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From Apprentices to Executives: WPI’s Wall Street Project Center Creates Win-Win Career Outcomes

By Eileen McCluskey, Photography by Patrick O’Connor

Antonella Allaria ’03, an analyst for Deutsche Bank, says the experience she gained through her Wall Street project made her a hot commodity on the job market.

WPI alumni who work on Wall Street know a smart investment when they see one. So they champion undergraduates from their alma mater who want to prove their worth in the world of high finance.

The allure of Wall Street, with its prestigious firms and premier careers, makes it a magnet for college graduates; likewise, it creates the need for vigorous recruitment to entice the “best and brightest” to company org charts. A recent article in Current magazine reported that schools with a large network of alumni in powerful Wall Street firms often play a big role in shaping the careers of their alma mater’s undergraduates by actively participating in the recruitment process.

The Wall Street Project Center, launched six years ago by WPI faculty and alumni VIPs from Lehman Brothers, Morgan Stanley, JP Morgan, and Deutsche Bank, has given the university a stronghold in several New York firms. “We have a network with the four most influential investment banks in the world,” says Arthur Gerstenfeld, professor of management and the center’s original visionary. “Undergraduates engage in serious projects through the center. They’re given a lot of responsibility, and they prove time and again that they’re up to the task. The firms invariably come out with products and results they can use.”

Teaming up

Projects completed at the center require at least two months’ preparation on campus, followed by faculty-guided work on site for two months. The objective of every project is to satisfy a specific need for the sponsor; students are graded on the outcome.

“We place a lot of emphasis on teamwork,” says Gerstenfeld, “and that’s vitally important on Wall Street.” Project work is accomplished by students who are paired into interdisciplinary teams of two or three; math and computer science majors, for instance, might work with business and industrial engineering students.

“The key these days is the ability to work in teams,” says Gregory Friel ’90, director of information technology at Deutsche Bank, which has been sponsoring center projects for four years. “That’s what WPI’s curriculum is all about.”

“When students come here to do their Major Projects, they’re expected to crank out the work,” adds Scott Burton ’84, senior vice president at Lehman Brothers. “This requires a certain type of person. Art [Gerstenfeld] provides a valuable screening process—he sees to it the students communicate well, make intelligent compromises, and can apply technology in the real world.”

Burton used a team of four students to consult with Lehman Brothers’ risk-reporting teams, which had found their time-critical work hampered by a labor-intensive system: not only did production of standard reports take longer than it should, but each time a customized report was needed—a daily occurrence—the analysts had to rely on in-house programmers for help. How could the firm more nimbly assess the risks in their high-stakes transactions and so avoid or swiftly recover from losses?

“We needed a solution that would be quick and didn’t require programming,” says Burton, who sent one team of two students to Lehman’s London offices to work with the credit risk management group and another to New York to help the equity product risk management team. “I set it up this way because I wanted them to compete at first,” explains Burton, “and then come back and put it all together.”

After analyzing the global risk-reporting structures in both locations, the teams implemented Business Objects, an off-the-shelf application that combines properties of Microsoft Access and Excel into an all-in-one reporting tool that enables users to create their own reports in 10 minutes, instead of four hours, and have full control of both the data and the output format.

Lehman Brothers’ next Wall Street project will continue what this team started, says Burton, noting that the students will “start and end in London and New York, and possibly elsewhere.”

“The Wall Street Project Center gives Deutsche Bank the perfect opportunity to try out potential employees. It works for us and for WPI.”
— Michael Modisett ’02, associate, Deutsche Bank

Projects with a purpose

In project after project, WPI students have demonstrated a knack for saving Wall Street’s most precious commodities: time and money. In Deutsche Bank’s latest project, undergraduates helped accelerate trade confirmations. “These are enormous and complex transactions,” says Friel, “and our clients want their confirmations very, very quickly. We must be able to confirm over a million trades a day within 15 minutes.” The students’ analysis, he says, will improve customer service and enhance revenue. “Next year, we plan to address another part of the process.”

At JP Morgan, Tiffany Carl ’05 and Bao Jian Yu ’05 helped the North American credit research group shrink the time it took to generate daily analytic reports, documents used internally and by thousands of the bank’s clients. Executives knew that quick report production would improve the bank’s performance ratings, which potential clients use to choose their financial institutions.

