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How To Get A Finance Job From An Engineering Background

Jan 10, 2008
"It's something very personal, a very important thing. Hell! It's a family motto. Are you ready Jerry? I wanna make sure you're ready, brother. Here it is: Show me the money. SHOW! ME! THE! MONEY! Jerry, it is such a pleasure to say that! Say it with me one time, Jerry."

-Rod Tidwell, "Jerry Maguire" (1996)

"If I'm an engineering major, how can I get into finance? Show me the money!"

I find myself answering this question a lot, possibly because I'm from a non-finance background myself. Or maybe just because everyone wants to get into finance.

How you can leverage your technical background to land a job in the jungle of finance? As a technical person right out of school, you have two ways of breaking in:

1. Get an investment banking analyst position in the technology or TMT (Technology, Media & Telecom) group of a bank. You will use none of your quantitative/analytical background and instead use your interest in the industry/work ethic to get in.

2. Get a quantitative job at a hedge fund or doing trading/fixed income at a bank. You will leverage your quantitative and probability skills to get in.

Of the two, the second is easiest for most engineers. Wall Street has never been more quantitative, and it's only getting more quant-focused each day. Even with some recent problems in the credit market and some high-profile difficulties at prestigious funds such as Goldman Global Alpha, this trend will not stop anytime soon.

Hedge Fund And Related Jobs

On-campus recruiting for these positions is less common than it is for banking analysts, but it's there if you seek it out. Citadel, one of the largest hedge funds in the world, does undergraduate recruiting for its rotational program, as does Jump Trading, based out of Chicago.

The good news is that if you're an engineering major at a top university, you have a good chance of landing one of these jobs, even with no previous finance experience. If you're in this position and go through on-campus recruiting, you need to emphasize your interest in finance because this is how they select candidates. Here's a direct quote from a Citadel recruiter:

"To be honest, we know you're all pretty good quantitatively... after all you got an engineering degree at one of the top programs in the country. You need to show us that you're interested in finance because that's what differentiates you."

During interviews they will ask you quantitative questions but it's crucial that you show them you have had a strong and consistent interest in finance. Have some good stories prepared, especially on personal investing and why you're particularly well-suited to be a trader.

For trading jobs the "fit" part of the interview is even more important than it is for banking. If you don't trade stocks in between classes and wake up early each morning to read financial news, gambling is a good hobby to mention. I was asked if I played video poker/online poker and other casino games when interviewing for hedge fund jobs. You want to emphasize hobbies/interests that show you can think about risk vs. reward.

No Thanks, I Really Want To Be A Banker

Full disclosure: you can do this, but the hours are going to be far worse than trading, the pay won't be much better and you'll have to do truly menial, low-value-add work. The advantage is you do have a wider variety of exit options - doing engineering and then banking sets you up very well for venture capital, for example. And the perks are nice.

As a technical person, you have several things going for you right away: no one will question your intelligence, and they probably won't ask you brain teasers or math questions. If you can get a degree in Electrical Engineering, you can do Excel calculations in your sleep. And no one will question your attention to detail (or at least not as much as if you were an English major).

What you will need to focus on in recruiting and interviewing is demonstrating your 1) interest in finance and 2) ability to handle the hours/stress of the job, which are considerably worse than those of an engineering/tech company.

A few more specific tips: when you discuss your interest in finance you need to mention tech companies if you're applying to a tech group in a bank. And don't just mention Google or Facebook. These are the most visible tech companies by far, but anyone can learn about them by reading TechCrunch or by listening to friends.

You need to show real interest in the industry, which means taking the initiative and talking about less well-known companies. Before my interviews at tech groups in banks I made a list of less well-known startups/other companies I found interesting and had a story prepared around each of them. You should do the same.

As far as the second point about handling the stress/hours, as an engineering major you should have had many extended project classes... these are all good to mention, as are any internships where you launched a product that required "crunch time" at the end.
About the Author
Ian Spellfield, a former investment banker, advises students and young professionals on how to get investment banking jobs and break into the finance industry from engineering backgrounds .
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