Like most first-time interviewees coming out of college, I was fairly ill-prepared to put my best foot forward when the time finally came to leave behind the cushy Xanadu of higher education and enter the fray of the “real world” that I kept hearing about. Make no mistake, I had studied assiduously for almost four years, compiled the type of grades that would ensure my acceptance in almost any graduate program in the country, and even visited the career center at my college to practice my interviewing and resume-writing skills.
Being a fairly good and especially imaginative writer, my resume was nearly perfect upon initial inspection by a career counselor. Possessing equally effective verbal communications skills, I was surely the type of young and eager candidate who could walk into any interview and confidently discuss anything that may come up, from Freud to Plato to supply-side economics. Thus were the advantages of my natural studiousness and a liberal arts education heavy on the classics. Or so I thought.
I also prepared myself in other ways for this first interview, donning a new slate grey pin-striped suit purchased from Macy’s for what at the time was a hefty sum of $250. Added to that were a pair of black wing-tipped shoes and a new burgundy-striped tie that bespoke professionalism and would, I thought, be entirely in keeping with the rich financial tradition of Legg Mason, Inc., Baltimore’s top retail stock brokerage.
For this particular interview, which was in fact the first of many in which I would engage as graduation approached, I was attempting to obtain a position in Legg Mason’s corporate finance department, which is, essentially, the investment banking arm of the company. Though my major was Economics and my finance courses were few, I felt confident of my academic skills and also believed that they would translate well when put to practical use. I would, after all, end up graduating Magna cum Laude and score a perfect 4.0 GPA in my major courses. The world was clearly mine for the taking and I wanted to work at Legg Mason…badly.
But then a strange thing happened – namely, the interview. The richly-paneled walls and marble conference table of Legg Mason’s corporate offices in downtown Baltimore were just what I expected, but the atmosphere into which I had stumbled would resemble nothing I had expected beyond that initial show of wealth and power. After waiting for about 10 minutes, I was ushered into a small office cluttered with paper and with a small computer monitor in the corner, where I again was to wait for a junior associate who would begin the interviewing process.
When this young man walked in the room, I was a bit shocked. He was only three or four years older than myself, surely no more than 25 years, but looked as though he’d recently been through an experiment in sleep deprivation. At 11:00 A.M., he already had his tie pulled down, his shirt partially un-tucked, and had changed from business shoes into black running shoes. He hadn’t shaved in at least two days and had dark circles under his eyes. Before I had much time to ruminate on this fellow’s appearance, he started the interview, noting that he’d been working quite a bit of late. He immediately asked me about my major and noted that it was strange to find an Economics major applying for the position.
I really didn’t know what to think of this until he noted that they had been interviewing mostly math majors with experience in mathematical modeling. He then went on to note that the “program” that I was interviewing for had a fairly predictable and set pattern and it worked like this: First, promising new graduates would come to work in the corporate finance department for a salary in the low- to mid-$40,000 range, working long days that would accumulate to 60 – 100 hour weeks. These young worker bees would be on call 24 hours a day and, lest they think the managers and VPs directing their energies wouldn’t dare interrupt their weekend slumber, the overlords of the office made certain to do exactly that so that no underlings would fall into a comfortable pattern outside the office.
In short, for roughly three years, young Legg Mason corporate finance associates sacrificed even the pretense of a social life in order to serve the financial beast and, if they excelled under these slave-like conditions, had the undergraduate grades to justify it, and performed admirably on the GMAT, they would apply and be accepted to the Wharton Business School, the Harvard Business School, the University of Chicago or some other titan of higher financial education.
The portion of the interview conducted by the 25-year-old who looked like a 45-year-old on crystal meth ended fairly quickly, but not before I learned that he had actually been in the office for the past 36 hours and thus hadn’t actually changed into the black running shoes or pulled his tie down that morning. That slovenly appearance had been cultivated the previous day and persisted at 11:00 A.M. on the following day. On a bright note, the young man was going to be attending Wharton in the fall, so there was a silver lining.
