Reflections on 3 years living and working in London
2014 - 2017
Having made arrangements to leave London, it seems like a reasonable time to reflect on my time here.
London is a tough city to live in — it’s big enough that a sub 1-hour commute is considered good, and it’s super expensive. My stay in London has been defined by my quest to complete my graduate scheme and qualify as an accountant.
When I first arrived I had no idea what London or working in a corporate would be like. I was coming from academia, and my motivation for moving to finance could be summed up in two points:
- Understand more about the 2008 financial crisis
- Get paid more for using mostly the same skills (math) as in engineering
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with these motivations, but I should have been making a long term career plan instead.
When I started my job I was surprised at the 6 weeks of induction and hot-desking. Life as an auditor felt nomadic, as everyone would spend large amounts of time at client’s offices, and no-one has their own desk in our office. The only thing you really own is your knowledge and your network of relationships.
In 2014, I arrived with a high opinion of my employer and the view that I would be staying for several years. Having escaped the financial insecurity of short-term research grants, I’d moved back to my home country to contribute to the system that educated me. I was happy to have a regular job with a decent, predictable salary.
A phrase that kept coming to mind back then was “accountant factory”. Our training materials were scripted and everything was a standardised process. We were being processed. Graduates in, corporate accountants out.
The company is huge and so are the efficiencies and barriers to competition that come with this. When I arrived I was impressed there were free biscuits, and it felt presumptuous to put a meeting in someones diary. Now I ignore any communications addressed to a mailing list.
The toughest experiences were related to the accountancy qualification. Naïvely I had believed that the qualification wouldn’t be a big deal and I didn’t give any thought to it when I applied — I just wanted to find out how banks worked. If there were some exams to be done then it would be fine, I’d already achieved a PhD and I would handle it.
That turned out to be a mistake. A huge mistake. The alarm bells should have rung louder when I realised most of my graduate colleagues had only applied so that they could get the qualification (and were already intending to leave asap afterwards). Doing the pre-course work before college wasn’t trivial. College - I was being sent to a classroom again. We were being taken out of the office, away from clients, and put in a classroom to prepare for these exams…
Starting a job that required becoming a chartered accountant, without considering the effort and time involved to qualify was dumb. It’s an oversight I find hard to believe.
The disappointment and sadness at having to study again was profound. The teaching and assessment style was several steps behind what I’d become used to. Compared to the depth, autonomy and research-focus of a doctorate, writing cookie-cutter essays in time-pressured exams felt stupid. The exams were hard and I failed several of them, probably because of my low morale whilst revising. Retaking them required more weekends and annual leave being spent away from my family, camped-out in libraries and offices.
This required much patience and generosity from Ritsya, who having not seen me for long periods during my doctorate expected us to have a more normal lifestyle when we came to London. I found it miserable to pause my social life and other interests whilst studying, and then I would try to rush back to them when I had the time, knowing that soon I’d have to pause them again.
If I hadn’t already studied in Vienna, this process of working and studying in London would have been exciting and felt valuable or special. I’d passed enough exams though to know that they’re never as important as they’re made out to be, and whatever it was that was missing from my life wasn’t going to be found in another qualification.
On the upside though, the ACA is the most practical qualification I’ve gained and has taught me many useful aspects of business and finance. I’m glad to finally see business not as some mysterious system but something attainable and understandable.
Living in London has also required a lot of time on trains — my door to desk commute is about an hour each way, and I’ve never lived somewhere in London that hasn’t felt transient. We’ve needed to live near a station and didn’t want to commute more than an hour and that’s put us in neighbourhoods with other young professionals who also don’t have long term plans (or financial ability) to stay in the city. We’re all looking to move on and move up as fast as possible. I want to leave London partly because there are so many people with the same attitudes and priorities as my own…
Back in the office I spent the first few months figuring out how people were organised, how teams operated and how decisions were made. I think it took me about a year to feel like I understood how things really worked, and 1.5 years to feel like I could do all aspects of my job with certainty. There is a difference between how things are spoken about, and how things actually happen.
My experience has been that performance is all that matters and behaviour is defined by self-interest. I don’t think this is different from previous environments I’ve worked in — academia isn’t any different1 and the construction industry certainly isn’t. I wonder if the only way people can endure it is if they’ve not experienced anything else, or think it normal, or necessary. I find myself wishing we could be kinder to each other, and that we could create structures that incentivise mutual support.
Corporate finance usually appears clean and well presented. Its people appear dependable and capable. The culture is sanitised and there’s a lot of pressure to conform - you can see it in the clothes and accessories we wear and the jokes we tell each other in the canteen.
I came to see my office as a glass and steel cathedral. I read about the Middle East, and migrants arriving in Europe, and tower blocks burning, and felt really disconnected.
Despite the high regard with which we hold ourselves, we don’t ask each other how we can help. Maybe we are too busy, or feel powerless to help. Apparently we do not know how to help, despite our wealth, talents, education and connections.
I remember watching a man leave the office one day and thought that if he gave his whole career and left his firm after decades of service, there would be nothing left to identify him after a few weeks. The work will always get done. Market forces will dictate how the business adapts and grows. The City rolls on.
Publications trump almost all other metrics, and the incentives to publish quantity over quality are such that risky or slow research is inexcusable. The metrics used to standardise success and allocate resources can be subverted just as well in academia as in any other industry. What management measures, the team prioritises. ↩