GUEST COMMENT: The hell that is working in an investment bank's presentation centre

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Junior bankers do more than their fair share of grunt work, but there are some tasks that are beyond even them: nicely formatting complex PowerPoint presentations, following all the company guidelines for a consistent ‘brand look’, creating spiffy graphs, working with high-end illustrations, and giving everything a makeover.

This is what the presentations centre at your bank does.  Presentations professionals specialize in transforming ugly presentations, taking chicken scratch and making it look like the word of deities, and otherwise cleaning up after you. I spent seven years working in the presentations centres of some of the biggest banks in London.

If you’re a banker, please don’t assume we presentations centre people are your inferiors. In terms of education, you will find more MA and PhD degrees in the presentation center than anywhere else in the bank – it’s just that they are in the humanities and not in business administration.

This, my friends, was a typical night:

11:15 PM

I’m on the underground to central London. To others, it’s Friday night – time to roll out in limos and go to clubs. To me, it’s the start of another working day.

11:30 PM

I arrive at Leicester Square, and a bunch of drunken men push into the carriage. Before the ride is out, I will have bruises on my thighs and will barely make it to work on time.

11:50 PM

Finally, I arrive at work. As I rush up the stairs to the elevator, I see bankers coming down.

Are they going home? I hope not, or my shift will be cut short.

11:55 PM

I arrive at the “Center of Global Excellence.”

I line up at the “front desk,” where we get our time sheets signed by the shift leader. Next to us, a line of bankers handing in their work is forming.

Some have tight deadlines of 1 or 2 AM; midnight is the busiest time at the presentation centre.

12:00 AM

I manage to snatch a desk and workstation from underneath a departing evening operator. The good news: it’s right at the back of the room, so I can see people coming and I’ll have a good view of dawn rising over the City of London.

The bad news: I sit directly under a broken air conditioning vent. Since I am only allowed to get up out of my seat 4 times per shift, it will be a cold night.

12:05 AM

Back to the front desk to get my first job of the night. Jobs are colour-coded according to type and difficulty; I know exactly what type of job I want, but unfortunately so does the supervisor.

He allocates the best jobs, so you want to avoid unseemly fights and take what you can get.

The bankers don’t know anything about the politics in our group – they hand in their work with anxious expressions, and explain each page in abundant detail to a supervisor who will make one-word notes on each page and leave the job in the queue until his successor arrives.

Sometimes bankers with a bit more experience attempt to assert their superiority by shouting military-style orders at us; we just ignore them.

This eternal conflict between bankers and presentations workers probably costs the bank hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.

12:30 AM

I’m well into my first job, which consists of trying to fit in as much text and as many annotations into every page as is humanly possible, without violating the laws of physics.

The pages look ugly, and I’m worried that I will get in trouble with our “Excellence Assurance” desk, which requires me to follow their guidelines at all times – if I don’t, I may be locked up in the third basement (figuratively) and forced to undergo re-training sessions.

1:00 AM

I sneak a few furtive glances around the centre, which now mostly consists of “graveyards,” the name our shift is lovingly known by.

We can be fired on a day’s notice and without explanation. This is in addition to the bank wide annual ‘culls’ of 25% of the workforce.

So the absence of two friends can be a sign of sickness, holidays or termination – I’ll have to wait for the grapevine to catch up with me to know for sure. All I know is that, so far, I have mysteriously survived 4 years in a job that most others get fired from long before that.

But it’s just like investing: past performance does not guarantee future results.

1:30 AM

Job finished. I process it, and then continue to try to keep a low profile at the “Excellence Assurance” desk.

Luckily, they are busy publicly reprimanding a new centre girl for the many style errors in her document.

This saves me, and will hopefully also save my banker, for now. Back to the front desk.

Unfortunately, although the queue of bankers has shortened, a new danger looms: working with the banker.

I look at the banker and despair – I can see the guy hasn’t slept for a long time.

