I recently left my job as an investment banking analyst to pursue something more entrepreneurial. While it’s the right time for me to move on, I’ve learned an incredible amount over the last 18 months and want to share a couple lessons I’ve learned along the way.
The points I expand upon are a couple of my favorite lessons from a list that has been floating around Wall Street.
While this post is told from the point of view of an investment banking analyst, these lessons can be broadly applied and are especially relevant for entry level positions.
“I Don’t Know” is a Good Answer
The first couple days on the job every colleague will tell a first year analyst, “You have a couple months where there is no such thing as a stupid question.” While I don’t believe this is completely true, I think that knowing your limitations and asking for help is one of the best qualities an analyst can have. In my opinion, intelligence has much more to do with experience than raw talent; if you don’t know how to do something it is likely because you’ve never been exposed to that task. Don’t try to pretend you know how to do everything and let your ego get in the way of learning. Instead, ask for help. First ask your fellow colleagues (i.e. first year analysts if you just started), and then if they don’t know slowly move up the food chain. This rule doesn’t just apply to your first 3 months on the job. If you’re not consistently asking questions it means you are not pushing yourself to learn more and get better at what you do.
There are a lot of type-A personalities in investment banking. Having usually done fairly well in school their whole lives, analysts come into the program thinking they know everything. DCF - check. Accretion / Dilution - check. Excel skills - check. The reality is that most of the stuff you learn in school will be completely useless on the job. Instead of being able to regurgitate theories and case studies, what will become important is learning the specifics of your new environment. From formatting ppt slides to financial models, there is no objective “right” and “wrong”; instead, it is “how your boss likes it” and “wrong.” In order to be successful, it is important to be humble and try to learn as much as possible about how the people you work with like stuff to be done.
Attention to Detail is Critical
Most incoming analysts understand the importance of attention to detail. However, most people think about it in terms of numbers. While there is no question that the accuracy of numbers is very important, attention to detail for non-critical tasks (i.e. formatting, email signatures) is just as important. As a new analyst, your first tasks will likely not involve complicated financial models. Most errors you make and markups you receive will be related to formatting (consistent fonts, alignment, decimal places). Only once you show you can perform these tasks quickly and accurately will you be given more responsibility.
If You Think About it, There is Usually an Easier Way
Bankers love to throw man hours at tasks. One reason for this is that it is a very competitive industry and people love to show they are working hard. One way to show you are working hard is to work long hours. However, a lot of the time there is usually a much more efficient way to complete any given task, which relates to a good quote from Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hansson’s Rework:
“Workaholics aren’t heroes. They don’t save the day, they just use it up. The real hero is already home because she figured out a faster way to get things done.”
While there is no question that investment banking requires very long hours, many tasks are done inefficiently. One way to become more efficient is putting in extra work upfront. As an investment banking analyst, examples include building easy-to-use and dynamic excel backups and learning the functionality of common tools and databases like Excel, Outlook, CapIQ and FactSet. There are so many neat shortcuts and good resources that can save you an incredible amount of time in the long run if you put in the time and effort upfront. In addition to saving time, I’ve also noticed that automating processes helps with accuracy. Below are a couple of my favorite shortcuts and functions (we used Microsoft XP and Office 2007):
Excel / PowerPoint - F12: Shortcut for “Save As,” great for quickly saving new versions of documents (also a big fan of version control w/ military time, i.e. Model_v1.22.13_1300)
Excel - F5, alt + S, O, X: A shortcut to find hardcoded numbers in excel, perfect for helping make sure your file is accurate, especially useful when using previous files that may not follow banker excel etiquette (i.e. inputs blue, formulas black, other sheets green, and red for caution)
Outlook - Ctrl + Shift + V: shortcut to archive emails into personal folders in outlook, allowing you to save time while keeping organized
Microsoft - Making keyboard shortcuts to commonly used files: Probably all banks work off of shared networks, and in order to to access these files you have to navigate through a lot of different folders. That’s a lot of double clicks. Make a shortcut folder, and assign a keyboard shortcut. For example, to access our shared “Technology” folder I would just press “Ctrl + shift + t”
Excel - Alt, M, M, D: This shortcut allows you to name cells in excel. Instead of having to constantly reference commonly used assumptions in far away cells (i.e. tax rate, company name, ticker) this allows you to quickly call that cell by typing the intuitive name you give it). It also makes your models easier to understand. Instead of seeing “A4 [Other Tab]B2” in the formula bar, users of your model will see “A4 Tax_Rate”
Intellectual Boredom is the Enemy
One of the main reasons I chose investment banking was the learning opportunity. I took a liberal arts approach to college, so my first couple years out of school I wanted to soak up as much business knowledge as possible. After the past 18 months, I can confirm that there is no better and faster way to quickly learn the ins-and-outs of the business world than an IB analyst program. From financial statement analysis to more qualitative skills like navigating a large corporate environment, it is a well worthwhile experience. When my program started in summer 2011, I was beyond eager. My zealousness made it easy to work late hours and led to me staying late and coming in on weekends when I didn’t have to. I was working a ton, but I was also learning a ton - and to me that is the best compensation someone right out of school can receive.
While the learning curve in investment banking is steep, at some point it begins to level off. This is when I knew I needed to move on. In addition to tasks becoming repetitive, my interest in finance began to fade as I became intrigued and inspired by the startup community. I left investment banking for the same reason I chose it a couple years earlier. Put yourself in a position where you are eager to learn. It will benefit you and the company you work for more than you can imagine.
Being concise demonstrates you’ve put time into thinking about what you’re saying. When done correctly, it will transform your communication into something as simple, elegant, and easy to understand as the latest Apple product.