Because of their on-campus research, “My partner and I hit the ground running when we went on site,” says Carl. “We were able to reduce report generation time by upwards of 70 percent. It was so rewarding and really boosted my confidence in my ability to work in the corporate world.”

“Tiffany and Bao Jian did an excellent job,” says Michael Zarrilli ’71, a managing director at JP Morgan, a WPI trustee, and a Wall Street Project Center pioneer. “We’ve already implemented their suggestions. We know that WPI students have both the technical background and managerial skills to do a good job, and that they’re well guided by their professors.”

In a Morgan Stanley project completed last December, Conor Casey ’04 and Juan Varela ’05 were asked to improve operations efficiency in the firm’s prime brokerage documentation group—20 employees in New York, London, and Hong Kong—which negotiates and tracks contacts for new client accounts.

“Kids from WPI don’t sit around waiting for someone to tell them what to do,” says Casey. “The minute we got there, we jumped right in.” The students recommended leveraging an existing computer application for the documentation area and reorganizing the documentation group’s employees. Says Carlos Peña ’00, an associate with the Morgan Stanley group, “We’re implementing these recommendations now, confident they will benefit the group and the company.”

One of the center’s original backers is neither an alum nor a faculty member. “The WPI culture and staff clearly play an important part in ensuring consistent results year after year with a broad array of students,” says Jay Maller, executive director for prime brokerage technology at Morgan Stanley, who has welcomed a steady stream of WPI students into his division since 2000. Adds Michael Ciaraldi, professor of computer science at WPI, who works closely with students on their projects, “Our students are always praised lavishly for their professionalism and the insights they bring. Often, the companies begin implementing the students’ recommendations before the project is even over. And many of them get job offers from the firms.”

You’re hired!

“In our first project, we helped Morgan Stanley’s prime brokerage group (MSPB) analyze and streamline the workflow in the client services department,” says Gerstenfeld, who adds that both students—one was Peña—were offered jobs with the group.

Burton considers the WPI students who teamed in New York and London for the Lehman Brothers project “as potential hires. We recruit from a lot of different places, including Carnegie Mellon, MIT, and Columbia. In general, WPI students are more interested than the others in having a tangible impact.”

Analyst Antonella Allaria ’03, who completed her project at Morgan Stanley, was snapped up by Deutsche Bank right after graduation. “At WPI, I learned how to negotiate and solve problems as part of a group—skills I use here every day. I also learned that we must understand our users’ requirements, not just the technology. Part of our WPI education was not only to be technical experts, but to develop strong communication skills.”

Michael Modisett ’02 landed an associate’s position with Deutsche Bank; his project with the bank, to develop a help system for eSPEAR, gave him familiarity with its complex trade settlement software. “The Wall Street Project Center gives Deutsche Bank the perfect opportunity to try out potential employees,” he says. “It works for us and for WPI.”

“We recruit from a lot of different places, including Carnegie Mellon, MIT, and Columbia. In general, WPI students are more interested than the others in having a tangible impact.”
— Scott Burton, senior vice president, Lehman Brothers

Scott Burton ’84, senior vice president at Lehman Brothers, says advising Wall Street projects lets him give back to WPI and evaluate potential new hires.

Investing in the future

“I spend 10 to 20 percent of my time mentoring WPI students while they are at the company,” says Peña, who has maintained close ties with the center. “I enjoy this work because the students are organized; they are fast learners with strong quantitative skills and they conduct themselves professionally.”

“I benefited tremendously from WPI’s practical, applied education,” says Burton. “So I wanted to give back to the university and its students. But this isn’t altruism. It’s good business. We get young, energetic students, drop them in a situation, and see what they can do. This try-buy of entry-level hires is good for the recruiting pipelines.”

“Today, technology drives this business,” says Friel. “Within 15 to 20 years, you’ll see this industry’s CEOs coming up not from the traditional sales path, but from the technical side of business. WPI students not only have the general interest in technology, but know how to use it to make the organization better. Other engineers may not be able to work well within Wall Street’s global, matrix-organized world. I’m consistently impressed with the students’ ability to communicate and to organize their goals and objectives working under a strict 10-week timeline. They understand how to escalate issues to get things done.”

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Last modified: Aug 26, 2005, 01:53 EDT
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