A new associate, he has been living like this for over two years, and those years have made him into a hardened cynic. Like me, he is a veteran of many campaigns.

Almost before I can open up the document from the labyrinth of folders and access points, he starts giving me short, monosyllabic commands.

I understand where he’s coming from: this project is a make-or-break job for him, younger bankers are snapping at his heels, and this is the 37th revision of a presentation originally copied from another department.

But I’m only human. I still don’t want to be shouted at, and I need explanations that make logical sense. He would get a lot more value out of me if he treated me as a person rather than passing on all his stress to me and expecting me to follow his orders like a dog .

I handle his demands fairly well, but towards the end I start making stupid mistakes – good thing a friend in the department brings me a cup of tea right around this time.

3:00 AM

And it’s straight into the next job.

This time, I luck out – the new banker I’m working with is a perfect example of grace under fire. He’s polite, looks me in the eyes, asks for my name (amazing!) and asks what I think the best solution to a complex charting issue on page 53 is.

Rather than calling my supervisor to complain about me, he calls them to thank me – which I overhear as I pass by the front desk on my way to the kitchen.

4:00 AM

Dinner is always an “on the desk” affair on the graveyard shift. If I’m not on a diet, I nuke something in the microwave, which has an interesting patina of meals past clinging to its walls.

The tiny kitchen serves a floor of 300 people and is not cleaned between Saturday and Monday morning.

The good news: the bankers insisted on a state-of-the-art espresso machine, which I’m using to full capacity – and the short walk to the kitchen has restored some circulation to my legs.

I grab a job as I walk back. It’s a morning deadline, so I can work on it in peace.

4:30 AM

After “dinner,” but still before dawn, the supervisors often take a break. We graveyards continue working through the dark, talking, gossiping, and dreaming of winning the lottery.

5:30 AM

My job is finished. I see with alarm that the stack of jobs on the front desk has decreased dramatically.

To bankers, reduced workload at 5:30 AM is always great news – but the moment work dries up for us, we’re sent home since we’re paid on an hourly basis.

So I never know what my income will be each week, and we’re affected by mini-economic cycles here.

The supervisor sends me to take some pages off a colleague, but he hands them to me with a bad attitude – his own income is threatened by anything he hands off to me.

5:45 AM

Saved by Asia! A huge presentation arrives from Hong Kong.

It’s due by 8 AM, and since the styles are horrific, everyone in the department will need to work on it in order to fix it within the next two hours.

6:00 AM

By a freak of architectural allocation, the centre has one of the most expensive views in London, and we can see the new day dawning all pink and golden behind the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral. Some kind of primal uplift of energy runs through our brains. That’s the biggest perk of the graveyard shift.

7:00 AM

The energy doesn’t last. The job that saved us still gets done, but our power to focus is flagging. The last hour on the graveyard shift is the hardest.

Meanwhile, bankers come in, fresh from the gym and breakfast, and they slap new jobs on the front desk. The morning shift will be here soon to offer up some relief.

8:00 AM

After only a little holdup at the sign-out bottleneck, we spill into the streets.

Some have a drink at the nearby meat market, while others go for a final cappuccino. My friend and I head for a nice breakfast with strawberries and cream, after which I’ll go for a long walk with my family.

I just hope I manage to get enough sleep before it’s time to get up again and brave the underground into central London for my next graveyard shift, starting at midnight.

Nyla Nox has worked the graveyard shift in the presentation centers of the London branches of the most successful investment banks in the universe for over seven years. Unlike most of her colleagues, she has never been fired.  She is the author of “Heart of the Desert” and “The Midnight Moralist,” a winner of the 2010 Seven Fund global essay competition, as well as various other publications (including being shortlisted for a first novel prize in the UK) under a different name. She enjoys living a double life and writing about her experiences in both. A version of this article first appeared on Mergers and Inquisitions, a website dedicated to helping people break into investment banking, and to maintaining their sanity while doing so.