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Why Are You Here?

Postcard from Laguardia Airport

By Judd B. Kessler

LAGUARDIA AIRPORT—During summer recruiting this winter, I got asked the same question nearly a dozen times. “Why are you interested in finance?” Interviewers—facing a student who spends most of his free time writing and editing opinion pieces for The Crimson, has worked almost exclusively in publishing and daily print journalism and had no prior coursework or experience in finance—seemed consistently baffled.

And rightfully so. By my resume, I should have been down the block, knocking on the door of Harvard University Press—not wearing a suit and holding a legal-sized leather portfolio for my resume and notepad on the second floor of Fleet Bank. Answering the question was undoubtedly challenging. Essentially, it boiled down to “Why are you here?” although only one interviewer actually phrased it that way. (It was only rivaled by my second-most-frequent question: “Are you related to David Kessler?” David, another junior economics concentrator with whom I share a last name, but no relatives, always seemed to have been interviewed a few hours before me. Fortunately, I only answered this question wrong once. Don’t ask.)

Although I wouldn’t admit it in an interview, as far as my interest in finance, I was a bit shaky on the details too. I knew that I wanted to try something new, and that I wanted to do something quantitative—I am an economics concentrator after all. My ultra-liberal friends dismissed my interest as selling out. I could “work for the man” if I wanted, but I couldn’t complain when they made me buy them dinner. While I don’t mind jumping up a tax bracket or two for eight weeks, I’m pretty sure the interest was less about the money and more about the lifestyle. In part, I wanted to answer the same question that I was getting asked.

Now, having spent the past three weeks in the gainful employment of a financial consulting firm, I am starting to formulate an answer.

The beginning of my summer has been spent flying from city to city at a moment’s notice, living in a hotel out of a well-packed duffle-bag, getting finger-printed for access at work and being legally bound to secrecy in all my endeavors. If I had heard about this job description a month ago, I would have sworn I was working as a double-0 agent for MI6, Britain’s intelligence agency, or that Ian Fleming could have just as easily made James Bond a summer intern at a consulting firm.

As the weeks begin to drift by, the vision comes into focus, and while my wallet has the extra punch of a Corporate American Express card, I won’t be running to Foxwoods to place a million pound bet in baccarat—instead, I’ll be buying books to train myself in computer software. My license to kill has not yet been issued, but my license to search through public SEC filings for corporate tax return data seemed to arrive on my first day. Instead of a military-issued pistol and silencer, I’m armed with Excel and a mute button on my laptop.

The world of finance is furnished with nice hotel rooms, but there is no need to check the bottom of your phone or the back of your mirror for bugs or cameras. And the weekly round-trip flights to Boston are less “adventure” and more “commute” than I initially imagined.

While missing out on a life of danger, consulting-crazed undergraduates do get to look forward to other forms of excitement and a culture all its own. Finance taught me first and foremost of the Manhattan salad bar—where a salad costs $8, but is teeming with ingredients of your own selection, doused with dressing and prepared (tossed) as you watch. Second, I learned about collecting “points”—the lifeblood of consultants on the go. “Points” are well known, and go by many names—“miles,” “benefits” and “rewards” among them. They essentially earn customer loyalty with perks like gift certificates, room upgrades and free breakfasts—but constant travelling between New York and hotel living for more than half of each week makes collecting points more than a hobby—although not officially an obsession…yet. Third, I now know that Microsoft Excel is both my best friend and my worst enemy. Never before had I been challenged into learning about a piece of computer software as if it were a new friend: it’s likes, dislikes, weaknesses and strengths. The lack of pre-professional training at Harvard tends to isolate students from professional tools, but discovering each new function—and each simple task that never before seemed possible—makes we want to hug a computer science concentrator.

The summer is long. The past few weeks are only a small part of it. And as every James Bond fan knows, the action always heats up near the end. But while I await my long chase-and-fight sequence—whether it be with a large database or complicated model (the mathematical kind)—I can continue to learn about the industry, the lifestyle and Microsoft Excel. Right now, however, I have to discontinue the use of electronic devices and bring my seatback and tray-table into full upright and locked position.

Judd B. Kessler ’04, an economics concentrator in Adams House, is an editorial chair of The Crimson. This summer he is having his $15 mocha lattes neither shaken nor stirred.

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