We’re late comers to the Wall Street world. Steve stumbled into his job after a decade in academia. He never had a business or economics class. He doesn’t have a MBA or a JD. Then we both left the insular world of grad school and met people with real jobs. Many jobs in this area center around Wall Street and finance. So, between Steve’s job and chatter with neighbors, we were thrown into a new culture.
Because we’re horrible eggheads, we like to dissect this new culture like an anthropologist in Java. Steve used to discuss his observations with his officemates, until they started calling him “professor” and rolling their eyes. Now, he saves his observations for the dinner table. Last week, we were talking about front office Wall Street and back office Wall Street.
There are two types of workers in the finance world. There are the polished Ivy League guys (and they are mostly guys). They tend to have the big money jobs and interact directly with clients. Blond WASPs with the house in Connecticut.
The other type is the crazy smart person (more women in this group), who came from working class or immigrant backgrounds. The Italian guy from Brooklyn who, by an unholy amount of brains and determination, got himself into Cooper Union and now creates the computer systems that run the company. The Irish dude from Staten Island. The Jamaican woman who worked too hard to ever get married. They tend to work in the back office in operations or IT or documentation. They don’t have the pedigree to interact with clients. They always hit a glass ceiling after a while.
Because Steve and I love the underdogs, we admire the crazy smart, ambitious people in the back office and refer to the others as “Third Basemen,” as in “Born on Third Base.” The backroom types aren’t perfect. Many have chips on their shoulders. A few aren’t exactly nice people. But you have to admire them for their grit. Scrappy fighters all of them.
Don Peck has an interesting article in the Atlantic about the use of data to evaluate workers, and the gradual movement away from using a fancy college degree as a signal in the labor market.
One of the tragedies of the modern economy is that because one’s college history is such a crucial signal in our labor market, perfectly able people who simply couldn’t sit still in a classroom at the age of 16, or who didn’t have their act together at 18, or who chose not to go to graduate school at 22, routinely get left behind for good. That such early factors so profoundly affect career arcs and hiring decisions made two or three decades later is, on its face, absurd.
But this relationship is likely to loosen in the coming years. I spoke with managers at a lot of companies who are using advanced analytics to reevaluate and reshape their hiring, and nearly all of them told me that their research is leading them toward pools of candidates who didn’t attend college—for tech jobs, for high-end sales positions, for some managerial roles. In some limited cases, this is because their analytics revealed no benefit whatsoever to hiring people with college degrees; in other cases, and more often, it’s because they revealed signals that function far better than college history, and that allow companies to confidently hire workers with pedigrees not typically considered impressive or even desirable. Neil Rae, an executive at Transcom, told me that in looking to fill technical-support positions, his company is shifting its focus from college graduates to “kids living in their parents’ basement”—by which he meant smart young people who, for whatever reason, didn’t finish college but nevertheless taught themselves a lot about information technology. Laszlo Bock told me that Google, too, is hiring a growing number of nongraduates. Many of the people I talked with reported that when it comes to high-paying and fast-track jobs, they’re reducing their preference for Ivy Leaguers and graduates of other highly selective schools.
This isn’t good news for the Third Basemen, but awfully good news for our Back Office friends.