From Wall Street to Silicon Valley

A series of unexpected turns of life had brought me from New York back to the West Coast to pursue a career in Software Engineering.

10 min read

Date : 2022-06-11

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Last week, I was still crunching numbers in financial models to evaluate investment opportunities, and now, I'm thousands of miles above the ground, on my way to San Diego to begin a software engineer internship at a crypto startup.

Life had been dramatic these two years and things had developed so quickly that I still wonder if I'm in a dream. I have three hours left until arrival, so I would like to write this milestone post to reflect on what had happened in the past four years.

Note: the part about my journey on Wall Street was also posted on WSO, an online forum for high-finance related topics.

Beginner's Luck

When I started my undergrad in finance, I was naive but ambitious. I wanted to be the Wolf of Wall Street, and the lure of a gilded lifestyle had intoxicated me to network with industry professionals non-stop as to get my foot in the door.

Coutless cold emails were sent. After a sea of rejections and non-responses, I got an offer from a Private Equity fund, where I spent my freshman summer. It was an incredible experience in terms of actually building out Leveraged Buyout models for live deals, due diligence with CEOs, lawyers, customers etc. On top of all, I learned the importance of communication and how to drizzle business conversations with American idioms.

Leveraging the skills acquired that summer, I got into a large ($80B) credit fund for a part-time internship. The brand-name worked very well for me to network with elite boutiques. Everything was so smooth that I almost got a guaranteed internship at an EB for junior summer. Then, Covid came.

Survival Mode

My parents informed me that they could no longer support my study in the US financially. And I was facing a $50k overdue tuition. The financial stress destroyed my mental health, which led to absurdly terrible performances for interviews that I worked hard for two years to secure. And the EB that I almost got a guaranteed ticket for canceled their 2021 summer class recruiting process.

That's it. In those two or three months of year 2020, everything went away.

Of course, during that time, recruiting was less a priority than the immense financial pressure I was facing. I could not go back to my home country because there's nothing left for me. My parents had sold the house and car to pay off debt they owed. The thought of giving up was haunting me on a daily basis.

Fate was a very interesting thing. A friend appeared just right before I almost broke down. He taught me how to run ecommerce stores. I was super lucky. The ecommerce business went very well -- I was making, at peak, $3k a day; and the stock market, well, was to the moon everyday so I started allocating free cash flows from the ecom biz to options trading.

It was a miracle that I paid off my tuition in less than half a year. But the cost was that I missed the most important recruiting cycle in high-finance. The ecommerce business was lucrative but it was very labor intensive: I had to carry and manage an inventory, taking photos of the goods, posting, packaging and shipping, dealing with unreasonable customers off-line. I quit as soon as I paid off my tuition.

Then, I was like an aimless fruit fly for that year. I tried out a hedge fund internship, a VC internship, and settled with a small special situations fund to conclude year 2020.

Break Into Tech

At this point, I've seen and done most of the things expected from junior level professionals, at least on the Private Equity side. I realized that what I enjoyed (modeling, writing investment memos) were just checking boxes. The value creation and winning bids had little to do with things I enjoyed.

I also became quite frustrated by how inefficient Wall Street was. Like creating deal folders, finding files, creating due diligence trackers, Q&A logs, extracting schedules from exhibits of some legal documents that were poorly scanned, etc.. And hell, managing data rooms! I started picking up some Python and VBA to automate lots of the tedious works. And I enjoyed it.

That was year 2021. Tech was booming. My high school friend, who's a Comp Sci major, told me that it's possible to transition into tech. I kind of just put that in the back of my head since I thought the chance for me was not that good because of my non-STEM major. But I kept learning and building things on the side, just for fun.

Fast forward to early this year, I joined the company I've been interning at full-time. It's kind of like a dream came true, working in private equity (although it's infrastructure investments) right out of college. I graduated December 2021, and joined the firm in Feb. However, during that one month interim, I got very interested in web3 -- everything from DeFi to writing Smart Contracts.

The more I built the more I loved tech, and the more faded passion for finance. When my app got accepted by Apple to app store, I decided to make a bold move.

