Q&A with Flake, “Don’t waste your time and energy in a back office role.”?
How do I even begin to introduce Flake? More than anything else, Flake is really here for our enjoyment. Sure, maybe Flake is not as helpful as the legendary CompBanker, but that does not mean he is undeserving a Q&A. Within our interview, there are some real, solid lessons about the realities of networking from the back office to score an elusive FO role. Give the man props, because the BO-to-FO move is the epitome of doing the non-target hustle.
Although Flake has previously done an equity research focused Q&A, I wanted to sit down with him to discuss his back-office transition and his feelings about his current ER role. In this Q&A, Flake discusses his background, how to internally network from the back office, and the qualities of a successfully ER associate.
Please, enjoy, and make sure to look out for more of my Q&A’s with our more experienced users.
MF: Let's talk about your background, education, etc. - where did you come from? How did you get your initial Back Office job? What makes you special?
Flake: I went to a non-target state school, and graduated in 2009. How non-target? Well, a few weeks ago I had a meeting with a CEO of one of the companies under my coverage and he asked what school I attended (he was a Wharton UG and MBA man himself). I had to look at the floor, kick around a bit, and mutter the name under my breath.
Where did I come from? Russia, over a decade ago.
I had two summer analyst interviews for my junior year, one was an operations position at the BB that I currently work at, and the other was Blackrock PAG. Looking back, I realize neither of those was great, but I was ecstatic to receive the offers. Given that I was clueless back then, I made my decision based on brand name (I didn’t even know what in the world Blackrock was, seriously).
I thought I was the shit. I thought, “This is it, this is that Finance job that everyone keeps talking about.” I was proud of myself for not even trying and getting those. At $55,000 a year and $10,000 bonus at signing I figured I was well on my way of hitting that $100,000 by 30 goal (seriously, again). If I knew myself back then, I would have slapped the sh*t out of that kid.
What makes me special? The helmet, I guess.
MF: How did you know you wanted to work in equity research, if anything?
Flake: I didn’t know I wanted ER until I received my full-time offer at the end of my BB ops summer gig. After doing mindless shit for 10 weeks straight, it finally hit me that there are different divisions within the bank. I realized that operations was not what I wanted and it was definitely not “it”. I still signed the offer given the circumstances.
It was Fall ’08, I believe, and firms were cancelling OCR interviews at the time. I picked up the pace a bit during my senior year and came up with a master plan: 1) work in my BO job at 25% capacity, 2) spend the other 75% learning everything there is to learn about ER and IBD (my passion for both was a result of taking a couple of corporate finance classes during senior year), 3)???, and finally, 4) transition to ER or IB. More on this later…
After reading maybe 4-5 different books on investment banking, becoming addicted to WSJ and Barron’s, and speaking briefly to an ER associate who I met randomly- I knew what I wanted to do.
MF: Are you an analyst or associate?
Flake: As you may know, an analyst is more senior than an associate in a sell-side ER hierarchy. This is an external structure that we use for clients, reports, etc. Internally, we still follow the whole Analyst>Associate>VP>Director>MD structure. So my corporate/internal title is a 1st year Associate. Previously, I was an analyst for 2 years (split evenly between ER and BO).
MF: You mentioned that you networked your way to an FO associate job (granted some of it was sheer luck)... how would you recommend going about internally networking? What did you learn from your experience of almost getting the boot from networking a little too hard?
Flake: With networking, just be normal. I didn’t want to come off as some try-hard desperate brown-noser, and at the same time I didn’t want to come off self-entitled and cocky. Just be modest, be curious (bi-curious if that’s your thing), ask good questions, let the person talk about himself or herself, and just be able to shoot the sh*t with the person if it comes to that.
Despite my short career and my inexperience, I am still contacted by random people who want to “network” with me. Sure, I meet them. We talk, or try to. Some of them try so hard you can smell their bullshit from a mile away. The others say shit like “so my main concern is that ER is all about writing and modeling, I just don’t want to be stuck looking at an excel sheet all day”. Yes, valid question, but you don’t have to sound like a dick when phrasing it.
You can find my detailed BO to FO story in that Q&A thread I started in December. What I learned: if you want something, you go and get it. All good things require sacrifices; otherwise they are called hand-outs (occupy my ass). If I could go back to the BO, I would do the exact same thing.
MF: Talk to us about how to use a company directory?
Flake: Using the directory should be easy. I don’t know how it works at other firms, but I can filter mine by division, title, team, etc, which made it relatively easy to find the people you wanted. The one thing I fucked up on was cold emailing a tech analyst in SF, asking him to grab lunch/coffee. I’m in New York. So just pay attention. When you’re excited to email someone you can make a dumb mistake like that.
