This post is a part of the Student Blogger series – each post is written by a current UCLA Anderson student, and provides first-hand perspectives and experiences about being an MBA student at UCLA Anderson.
"This won't last forever." That's what I told myself many times, camping out at 3 a.m. somewhere in the depths of UCLA's Boelter Hall trying to finish the last few problems in my electrical engineering homework when I was an undergrad. It was not that I did not want to be an engineer. As a kid, I always excelled at mathematics and had an affinity for the sciences, liking Boolean algebra and attending more rocketry-themed summer camps than I would care to publicly admit. However, there was a time, before coming to UCLA for my bachelor's degree in electrical engineering, when I was considering going into finance, but the recent financial crisis pushed me to a safer career trajectory. Between those late nights on UCLA's South Campus (home to the math, engineering, and science programs) were many conversations with my father, a financial advisor at Merrill Lynch. On these calls, we of course discussed the obvious: how I was doing, what bourbons I should try sometime, etc. However, the conversation often gravitated to the stock market and new IPOs that excited us. Somewhere in these conversations I decided I would not be an engineer forever, but I would leverage my engineering background and earn an MBA to transition into the financial sector.
To be fair, I thoroughly enjoyed my time as an electrical engineer. While I was working for Northrop Grumman, one of our country's largest defense contractors, I designed circuit boards that will ultimately be installed in fighter jets for the military. I am very proud of the work I did during those three years, and I enjoyed the challenges associated with such technical tasks. In the defense industry, there are fundamentally two types of engineers who are considered invaluable: those with supreme technical competency and those who can efficiently manage a team to achieve its goals. As a junior engineer, it was difficult to be the former, but I would consider myself to fall under the latter category. Much of my coworkers' feedback focused on my ability to pick up tasks quickly, to rally a team to a collective cause, and to operate efficiently and effectively. These are all attributes that will directly translate to any job, and I'm fortunate to have refined them in a technical setting.
In August, when I showed up at Anderson, I was ready to make the career switch into investment banking. When I got here, though, it didn't take long for me to realize how little I truly knew about the profession. At a surface level, I knew what investment bankers did and why I was interested, but if you really quizzed me on it I probably would have failed. To me, on one end of the spectrum was my classmates, some of whom showed up with enough accounting and finance experience from their previous jobs to land an entry level job in banking. At the other end of the spectrum was me. My work experience gave me the ability to describe the difference between computer chips and potato chips, but that seemed about it.
Yet there I was, optimistically switching industries from electrical engineering to investment banking. In some ways, I knew electrical engineering and investment banking are similar. The schooling for electrical engineering is grueling, often requiring you to prioritize between multiple tasks as time becomes scarce. Late nights are common, and your ability to maintain friendly relationships with your peers sometimes dictates your success in receiving last-minute assistance and often mandates providing it at the expense of your own agenda. The job itself is extremely collaborative and highly technical, and although investment banking shares these traits, it is widely known that interpersonal skills and analytical ability only partially define a successful career in investment banking. Motivation and innate interest are essential as well, albeit easier to claim than to exemplify on paper.
The hurdle I faced was convincing recruiters how these traits translated to the job they were seeking to fill. Not being alone in this need, Anderson devotes significant resources to guiding career switchers like myself through the difficult process of recruitment. First year students spend a significant portion of their fall quarter engaging with Anderson's highly-ranked Parker Career Center, both formally through required classes and informally through periodic advisor appointments. The Parker Career Center gives detailed advice for a whole range of topics, from how to best write a resume or cover letter to how to approach alumni for informational interviews to how to negotiate a starting salary. Guidance is individually provided and specific to a given student's situation. I could honestly write a whole blog post about the quality of Anderson's career center, but I'll leave that for another post.
Outside of those engagements with Parker, however, were my weekly meetings with my Anderson Career Team (ACT). Each ACT group is composed of first year students recruiting for a specific industry and second year students who held internships in that industry and are returning to the industry after graduation. In my case, second year students advised students like myself how to break into the banking industry. Every week, they had a range of exercises planned, from rehearsing my 30-second pitch to walking through recent M&A (merger & acquisition) transactions. Every meeting offered new opportunities to get personalized advice on presenting myself in a way that will attract the interest of recruiters.
I knew, though, that at the end of the day it was my responsibility to secure an internship. Fortunately, what I lacked in financial experience, I made up for in enthusiasm. If an investment bank came on campus for a corporate presentation, I made sure to attend. If there was a networking session with bankers, I asked for as many business cards as I could, and I sent personalized thank you notes to most of them. If company hosted a visit to its office (aka a "Day on the Job," or DOJ), I made sure I did everything I could to be there. I traveled several times to San Francisco throughout Fall, sometimes for DOJs, sometimes to meet bankers at their office for informational interviews, and sometimes to just chat with them at a coffee shop. Between October and December, I interviewed nearly 60 investment bankers, both over the phone and in-person, and sent hundreds of thank you notes. If this sounds extreme, consider that engaging with employers, particularly through informational interviews, requires a two-way dialogue. It is a better way for me, as a prospective employee of the company, to understand the firm's values, what it's like to work there, and what employees find attractive in recruits. It is a better way for them to get to know me, to learn about my background and interest in the profession, and to narrow down their interview list to people whom they can envision as potential colleagues.
Through my discussions with bankers, I found that my engineering background working with semiconductor devices filled a need for associates in many banks' technology coverage groups, i.e. the bankers that work closely with large technology companies. While the ability to understand complex integrated circuits isn't a requirement for the job, the ability to have an intelligent conversation on the subject certainly set me apart in the interviews. For this reason, almost all positions I chose to apply to were in San Francisco or Silicon Valley, where many banks base their Technology and Technology M&A groups.
Looking back on it, the Anderson experience played a big role in my success. The Parker Career Center helped me every step of the way, from reviewing my resume to scheduling my first round interviews so none of them overlapped. My advisors explained early on how to best market my engineering background, and they stayed engaged throughout the process, providing me with last-minute advice before my final round interviews. My ACT coaches, the second year students who were in my position only a year ago, gave me the nitty-gritty details on how to approach bankers and even quizzed me on the accounting and finance concepts I needed to know for interviews. My classmates, the ones who, by definition, were most competing with me for the jobs I sought, were arguably the most invested in me. In perhaps an anecdotal example of how Anderson students "share success," I often found myself in the company of my peers the night before interviews, and my classmates made every effort to guarantee I was as prepared as they were.
The process felt very organic, and I'm convinced that the recruiting process truly should feel natural to some degree. Sure, I sometimes got tired writing thank you notes after a long day on campus, but each information session, DOJ, and informational made me ever-so-slightly more excited for the career I was pursuing. Regardless of what you choose to do after business school, it should excite you, and I hope that one day you wake up with the same level of energy my recruiting process brought me.
Of course, there were two moments on my last day of recruiting that stand out as particularly memorable. The first is the call I received from Bank of America Merrill Lynch before boarding a flight from San Francisco to Los Angeles letting me know I got the summer internship. The second, only moments later, was a call to my dad, letting him know that we'd be coworkers.
Student Blogger: Andrew Protopsaltis '18
Undergrad: UCLA – Electrical Engineering
Pre-MBA: Northrop Grumman
Leadership@Anderson: Admissions Ambassador Corps – Marketing Representative