FM turns the tables on an I-banking interviewer.
FM: How do you think on-campus recruiting has changed in recent years? Why do you think we’ve seen these changes?
VL: Well, this year it is just a lot more competitive than it has been in the past. Like never before, we had more people pushing for less spots. Last year the economy was in an entirely different position and we had more to offer in terms of summer opportunities. We could hire four internship positions last year, but this year we were only looking for one or two. There was still the same interest among the students at Harvard, but we just couldn’t offer as many opportunities.
FM: What are your suggestions to Harvard freshmen who already know they want to go into finance? How can such gung-ho students position themselves to eventually get these jobs?
VL: They should make sure to take classes that would prepare them for this form of work. Finance classes, accounting classes, and a strong background in math are all excellent options. They should also try to gain experience in finance through summer internships early in their college careers. That is always an important factor when we choose our summer interns, and especially when we are looking for people to hire.
FM: So do you think then that Harvard students are at a disadvantage because we don’t have as many vocational classes as other schools? You mentioned accounting. Are Harvard students less likely to do well in these positions because we don’t have majors like accounting and undergraduate business?
VL: Not at all. A lot of Harvard students have a good analytical sense, which is ultimately crucial for these positions. They should try to take classes that build on those skills. It also always helps to know the industry, to take that extra time to read the Wall Street Journal or to make sure you understand how to use Excel. When we interview Harvard students, we expect them to know less than Wharton undergraduates. It always helps, though, when we see students who have really shown a commitment to the finance industry, and who have tried to make up for Harvard’s weaknesses. There are a few classes offered at Harvard that always look strong on a resume—there is a Mergers and Acquisitions seminar in the economics department and another economics class called Corporate Finance. And there is another one—I think it’s called Capital Markets?
FM: There is definitely a supposedly very difficult ec class here called Capital Markets.
VL: That’s the one, then.
FM: But what about all those History or English majors who want to go into finance? There are so many humanities majors out there who want to get in on this scene who aren’t enrolling in upper-level economics classes like Capital Markets.
VL: Oh, definitely. In the past, we have had Classics majors and literature majors in these positions. For those people, though, the summer experience factor becomes a lot more important. A significant summer experience early in their college years can really help these students gain an internship with our company after the junior year.
FM: So, how many interviews have you done on campus? What would you say is the most memorable moment you have had as a Harvard interviewer? Have any students done anything enormously humorous or impressive to get your attention?
VL: I did 13 interviews on the Harvard campus, all relatively recently. We were looking for students for our summer internship program. I have to say that all the Harvard students were all pretty impressive and well polished. No huge surprises—everyone showed up in suits, everyone was polite. It might have been fun to see something out there, but these kids were definitely all following the protocol.
FM: It sounds like a pretty standard bunch of kids. How can a student make himself (or herself) stand out in this sort of interview setting without seeming too over-the-top?
VL: I know this will sound a little basic, but a lot of standing out is just knowing what the job you are applying for is about and showing that you’ve really taken the time to talk to a lot of people. It’s wonderful when you have a candidate who has really thought through why he or she wants the position. You would be surprised at the number of students who can’t answer even basic questions about why they applied to us. For example, our firm deals predominately with tech companies. The kids that always blow us away are those who can name the tech firms they like and then engage in real conversation about the sector.
FM: How would someone go about becoming a pseudo-expert on the tech industry? Like if I suddenly wanted to apply for your job knowing not so much about tech, how could I get a good base of knowledge?
VL: Well, tech is a wonderful industry to follow generally, and there is definitely just so much information out there on the Internet. I suggest first just picking five or six companies and following them by checking their websites every few days. And besides that, the Wall Street Journal has wonderful tech coverage. You could also check out cnet.com and thedeal.com. If you’re short on time, all the financial news is easily accessible and concise at the financial Yahoo! and MSN sites as well. It’s also always good to invest in a stock. But if you can’t afford to do that, you should at least follow several stocks well.
FM: When Harvard’s Office of Career Services helps students prepare for interviews by giving them mock interviews, they tell them to prepare three adjectives to describe themselves. You’re obviously someone who CSFB seems to like: what would you say are three adjectives you would use to describe yourself?
