My Interesting Job: Trader

My Interesting Job: Trader

Valeria Stepantsova didn’t think she’d end up in finance, but an undergraduate degree in politics from London School of Economics and a master’s in business from Imperial College soon landed her a job as a commodity trader at one of the world’s biggest investment banks, Macquarie. Here she tells us what her day to day looks like and what it's like to work in what is still a stereotypically man's world...

I didn’t know what banking was until later in life. When I was a child, my career plans ranged from landscape painter to Mount Everest climber to interior designer. It was only towards the end of my university days that I knew I wanted to work in finance. 

The beauty of this job is it doesn’t require years of post-degree education. This is common in other sectors like law, medicine or engineering, but most of what I know has been learnt on the job thanks to the support of my colleagues. My university degrees and extra qualifications helped to some extent, but you don’t necessarily need a finance degree. We welcome candidates with diverse backgrounds to apply, as they can bring alternative ideas to the table.

Attention to detail is important. A lot of work is done under time pressure with limited room for mistakes. Macquarie also has a very entrepreneurial culture – and it’s important to pitch ideas and take ownership of client relationships.

My first proper role was in equity research. I covered renewable energy before I started commodity trading. I’m originally from Norilsk, a small town in Russia, where winters can be as cold as -50°C, so I know how important energy is to daily life. Not only that, energy products are usually the main feedstock for any object or mode of transport we use. It’s also an industry which is constantly morphing and innovating. 

Usually, I wake up, exercise and get into the office around 8am. While it’s still quiet I have my coffee and catch up on any market news that may have affected morning energy prices. I message several of my key clients, pitch them some trading ideas, and see if they want to trade oil, gas or power. Then the fun begins – the markets wake up and everyone starts trading. 

Occasionally, I have a lunch meeting or need to travel to meet clients or attend a conference. Otherwise, the markets quieten down closer to 5pm, which is when I have time to work on longer-term pursuits, such as on-boarding a new client, structuring a new derivative deal or getting a minor dose of admin done. I usually finish by 7pm.

What I really like is the flat team structure. I don’t have to navigate layers of management and I can pitch ideas to senior managers without a strict hierarchy. The business also values diversity of opinion, so everyone is encouraged to speak up to highlight risks and opportunities. Secondly, because my firm is a market leader, we work with a very large and diverse range of companies and help them manage their exposure to changing energy prices (for example, by using derivatives). These companies are often those we can all relate to in our daily lives, such as the major airlines we fly with, energy suppliers or confectionary companies.

The job requires multitasking, and there isn’t much room for error. It can be stressful when you are handling more than one trade at a time, but the most rewarding part for pretty much anyone in the trading world is when you finally see the fruits of your labour. Seeing how the decisions you’ve been empowered to take affect your bottom line is great, whether it’s through improving a relationship with a key client or successfully executing a complex derivative deal.

The best day I had at work was when I signed a significant jet fuel derivative deal. It was with a client I had brought into the business and built a relationship with. I was given the opportunity to build this relationship from scratch and it’s a very rewarding feeling when your efforts pay off.

Seeing how the decisions you’ve been empowered to take affect your bottom line is great.

The worst day was when I covered the desk alone for two days. It’s usually managed by four people, but all the team was either out travelling or sick. Unexpectedly, gas prices dropped as Russia decided to pump more gas to Europe and weather forecasts turned warmer, so all our consumer clients rushed to buy gas and the trading desks were on fire. Luckily adrenaline and staying focused on completing key trades got me through.

The career opportunities are extensive. It’s really a result of the skills you develop in energy trading – technical and analytical, people skills, problem-solving and making quick decisions with conviction. People are also given the opportunity to pursue their own ideas – you’re kept accountable for your decisions, but it helps you plough your own furrow.

I never saw working in ‘man’s world’ as an obstacle. If anything, it was a bonus that there were more people who wanted to join the Tuesday football games I organise at work. What matters are your outputs – regardless of your gender, ethnicity, orientation or background. Also, I’m not short of role models. Our current CEO, Shemara Wikramanayake, is one of Australia’s most prominent female business leaders.

If you want to encourage more diversity, it’s through action rather than discussion. We focus on having an inclusive workplace and encouraging more women to move into financial services. We ensure we have female representatives on interview panels and present at universities, as this will naturally make a career in finance the new norm. I do think the City, more broadly, is changing. Around 50% of the graduates we hire now are women. 

It is possible to be just as assertive, effective and successful without losing your humanity and moral values. The stereotype of someone in finance is a ruthless, ferocious, over-confident type ready to cross all moral grounds to further their success. But aggressive personalities can often be bad at managing risk – which is not what we need in our business. 

The career opportunities are extensive. It’s really a result of the skills you develop in energy trading – technical and analytical, people skills, problem-solving and making quick decisions with conviction.

My advice is to stay true to yourself and bring your whole self to work. It doesn’t matter how ambitious your goals are or how tough your day was, being helpful, kind and humble will always pay greater dividends. Approach the industry as a sponge – stay curious, have intellectual humility and learn as much as you can from every person or experience you come across. See them all as your teachers. 

I’ve always been afraid of failure and not meeting the high standards I set myself. However, in this fast-paced trading environment, I learnt how to take both my successes and failures in stride, to learn from both and apply those lessons in the future. I’ve also learnt failure is a natural part of personal development. With time, and the support of my colleagues, my resilience and ability to manage failure has improved. Often, in these environments, people can discover strengths they didn’t know they had.

Keeping my routine full of regular activities helps me wind down. For example, being strict with my workout schedule or delegating work where I can if I need to board a flight back home. Being in a fast-paced market environment, I’ve also learned not to let stressful events get to me and recognise there is usually a solution to a problem. There is of course always room for self-improvement – I would like to learn how to slow down a bit, be more present and not transpose my fast-paced work environment into other areas of my life.

Painting, playing sports, reading and spending quality time with family and friends helps me stay balanced. I wish I could say I don’t check emails after work but it’s tricky. I’ve been painting since I was little – it’s my main creative outlet and the one thing I do completely for myself. Sport also helps. I play football, practice yoga and do HIIT workouts three or four times a week. Reading grounds me and I try to get through at least two books a month. Finally, spending quality time with close friends and family is a medicine in itself. I also travel every other weekend to quench my thirst for constant adventures.

I don’t intend on leaving this job anytime soon. However, it’s always important to remain open – I’m intrigued to see where my career takes me. Suffice to say, I definitely won’t be trading derivatives in my 60s. If I could do something else, and money was no object, I would live with my family in the wild on a tropical island. I’d paint endlessly and grow our own food.

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