Lastly, if ER is your thing, you should have access to your bank’s research reports. Form your questions around those notes when emailing an analyst or an associate. Don’t ask obvious sh*t either; get a little creative with it to show that you are knowledgeable and interested in that sector. Otherwise, I will just attach a copy of my report and tell you to “look on page 3.”
MF: What is more important, a superior technical knowledge or superior amicable personality?
Flake: I would never isolate one of those and say that’s the most important. It is a mix of both…also sex appeal helps. For example, I would attribute 90% of my ER transition to my handsomeness. But seriously, you do need both though.
1) Helps instill confidence in your clients and establish your credibility as a reliable source of information
2) Having something like the CFA charter should help with your potential move to the buy side
3) Knowing your sh*t will also make your analyst more comfortable with giving you greater responsibility. Your analyst has to be confident in your analysis and at some point the analyst shouldn’t feel like he or she needs to hold your hand.
1) ER analysts are not anti-social and they are not geeks or nerds or whatever I’ve seen thrown around occasionally
2) you need be personable when interacting with big institutional accounts and c-level executives of the industry that you cover.
MF: What grinds your gears the most when it comes to daily interaction with people (be it supervisors or subordinates)?
Flake: I don’t like people who act self-entitled. I don’t like anyone who constantly argues and tries to convince you they are right, even though they have been wrong the previous 10 times in a row. I don’t like people who get offended easily or can’t handle constructive criticism. I like modesty. I like someone I can grab a drink with and talk about anything, including WORK. Yes, work. Just because you hate your job doesn’t mean I hate mine and should shy away from discussing it in a social setting.
I have one subordinate, if you will; he is a “research assistant”. The thing I hate about him is his lack of attention to detail and his inability to take ownership of what I tell him to do. I feel like he does shit just to finish it, he doesn’t care about the end result and everything he hands over to me is sloppy.
My boss on the other hand, is exactly the type of person I just described. I can talk to him about anything and everything. He is easy-going but he can be strict and he can be a dick if the timing is right and shit needs to get done. That’s what I usually look for in a man.
MF: You're one of the people that transitioned from Operations to the Front Office, what advice would you give someone who is trying to do the same thing?
Flake: I may be biased, but don’t waste your time and energy on excelling in your back office or middle office role if your goal is to move as soon as possible. If you are one of those people that thinks your current boss in BO/MO will “refer” you to that banking MD if you work your ass off, you are kind of wrong. That shit doesn’t happen.
Focus on networking and studying (be it for the CFA, GMAT, or just reading relevant books/news). Don’t spend too much time working there. If you are still in a back office role two years after you graduated it is time to pack your stuff and go to business school…that’s just my opinion of course.
What I do now is not related to my BO position at all.
MF: What is the most positive part of ER and what is the most negative?
My favorite part is that it’s not all grunt work. Even when a client uses me for informational purposes and doesn’t really care about my Buy/Sell/Hold rating (no one does really), I still feel like my opinion is valued and sought after. Every time I hear “Thanks for your time and insight, Flake, very helpful” I get a kick out of that.
When was the last time someone who’s twice your age, who is making probably 15-20x of what you make a year, and who is managing billions of dollars, thanked you for your “insight” or your “time?”
What’s the most negative thing about my job? They could pay me more money.
MF: What are some basic qualities specifically needed to be successful at an ER job?
Flake: Confidence. Attention to detail. You must have a passion for your sector and the markets (otherwise you’re just bored). Have the ability to write well, and being selectively direct and concise (not my best quality).
MF: Will you be attending the WSO conference?
Flake: I have my ticket to the WSO conference. I don’t know what I’m doing yet, I might dedicate that Saturday to a catnap.
MF: Why do you feel like it is important to give back in the realm of solid advice to the WSO community?
Flake: I didn’t even know WSO existed before I started in ER… so I really don’t have anyone here to thank for anything. I never even thought of going on an Internet forum to seek advice on my career or networking, but I sure wish I did. It would have made my transition a lot easier, and more importantly; I would not have felt like I was the only one trying to take that leap. Also, I would like to give back occasionally in return for Patrick letting me troll WSO 90% of the time.
MF: I usually open up the end of the Q&A to say anything you may wish (just be nice).
Flake: I just want to give a few shout outs to the people who keep me entertained on WSO:
Nouveau Richie, shorttheworld, heister, Determined, Whiskey5, duffmt6, ekimlacks, WellPlayed, Midas Mulligan Magoo (RIP), swagon, TonyPerkis, malvvar, rothyman, and ah. If I forgot someone, I’m not sorry.
Check my past Q&A’s: