What you need to know

Alex Buchanan, whose City bible The Game was serialised in The Gateway last year, is back working in the Square Mile once again. We decided it was time for a catch-up
Investment banking
Introducing investment banking

You've been busy promoting your book to students interested in working the in City. What kinds of things do they ask you?

They all want to know the same thing, that is, how do they make themselves stand out at an interview and on an application form. The hard thing for them now is that they've all got good CVs, have done five different work experience placements, and so on.

What do you say to them?

Try and understand the roles for which you're applying, and their demands, because students often want to go into investment banking or hedge fund management without really knowing what they are. But it's very difficult to get this knowledge if you've never worked in the City. I spoke to an undergraduate recently who told me they'd done three months of work experience here, and so thought they had a fairly good idea of what went on. I said they didn't, because you have to see at least one economic cycle before you understand it.

If they don't want to wait a few years, what can students do to get more informed?

Talk to people doing the job you're interested in. I know it's difficult and that some people are intimidating, but to give myself as an example, I never mind if someone asks to talk to me about how things work - I'm very happy to help. You can also read my book - that's why I wrote it!

Who is suited to a role in the City?

You get all sorts here - different jobs require different people, so you find every type of personality. But in all City jobs you need a pretty thick skin because you're going to get criticism, whether from your clients or your elders and betters in the office. Finance is a very performance-driven industry. This is because it's all to do with how much money you bring in, and you can quantify someone's performance precisely - either in financial terms, or by how they're regarded by their client base or rated by their peer group. You have to expect scrutiny.

So is working in the City about individual performance rather than teamwork?

No - you should exploit the team ethic. Your team can be your prop, your sounding board, or your cheerleader. There are very few people who build successful one-man or one-woman operations, and so isolating yourself from others is probably a mistake.

Other than good teamwork skills, what other attributes do people need to be successful in the City?

You're dealing all the time with people's likes and dislikes and their fragile egos. So you've got to be fairly adept at human psychology and dealing with politics. Whatever you're doing in the City, human relationships are important. That's how you build business, whether you're managing people's money, selling equities or trading because your network brings you huge amounts of information and you need to have more than the guy next to you.

Showing foresight is another important skill - hedge funds were the latest fad ten years ago and if you'd worked out that they were going to be the way forward and joined one of those, you'd have done very well.

Are the qualities you've been describing things that graduate recruiters in the City look for?

You need to tick the boxes in an assessment centre and once you've got through that, you can show a bit of personality. But remember you're not going to get on with every interviewer - sometimes you meet someone and they just don't like you. You can't do anything about that.

So getting a job in the City all comes down to personality?

It does (though obviously you've got to demonstrate the intellectual apparatus to do the job first). Let me explain. If someone comes to see me and says that they want to work in my business, I will ask them why and I want to see how someone thinks and how they relate to people.

What can students do to prepare for a City job interview?

You can prepare by making sure that you can show an awareness of what's going on in the City. That's quite easy - you can read the FT, the Economist and obviously The Gateway. But you should also go deeper into the role for which you're applying. I don't care if you've been captain of the girls' netball team - what matters to me is that you can tell me what you're going to bring to the party here.

I'd also look at resources like Reuters' surveys. And talk to people - for instance, find out why some firms are terrible at research but brilliant at trading. You need to know these things because a firm might just shut down a bad division because it's not going anywhere.

What differentiates an excellent candidate from one who is just good?

This kind of detailed research - you can then say I want to work for your derivatives desk because I know you have X per cent market share.

Also, you have to have humility. You have to accept that what you are is someone who might be promising. How can you be anything more at 22? You might be bright and have studied the stock market, but until you have worked in the City, seen an economic cycle and understood how the machinery works, how do you know anything? You learn on the job.

Keeping things simple shows you have commercial awareness and that you understand capitalism in its basic form. The classic interview question is: "Which event have you been following in the business press recently?" Half the students will say they've been looking at the Irish bail out - six months ago they would have mentioned Greece. That's not interesting. Pick something more relevant. I would say that the most important single factor dominating investment banking management right now is the dearth of corporate transactions and the difficulty of raising capital. Businesses all over the world are suffering because banks aren't lending and that creates opportunities for other investors. Talking about something like that and why it matters is much more interesting than telling people what's happening in Ireland. Doing so is combining humility with ability - that is, not being afraid to tell a simple story because simple stories are always the best. Frankly, if asked to talk about ECB bail outs or banking regulations, 99 per cent of us in the City would quickly get lost. So don't put yourself in a position where you're talking about a subject with which you don't feel comfortable.

What are the best and worst things about working in the City?

In the City you are at the forefront of capitalism, which is exciting. You feel that you are in a business leading the charge. Also, obviously the money - banking is far better paid than any other industry, and we shouldn't be ashamed to say that the money is partly why we do it. I also like working in the City because it allows you to travel and meet an array of interesting people who need your support.

The flipside is that so much of what we do is mundane and repetitive. I also hate the endless regurgitation of opinions; in banking no-one really knows anything - we're all looking into a crystal ball to some extent and some people change their ideas as often as they change their clothes. You're also conscious of the vulnerability of your job. Success in this industry is very performance-related and therefore you're always looking over your shoulder if you're having a bad day - and everyone goes through difficult patches, often through no fault of their own. Someone asked me recently if I thought there was any scope for creativity in the City, and in most firms the answer is no, which is another negative.

Do the perks compensate for the negative aspects?

The perks are good: the expenses, the dinners - people in this world live a pretty pampered life, so let's not feel sorry for anyone. I've spent a lot of my career trying to leave the City but I've kept coming back because whenever I had time to think about it in the cold light of day, I wasn't sure what else would be better.

Are the dinners and drinks still going on, despite the economic climate?

This world is all about relationships, so they have to be. It's just more low-key at the moment.

Will the current regulatory and cultural pressures on the City change the way it works in a fundamental way?

No. Firstly, it remains to be seen how strict these new regulations are. For example, they won't shut down proprietary trading in the US - they'll just call it something else. Secondly, the City is constantly evolving in any event.

The City exists because businesses need capital and the people who can provide that capital need markets through which they can trade. That's why we're all here, and it's not going to change. The City will be financing businesses as long as the world is turning, because where else can they go?

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