"Intense Curriculum, Soft And Hard Skills Balance, Metrics To Acquire New Skills"
International alum on his takeaways, study at HSE University, and career. Strategic Corporate Finance master program ‘2018 alum, Edoardo currently works in Brussels in a major energy company. This is a shortened script of his online Q&A session with current students edited for clarity.
I interact quite a lot with Russia as part of my day-to-day job, so the purpose of the presentation is to give you an informal introduction of what was my path and what has been my academic studies, and how I did the transition from the academic world into the job market, how I found my first job. Some of the tips that were useful for me, hopefully, could be useful for you. This my path and it does not always apply to everyone, it is just how it went for me. Just take what could potentially fit your profile and see if you can put it into practice.
I graduated from high school in Italy and I had difficulty choosing what I will be doing in life without not much knowledge about medicine, law, or economics. I chose economics because I found it among one of the most practical sciences. I was always fascinated by people making decisions under certainty and under uncertainty, how a company generates money and wealth for the stakeholders, not only for shareholders. So, I started my academic path in the south of France, in a very lovely place, very touristic. I would say small towns are not the optimal place to build a career in finance.
I had an opportunity to choose among different foreign languages and France has a lot of Russian influence. There is a lot of Russian people around (when I was waiting for the bus, I always heard the Russian language). I decided, maybe, it would be useful to study Russian and that is what I did. When you study Russian language or any language, all the cultural dimension comes with it. And I said to myself: well, what would be the best place to learn Russian? Of course, France was a good start but then my plan was to go to Russia.
During my bachelor studies, our professor asked us to write our own CV in five years and to think about what you will be in five years’ time, so that is quite a difficult thing if you think about it because five years’ time anything could happen. I think that was a good way to push you to think about what I will be doing. I remember that my dream would have been to become an export manager for a company that does import with Russia, which ultimately did not go too far from reality.
During my studies I have done a couple of exchange programs, the first one was in Poland, then finally I discovered in my third year of my bachelor, my university signed a contract with HSE University. I did not know much about HSE University, so I had to research it and look at what was the university about. I found it a great opportunity to continue studying my Russian language and at the same time learn about economics and finance. So, I moved to Moscow for my exchange program at HSE University. When you are an exchange student you can choose courses from any faculty.
Of course, most of them I have chosen in economics and finance so from the faculty of economic sciences but also a lot of them were in data science and others from the faculty of sociology. So, I have tried a little bit different faculty but of course, my focus has been mostly on finance.
My exchange program was fun. I mean Moscow, if you live there or if you have been there, it is an amazing place. Especially from someone like me who comes from a very small city in Italy that was a big change in size. It takes a little bit of time to move from a place to another you have a little bit of modernity with the fancy, Moscow city skyscraper and of course the more traditional Russian architecture in the center. So, it is a lot of things to do but of course, HSE University is kind of a challenging university so I would say that study takes quite a big part of your day-to-day time. I liked it very much so it was a very difficult choice or what I will do for the master’s program. Whether I should go back to Europe or should I stay for a master’s program where I did my preparation enough to start a master’s program there in finance or shall I go back. That was a bit of a dilemma. I think that many bachelor students have difficulty choosing a master’s program. I think you need to do your homework and check what are the pro and cons of different programs. I will explain further why I recommend the Strategic corporate finance program and why I think it was a valuable program for me. After a while, I finally decided to continue to stay in Moscow and that for me was like at the beginning I was always thinking do I have to choose whether to stay in Moscow, to go back to Europe but if you look at the opportunity that HSE University offer it felt like it is not such a mutually exclusive choice. You can study in Moscow and then also get a double degree from a European university, so I decided why not to choose both.
The first year that I studied in Moscow was intense especially the first semester, this was quite tough. When you get acquainted you get up to speed with the rhythm. I managed to find a part-time job, an internship in a company in Moscow so I had the opportunity to do a lot in one year in the first year of my master’s. In the second year, I moved to Erasmus university because I got passionate about the commodity market and energy market. Especially because Russia has a lot of interaction with the energy world both economically and politically. My goal was to learn a bit more about how trade flows and commodity flows from Russia into Europe, how do they work, and I thought that going to Rotterdam would have been a great opportunity to further develop my knowledge on that side. Then as part of the HSE University program, I did a double degree with Erasmus university. Of course, I could have also gone to other universities so there is quite a choice. So, as I said I further developed my knowledge in commodity trading. I had the opportunity to also choose some courses in energy finance and to visit some of the logistical companies. What I liked about the Strategic corporate finance program is that its focus is not only about finance for investment banking, but there is a lot of focus on you knowing corporate finance and finance supply to the real sector as well. So, I decided to build a career on that knowledge, and so I went back to Moscow to defend my master thesis.
After that, I decided to start my career in the energy sector in Brussels and got started. It has already been almost three years that I worked for the company.
What is my life outside work and studies? Well, let us say that takes during my academic and my current work-life I of course manage to find some time for myself. In my free time, I like to learn how to play guitar; I like to do some sport, of course, due to COVID 19 I cannot meet too many friends now.
Q&A session transcript
The Strategic Corporate Finance program has quite an intense curriculum. I liked it is because I found it to be very balanced in the sense that it combined quite a lot of disciplines, so you start on the first semester with the economic theory so my microeconomics and macroeconomics which was nevertheless very useful courses.
The Microeconomics course was quite demanding. It was quite intense nevertheless very useful, and I recommend it because especially my trading job now it is all about microeconomics, so it is very useful to know how the microstructure of the market works and functions. Of course, there are also apart from economic theory, there are a lot of courses on corporate finance and valuation so for people who want to move into investment banking or just simply working in companies to evaluate a new project and acquisition of mergers that are quite in-depth. There is a lot of focus between developed and developing countries, so evaluation is more of an art rather than science and there is a lot of exception on top of the common rules. I found that the program was very well structured in addressing some of the shortcomings of valuation models.
I saw that other courses have been added. There is a quantitative finance course that will cover more the stochastic calculus and the derivative side, so I think it is nice to have on top of the corporate finance part the investment part, and the more quant finance. So that's nice we had also a theory of finance which again look at the fundamental laws of asset pricing so instead, if you don't want to go into an investment bank you either want to work in a fund in a hedge fund, pension funds, mutual funds so like portfolio location that's also like the Strategic Corporate Finance program offers you those courses and then, of course, there is also a lot of focus on data science, machine learning, and econometrics, becoming more and more important. In the first year an entire year course of econometrics and as part of the electives that I could choose, I went for a Python course. That is a very important skill, a lot of companies value coding and computer science skills. I would recommend on top of your accounting, corporate finance, and economics also to have some basis of programming.
There are also other courses, of course, I have not mentioned them all, I noticed that there is also one on sustainable finance which wasn't there when I was studying and if I’m now in your shoes as part of the Strategic Corporate Finance program I would definitely give it a look at it because it's becoming more and more important. I work for a very let's say carbon-intensive industry and I think investing and SD investing and sustainability is becoming more and more of a concern, a real concern on top of the marketing that used to be in the past now it seems that the companies are doing a lot of effort to be more sustainable from an environmental, from a social humanitarian perspective and because investors are paying attention to it there's a lot of restriction now for the pension fund or whether to invest their money in the carbon-intensive industry. I am managing a bit of a portfolio of investment where I pick ESG company so, I suggest you'll look at the course. The curriculum in my opinion is very well balanced.
I want to add a couple of words on the admission and tuition, what was my experience, and what helped me to make my choice. So, from that perspective all the requirements are online form, I did my IELTS program when I was there in Russia, but I think it is something that most of the universities ask. I also requested a recommendation letter from a professor at HSE University and a professor from my university. One thing to keep in mind is that getting access is not necessarily the deal done. The first semester is quite tough, and I remember a couple of students had to change masters, move towards something a little bit less quantitative. So, admission is not the most complicated thing. It is more about the survival of the first semester. If you decide to go for it, HSE University recommends a few Coursera courses to just get up to speed with some of the math analysis, a little bit of programming, etc. I think a decent knowledge of math is very good to have to start the first semester which could be a bit challenging for some of us.
In terms of tuition, I think one of the benefits of the Strategic Corporate Finance program at HSE University is that it is not as expensive as other master programs that you might find in Europe or not even talking about the USA.
I think it is very important to invest in education. I think it is the best investment you can do especially at your age, but I think at any age it's important to keep learning all the time but at the same time, I think there is a lot of you know knowledge in this world is easily available now with the internet. I think you need to do your homework and to see what that is about.
What are the cost and benefits of a certain master’s program? HSE University offered me the full tuition and I had the opportunity to work part-time as well so I did not have to spend time doing a pointless internship after graduation. I can just step right away into a job and I mean you know you start your job life without that, like many other you know students would do in the US. When you choose your master, program see it as an investment, look at when you are going to pay back your cost, what is the incremental salary that you expect to have, and what's your career perspective after that masters.
In other universities in Europe, there is much more competition across students. I think in HSE University there was a good healthy balance between cooperation with students, and you know how to work together to compete with other teams. It is not every university that you get to cooperate with students and help you out.
As I said it is a very balanced curriculum, I think there is a good focus on hard skills as I said mathematics, econometrics, programming are those I consider for hard skills. But when you go into a company it is a very social environment, I think a lot of the people that they do career fast are people who can present themselves well, can explain some of the complicated ideas. Some of the complicated numbers or analysis and to kind of translate it in an actionable way, let us say actionable strategies for companies. It is very important for me to combine the hard skills and the soft skills, the public speaking and presentation skills. The way the Strategic Corporate Finance program is designed there is a lot of analysis that needs to be done but at the same time at the end of the day you are also evaluated because of your presentation skills and you know your self-presentation.
So that is what I think is a good mix. I mean it is not enough to do good analysis, it's not enough to do numbers and to do fancy neural network models if then you cannot explain what's that about. I think it is also very important if you go for any finance program to find a good balance between numbers and words.
Finally, it is not only about the skills but it's also about metrics to acquire new skills so it's very important that what you focus on is what the university teaches you is not too much of the knowledge. It is more about how to acquire knowledge, how to research, how to structure a topic and understand what's important to know, you know and that's the best skill to build, the expertise in the past, in the future and it's very useful I mean if you learn a skill in the university, I will prefer to learn instead of learning ten skills at the university to learn only how to build skills. Because you can learn anything you want then, and I think there is a lot of focus in the program. There is a lot of case study where you need to find the solution on your own. Also, sometimes you need to bring some case studies, so you must create your own case study that I think it was a nice opportunity to learn those research methods.
I think another pro of the program is that you can do a study abroad or a double degree. I think it is a nice chance and not every university offered that. So, have a look because there is a lot of opportunities. I think that was a good opportunity for me as well, but you need to look at what benefits and what is the cost involved in whether you should start working or get a double degree.
After I have done my first year at HSE University, the second year was fully at Erasmus university, when it came to the thesis defense, I did the same thesis for both universities so, I first defended it at HSE University, I came back to write my master thesis at the end of the second year, but the defense happened online even before COVID-19. So, there is a chance to do it online. The master thesis at Erasmus was a little bit delayed so basically the way it worked in the Netherlands is like you can choose your slot to defend your master thesis, so it does not have to be necessary a fixed time where you have to do it. You can do it few months after the end of school. I did the online defense for the one at HSE University and in person the Erasmus one a little bit later. I had two supervisors - one in Moscow and one in Rotterdam, it was quite useful because I mean you had two academic support that can help you out improving your research.
I did the same thesis for both maybe some professors had a slightly different requirement than the other so maybe the kind of final research slightly deviated between each other but in the end, the backbone was the same.
I got two degrees - one from HSE University and then one from Erasmus. So, it was not an exchange program it was really a two-formal diploma, two defense kind of separate from each other. What HSE University offers you is the opportunity to study one year, to do one year master abroad, and then it counts towards your credit accumulated there locally so that is why that's how it works. You can also go for an exchange, but I went for a formal double degree.
If you have some basic knowledge of Russian and if you speak a bit of Russian, I think I managed to find a part-time job in my second semester. I just made my research to look what are the Italian companies based in Russia in Moscow and I decided to get in touch with all of those. And one of the jobs that I found was for an Italian utility company. I remember that when I sent my CV nobody really considered me. Then I decided to call the company and just say hi, I sent you my application can you get back to me what do you think, do you receive it and interesting enough they then get back to me and then they invite me for an interview and then I got the part-time job. You know it is not a mandatory thing a lot of people that I knew had their own projects, or their own small business or some people decide to focus only on studies and think about the job later. So, it is again up to you.
Many people asked me whether I will accept an unpaid internship. That is a good question. It depends which company? If you think that it's a good name on your CV? Is it a good company that can offer you good learning and you think that out of it you can actually get some value not necessarily the salary? I would take it; I took some unpaid internships not only in Russia but when I was in France, so I recommend it. I think in the end it might worth it so just think about it, Salary is not the only important thing to look for in an internship but also about the experience.
Again, very trivial advice is to participate in job fair company events in HSE University. There is also a lot of companies interacting with the university, so we have time to talk with consultancy firm with corporates take every opportunity to network it is not easy. So just keep track of what each other is doing. Never turn off any networking opportunity because you never know how you can find your next job and now you will build the billion-dollar idea that you could find. Never refuse an interview even with a company you're not particularly interested in. Or, maybe a job in a company that you're not particularly interested in, just do the interview because you never know what can actually happen to you. I did an interview for a position that I didn't particularly like but then I pushed for getting another position in the company and that's completely feasible.
