Project management: Disappointing people and hustling

Interview with Heidi, Consultant at a Big 4 Bank

Age – 30

Location – Melbourne, Australia

You might think that a finance background is a prerequisite for working at a bank, particularly one of the Big 4 banks. But as with all companies, there are a diverse range of roles - and Heidi's managed to cover a variety of them over the course of her career so far. Read on to find out more! 

What’s your current role?

I work in the Change Team in Market Risk Analytics at a bank. Market Risk looks at the risk associated with the traded positions (bonds, equities, derivatives, etc.) the Bank holds for 90 days or less. Unlike uni, you do not use Black-Scholes to calculate the value of each derivative one by one, there are a huge number of IT systems that calculate the risk of each product in each region for you and then amalgamate those positions and give you a net risk on a global basis. Whenever there is a change made to the systems or new functionality implemented, someone needs to translate the needs of the business to the tech team building the new solution.

TL DR: I'm a project manager.

Tell me about your career path leading up to your current role.

I hold a Bachelor of Commerce (Finance/Marketing) - in case you're wondering what degree/career you will land in if you don't change your preferences? The answer is Banking.

When I came out of uni it was the middle of the GFC - some of my friends were offered graduate internships with one of the other large banks, who then paid them $20,000 to release them from their contracts. For the ones who were able to get another graduate program it was fantastic! For those who had turned down other positions to take up the grad role at the bank that then disappeared, it was less great.  For me I had a folder of rejections so I picked up a role in consulting.

  Credit: Meme Fort

Credit: Meme Fort

I was not a big fan of the sheer lack of work required. When you go into consulting you are introduced to a concept called "being on the bench" and you're basically just paid to come into the office and do absolutely nothing, while they try to find work for you (not easy when you're a fresh faced graduate with no marketable skills). Sure, initially you renegotiate your phone plan and catch up on your YouTube, but after a couple of weeks/months of that you get REALLY bored. So I reapplied for graduate programs for the following year, and thanks to my work "experience" I was now a much more marketable commodity and I picked up a graduate role (it was still extremely competitive 9,000 people applied and 9 were hired, honestly it's not easy to get into a bank, I understand why almost no one leaves once they're in - the status, the money, the peer group - other graduates -who are fun to hang out with… It's addictive.).

Once I was in the bank, I chilled out with the other graduates for a year, which was fantastic. I then did a year in a client relationships team, which I do not recommend. If you're at the bottom you're going to be doing a hell of a lot of admin, I don't mean getting the coffee (which I actually wouldn't mind, going outside, getting some fresh air… sounds nice). Mostly I was standing at the printer unbinding legal documents that FOR SOME REASON lawyers insist on binding before sending to us, and then scanning each of the pages in to the system before filing the hard copy of the documents into a folder.

Now if that's your passion, my advice would be pick a client relationship team your business is investing in, not actively cutting. Because there is no worse environment than a team that is constantly going through restructures and faces the ever present threat of redundancies/firings. Since this toxic environment was quite the shock after my year of chilling with grad friends, I reached out through the graduate network for new opportunities (always try to find someone you know, who already works in the team, before signing up to work with them). This lead to a move across to risk, first in the Reporting Team before accepting my current role in the Change Team.

  Credit: Hot Copper

Credit: Hot Copper

What does your role involve?

On my LinkedIn it says I take requirements, create project documentation, liaise/negotiate with stakeholders, implement project plans, follow up agreed milestones with developers including testing, create communications packages for impacted parties and attend celebration parties following a successful release.

What are your favourite aspects of the job?

My role primarily involves telling people no. No you cannot have that right now, no we don't have resources to complete that work, no we don't have money for those enhancements right now. As it turns out I enjoy disappointing people. I joke, actually it's more to do with the people I work with - they're fantastic! Hard working, funny, easy-going with only a couple of exceptions who I can work around with very little effort.