Start All Over Again

In late April, I started wondering "why don't I get a tech internship for the summer?" It was a daunting thought because the tech industry had been declining this year. Layoffs and hiring freezes were rampant in tech. The macro environment was so dire that I actually thought about delaying my breaking-into-tech plan.

But I realized that the time was against me. I was 23 already (since I re-did one year of high school when I came to the US), it's now or never.

Yes, I had to start everything from scratch again, while balancing a full-time finance job. Applying to internships on LinkedIn and AngelList became a second-nature. And I started to cold DM founders/CTOs on Twitter. During that searching period, I saw a fool in the mirror on a daily basis. I wondered why on earth I'm doing this. Oh, I also applied to master schools so I can get that CS degree for visa/immigration reasons.

Once I got accepted into a master school for a Computer Science program, I learned that my current work visa will be voided soon. So, I had a very tight timeline to find an internship. Otherwise, I'll be spending this summer doing nothing while having to bleed my savings to support a life in NYC.

Big tech firms had already concluded their internship programs last fall. And the few small firms left mostly require Computer Science degrees or prior tech internship experiences. For a whole month straight, I applied to at least 300 internships (lots of them were posted over three months ago). Didn't get a single response. Not even rejection emails.

It was mid May when I got interviews from three firms. One rejected me after two weeks. One had no response after the HR round. One was a SF based startup that pays very well (2k/week) for interns and for this one, I got the onsite (kinda like superday in finance) invite after passing the technical round.

I thought I was all set until two days before onsite, I was informed that they had canceled onsite. It's probably because of that YC warning email since it's a YC startup that wants to practice financial disciplines.

Three days after, the other startup (crypto) responded, and I was invited to a technical round with the founder.

But after that round, I heard nothing for another week. I checked their LinkedIn job post, that internship position had 900 applicants. And that they were only taking one intern. I thought I was probably a nobody comparing to those with CS degrees and impressive internship experiences.

I was already making other plans for my summer when last Monday (May 30), the HR told me that I got the offer.

The New Chapter

Since the intro of this post, I've started my internship at Edge for a few days. These few days, though, has been an eye-opening experience.

I have observed so many differences between Wall Street and Silicon Valley. Starting with the vibe. The keyword for Wall Street is "discretion". Since many high-finance roles require interfacing with multiple external parties, strict dress codes and languages apply to professionals. You rarely see any high-finance professionals wearing a t-shirt to work. Professionalism is expected everywhere from the font you use for a presentation to the tone of a clarification email.

But on my first day stepping into the startup's office, I immediately notice the expressive vibe that epitomizes Silicon Valley. There are bikes and e-skateboards near the door, people wear all different kinds of clothes, even caps. Oh, there's also a dog! In today's lingo, the vibe is "chill". Even for external facing communications, nothing stops people from using emojis.

Another salient difference is about the mode of work. By that I mean, on Wall Street, trudging through back-to-back meetings can be your daily job. I've made friend with the Outlook reminder that pops up 15 minutes before a meeting. As a result, everyone's very busy because these meetings can be disruptive to workflows to start with, and to-do items get generated from meetings to add on your plate. In short, there's little predictability to what you will be working on before starting the day.

While investment professionals live in their Outlook inboxes, software engineers reside in GitHub, where most of the coding works are being saved, reviewed and version-controlled. Aside from daily huddles and the weekly engineering meetings, my calendar is basically wide-open. And there's a clear sense of what to do everyday, so that predictability allows me to spend time on solving problems (well, that's basically what software engineers do).

Although coding can be self-taught, I've learned so much high-tech knowledge (like race conditions, mutex, Redux's data flow logics, runtime type checking, future commits, and more!) in the past few days than I would otherwise learn by myself in months. I think this is a huge benefit of working in-person vs remote. I can just bounce off ideas immediately to engineers around me and ask them anything and get an instant response.

The learning curve ahead of me is very steep, but it will leapfrog my engineering skills. I always want to be a startup founder, so the easy access to founders at Edge becomes very valuable. I look forward to having a cerebral summer and writing another post to share what I learned.

Goodbye Wall Street.

Hello, Silicon Valley.