all that different – here’s what I encountered:
- Bulge Bracket A: Had 2 competency-based interviews in the first round (with an analyst and associate), a second round with an associate and VP, a third round with a VP and someone from HR, and a fourth round with a VP and MD. The first round was over the phone, and all the rest were in-person at their office in Dubai.
- Bulge Bracket B: The first round was a mix of competency and technical questions, and then the next round was all competency and market awareness-type questions. I had 2 interviews in their London office for the first round, and then did 2 phone interviews with people in Dubai. And for the final round, I still went through an assessment center as you normally would in the UK.
- Bulge Bracket C: Overall they were more technical in the first few rounds, but the final round was mostly competency questions once again.
In Dubai, they asked broader questions about everything from accounting to valuation to options, whereas in London they cared more about traditional topics.
But in London you apply to specific desks/groups, and so the questions are more straightforward and closer to the typical banking interview questions.
Q: That makes sense – it’s interesting to hear how much more “random” Dubai internships are.
What about the role of language skills? Do you think knowing Arabic made a big difference?
A: Not really. I was in Dubai for weeks and didn’t even use Arabic when I was there – it did help with networking and building connections, though, since I could use it as evidence of my connection to the region.
Only 2-3 banks said that Arabic knowledge was required, but I think it becomes more important at the senior levels (VP and MD). A big chunk of banks’ business comes from sovereign wealth funds, so you need the language to have a good shot at winning business.
That’s not to say that you can’t get by without it; I just think it would make your life much easier at the senior level.
Q: That’s interesting, because it contradicts what one of our other interviewees from Dubai said about a lot of business in the region being conducted in English – who’s right?
A: It’s hard to say since I haven’t started working yet – but it’s also an issue of culture as well as language.
One MD I met had worked in New York previously, and when he moved over as a VP he picked up on a lot of the cultural differences the hard way (e.g., you shouldn’t kiss a business partner’s wife’s cheek!).
I don’t think you “need” the language to advance necessarily, but it’s a big help because it lets you bond with clients more effectively.
Q: We mostly talked about bulge bracket recruiting – do boutiques have a presence there? Did you apply to any boutiques?
A: There are some “elite boutiques” (Moelis, Perella Weinberg in Abu Dhabi, etc.) here, but only around 6-7 total. And none of them recruits into Dubai directly at the junior levels.
So you’d have to find the name of a Partner at one of these places, and then contact him/her via LinkedIn or other means.
It is much, much easier to work at bulge brackets here because many boutiques only have 3-4 bankers total in their Dubai offices – they don’t have a huge need for junior bankers when the office is that small. They would just outsource any technical/deal work to London instead.
Q: You had quite a few advantages since you were still in school, went on this trip to Dubai, and had a connection to the region.
But what if you have none of that and you’re working full-time – what’s the best way to break in?
A: As I mentioned, there were a number of people with years of full-time experience who went on our trip, as well as grad students. So it’s always an option if you can take time off from work.
If you’re already in banking and want to move to Dubai, it’s easiest to push for an internal transfer and go through your current bank. About half the bankers I met out there had come through an internal transfer.
And if you really know no one in the region and can’t break in yourself, you might want to go back to school for a Master’s program somewhere in London, and then leverage that to network and go on these trips to the Middle East.
Q: So you don’t think headhunters would work very well?
A: I haven’t come across a single headhunter or recruitment agency that focuses on the region. Here, they really value direct relationships with people and meeting you face-to-face.
You’re better off contacting bankers, traveling here, and meeting up with them in-person – headhunters aren’t that effective, and they’re even less effective if you don’t have full-time work experience.
Q: What’s your view of Dubai in the long-term? Do you think they’ll ever finish all those buildings?
A: Well, I’m definitely interested in living in the Middle East once again and going back to my roots.
Around a year ago, I was not so certain about Dubai itself and doubted its sustainability, given how it was built and how many unfinished buildings there are – it’s an eerie feeling going there. You look around and say, “This place needs more people.”
But recently things have picked up and that’s primarily the motivation behind my decision to build my career there. Investors seem to be regaining confidence in the Emirate (Just take a look at the triple oversubscribed Dubai bonds issues recently). There is still a lot of opportunity there and I certainly see people moving back and the city recovering.
I think Abu Dhabi is a lot more sustainable in the short-term, and even if Dubai declines (which I doubt Abu Dhabi would allow), Abu Dhabi won’t be so affected. A lot of banks and sovereign wealth funds are also opening offices in Qatar, so that could be an interesting place to work in as well.
Sovereign wealth funds are engaged in lots of cross-border activity and are literally buying up anything they can, and I can see that continuing for quite some time.
In short, I’m optimistic about the Middle East as a whole and think there’s still a lot of opportunity there – over the next decade we will see many competitors in the region fighting to take over Dubai’s dominance, and competition is always healthy.
Q: Very interesting to hear from an insider in the region (even if you haven’t started working there quite yet). Thanks for sharing your story!
A: No problem; enjoyed the chat.
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