From BO to FO and back again, or, how I learned to stop worrying and love technology

TL;DR:

I was a slacker through college, worked as a programmer, pivoted to IB through MBA Associate program, hated it, went back to technology, am now an extremely happy person, and apparently think I know everything.

My Story:

I decided to tell my story here, in hopes that it would help someone who felt the way I did, or to at least help someone who is thinking about, but on the fence about, a career in investment banking. I went from never having heard of investment banking as a profession, to working as a junior investment banker at a bulge bracket, to wishing I had never heard of investment banking as a profession. Warning: this is a bit long (will sum up with tl;dr).

Unlike what seem to be most young go-getters on this site, I was the epitome of a lazy kid through high school and college. People said if I "applied myself" I'd go far...but that meant doing homework, going to class, etc. So I coasted through both at around a 3.0 GPA at a mid-level state school, computer science because I liked computers, and took a so-so job as a programmer at an insurance company post-graduation.

VP of Technology (back office) at a BB to MBA

Not sure what clicked at this point, but I suppose you can say I matured; started doing well at work, and after 3 years leaped into finance as a programmer at one of the largest bulge brackets. This went quite well for a while; 5 years after graduation, I was a VP of technology at a top US investment bank, making good if not spectacular money (think base+bonus equivalent of say, 2nd year analyst). Life was good--but as I got involved in the business at the bank, I got that itch which made me wonder why my clients (software users) made so much money when they didn't seem to be any smarter than I was. So...I pivoted, went to school (part-time, paid in full by the bank) for my MBA, and started pounding the pavement trying to get into investment banking.

MBA to Front Office

Certainly a difficult jump to make--back office to front office, with a part-time MBA no less, but lo and behold...worked out fairly easy for me. I had a 4.0 GPA at school, pounded the pavement during recruitment, prepared for interviews, and had multiple bulge bracket offers for incoming associate classes. I think at the time, I convinced myself that I was interested in the work; and to some degree corporate finance is an interesting subject. However, looking back, I was clearly only blinded by dollars.

IBD Associate

So I took one of the offers, and went to work as an incoming associate. To be honest, I never fit in. The work was boring and monotonous, not at all intellectually stimulating, and the culture of the place was completely toxic. Did I pick the wrong group? Possibly. However, I do think that investment banking is generally extremely hierarchical, with the management (VP+) treating the juniors (Associate-) like they are children; which is something I've really never experienced. Even as a 22 year old working in technology, I always at least felt like I was being treated as an adult. This doesn't take into account the fact that the day-to-day work as a technologist in a bank is much more intellectually stimulating than the work of a banker; it's not even close. During recruiting, bankers will try to get you to believe that they want problem solvers because the work is complex and interesting...it's not. Maybe that's true on a high level, but the work bankers to on a day to day basis is incredibly boring, with math that a child could do, and you have to sit and do it for hours and hours on end.

Couldn't take it anymore...

I'd be happy to get more into what I didn't like about the job itself if people are interested (complete with stories)--but that's not really the point of this thread, so I'll leave it at that, and say that after a year I just couldn't take it anymore. Walked into the boss's office, quit without notice, and left the building an hour later. Took about a week to recharge, grabbed a job through a friend as a senior technical consultant, and happy to report that I'm now back working as a mid-level manager at a different bulge bracket in the software engineering space. My life is like a vacation now as I have normal hours, interesting work, and make an upper-middle class compensation.

Advice for others

So--what's the point of this story? I know there are very few people who go to investment banking via the route I did; most people I worked with were hard workers their entire life which culminated in an offer to a bulge bracket and big dreams of the next great thing afterward. So I'll try to compartmentalize some personal advice, having been through it, to different groups of people:

1) Late high schoolers/College students:

If you're looking at investment banking as a career option, it probably seems like the only way for you to enter the upper class, and there is a lot of pressure to do it. However, if money is your main driver, you're setting yourself up for some heartache. I met MANY analysts who were extremely unhappy people (way more unhappy than any 22 year old should be)...and I honestly think it's because these were the smartest, most hard-working kids I've ever met, and they were doing simple work that any even slightly intelligent person could do, and doing it for 70% of their lives.

There are many other ways to make money in this life and many other jobs that are much more difficult and stimulating. I won't say that money doesn't matter--because that is horribly untrue--but the diminishing returns of going from my compensation level (think 2nd year associate) to say, that of a Director, won't make up for the happiness loss by just having a job you hate your whole life.

2) BO personnel at banks (or other professions) thinking about a switch:

How much do you enjoy your job, all-in? Compensation + Work/Life + Intellectual stimulation + whatever else. Chances are, the ONLY thing in that equation that will improve by making a switch to investment banking (can't speak for other front office roles) is compensation; while every other component of the equation will get appreciably worse. I fell into the "grass is always greener" trap; try to appreciate what you have before you make the decision that something else is right for you.

3) Current analysts/associates:

This is a tough one. I certainly don't want to tell you that you made the wrong choice. And most of you, I assume, don't have 7 years of good software engineering experience to fall back on as a "backup" career. The advice I would give to you is simply that if you're on the "track" (MBA, PE, whatever you kids are doing these days) and you're unhappy with your life, don't be afraid to step back and reassess. As smart and capable as you clearly are, you can build a career in something else, if you so choose. One thing I really took offense to at my IB is that the senior people acted as though they were doing the junior people a favor by letting them work there. It is in fact the exact opposite; YOU are the one doing the senior people a favor by working for them. You're the smart, talented, incredibly hard-working person who any employer would kill to have; don't let these MDs make you think anything otherwise.

So that's it--I'm curious to see what kind of reaction this post generates, as I've been trolling WSO since I started looking for IB jobs (~4 years ago now) and haven't seen much opinion piece going this way. Feel free to shit on it if you disagree. If nothing else, I would love to generate a discussion.

Mod Note (Andy): top 50 posts of 2017, this one ranks #14 (based on # of silver bananas)