One Intern: Informed and Insecure

As she starts her summer internship in banking, this first-year MBA finds that, despite her worries, she knows a lot

I finished my last final on May 11. My head was an unspeakable scramble of management accounting, advanced corporate finance, unwritten e-mails, public policy, international business and the effects of trade, the layout of New York City, and the related concept that despite the fact that the Bronx and Brooklyn are in New York City, when people say "The City," they mean Manhattan.

Nevertheless, I had a few things I needed to do before I collapsed on my bed for an extended 20-hour nap, including planning and executing the 300-person spring barbecue, finding a sublet to live in for three months, getting all my forms and pre-employment screenings in order for my internship, and calling my mother on Mother's Day. But my internship is extremely important to me, as is earning a job offer at the end of the summer. So, I sat down, pushed all that stuff out of my head, and thought over my school year. I needed to make sure I could remember at least one thing from the year that I could take with me to add value in my internship as a first-year MBA.

So I thought. And thought. And thought and thought and thought. And out came nothing. I was completely and utterly burnt out. All I could think about was picking up an easy page-turner and reading about Jack Reacher's mission to rescue his fellow special investigators who had uncovered some bizarre unpatriotic plot that I didn't even entirely register.

Look at Me Now

I was disappointed. Did I learn anything this year? Why can I only traipse mindlessly through bookstores, too tired to even read the birthday cards?

By May 15 I was sitting at a dinner table with my family, nuclear in the atomic sense, made up of people with strong opinions who love to talk about stocks and the market, JFK, and my career prospects. Historically, this would have been a conversation that, though interesting, did not leave many openings for me to add value. Stocks? Dunno, but they're interesting. The market? It's exciting. Career aspirations? Can we please discuss something else?

But this time we were just chatting and the next thing I know I'm discussing JetBlue's (JBLU) business model and David Neeleman's genuine philosophy on customer service despite this year's earlier disaster. "He's brilliant," I say with my nose in the air, "I know, because I listened to him speak to an audience of about 50 people."

After that our discussion hits on whether Southwest (LUV) will be able to sustain its successful corporate culture as it expands, and I realize I started it. "Where is JFK in all this?" I ask myself. No one even mentions him. They are asking me what other cases we worked on in school.

A Specialized Knowledge

Later on I find myself arguing with my mother about the importance of incentive in ensuring productivity, then explaining to my grandfather why private banking is different from having a stockbroker. After I explain it and why I want to do it, I see a smile spread across the face of a 92-year-old man. He's proud of me.

And all through this it dawns on me: "Wait a minute," I think to myself. "I am informed. In a few (and I mean a very few) cases, I am informed, more so than my PhD mother, MD father, and CPA grandfather. I know more about (a very few) certain things now than they do. I am pursuing information in a field that is beyond informed common knowledge."

The B-School Value-Add

My dad pipes up at one point, "You know, Rache, the reason Toyota (TM) is so successful is because they have this brand-new concept called Just-In-Ti-…." I interrupt him. "I know, Dad, I wrote two papers on it. It's not brand new, and furthermore, Harley-Davidson (HOG) studied it and tried to incorporate it. What do you want to know?"

Silence. He knew all about Just-In-Time because he reads, but he did not know that Harley-Davidson incorporated it. And therein lies our "value-add." This is why companies are going to hire us—because we are learning how to approach situations with a thought process and angle that form a specialty.

Now I begin to realize why we learn in a case-based setting, and why we pore over case after case after case in every class, dissecting, discussing, writing up, and making assessments and decisions for companies that had already made up their minds a few years before. We analyzed WorldCom. According to numbers alone, their bond issue, though enormous, made sense mathematically (at least it did in the homework I turned in). This was a great lesson: Just because you can make the numbers work for you doesn't mean it's a great idea.

It Is Rocket Science

I found myself getting questions like, "What do investment bankers do?" This is something I could not possibly have answered last September. Now it's like asking me what surgeons do. They take your body, assess its strengths, weaknesses, discuss your needs with the general practitioner and the specialist, open your body up to see the inside better (with luck, improving their leverage when they ply you with metal instruments), make some adjustments, subtractions, or additions, and then they sew you back together.

There is a healing process, where huge slices turn into barely visible scars. Such is what investment bankers do to companies. Forgive me, however, because at the moment I cannot think of a good surgical analogy for an initial public offering.

So now I face an internship. I remember how nervous I was going to interviews and how ecstatic I was to get an offer. Now I am hitting my head against a wall, terrified because I have no idea what to do or how to do it. I am deeply and rationally concerned about being a complete moron, knowing nothing, tripping on a computer cord as I run to the elevator, and subsequently taking down an entire wall of Bloomberg monitors and adjacent stacks of papers.

Inside Information

Will my suit be the wrong color? Do East Coast professionals wear black in the summer? Do women wear bright colors to a bank? Are they going to ask me to figure out how to calculate arbitrage with bonds (something we learned but I need to "review," to say the least)? How do I prepare? Oh, and are white shoes a screaming faux pas? And do private bankers like debt for their clients as much as corporations like debt? Oh no, is someone going to ask me to structure debt this summer?! Probably not.

I have met with second-year students who worked in the bank I'm going to be working in. This is a must and I am grateful they reached out to me. They prepped me on whom I will meet, the importance of asking questions, and the types of deliverables I will be assigned, none of which included debt restructuring. I have met with Career Management to get a better understanding of what the bank will expect of me at this point and to get some guidance on appropriate interaction and attire in a conservative corporate environment. Keep in mind I'm from the human resources department in a sales firm in California. My experience with corporate culture is probably somewhat different from what I will encounter.

And after putting a few days between me and five back-to-back finals, I realize business school has taught me quite a bit, and not just about finance. Granted, I've learned four accounting methods to allocate fixed costs, as well as the fact that allocating fixed costs is sacrilege to an economist, and last of all that the whole concept of what a fixed cost actually is simply "depends."

The Big Fish

I've learned the importance of that word, "depends," in business school. I've learned how to explain very clearly what I mean when I know the answer and very vaguely what I don't really mean when I don't even understand the question. I've learned the concept of the stakeholder, the importance of consequences and how all parties involved are affected, and how this all ties into trade restrictions, protectionism, and global warming. Sometimes I wanted to throw my hands up and say, "There is clearly no solution. This is a dilemma beyond all dilemmas. We should just give up, buy Hummers, and all drive ourselves straight into the Pacific. I mean the Atlantic."

I've also learned to think about those kinds of dilemmas and know that every problem has a solution, not always an attractive, easy, or obvious one, but an improvement nonetheless. Which is where we come in.

Furthermore, there is an entire class of new first-years coming, taking our place, and pushing us into the second-year responsibility and information stage. This is Harry Potter to the sixth power. We are now second-years. We need to engage incoming first-years, explain the program, help them prepare, help them with expectations, explain how the processes work, and warn them that the Diet Coke machine's presence does not necessarily mean there is bottomless supply of Diet Coke during finals. Space is finite and so is Diet Coke, especially since we are all in graduate school and our metabolisms are not what they were in college.

Four Months to Experience

My fears starting business school included the one about me being the most unbusinesslike student there. Now I'm starting an internship at a bank and those fears are the same, just on a different day. Except now I know how to incorporate the fears to make them work for me—another great lesson. I'm starting the second third of my education.

In four months I'll know, sort of, what it feels like to work at a bank. I'll be expected to talk with authority and experience, albeit from only one summer, to an entire class of students who just left the workforce. So, I guess at this point, we'll see. Working toward my MBA has combined the most motivating, proud, and humbling experiences I've known.

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