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Quitting the BEM Major (Also the Story of my College Internships)

August 22, 2019

Author: Bianca Yang
Email: ipacifics@gmail.com

I started out college wanting to be a business major. I thought being a quant was an acceptable transition away from the impenetrable world of fundamental investing strategies that investors like David Einhorn and Joel Greenblatt and Bill Ackman and Warren Buffett inhabited and that I had also tried to enter. I didn’t have the patience to sit down and pore over S-1’s, 10-K’s, 10-Q’s, balance sheets, and excel sheets with growth and value projections (spreadsheets still make my eyes water), so I thought I could teach a computer to do it for me. But I was a dumb freshman and figured I didn’t need to learn how to code in school, so I tossed aside the pre-assigned CS1 course for Ec11, figuring that coding could be picked up on the side once I mastered the dark arts of business, economics, and management (BEM). That was a mistake, but I corrected myself sophomore year.

(Am I rambling [again]? TL;DR: I dropped my business major just before senior year of college because I felt it was a waste of time.)

Looking back on my four year course plan from 2017, I see that I tried to optimize for an ACM (Applied and Computational Mathematics) / BEM major in the first year. Note that I manically reworked the spreadsheet this pdf is based on every term. I thought I was being a genius by spending a lot of time poring over my course schedule and moving this class here and that class there so I wouldn’t overload or so I would take the slightly more interesting class in an earlier year. That exercise, because I was so constrained by the BEM / CS double major I eventually decided upon, was a waste of time. I regret now not dropping BEM earlier and taking more ME / EE classes (robotics, machine shop, CNC, FPGA, signal processing, etc).

Anyway, my first summer internship was with the Caltech endowment office. The people there were exceptionally nice (should I say are? It’s still the same people), but I quickly realized that reading white papers and presentations on funds and navigating the Bloomberg terminal were not my cup of tea. This was the summer that I started to learn to code, though. I started by teaching myself VBA for Excel so I could automate a spreadsheet data entry workflow. VBA was … frustrating, but I’m not sure it was more frustrating than any other first language I could have picked up. My life probably would have been easier if I worked with Pandas and Python, but what did I know? I chose VBA because it seemed like the most obvious way to automate Excel.

I also worked on replicating a paper and tracking returns for some of the specialty funds through Bloomberg while with Caltech. The paper replication was what I thought I wanted to do, but I didn’t end up enjoying it. I also am not sure I backtested the algorithm correctly.

Despite not finding finance my thing during that summer with the Investment Office (let me say a few words of thanks to the investment team. They took me, an unexperienced but stereotypically bushy-tailed freshman, in as an intern and gave me pretty much free rein to explore finance in whatever way I saw fit. The team and I have kept in contact since the internship, through the Caltech Student Investment Fund and because we just like each other. The Investment Office team is a wonderful group of people that I would absolutely recommend you work with, whether you’re a potential donor, a fund, a student, and alum, etc. They’re awesome people and will do what they can to help you out.), I doubled down on my finance efforts in year 2. I also decided to do the CS major, which is why that year’s courses have a bunch of “CS’s” as prefixes. That summer, I decided to go work for Fuller and Thaler, in San Mateo. I heard about them through my BEM 104 class with Ben Gillen and thought behavioral finance could be the niche in finance that I was looking for. Notice that I took behavioral finance 3rd term that year. That was to prepare for my summer with Fuller and Thaler.

My summer with Fuller and Thaler was productive. I worked with Raife and Yining, a portfolio manager and head of risk management, respectively. I was the firms’ first technical intern, so they were at a bit of a loss regarding how best to incorporate technology into their investment workflow. What we ended up doing was implementing a basic sentiment analysis engine for news. I wrote a script in Python to scrape news from Yahoo and Google Finance and then rate the articles for their postitive / negative / neutral sentiment. The script took a while to run, partly because I had to use selenium to get to the bottom of Yahoo Finance’s infinite scroll pages and partly because the scraper was not written very well. I cobbled together an asynchronous solution, but I didn’t really understand how to use the asynchronous Python libraries. Anyway, the summer was fun, I learned how to use Python more, I learned how hard it is to have a machine parse 10-K’s and 10-Q’s (the formatting is all over the place, really), and I got to see how an investing firm runs. For those who are curious, the firm runs in a very independent way. Each portfolio manager pursues their own strategy. Raife is the more quantitative guy, having done a PhD in finance with Daniel Kahneman, which is why I worked so much with him.

My time with Fuller and Thaler was the last experience I would have in finance. I now wanted to focus more on machine learning and software and all the good things that come with manipulating bits. I started working with Virtualitics in the winter of my junior year (2017). They were building a VR data visualization and analysis platform and I was helping them do QA testing and build out distributed gridsearch. The work was fun, challenging, and only made me more excited to get into software industry. That summer, I went to work for Microsoft, also on a distributed machine learning platform. It was my first time working for a big company, and I definitely liked the perks of free drinks, corporate housing, a subsidized rental car. It was a good summer, but I wasn’t convinced that working for Microsoft, on that team, was a particularly good fit. I interviewed with other teams but didn’t land a position anywhere else, so off to the interviewing tracks I went. You can read my reflection about my final decision process for my current job here.

After a seriously long digression into way more details about my work experience that you either wanted or needed to know, we are in senior year. I decided, after all the hours I’ve spent on econometrics and options pricing and macro and microeconomics, that I didn’t want to finish the last two classes I needed for the BEM major. So I dropped it. My friends laughed at me. You may laugh at me. I had TWO classes left to take: Intro to Finance and Venture Capital.

What can I say? The data changed enough that I had to acknowledge that I didn’t want to do business / economics / management and no longer cared if it didn’t appear on my diploma. I agree with Andrew Yang that it’s a shame that our current pool of college graduates pretty much all go to finance, consulting, law, medicine, grad school, tech. I think financiers are money grubbers who aren’t really changing the world. Real estate investors and Warren Buffett are useless relative to people like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos and Andy Grove and Ben Horowitz, who actually put themselves on the line to build a better future. Buffett and real estate investors literally do practically nothing but sit there on their float or on their pieces of dirt and get richer. What kind of role model is that for society? Do you want your kids to be inspired by these people who can extract unlimited rent from the things they own but do not have to operate or do you want them to be inspired by entrepreneurs, our Presidents, our world leaders, the people who believe that they can build progress? Jeez. I feel sad for my for people who choose to go into finance or consulting. Their lives could be spent on more societally wholesome issues, like fighting malaria or water treatment or blood transfusions or poverty or XYZ addictions or depression or inequality or educating the next generation etc. Instead, they choose to burn themselves out in “pretty” career. It really is a shame that we are so underpaying the people who are working on the hard problems I listed above and that we also do not regard as successful those who choose to leave society and pursue more human activities, like farming or homesteading or meditation or nirvana or just plain peace in a backcountry.

I’ve thought about homesteading a lot. I’ve thought about going into the mountains and subsisting off the dew of a single gingko leaf and the energy of the universe. I’ve thought about financial independence a lot. I know work is necessary, but I know independence, freedom, is all we desire and that we deserve to have it. Finance can give me independence, but I don’t think classroom finance is the kind of finance that leads to meaningful outcomes. I want to learn finance from the real world, to pick up wisdom from the rogue experts, from the people who see past the smoke and mirrors that industry and “experts” and common sense knowledge propagators who are incentivized in all the wrong ways put up. My real education has only just begun. Follow my readings and learnings on Twitter or on this blog or just plain email me. I want to meet new people and hope that we can be engaging for each other.

List of “rogue experts”: