Title explains it. I'm Alex Cook, and you might have seen my YouTube video on the CFA Program. I can't post links here right now but it will pop up if you type in "How I passed all of the CFA Program exams."
The military has been something that I have always really thought about, even as a kid, but for a variety of reasons I didn't pull the trigger until recently.
I graduated in 2009, right after the market crashed. I didn't have an offer out of school. Bank of America, which normally recruits heavily from my school, pretty much cancelled all of their interviews after the Merrill Lynch deal started going bad and the crisis unfolded. Over my spring break, instead of partying in Cancun or some other nice sunny place with cheap drinks, I was hustling for "informational" interviews. I eventually got one from a local investment bank in my hometown of Portland, and I ended up having some for-real interviews for equity research positions, but nothing bit.
I ended up working for my family's business for a while, and I eventually got hired by a local wealth management firm (ballpark $500 million AUM). I planned on just doing that for a year or so, get a little income and pay down my student loans, and continue to explore other and better options. As it turned out, a "year or so" ended up going longer than expected. I was working my way through the CFA Program in the process, as a resume booster and also for the education. People were saying I should be applying for jobs out of state since Portland just isn't a finance hub; the fact is though, I was. I was applying for positions in New York, Chicago, and elsewhere constantly. Occasionally I'd get to a phone screen, but no bites.
I bought a mentorship call from Wall Street Oasis since I wasn't sure what the disconnect was. I might not have the most baller resume of all time, but it certainly wasn't bad. I went to a top 25 school, I was working my way through the CFA Program, and I had some good accomplishments at my wealth management job. One of the things that I heard on the call was that it's hard for a company to take a risk of hiring someone across the country in Portland when they have talent just 15 minutes down the subway that they can call on. The guy suggested that I move to New York and crash...anywhere, just so I can get feet on the ground and network.
This advice was spot on--but I didn't want to hear that at the time. Yes, I knew that some people up and left to other cities without something lined up in advance and ended up making it work, but at the time, I thought it was too much risk to take. More on this later.
In 2013, still at the wealth management firm, I'm really starting to get frustrated not just with the job search, but leadership at my company started turning pretty toxic. Between 2011 and 2013, we lost a number of key high-value employees who had enough of our company's bad leadership and moved on to other opportunities. Since it was a small company already, the impact of top employees leaving is felt more.
During this time though, I start thinking about my career in a broader sense. Since 2008 when I started my career search, I was singularly focused on getting a finance job. I now start thinking more about other interests of mine and what else I could do, since me applying for finance positions just wasn't working. One of these interests was the military. I have always been interested in intelligence, foreign policy, and military issues. I read about terrorist groups and transnational criminal groups for fun. This kind of thing is interesting to me. I start getting the ball rolling in earnest in 2013 when I reached out to an Army recruiter about Army OCS, and I realized from that conversation that I had a lot of work to do physically to prepare for OCS.
I had been lifting, but OCS requires running, and cardio was something that I had neglected really for years. I did track in high school, but starting up again from scratch meant that even a 2 mile, which is what is assessed on the Army Physical Fitness Test, gassed me even at a slow pace. Point being, I realized that it might take me some time, perhaps even a whole year or longer, to train to be competitive for OCS. This isn't the 2007 surge anymore where if you have a college degree and a pulse, you could get in. OCS, at least for active duty, has a competitive application process. And, once you get into OCS, you compete for your jobs (Engineer, Military Intelligence, Infantry, etc.), and physical fitness is one of the criteria to assess how you stack up on the Order of Merit List. There are only so many 2nd Lieutenant job slots, so first place on the OML means you get first pick of your job, like the NBA Draft. So, it's not just a matter of getting into OCS, but also training to be successful once you are there as well.
January 2014. I'm interviewing with a Fortune 100/Dow component company for a corporate finance job. This isn't anything high speed like corporate development. It was a support role for HR and their administration of the retirement funds. Not picking out the investments or managing the funds, but helping with the admin side of things. During this interview process though, I start thinking--I don't even want this. This wasn't what I envisioned at all when I wanted to get into finance. Long story short, that interview didn't turn into a close, and after getting tired of banging my head against a wall trying to network and set up interviews from Portland, and also increasing problems that I'm having with my company's toxic leadership, I quit my job and moved to Dallas. Story is a bit longer than that, but I figure most of you are reading this for my military experience and not random civilian job minutiae. Point being is that I could tell within one week of being on the ground in Dallas that I would find something eventually down there, just by virtue of the quality of people that I'm meeting down here vs. Portland. I did eventually get hired by an energy company in their market risk department. I figure I would do that for some time while I finish training for OCS.
