This post will be a nice continuation to that dodgy Athenian interview experience described in the previous one.
The beginning of 2009 saw me seriously disappointed with job opportunities so obviously non-existent in Athens. After an idyllic one-week holiday in Austria, I flew to Riga and finally revealed all the cards to myself. The picture didn’t look good. The only job offer I had in Athens was not really an offer at all; it was a vague promise hanging on the cliff, not substantiated by any hard-line commitments. After a string of unprofessional interviews in Greece (http://anjci.com/job-search-in-athens-truth-revealed/), I was largely fed up and needed a change – a change back to the reality that I knew.
The dilemma I was facing was an interesting one. On one hand, I could hope that the amorphous Greek offer would lead to something more than just wishful thinking, and hang around Greece in the meantime. Blue-sky scenario would see me getting that job and setting my foot firmly in Athens. Things would perhaps be just fine then. A more realistic scenario would probably see me waiting for a few months, responseless, and then having to decide on an alternative living location.
On the other hand, I could leave Greece immediately and look for job options elsewhere, London being an obvious first preference. The thought of returning to London echoed painfully in my heart. Man, did I miss the place, with its countless cultural events, pedestrian-friendly culture, round-the-world flight connections, half of my friends based there, and the other half regularly passing through. I knew it instantly. I had to return.
Timing was clearly the tricky part. It was the peak of the financial crisis, my friends being laid off left and right. I figured that looking for a job in these market conditions would not all be smooth and rosy, but decided to give it a try, anyway (I am an optimist at heart). Following the paved old route, I opened www.efinancialcareers.com for the first time in eight months and typed “Utilities Analyst” (keywords by which I proudly sell myself) into search. To my utter surprise, a few results popped up. Indeed, someone out there was looking for M&A Analysts specialised in Utilities. The first feasibility check was passed.
I had a week-long trip to London planned at the end of January, which I had originally arranged as my last major getaway before hitting full-time work in Greece. Deciding to combine pleasure with business, I scheduled a few interviews in London. It was surprisingly easy. I guess my sector hadn’t quite died out yet to the extent that others had. “Lucky,” I kept thinking, “Let’s see what happens.”
The first couple of interviews were bland at most. I understood that many companies were meeting candidates purely opportunistically, not really hoping to hire but rather screening the market, especially in specialised sectors like mine. I was walking out of another such flavourless interview when my headhunter called. Would I be interested in attending an interview with a super-exciting, small Utilities and Infrastructure private equity fund, she asked. They had just called her, singing praises to my CV and unquestionably interested in seeing the candidate in person. A 30-minute meeting. Just to chat with one of the guys as a first introduction. Would I be available immediately, by the way?
Why not, I thought. It was Friday afternoon; having finished the mandatory “business” part of my stay in London, I was hoping to proceed to that of “pleasure”. By what it looked to me, a 30-minute interview would not disrupt the process too much. I could attend the interview, then meet one friend for coffee, then join a mate for Greek Bankers’ drinks, then pick up yet another friend from the train station. It would surely all cling neatly together.
Unfortunately, someone up there had other plans. As soon as I had entered the interview room, I could smell trouble in the air. The guy, a Barcelona native, greeted me with a distinct insanity spark in his eyes. I thanked the skies that the episode would indeed only last for half an hour.
What followed afterwards could best be described as a mental rape. The guy (let’s call him Jose) began the interview by looking at me for at least five minutes, in utter silence. He then cast a look at my CV lying on the table in front of him and said, Wow. What a great CV. So I think I am such a good candidate, right. Would I be up for a small testing session? Trembling deep inside, I smiled as I agreed. I mean, I had been kicked face in the mud many times at job interviews before. The guy was just a Catalan weirdo. I could surely confront someone like him without risking my nerval stability too much.
Before proceeding to the promised session, Jose made sure to go through every bullet point on my CV, checking all the dates and interrogating me on any overlaps. How could I do an internship there if I was a student at another place? How is it possible to be in Helsinki and Frankfurt at the same time? Am I a sort of a wizard, or spend half of my time flying across countries? It took me a bit of effort to remain polite as I explained that, for example, I never ceased to be enrolled at my graduate school in Helsinki while doing traineeships in London and Frankfurt. I returned to Helsinki afterwards to finish my studies. I actually FINISHED my studies, and that’s what perhaps he should really care about?
We then went through a series of questions with varying degrees of ridiculosity. First, he asked me why I had been laid off from UBS. Any such question is wrong in the core. No redundancy justification ever goes beyond the generics such as “unfavourable market conditions”, “cost-cutting” or “difficult times”. Redundancies are not personal – at least theoretically. Jose, however, exploded when I tried to lay it out to him. I must be concealing something, he retorted. They would never fire a good employee. There must be something wrong with me. Would I please admit it, or will he have to call around a few people?
