The Quintessential Quant

Meet the most wanted man in high finance

James H. Simons, the former math professor who founded the $12 billion quantitative shop Renaissance Technologies Corp., pocketed an estimated $1.5 billion last year. That was thanks to the 5% in fees and nearly 44% of profits that Renaissance docks its investors (vs. traditional hedge funds' typical "2 and 20"). Clients don't complain; Renaissance's leading fund has returned 35%, after fees, since 1989. And D.E. Shaw & Corp., the brainchild of ex-Columbia University computer science professor David E. Shaw, with $23 billion in capital, has netted investors 21% a year for 17 years, without a single losing 12-month stretch.

Landing a job at either of these shops can be insanely lucrative -- and even more insanely competitive. "Using a self-consciously obnoxious term, we're looking for superstars, the kinds of people who would be extraordinarily good at nearly anything," says Nicholas P. Gianakouros, head of global recruiting for New York-based D.E. Shaw.

He is being euphemistic. The handful of quant and programming geniuses who get into the toughest mathematics, physics, and computer science PhD programs on the planet are already best in class. So screening for the 5 or ten very best of that best means establishing a whole new set of prerequisites. "The quant shops are a different animal," says Alison Seanor, vice-president at Glocap Search, a Manhattan hedge-fund recruiter. What is the "it" factor that distinguishes the crème de la crème? All Seanor will say is, "I know it when I see it."

One obvious filter is that liberal arts students -- or even bankers and stock jockeys -- need not apply. What you will need is a nosebleed grade-point average in applied mathematics, physics, or computer science at an elite school like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, California Institute of Technology, or Indian Institutes of Technology. Many of these students are published and have won high math honors such as the Putnam Fellowship. Often, their names are already so well known in the field that the quant funds make the first approach.

Another must-have: an 800 math SAT score (even if you sat for that exam in your awkward adolescence). Although the funds diplomatically claim the number is "just another data point," it's pretty well understood to be a critical credential.

The quant shops want malleable intellect untainted by Wall Street dogma -- i.e., not "buy, sell, or hold" types. "They're not really looking to make money on corporate events like takeovers," says Emanuel Derman, director of the financial engineering program at Columbia University and head of risk for quant house Prisma Capital Markets. "They're looking to make money on mathematical models." Top funds often advertise in esoteric scientific journals. "You'll not likely find our ads in a dentist's waiting room," says D.E. Shaw's Gianakouros.

If yours is one of the lucky 1% to 3% of résumés to survive an exhaustive initial culling, you can look forward to an hour-long phone interview peppered with thought problems and brain teasers. Pass that test and you will then be summoned as many as three times to undergo up to a dozen grueling interviews. "Every interviewer uses a different approach," says Gianakouros, citing programming problems and math proofs. Expect to be asked to build an intricate Excel model on the spot. Whatever the case, advises Derman, "don't say anything unless you're ready to be quizzed on it."

The firm will then solicit references for areas in which a candidate may appear weak. Ultimately, it takes a consensus among everyone who has met the candidate to extend a coveted offer. D.E. Shaw says that out of every 500 candidates who got the initial callback, only one makes the final cut. Many agree it's even harder to get into secretive Renaissance, which would not comment for this story.

A typical offer, say sources, starts with a base salary of around $250,000, plus a guaranteed annual bonus that could double that. The best can command a cut of a fund's upside -- beaucoup bucks when you consider the multibillion-dollar asset pots. All this, yet, says Seanor, "most of these guys have never even had a real job."

By Roben Farzad

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