VL: That’s funny, I always ask that question! I think the first adjective I would use for myself is commitment. This is a huge thing in my position, just because being an analyst is such a time-consuming position. You have to really be committed to what you do to spend so much time in the office. The next adjective would be passionate. I’m not only committed to what I do, I also really enjoy doing it. I think that is important because it gives me constant motivation in my work. I also would say diligent. In order to produce really wonderful work in these settings, you have to be able to really work fast and think on your feet. I think that is something I have always managed to do.
FM: What about CSFB? How would you describe CSFB in three adjectives?
VL: We have great training and resources. That’s an important first one for sure. I’ve really gotten a lot out of working here. Also, we are a meritocracy—the kind of work you do is really important to us. And I guess the last one would be focused on client services.
FM: A lot of students this year are going to be walking away from the recruiting process without jobs. What would be your suggestions to students who didn’t get positions?
VL: I would encourage them not to give up on the industry if this is what they really want to do. There is so much out there, and if you really are willing to look at creative options, you can find something that will help build your experience for future jobs. Even if you are just accounting for your uncle, you’re getting worthwhile experience. For those students who were looking for summer internships, they should be especially careful not to let themselves get too down. This is a really tough year to get internships and I’m sure that will be factored into account when they apply for jobs next year.
I would also just want to say to them—once again—that this year was an exceptionally tough one. It was so difficult to distinguish between such qualified candidates and, in the end, we were picking based on such small factors. I would want everyone who took part in our first rounds this year to know that if you didn’t make a second round it wasn’t at all indicative of your worth as a person. And if you didn’t get picked, you can also keep in mind that it may have happened for a reason. Sometimes the best way to realize that something isn’t for you is to try something else. If you didn’t get picked and you weren’t sure you wanted finance, I encourage you to go out and consider other jobs. You may find that another profession is even better for you.
FM: So, if you are picking on such small factors, do you all just sit around for hours debating the merits of each candidate? How many hours does this take out of your day?
VL: We don’t really sit around for hours. When we were thinking about the candidates we wanted to take on to the second round, we knew we only had to cut four people. It wasn’t too too hard. You really get a sense of who is outstanding, and sometimes seeing who is not so outstanding in comparison isn’t that hard.
FM: A lot of students I know who have gone through this process seem to think that each individual firm has a degree of character or personality. One firm would be more athletic and personable, one more academic, one more cutthroat. Do you think you see that at all? Do you look for certain personality traits in Harvard students that seem to correspond to a lot of what you see in the firm?
VL: I think you could easily make a guess about a firm’s so-called personality based on a lot of chance factors that aren’t really representative. When we pick the people who will interview on campus, it really just depends on who is available that week. And we are always trying to advance beyond the typical stereotypes. John Mack, the CEO of CSFB, has been trying to increase the number of minorities and women in our intern program, so that is always a factor we have to consider. This has been going on for a while, though. [Educational Opportunity, an organization that places minority students in Wall Street positions] has been trying to encourage all firms to think about diversity for years. It is important to expand beyond candidates who look just like you.
We do have to walk a fine line, though, because we want to find kids who we will get along with in the workplace. When you are working 100-plus hours a week with someone, you need it to be someone who you can relate to. Every office has a culture to a certain extent, and you have to work to upkeep that culture at least on a basic level.
FM: How often do connections factor in to your decisions? Are a lot of your spaces reserved for people who have some sort of connection to the firm?
VL: There are always going to be those people who get a second round because someone higher up is pulling for them. I think it is that way everywhere, and definitely not any more so with CSFB than anywhere else.
FM: And as a final question. Do you think you would have been hired if you were going through recruiting this year? Why or why not?
VL: I hope so. But really it is hard to say. I didn’t go to Harvard, I went to MIT, and this year that would have made things hard for me. We only recruited at Harvard and University of Pennsylvania this year. We just didn’t have the positions or the funds to go elsewhere. You all don’t realize just how lucky you are.