Recently, I have been thinking a lot about the past - my childhood, previous relationships and prior work experiences. This week, I wanted to share my very first day on Wall Street.
I matriculated at the University of Texas at Austin as a Psychology major, intending to try to leverage my success as a high school musician into a career in the music business. Very early on, I remember thinking what the heck am I going to do with my degree, and I quickly transferred into the business school, studying Finance, believing this to be the area where hard work correlated highly with financial success.
During my junior year, I applied for several prestigious investment banking internships, including with Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan. Thankfully, I had excellent grades and was able to obtain one of the few interview slots offered.
My Goldman Sachs interview was on campus, and I was trembling when I walked into the interview room and saw not one, but two stern-faced Goldman investment bankers waiting to interview me. In the days leading up to the interview, I had read numerous horror stories of the brain teasers and logic questions asked to unsuspecting college students, and now here I was heading to the inquisition with four eyes watching every bead of sweat drip down into my starched collar, suit and tie.
The interview started off easy enough; although, the only work experience on my resume was working at Abercrombie & Fitch at the local mall, which did not exactly give me Wall Street credentials.
Not deterred by their lines of questioning, I was feeling good until they asked me: “What did I like to do for fun?” Well, the thoughts going through my head were about hanging out on 6th Street in Austin, and I was not particularly keen to share that information with these two corporate stiffs. I demurred and mentioned something about liking to listen to live jazz (something I actually did like to do, but which maybe sounded weird to say for someone my age). Apparently, they were not impressed with both my hesitation and the half-hearted answer I gave. Did they think I was a nerd? A liar? Maybe both? Whatever it was, I did not get the Goldman gig.
My big break came shortly after the Goldman debacle. One of my family’s friends ran the private equity division at J.P.Morgan in New York, and I was extended a special invitation to interview for a coveted Investment Banking Summer Analyst position (which Time magazine had just named as one of its Top 10 Internships of the Year along with positions at NASA and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences).
All the candidates from Ivy League schools had two 30-minute on-campus interviews; since I was not from one of those white shoe schools, my grueling interview schedule contained an entire day of six one-hour interviews with either Vice Presidents or Managing Directors.
My strategy for the day was to assume a Texas twang and just have the attitude of “golly gee, I am just happy to be here”, like a country bumpkin. Thinking back on this strategy, I am not sure it had the highest chances of success, since later I was teased incessantly for my out-of-place-on-Wall-Street accent. However, my Southern charm and knowledge of the music world seemed to work. I had a great conversation with the Head of the Consumer/Retail team about Jay Z and P Diddy, and I avoided the pasta at lunch and instead picked at my salad, so I wouldn’t show off my embarrassingly horrendous table manners.
I remember it like yesterday when my cell phone rang a few weeks later. I was on campus walking to class, and I answered the phone. It was J.P. Morgan calling, and they had accepted me into the internship class. It was a sunny Spring day in Austin, Texas, and I jumped and yelled for joy when I hung up the phone. People were definitely staring at me. I didn’t care. I was about to live out my college dream of working on Wall Street.
The internship was to run for ten weeks during the summer before my senior year of college, and the program began with a three-day crash course in Excel financial modeling before you got your assignment and “hit the desk” as your official first day was called. Mind you, I had never used Excel before in my life. I did not have my own computer at college; I used the computer lab for basic tasks, so I was definitely hiding the fact that I was COMPLETELY lost when it came to spreadsheets.
My first day after training was a Friday. J.P. Morgan’s offices were at 60 Wall Street at that time, and I recall walking down Wall Street at the tender age of 20 years old, thinking pretty highly of myself. To start the day, the senior executives hosted a breakfast reception on the top floor of the building, with sweeping views to the East of the river and of the World Trade Center to the West. During the reception, we hobnobbed with our fellow intern classmates, which included the sons and daughters of political and business heavyweights.
All was going smoothly until about 5pm, which is the hour of death for an investment banking analyst’s weekend. Somehow your plate can be empty, which means you get the weekend off, until your hopes are bitterly crushed when your Vice President boss comes over and tells you what needs to be done by Monday morning. I mean, seriously, are they just waiting until the end of the day to come over and dump all over you or what?
This scenario is exactly what transpired. The phone at my desk rang, and I was summoned into the boss’ office. J.P. Morgan was working on a $2 billion equity offering, and they wanted me to build several financial models over the weekend; the results were to be used in the pitchbook for the client at the start of the week.
When the senior bankers left and it was just me all alone on the floor at 9pm, I had a nervous breakdown. I had somehow managed to fake my way through Excel training, but now there was no way to fake this. If I happened to be successful in this exercise, I would have to spend every waking hour at the office trying to figure out how to accomplish what they had just tasked me to do.
I called my father and started crying. I can’t do this, I said. He tried to soothe me, but I was inconsolable. At the end of our call, he told me to think of it as a game, almost like pledging a fraternity. He said they are just testing you, and that you are getting paid and getting great experience, so just do the best you can do. I managed to pull myself together and left the office around 2am, only to return to work from 8am until midnight both Saturday and Sunday (which was a regular occurrence for me in investment banking in the late 90s and early 2000s. Apparently, working conditions have somewhat improved since then).
Monday morning arrived, and my superiors reviewed my work. Miraculously, I had figured it out, and ultimately I got the full time offer. My career was off to the races.
Note to readers - This blog post is an excerpt from my upcoming book, to be published later this year.