A slightly different article to the general theme of the blog; you only have to read on if you're interested in learning about careers in finance.
Over the dawn of Easter break, I spent time working in the Finance Division at the University of Oxford (UO). The office was huge – larger than that in the Wolf of Wall Street. I even had my own desk within my team’s quarters. To be specific, I worked as part of the Financial Reporting team of the division – not only shadowing important meetings, but also participating in staff training schemes and day-to-day work in the office.
To begin with, I must give a special thanks to Ms Gill Crofts (Head of Financial Systems), without whom this placement would not have been possible. I can now advocate what they say about having contacts in the right places - it opens a whole host of opportunities.
I was put through an induction session, where each of the professionals came in to speak about exactly what they do and when they do it. It’s all largely specific, so if we were to talk about the economics of it, specialisation and Adam Smith’s largely acclaimed division of labour play a major role in complex organisations such as UO. It’s also important to note the range of different tasks that occur in a team – one moment I had Mr Heath speaking to me about Oracle Financials and specialist training of partners at Deloitte, the next he was mentioning subsidiaries researching HIV in South Africa (Oxford Research South Africa Limited, to be precise). Obviously, this is because UO has a charity status – which means that if trading involves significant risk, it must be undertaken by a subsidiary. UO have employees working all over the globe – they have offices in Hong Kong and even 900 staff working in Kenya; it’s important to consider the sheer magnitude of the organisation (this meant that I was often dealing with up to eight-figure values).
I was fortunate to have been put on a half-day staff IT training course at the University IT services on Banbury Road. There were two other UO staff taking the course to learn about, and how to use, Oracle Financials; it was teaching us all about the General Ledger (GL) and journals. The course was hosted by Ms Belinda Birch of the IT department – thankfully I needed no former knowledge or experience to take the course, so I could follow very well. I learnt all about creating, reviewing and posting journals – all involving the debits and credits of various departments for purchases as specific as stationery. Upon returning to the office, I was taken to a meeting with the creator of the course who spoke of the limitations of its various aspects and asked for my opinion. My knowledge was, of course, instantly tested as Ms Genieve Boon made me post a real journal using Oracle.
I never thought I would find it so entertaining to be treated as an actual part of the team. I was proven wrong when Ms Kate Makuskina made me call up various important people from various departments in the division, and ‘bug’ them to post or delete their unposted journals due to the closure of the General Ledger later that day. I had to introduce myself as ‘Omkar from Financial Reporting’ – it spoke volumes when their secretaries picked up the phone; these people were important. The worrying thing was that no one questioned me – such is the size of the division.
I spent quite some time working with Mr Daniel Weller, who works with Genieve. He’d put a lot of effort into producing immaculately presented balance sheet reconciliations (management accounts) for March end, explaining to me each aspect I would have difficulty with (such as FTE – I wouldn’t have known what this was, otherwise).
My ‘free time’ (i.e. the time I wasn’t either shadowing, training or at a meeting) at my desk was expended working on a project I’d been set at the beginning, which was to compare numerous financial statements of universities, including that of UO. This was quite an undertaking, considering the bulk of them being blocks of text and pages of numbers – for this reason I was taken into a meeting with the [current but soon leaving] Deputy Director of Finance, Rob Williams, to discuss how presentation makes a difference and what can be done to improve aspects of the statements. ‘Integrated reporting’ was a notion brought up quite frequently during the meeting. He went on to talk about a British Universities Finance Directors Group (BUFDG) conference he’d attended earlier, also mentioning certain Economics academics and their observation of the concept of ‘wilful blindness’ – an example of this given was the Hong Kong sector FPI insurance.
Many would see a nine-to-five job working in an office as dry, monotonous and soul-dropping. I’ll admit, it’s not the most active of jobs – you sit at a desk, do the work that needs doing, go to team meetings, discuss annual and quarterly aims and leave. It’s often taken for granted, particularly in schools I find, how much number-crunching is actually involved in a finance profession. It’s not particularly difficult once you’ve had the training – you’re not going to need to know how to use the Wilcoxon signed rank test from your A2 Mathematics – but you need to develop an aptitude for dealing with number problems. This is especially true when you encounter problems with your Excel spreadsheets not adding up and having to find where your error lies. It’s strangely satisfying when you get it, though – take my word for it, they made me do it.
I ended up leaving the office for the final time with a bag full of sheets of information, an invaluable bank of knowledge and my University of Oxford lanyard and tie. Once again, I have to thank all of my temporary colleagues/superiors at the Finance Division who put in a lot of effort to make sure I gained the most out of my experience. I’ve made useful contacts I can get in touch with in the future when I’m next down in Oxford.
Written by Omkar Dixit
Special thanks to Mr Ben Heath, Ms Gill Crofts, Ms Genieve Boon, Mr Alan Glaum, Ms Helen Parker, Mr Daniel Weller, Ms Kate Makuskina, Ms Charlotte Taylor, Mr Ricky Gill and Ms Belinda Birch.
While I was in Oxford, I took hundreds of photographs - if you're interested in seeing them, click here.