Also there are very few people I need to answer to, other than my stakeholders when some of the original work gets descoped or the project timeline gets pushed out, or when there are defects in the release. Okay, so basically any time something goes wrong which I had no control over but am somehow responsible for, I get to discuss that with management; but the rest of the time I'm on my own to do as I like. Which I REALLY enjoy. Because as it turns out, there is nothing I hate more than coming up with a perfectly good plan of action and then having a boss turn that plan down, come up with their own plan, force me to implement that plan, and when that plan doesn't work (which it usually doesn't because here's the secret, by the time people get into management, they are pretty far away from the details, and once they are away from the details they fall back on the way they did things "back in the day" and it just doesn't work that well for today's issues) when their super fantastic plan fails, they turn to you and ask for a "please explain". Personally, I'd prefer to justify my own mistakes, not take the blame for someone else's.

  Credit: Dilbert

Credit: Dilbert

Be honest – did you know that your current role even existed when you were in uni? How/when did you first find out about it and what drew you it?

Did I know what project management was? ….No. Did I know project management existed for non-IT people in uni?…. No. Did I know what market risk was in Uni?…. No. Do I use the knowledge I learned in uni? …surprisingly yes. So much so that I'm currently doing my Masters of Applied Finance - more as a refresher of those things I learned in uni but didn't have a concrete application for, so promptly forgot. 

I do regret not having done more IT specific work in uni, I firmly believe the greatest area of opportunity is in coding/web design/development and online in general. I will do some further study around the basics of coding, I've picked up a little on the job (which has been useful but so boring). Coding is like learning a language - so I guess if you enjoyed Japanese class you would have no problems picking up coding. If you got stuck at "Watashi no namae wa Heidi desu?" like me then you're probably going to have a little more trouble.

How did I find out about this role? There was an opening and it was a promotion so I took it. A large portion of my life has just been going with the flow - I'm not sure this is the best way to manage a career.

What type of person do you think would enjoy and do well in your kind of role?

Unfortunately my role isn't for everyone. You need to be pretty confident/assertive maybe even verging into a little aggressive at times. Not everyone you work with is amazing, and just naturally some people are bullies who will walk all over you if they can. I was away recently and one of the juniors was covering my role… She's a lovely person, very sweet, but really needs too work on asserting herself. Long story short, all of my team's items had been de-prioritised (read: not being worked on) and one of the guys in another team had managed to stall a release of items that I had left ready to go.

On a related note you need to enjoy working with others and be fairly decent at building relationships. Why? Because you need people to do work for you and sometimes someone else screws up and you need one of your contacts to do you a favour and help you fix it. Also in a tight resources environment (and let's face it, banks constantly underbudget the amount of money they are going to need) you need to get your work done first, so that by the time there is no money left, someone else's work takes the hit.

  Credit: Some Life

Credit: Some Life

Similarly, you need to be fairly organised, or at least be on top of your deadlines. Often you have tight timelines and you need to have stakeholders lined up and ready to sign off otherwise you miss your window and you can be delayed by weeks or sometimes months, which results in missed project milestones and ultimately no bonus for you.

What are your interests/projects outside of work? Have any of them helped you to get to your current role? What other things/people have influenced you?

Despite how mercenary working in a bank makes you; I'm quite passionate about the environment with a specific focus on renewable energy. I would love to move across to an ESG (Environmental Social Governance) role which looks at the ethical implications for business of certain decisions and ultimately gets back to the core/original mission of banks - serving the community. I think the GFC and subsequent scandals most recently LIBOR/BBSW rigging really drive home the message that someone needs to be looking out for the best interests of society because the banks are certainly not leading the way.

What’s your advice for people who are considering a career in your field?

Be prepared for cyclical work, sometimes you'll be working long hours and deployments are always on weekends, so too bad if you had some parties or something else you wanted to do, like sleep. Learn skills that are useful - how to negotiate/achieve your goals without the other party coming to hate you. How to set your own goals/deadlines and to work to them. How/when to alert your stakeholders that a project is going south, because if you just spring the bad news on them at the last minute they are not going to support your plan to fix things. How to face down a direct challenge, how to have difficult conversations with people who are not doing what you need them to do. How to pretend you know what you are talking about until you can get back to your desk and Google it.

  Credit: My Load Test

Credit: My Load Test

Actually I think most people can be successful in almost any role. What's more important is figuring out what your strengths are and then playing to those - it just makes life so much easier. Once you know what you want to do the team ABSOLUTELY makes or breaks a role. I've worked with high performing teams and I've worked with demoralised teams - avoid the last one at any cost - there is no amount of money that makes working with a depressed team worth it.