For me just something that will work very well if you're a finance student or economics building your investment portfolio it could be very useful especially you know you can put into practice the skills that you’ve learned in finance at HSE University, or you know as a part of your bachelors if you’ve got a background in economics. I think if you start investing it gives you quite a good sense of the practical finance and you know it pushes you to keep a look at how you know the economy, how the things evolve, and I think it is a nice thing to do. I am doing it as my side activity and I highly recommend you do it too.
Another piece of advice I can give you is to find a mentor that can help you throughout your career, you could be someone from your family, could be your manager at your future job company, it could be a professor. It could change over time so, somebody who can help you to make a decision in life. It's not easy you know there are sometimes you will take it upon, you know you have to decide what you know, what job should I go for, what master program should I choose, it's good that you know the list of advice of people that you respect and then people that you think they had a nice career or people I would like to know; I think that the person is could help me out. So it's good to listen to their advice once you will be finishing your studies forget to not stop learning. I mean there's always an opportunity to learn online courses like EDX. If you want to learn more coding words, there is also a lot of materials online so definitely look into it, keep yourself up to speed with technology and with knowledge. Read books and you know about finance, about anything that could enrich your knowledge and of course, I think there's good opportunity to take professional certifications such as I mean if you are in the finance world such as the CFA or the FRAM or the ERP like I did I took the ERP because I think it was the only certification in finance applied to the energy sector but if you're more into the banking sector or the quant finance I rather go for a FRAM program or the Strategic Corporate Finance program. There is a certificate on quality finance as well you can take so it is all about what you want to specialize in career if you want to go into more investment banking or more generic finance, I think the CFA is the most gold standard in that case so again, choose the professional certification that fits your career. You are not obligated to take it, but you know it's nice to have and of course, a lot of people in university don't focus on it but I think what is very important is to take care of your mental and physical health, you know sport take care of yourself, don't stress too much if you don't find a job right away. You know the job will come, the economy will recover as well so if you have troubles and you feel like oh, I am not getting what I want out of the job market just give it more patience, change your approach, try to be patient in a sense, don't stress too much about it.
The workload during the first and second semester so far, I am in the first semester and so far, I’ve managed well but it's really heavy so I would like to know what will be the workload be like during the second semester?
It will be a relief I can say that. The first semester is a tough one, probably the toughest. Because they want to make sure that you know the kind of good standard of studies. I mean you are requested to do a lot of projects, to multitask. There is a couple of courses that are particularly demanding such as microeconomics. I have to say despite it was one of the most challenging courses of the program it was one of the best I had because it really helped me a lot in my work. The second semester is a little bit demanding as well but there is more time to do your own project, decide what is going to be your master thesis, if you want to find a part-time job, or you want to do extra courses online, or do something for yourself, you have a little bit more time.
The advice I can give you is that there is a lot of projects with the group project so I really suggest you choose a good team you know it is not always easy but now I think we're there for a very good team so big good that keeps stick to the one then because I mean at the first semester you will have to understand who the most top-performing students are. Try to stick to them so that you do not end up into kind of a free-riding problem that it's everywhere in life, every university, every company, everything has that. So, in the second semester if you organize your time if you have a good team you have time to do other stuff besides the study at HSE University.
Which part of the programming should we investigate I mean it's more of towards the data science direction or what?
Very popular languages are R and Python which are very suited for data science, econometrics, and machine learning. You can focus on one of them. It is also like purely automation you know when you're going to go in a company, there's going to be a lot of you know monotonous inefficient things in any company, especially the big ones. Learn to automate things so Python and R are very good for data science and automation. VBA in excel helps you to also automate any of the repetitive tasks so it is very useful in finance as well. Of course, you know there is a multiple application. For me, it was mostly data science and automation but again you can also have packages in R and Python to build your own interface dashboards and all these things so just explore what are the functionalities of those. I think it is hard to become very fluent in Python when you don't use it day to day, but I think if you have the basis and you know where to find the packages that you need and the script that you need to use the basis through HSE University, you can get those that definitely look into it.
The Russians are really good with exams. I think the Russian approach differs from the European approach. From my experience, a lot in Europe is to focus on study something or skimming the book around.
In Russia, I noticed that there is a lot of focus on preparing for the exam. Studying the exam means not only study theoretical knowledge on a book rather than really focusing on what is going to be on the exam. If you have a previous exam that the HSE University gives you, do the simulation. Of course, there is always going to be some surprise, something that you don't expect, but again my suggestion is to focus on preparing for the exam. If you have past exams do a lot of simulations, exercise! Try to do slowly, then same pace, and maybe try to make the simulation even harder than the exam itself! So that you can prepare for the worst and then the best will happen That was the secret to get good grades. That is also good for certifications such as the CFA, GRE, GMAT, or any other stuff so prepare to focus on the exam rather than wander around or just reading.