Russian Roulette: A Daily Ibanking Tragedy

“To answer or not to answer. That, my dear ibanker, is the question you must ask yourself.”

– Jean-Pierre (senior investment banker)

Those were the very words that came out of Jean-Pierre’s mouth one Thursday evening at quarter to eight as he got up from his chair to head home after a long day. He was my line manager and, as with people in the business, never gave a moment’s thought to anyone but himself.

I had pulled an all-nighter the night before with but only one little break – when a taxi drove me home at 5:30am so that I could shower, shave and put on a fresh suit. The driver just sat in his car while the meter ran. I was then driven right back so that I could be at my desk by 7:30am. I slept for no more than ten minutes en route to Canary Wharf. Colleagues had already started calling.

So here I am sitting at my desk, having missed out on a much-needed night of sleep, when, just as I’m beginning to think about the lovely prospects of packing up to head home, one of the phone lines on our desk area begins to ring. Oh God.

At this time, there are three of us junior bankers still working away. Custom has it that one of us should answer the phone and do so quickly. You never know, it could be a client, someone from the New York office or another team within the building that needs immediate help. It was an unwritten rule that a phone line should not go unanswered for more than three rings. I’ve seen Managing Directors yell across the room at junior bankers for not jumping at the opportunity to answer.

Ring – Part 1 (The first 3 Seconds)

So one of the phone lines rings. The following happens within a span of 3 seconds, max:

  • Phone rings
  • All three of us junior bankers immediately react to the sound of the first ring and freeze
  • Our eyes dart to the phone system with bullet-like speed. We notice whose line is ringing and a sigh of relief takes over because it isn’t anyone of us. Yet we don’t get complacent. We have learned our lesson in the past. This is just the first obstacle in the course
  • The phone system informs us of the intended recipient (it displays the person’s initials with a blinking red light)
  • We sit up and look in the recipient’s direction with alarm. She is not at her desk. Our eyes monitor her work area to see if her computer is still on, there are personals on the desk or a coat hanging over her chair. We seek signs of human presence. Nothing. She’s gone for the day
  • It’s during this ‘assessment’ stage – we are not even two seconds into the event yet – that us three potential victims of this cruel game become aware of one another’s presence. Our eyes meet and we all quickly hunch down and begin to think and strategise next steps. A drop of sweat may begin to form above the forehead. There’s 33.3% chance of getting screwed. The goal now is to avoid picking up the phone for it could mean staying in the office for another five hours or worse…
  • (the story continues further below)

Russian Roulette

In investment banking, anytime you pick up a phone in the evening you’re gambling with your life. Russian roulette, a fatal game in which a single bullet is placed inside a revolver’s chamber, isn’t a befitting analogy to be honest. I would go so far as to say that answering an incoming call late in the day is closer to having 5 bullets insider a chamber which holds 6.

I have trouble remembering a single call I answered late in the day that I didn’t hang up after without cursing someone somewhere aloud or banging my fist against the table. Most of the time I’d have to follow the dreaded call with another to my girlfriend or friends letting them know I won’t be making it for drinks or dinner, yet again. At times it even meant I had to cancel a weekend trip, irrespective of booked flights and accommodations.

Jennifer, a curly blonde haired girl I used to work with who was far too nice to resist taking on additional work, often received calls from various groups around the bank. On at least a dozen occasions I saw her start weeping on the phone before the call was even over. She knew she’d have to stay in the office till around 3 or 4am and so tears started flowing. The worst part of it was that I also had to stay and help.

When you’re new to the job you don’t realise the devastation a single phone can cause to your state of mind. I would have happily traded in all incoming calls past 8pm – without even knowing who the caller was – for a violent slap across the face. No questions asked. Even if only 1% of calls would result in staying in late at work it was worth being slapped 99 times across the face.

I can’t explain it but despite the number of times someone throws a tonne of work on your shoulders like they would on a donkey, you still hope…truly hope…that someone at the end of that phone line will deliver good news. The phone rings and you answer as you normally do by saying the name of your bank:

Me: “Paris Berkeley Capital.”
Managing Director (MD): “This is Carter from Mining. Who is this?”
Me: “The ibanker. Can I help y–?”
MD: “I’m sending you a presentation. Should hit your inbox in 30 seconds. There are several sections missing and we need it completed by tomorrow 7am. Our junior bankers are tied up on live deals.”

Worry sets in. I quickly get on our intranet phone directory to see who the hell this asswipe is exactly.

MD: (raising his voice). “Did you hear me?”

The search reveals that Carter is one of the Managing Directors in the Mining team. Shit. I can be a vegetarian and he can pretty much order me to eat a live pig. That’s the power an MD has in our world.

Me: “Yes.” Think on your feet. I try to come up with some kind of pathetic excuse on the spot. “I just have another big presentation that’s due tomorrow morning Carter. It’s for a very important client.”
MD: “Are you working on a live deal?”
Me: “No.”
MD: “Then you have a new priority. Send me the presentation before 7am tomorrow morning and don’t call me unless it’s urgent.” He hangs up.

Naturally, after some time you’ll welcome night time phone calls like you would a pickpocket in a retirement house for the blind.

Ring – Part 2 (The next 10 Seconds)

Back to the earlier event when 3 of us junior bankers recognised one another’s presence as one of the phone lines rang at night.

The first person to react is Abdullah, an Associate from Turkey who has the street smarts of a merchant raised in the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul. He was good. Real good.

Suddenly, his phone line begins to ring as well. WhatLucky bastard. So he picks up his phone and stands up. He looks in my direction as he stands there listening to someone on the other line. I grow suspicious. I notice his mobile on his desk. It’s on. Right then I know he called his work phone line from his mobile. His next move confirms it.

Abdullah: (speaking with urgency yet with the subpar acting ability of a soap opera actor) “Absolutely. I’ll bring down the presentations to the lobby right away.” He hangs up the phone and takes off toward the elevator. But he doesn’t take any presentations or any paper for that matter with him except his coat.

There are just two of us left now. Me and Hans the German. Inaction is too costly and passive so I act.

I pick up the ringing line but don’t say a word. I keep the phone far away from my mouth. I can hear someone on the line shouting something along the lines of “why did it take so long for you to answer”. I wait a few more seconds and then transfer the call straight to Hans’ phone. I depart quickly as Hans answers.

The next morning I get in at 7:15am and Hans is still wearing the same suit and looks like he’s just lived through an earthquake.

Its a jungle

A phone rings and there are only two of you at the desk. What do you do? What do you do?


3 thoughts on “Russian Roulette: A Daily Ibanking Tragedy

  1. Anonymous says:

    In my experience I can say most of the time you get stuck. Although I have pulled off some Abudullah-like shenanigans successfully before.

  2. Ying says:

    Nice illustration of 3 different reactions faced to a phone call. It also shows how speed matters; most likely the last person to react will get the worse part; and that’s not only in investment banking.

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