Another question was why I would like to work specifically for their glorious fund. There is nothing wrong with this question in principle, except for the fact (which Jose was perfectly aware of) that it was a last-minute interview arranged through a headhunter, not a personal application from my side. I hardly had time to check any factual information about the company. The reason I came to the interview – so I thought – was a first introduction alone. It looked like however, I was expected to come up with a monstrous story how I had spent my childhood days dreaming of their fund. Given the circumstances, would that not be pure-form hypocrisy? Would Jose prefer to hear outright lies from me rather than an honest answer that their fund is in line with my general expectations from an employer, hence my presence there in front of him? I had never seen anyone so visibly disappointed. “You are not sure what you are looking for in life, are you,” he concluded dramatically. “Most people your age are”. “Or they just make a good impression that they are?” I suggested. Jose looked shocked. I dared talk back to him. Mistake.
To kill the matters completely, Jose asked me to my face which other interviews I was attending. I have not been in this market for too long, but such practice is simply unthought-of. There is a certain ethic which firmly disallows interviewers to push for exact details of other possible processes an interviewee might be running. Everyone exaggerates; everyone tries to seem more attractive; everyone makes an impression of being sought after. Apply your best judgement in deciding how much of what you hear is true. Asking for names of people who interviewed you and at which companies is not acceptable, full stop. Jose was raging. The Latvian chica in front of him was being hugely uncooperative.
How about the test, then, he asked. You like finance, do you? Let’s see how you really like finance. Looking straight into my eyes, he started shooting questions at me, at the rate of five per minute. I suddenly felt bored and tired. I was being asked for headline interest rates in all major economies and a few economies best classified as minor. I had missed the US Fed rate by half a percentage point. Jose was thriving; he caught me. He went on to ask me about countless exchange rates. For the EUR/GBP, I said 1.10, and, oops, it was 1.08. I then had some hardcore finance terminology thrown at me, detailed definitions duly ordered. I dared suggest that the real wisdom lies not in knowing every definition by heart; it is rather to know where to find it. Again, wrong tactics. A good candidate should know these things, and could I please not talk back to him and focus on the questions instead.
At this stage, I had suddenly realised that the promised 30 minutes had well stretched into 90. I felt panic. A friend was meant to be waiting for me just round the corner. As Jose popped out of the room, I rushed for the mobile. It was blinking furiously inside my bag, with several missed calls and about a dozen of unanswered messages. I had barely managed to send a desperate “save me” response to the friend waiting, when my torturer returned, this time reinforced by two of his colleagues. They entered the room and locked the door behind them.
I have a very blurred recollection of what followed. In an attempt to maintain some degree of sanity and a cheerful smile on my face, I could not focus on much else. I was asked more questions. Very specific finance theory, statistical tasks involving normal and lognormal distributions, interest payment calculations, logical tests, more terminology, political analyses from Russia to Zimbabwe, exact formulas from physics (not sure how velocity and time exercises are relevant for finance, are you?), etc. There just didn’t seem an end to it. Questions were fired from three fronts in remarkably maintained succession. I could hardly keep up with where to look at any given second. My heart was jumping up and down. I kept thinking, patience. A moment will come when it will all be over.
A full other hour had passed. I was wondering if my friend was still waiting. I hadn’t seen him for almost six years and was looking forward to it. Imagining the guy drinking coffee alone, I suddenly felt a massive urge to jump on Jose, grab his throat and then go for the eyes. Another torturer looked Indian. I am not a racist, but, at that moment, I really was. I hated his accent even more than his bronze skin and little porky eyes. The third guy was English and notably interested in Latvian economy. Bastard, I thought. Probably one of those British staggers who invade Riga every weekend, get entirely pissed and wet themselves on our national monuments. I was clearly beginning to lose ground. Another few moments, and I would have cracked.
But God suddenly heard my prayers. It was over in a flash. The door opened, and light came streaming inside the room. I was being let go. I saw three hands stretched towards me, stepped over myself, shook them, and rushed outside. “You know,” Jose said as he saw me out, “You are the first one. The first one who didn’t cry.”
I wasn’t sure whether to take it as a compliment. The energy I had left was not enough even to smile.
A few days later, I got feedback from the headhunter. The company apparently “found it odd” that I had no clue why UBS laid me off. I put “little effort” into answering test questions (was I supposed to hit my head on the wall?). Finally, I had reportedly made a shocking statement that the people who claim to know what they want in life are “simply faking!” (I thought I had used slightly different language?). I was therefore not being hired.
This time I had all the energy I needed to smile. Smile for the fact that I would never have to work for those guys. Ever.