The energy company job was a substantial step up in pay for me, and the company really did treat me well. The thing is, market risk wasn't really my thing (I'd like more of a front office role instead of support), and I would have left for the military anyway at that point.
The OCS application process is very long and time consuming. I had my first face to face sitdown with a recruiter in Dallas in June 2015. It took until July 2016, a year later, until I got the green light that I got approved and that they will find a ship date. This is normal nowadays. National Guard seems to have a faster process depending on which state you are in, but this is the case for Active Duty.
I finished Basic Combat Training in October 2016, and I finished OCS in February this year. Basic isn't really hard, but it's just extremely annoying. OCS is substantially more challenging, but it's also more enjoyable since you get treated better. There really weren't many people in my OCS class fresh out of college. Most were prior service enlisted, or they were in my situation where they were in a civilian job but wanted to do something different. OCS is a lot more physical than Basic. We run...a lot.
Don't try to start your career in a small city. After graduating, I should have done...anything, aside from move back to Portland. It was convenient because I had family that I could crash with, but there's just less opportunity there. I hear for some reason that lots of people are moving to Portland, but I'm not on the hype train. The economy is pretty bad, there really isn't any institutional finance scene at all except for a few local firms, and there's only a few F500 companies still headquartered there. On the positive side, the food scene there is pretty good and if you're into outdoors stuff, there is plenty of that, but it's not a good place to launch a career. Point being, in my experience, being a "big fish in a small pond" isn't a benefit.
A big pond just has much, much more options. Even if that means you got to get uncomfortable for a while to get your feet on the ground, so be it. In Dallas before I got hired, I crashed at this AirBNB place run by this entrepreneurship group. I was sleeping on one of their bunk beds for $35/night, they had a keggerator, and I'd get back from the bars at 2 AM and there'd be people on their laptops still coding. I had some savings to get me by, and I also picked up some random side gigs for expenses. I helped videotape a wedding. Also, you know how at bars or events they have cute girls handing out samples of things? This was Dr. Pepper, and my job was to make sure that the girls weren't running out of Dr. Pepper. And, it paid $16/hour. I don't know how didn't find this stuff in college, but I digress. Point being, you can always find a way to make it happen. You don't need to crash at the W Hotel while you're getting your feet on the ground. Hell, crash at the YMCA if you have to.
Also, life is too short to work for a company with toxic leadership. When I see threads like "Yelled at for saying 'no problem'", my response is for you to get some self-respect and start looking for a new job.
Finally, you got to go for what you want. I did sort of wonder what people's response would be when I started talking about leaving my relatively high income job for meager Army pay. The most common response was just curiosity, like why I am interested in the military, but from the people that I really look up to, a number of them immediately said that they could definitely see me doing this. I really only had two real negative reactions, neither from whom I really care about what their opinion was. People may tell you one thing or another about what you should do with your career, but they don't own your risk or have skin in the game for you. Only you do.
I've definitely gotten value from my military experience so far. It's only been in a training environment though, but nonetheless I definitely would say that I have benefited from this experience, and I'm eager to see how things go once I get to my first real unit. I really think that had I not done this, I would have regretted that down the road. Especially since I'm almost 30, there is an age cutoff at a certain point, so this could have been my last real chance to do this. There may come a point where I go back to finance, since I do still find it interesting, but right now my main focus is trying to be the best 2nd Lieutenant that I can be and taking it one step at a time. I do have a friend who is a Reservist in the Air Force and works at a top private equity firm (think Blackstone, TPG, etc.) as his day job, so I know it can be done, but I will cross that bridge when I get there.
I get messages on LinkedIn or YouTube from time to time since I have that video on the CFA Program exams, and it's usually about exam stuff, but I've gotten a surprising number of questions about my military experience and people who said they too were in finance but thought about the military as an option. I've seen those pop up here on WSO from time to time, so I thought I could provide some value back to the community by sharing my story and opening it up to questions. If you got anything you're wondering about OCS, the application process, the training itself, the CFA Program, life in Dallas, or anything else I can comment on, I'm happy to help.