There’s been a lot of talk recently about a choice many technical graduates have to make: be a Wall Street quant, or a Silicon Valley coder. Let’s set the record straight.
I’ve done both, first as a quant strategist at Goldman Sachs & Morgan Stanley for over a decade and now as a startup founder in the Valley. Quants on Wall Street and coders in Silicon Valley are worlds apart, literally & figuratively. But if you’re into engineering, math or science, and you want a top job, they’re the two most popular options. So which one is right for you?
In the interest of (over)simplifying important life decisions, I think the decision comes down to four questions.
1. How do you like your money?
Both finance & technology pay well, really well. But the trajectory of how much you’ll make look very different.
Fresh out of school, you’ll probably get more in Silicon Valley than Wall Street, where base salaries start low. But after 3-4 years on Wall Street, you can be pulling down $500,000 with bonus. In 5-7 years, that’s $1 million. No doubt about it, on Wall Street, you’re definitely going to make a lot of money.
But unless you’re the rare superstar trader, you’ll never have a net worth over $30 million (these days. Pre-2008 was a different story). If you want a chance at stratospheric wealth, the kind that only comes with stock options, head West. If you’re lucky, one IPO or acquisition can make you quite wealthy overnight, enough to inspire jealousy in all those Wall Street quants. But remember: most don’t get lucky. What’s more likely is that you’ll cap out at $250,000 in your salary and never see a dime from your options. But there’s always a chance..
2. What kind of math do you enjoy more: continuous or discrete?
Continuous math is equations, calculus, graphs. Discrete math is counting, logic, algorithms. Wall Street loves continuous math. It’s what is used to model behavior in financial markets. The equations depend on the kind of math you learned in calculus courses. If you love differential equations & multivariate integrals, you’ll probably like the work you’d do at the major trading firms.
Silicon Valley exercises discrete math more, especially logic. Coding involves a lot of heavy lifting in that department. If the sound of combinatorial algorithms gets your heart racing, head this way.
ps: The common thread in both worlds is data science.
3. Would you rather be a ninja or a jack of all trades?
The ol’ depth vs breadth question. Do you want to go deep and master one skill, or become fluent in several?
On Wall Street, most jobs involve wearing many hats. In the morning, you’re building mathematical models; in the afternoon, you’re coding. In between, you might have a meeting with sales or with a client. You might even get coffee for Lloyd Blankfein. You develop versatility, which may be the most important thing early in your career, but you may not be the best at anything.
Silicon Valley’s about ninjas (we’re talking the big tech companies & funded startups here, not pre-funding startups where you’d probably need to do a little bit of everything). You’ll mostly do one thing, and you’ll get really, really good at it. You’ll be able to point to one thing and say you’re the best at it. But you might not be able to change gears so easily. You’re back-end or front-end, and it’s hard to switch.
4. Would you rather work out of a sports bar or a mountain cabin?
A Wall Street trading floor can be nuts. There’s people screaming into phones, people running down the halls, people plugged in & some even solving equations. I found myself sitting next to a ex-football player turned bond salesman on one side, a former poet on the other. Everyone can see what you’re doing, and the energy levels are high.
Silicon Valley’s more calm. Compared to the trading floor, the “coding floor” is quiet, people are working on their own things, and cubicles reign supreme. There’s a cafeteria where everyone heads to together. Life is more regimented, less all over the place. You can get deep into what you’re working on with fewer distractions, but there’s less energy to tap into.
Bottom Line. Ask yourself who you are- intellectually, socially, financially. Of Silicon Valley or Wall Street, there’s probably one where you belong more. If you want more guidance, check out our (free) career app at ZLemma. Our algorithms analyze your background and skills to figure out roles where you’d be a great fit. You can also apply for several jobs within these industries which enables hiring managers at these firms to get in touch with you. Is it Wall Street, or the Valley for you?