The World of Finance, With an Engineering Background

Today is the last day of my summer internship with Canada Pension Plan (CPP) Investments. This firm is one of the largest and fastest-growing pension funds in the world, with over $437 billion in assets under management and 1200 employees. Just a few short months ago, after three long zoom interviews, one of which taking place in the lobby of a hotel in Cuba, I was shocked to find out I had got the job.

The program that facilitated the internship is called Women in Capital Markets, or WCM, a non-profit focussed on encouraging girls with STEM backgrounds to pursue careers in finance. CPP Investments has been hiring WCM interns for quite some time, so they’ve learned over the years that us anxious science girls can sometimes need a hand to hold upon entering the finance world for the first time. To make matters even scarier, due to the ongoing pandemic the entire internship was held online.

My assigned role was in the fixed-income (bonds) sleeve of the financing department, which is responsible for acquiring cash for the firm to invest. I was appointed a manager who I reported to directly, and a mentor, whose purpose was to offer emotional support. I had never met either of them, as all my interviews were over video. Luckily, neither of them was phased by my complete and utter terror after my first department-wide meeting, where the ratio between the terms I understood and the ones I didn’t was 10:90.

CPP Investments generously hired a consulting firm to teach the WCM interns the basics on finance and Excel, as well as some extra Python lessons. In addition to our regular duties, the intern cohort was tasked with a case competition, where I got to learn about other departments and practice my new commerce skills. I gradually became acquainted with the finance jargon and started to grasp more of what my peers were saying in meetings. If you asked me three months ago what the difference between a dividend and derivative was, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you, but now I can!

A dividend is an amount of money paid by a company to its shareholders regularly. A derivative is a type of financial instrument whose value is based on another ‘underlying’ financial instrument, like if you made a bet on the direction a rubber duck company’s stock was going.

Throughout the length of my internship I worked on various projects, such as examining the firm’s previous deals with large ‘emerging market’ or developing country investors in order to expand their non-G10 nation currency program. I was also tasked with optimizing a Python program that sourced cheaper stock prices than the firm’s existing holdings from various ‘brokers’ or banks in order to short sell them.

The most difficult of my projects was the last one, a presentation with a topic of my choice, in front of my entire department of finance professionals with precisely two months of experience. Needless to say, I was terrified. I chose to do it on the sustainable investing practices of the top 10 largest asset managers in the world, because I have a personal interest in sustainability and wanted to learn how investment firms are incorporating it into their portfolio mandates.

The research was an informative and compelling experience that has inspired me to continue along the sustainability path. The presentation itself was intimidating but rewarding, and greatly increased my confidence and ability to speak publicly.

So why do investment firms hire STEM students as opposed to commerce ones? I’ve learned that the value of a science background lies in our ability to think critically, which we learn through calculus tests and innovation projects. The problems may be very different in finance, but the way they’re solved is the same. Using our brains! And many firms like that we can code too.

My final thing to note about my experience working in finance with a STEM background is that it is challenging, but ultimately what makes a job worthwhile is the people! Although I was unable to meet with most of my colleagues in person, I reached out to them for virtual coffee chats, shadowing and advice. Everyone I spoke to was incredibly kind, supportive and helpful, and these moments were among the most gratifying of my three months at CPP Investments. Somehow, the technology of this pandemic-riddled world has enabled social connection to forge onward, and I am humbled and inspired by the relationships I’ve built through my wonderful experience at CPP Investments. Furthermore, I can say now that by learning from my peers and the internet, I am now able to ‘speak finance’ and have amassed a wealth of knowledge about the Canadian market and global economy, which I know will come in handy somewhere!

In conclusion, I’d like to mention a quote that was shared by one of the firm’s Senior Managing Directors in a virtual meet-and-greet because it really stuck with me:

"Smart is not innate. It means you’ve had time to ask questions. What really makes you stand out is intellectual curiosity without a fear of looking dumb”.

Written by: Elsa Bassi