I next moved on to a bright-eyed young lady who had studied math as an undergrad and was confused as to why I would have made so egregious a mistake as to select Economics over Mathematics as a major. I quickly learned that this young lady had already gone through the associate program, graduated from Harvard, and then returned for the six-figure salary that awaited her at Legg Mason upon her matriculation. I was at least pleased to see that she was properly attired and appeared to have slept in the past day or so.
The second portion of my interview was followed by a fairly uneventful final conversation, wherein a senior executive again wondered aloud about my strange choice of majors and again stressed the grueling nature of the junior associate position. At this point, I was actually trying not to look out the window at the beautiful spring day, but in reality I was already greatly looking forward to my escape into the warmth of the city. Just sitting in this suffocating small office with the vampire, the perky Math maven and the BMW-driving senior executive made me want to forget the past four years of hard studying and intense seriousness that I had not affected but actually possessed, and get a beer.
When I finally escaped the confines of Legg Mason’s corporate headquarters, I breathed in the only moderately-toxic Baltimore air and knew that I was not going to be receiving an offer to work in the corporate finance department at the Baltimore behemoth. And I was happy. I thought more about where I should interview, and what I should do with my life, but only briefly. I would have to face those questions again, and very soon, but for now I had dodged a bullet. And it wasn’t that I was lazy, or that I was unwilling to give myself over to the corporate culture to advance my own career. I just didn’t want to give myself over so fully and to such an extent that my physical health would actually lapse and my life as I knew it would be obliterated. That afternoon, I drove back to college, a mere hour-plus drive that took me into the relative countryside of Maryland but that seemed a world away from the toiling city. I had, truly, escaped.
It wouldn’t be until many years later while reading Michael Lewis’s Liar’s Poker that I would come to understand the “math major phenomenon.” Apparently, in the 1970s and throughout much of the 1980s, when investment banking and bond trading were reaching their zenith, Economics was THE thing to study at the undergraduate level to make it big in the industry. But during the mid- to late-1980s, the realization that mathematical modeling offered a more objective, precise method of assessing financing options dawned upon the entire power structure of Wall Street. It was thus that my choice of majors made me something akin to a man with three heads in the cramped offices of Legg Mason’s corporate finance department that day.
Likewise, it would not be until many, many years later that I would fully understand the folly of my expectations as an eager but extremely naïve undergrad. The lofty ideals with which eager minds are molded in ivory towers are, it would seem, a mere afterthought in this thankless “real world” that we have all heard of. The liberal arts education, intrinsically valuable and absolutely necessary to the formation of a truly well-rounded adult is likewise an afterthought in the profit-first, “how can you fix my problem?” world of business.
The lesson, though, for those with grandiose visions about to graduate from college and embark on a career, is not to subvert those noble ideas and the classics upon which undergraduate education is based, but to hold on to them while at the same time adjusting to the realities of the labor market.
Now that I’ve been on the other side of the interview table, I understand why I may not have been the ideal candidate for Legg Mason, or for other companies at which I interviewed. First off, I wasn’t even aware of what the position at Legg Mason would potentially entail until it was explicitly laid out for me. After finding out, I had very little interest in the position and, even if I had been interested, I wasn’t familiar enough with modern finance to understand the undergraduate subject matter most suited to attaining such a position. It was, in essence, a very good example of the differences between theory-based education and practical training.
Being acutely aware of those differences before beginning the interviewing process is the next step to preparation after writing a killer resume, practicing interviewing skills, and presenting one’s self appropriately. Thereafter, preparation occurs within the context of the interview itself. A recent college grad, or anyone interviewing for any position, should be aware that no matter how intelligent, skilled, hardworking or quick-learning he or she may be, the penultimate criterion to meet when interviewing will be how effectively one can help the company, department or organization reach its goals – financial or otherwise – with a minimal amount of headaches. Learning quickly – “on the fly,” so to speak – what the interviewer is looking for in an employee is the best way to reach an understanding of how to reply to interview questions. Asking a question of the interviewer, namely “What qualities are you looking for in candidates for this position?”, is the not-so-subtle intelligence-gathering method not to be shied away from in this instance.
With that said, it may also be worth noting that when being interviewed by the walking dead, it may be advisable to reject any offers of employment from the zombie’s company…unless, of course, that’s your thing.