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"I'm only 21 and I've just helped manage an Asian M&A deal"

As you probably know, Chinese technology companies – from Tencent to small start-ups – are hiring from the banking sector, both in Hong Kong and on the mainland. They’re not so interested in recruiting developers (who they can source from any industry), but they do like to recruit actual bankers. In particular, they want M&A bankers for in-house corporate development roles as they look to expand their operations by making acquisitions in Greater China and overseas.

What you may not know is that these same tech firms are taking on interns (typically finance students) in Hong Kong, to work alongside graduates and experienced bankers. I’m a final-year student myself and I’m starting an M&A job at a large US investment bank in Hong Kong next year. I interned at this American bank (as well as at a Chinese bank)…but I also interned in the M&A team of a Chinese tech firm – a former start-up that is now looking to takeover other companies and eventually list.

If you’re a student with an interest in M&A, I would thoroughly recommend that you do an internship at a Chinese tech company, so you can contrast it to working for a bank. You may even decide to go straight into an in-house corporate M&A team when you graduate.

More realistically, many young bankers in Asia have their hearts set on moving to tech after three or four years at a big bank (Chinese tech is the new private equity in terms of a sought-after career change). It’s hugely advantageous, therefore, to get an early taste of tech as an intern before you make such an important decision. Having interned, you will be in a much more informed position to see whether tech is right for you. Once you make the move, it’s more difficult to go back into banking.

This may change down the line, but I’m aiming to get solid M&A training at my bank for a few years and then join a tech firm, perhaps even the one I interned at last year. I also think tech internships are great experiences in themselves (in many ways better than banking internships), even if you never end up working full-time in the industry. Let me explain why…

One of the best parts of my internship was that the in-house M&A department only had four people in it, so I was a very valuable member of the team. While I did chat about once a week to senior people during my bank internship, at the tech firm I was directly managed every day by a former M&A banker with more than 10 years’ experience. You just don’t get that kind of internal exposure at a bank.

But that’s not all – the external exposure was also better than in my banking internships. While the deals I worked on at the tech firm were a lot smaller, I played a much larger part in them. I spent much of my time working on the company’s first ever M&A deal. In fact, I was actually managing some of the aspects of the deal. I was sent out to the firm we wanted to acquire to do some of the due diligence. I met the founder and CEO and most of the leadership team.

Talking to these very experienced people about their products and business plans, was challenging, intimidating but very rewarding work for me as a 21-year-old. I had to earn their respect. Before meeting them, I studied all the information about them that was in the public domain in order to understand their backgrounds. I also researched their job functions. One was a developer, so I found out about the key trends in his area of technology. I tried to step into their shoes, finding out what challenges they faced in their business.

Generally speaking, I had to get my hands dirtier in tech than in banking, even though all my internships were in M&A. For example, the target company I dealt with on behalf of my tech unicorn was a start-up so it didn’t have the Big-Four audited statements that banks’ M&A teams take for granted. Everything was more ‘raw’ in tech – that’s what I enjoyed during my three-month stint and that’s way I’m keen on moving to the sector in the future.

Sara Lum (not her real name) is a finance student who starts a full-time job at a US investment bank in Hong Kong next year.

Image credit: recep-bg, Getty

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