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An illuminating Q&A with an ex-Goldman Sachs quant from Russia, who warns: think before you go into banking

Goldman

How do you get hired by Goldman Sachs? How do you get a transfer from Goldman Sachs’ Moscow to its London office? What gets you noticed during job interviews? An ex-Goldman employee who’s worked in Moscow and in London offers his advice – and a warning.

Q: How did you get hired by Goldman?

While in Moscow, I started looking for my first full-time job using a specialised online forum for quantitative specialists that also advertised vacancies. Once I was clear on the kind of vacancy I was interested in, I wrote to the headhunters who advertised those kinds of jobs, explaining my preferences and asking for their help. It made no difference to me whether I worked in Moscow or in Europe. Since I had a PhD in maths, I was offered interviews with several first-tier banks including Goldman. They were all for positions in Moscow.

Q: How difficult was the interview process?

I had one phone interview with Goldman, and while they were making up their minds about interviewing me further, I received a job offer from another major international bank. Thus by the time I was finally invited for face-to-face interviews at Goldman I felt confident and mostly used the interview to figure out whether the company suited me and whether my job prospects there were sufficiently attractive.

The interviews took place in London, and lasted from 9am until 6pm. I had 15 interviews in one and a half days.

Q: What kinds of questions were you asked?

There were a lot of technical questions.

I remember a great maths brainteaser that was more amusing than tough: “You have a bridge that is 100 metres long, and a drunk who is standing 17 metres away from its left-hand end. At equal time intervals he takes one-metre steps to his right or to his left, each time with a 0.5 probability in terms of which direction he’ll move in. What is the probability that he’ll reach the left-hand end of the bridge first?

I was hired into the Moscow office and was transferred to London a couple of years later. This made sense as my boss was based in London and I had been initially hired to work for the UK team.

Q: How is Goldman’s work style in London different to its style in Moscow?

Most obviously, the London office is bigger. In London, I worked harder and longer hours.Moscow is more of an insiders’ market. There are far fewer participants and a more intimate feel. It doesn’t take long to get to know all the key players here.

The business and business communication culture is also different. Brits are less open than Russians and the cultural codes are quite different. In Russia, they’ll tell you straight when something is wrong; they’ll never do that in the UK. If they call something “very interesting”, it means that you are talking absolute nonsense. Incidentally, the attitude is different in theUS, where people also tend to be pretty direct.

Also, the Moscow office had free biscuits while the London office only had cafés where you had to pay!

Q: What advice would you give people who want to get a transfer from Moscow to London or elsewhere?

To be honest, I wasn’t particularly eager to move. Given Russia’s 13% income tax rate, most other people were of a similar opinion.

However, if I were seeking a transfer, I’d start by finding out – possibly with the help of people in the office you want to move to,  whether they are hiring and whether they need people with your expertise. You could also try talking to your boss. I know of a few cases where people would approach their bosses and say that they were unhappy and wanted to work elsewhere. Often, they were supported by their superiors.

Nevertheless, your boss won’t be actively seeking out transfer opportunities for you, so you’ll have to find out for yourself whether your profile is in demand elsewhere. Also, if you are seeking a transfer it makes sense to look for a position with similar job requirements rather than try to start doing something radically different. Otherwise, it will be unclear why you should be hired instead of someone with relevant experience.

What has your overall experience of working at Goldman been like? How much truth is there in the rumours about its “rotten” corporate culture? Did you make fun of your clients as a recently departed Goldman executive has alleged?

We had a good, collegiate working climate. There was some bureaucracy, as there will be at any large organisation, but there was no backstabbing. We used to hang out outside of work, going to barbecues, playing board games, going skiing together.

In fact, from talking to colleagues who had worked at other banks I got the feeling that things were much better at Goldman compared to other places. If I needed help from someone who worked at Goldman’s Tokyo office I could easily pick up the phone and call them asking for help, and they’d most likely help even though we might have never spoken before and were unlikely to speak again afterwards.

We never made fun of our clients. Moreover, when we thought that our clients stood to lose money on something, we’d always bring it to their attention.

Q: What is your advice to those trying to get hired at Goldman and preparing for interviews there?

I believe that the hiring process is fairly standard at all banks and there is no need to suggest anything specifically tailor-made for Goldman.

I interviewed between 50 and 80 people myself while I worked there. The aspect I paid most attention to was the candidate’s CV. It makes no sense to ask the candidate about things he or she does not know, so I focused on what was written in the CV. If the candidate had a PhD I asked them to talk about it; if they claimed to be an experienced programmer I asked them questions about programming. One of the candidates had in-depth expertise in chemistry, and considering that I could not think of any relevant questions to ask, I asked a colleague within the team who was familiar with the subject to participate in the discussion.

Q: Can you offer some  tips for people seeking interviews?

Sure.

1. My first tip is, don’t lie or exaggerate. A typical candidate mistake is putting things into the CV that they either don’t know or don’t remember well. If your CV has twenty strong points, but you are unable to say anything articulate about the first two as you once wrote a student paper on the subject but have since forgotten everything about it, why mention it in the first place? It’s better to have three bullet points that you can talk about so well as to get me excited about them.

2. Don’t write long CVs. The CV shouldn’t be longer than two pages. A long CV looks especially bad when all the candidate has done is study for a bachelor’s degree for four years – and then they send a five-page-long CV. It is obvious that by this point a person is unlikely to have so many truly important accomplishments that would be worth enumerating in such detail.

Just imagine: I get a batch of CVs and honestly spend 10-20 working hours reading them. If you have a long CV, the really important things can get lost among the irrelevant ones. It’s best to describe your key achievements and mention the rest in brief; it will then be clear at once what your core skills are and what you have been doing.

3. Speak plainly and clearly. If I can’t make sense of the finer details of a candidate’s PhD thesis, I want them to explain to me the basics in simple terms first before going into details, rather than doing the opposite.

4. Come to the interview properly dressed, even if you are a quantitative specialist. You can show off your independence and your individual style later. When I was not working directly with clients at Goldman I didn’t need to observe the dress code. But if I were interviewing a candidate who had arrived wearing jeans and sporting unwashed hair I’d have asked him why he had chosen to come looking that way given all he should supposedly know about the code of conduct at interviews. Do you really want to be answering this question at your own interview?

5. Think about why you want this particular job. Do you want to be doing it 12 hours a day? 12 hours is half of your daily life, and that’s a lot. It doesn’t matter if you are going to work at Goldman or elsewhere; you’ll soon get tired of just swapping time for money, and you’ll feel really miserable if you don’t love doing what you’re doing.

Let’s say that the team focuses on maths; you aren’t interested in the subject, but you don’t have a good answer to the question of why you want to work on that team so you say you’d like to work on maths. If you get hired and end up hating what you are doing every day, your career won’t go well as you won’t be giving it your best.

Think through the details of what your daily job will be like. Talk to current employees and potential colleagues. There are salespeople who think they are going to be doing a “glamorous” job, having meals with clients and jetting about. But when they end up having three trips a week, never getting to see their families, and having clients call them at 7 am to say that they’d like to see some analytics to support the recommendations they’d been given, reality begins to sink in. As a rule, people who apply to banks aren’t thinking about the downside of their career choice, but it’s well worth thinking about it as you get very long working hours and end up spending a huge chunk of your life there.


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