Peruse Linda Kreitzman’s Twitter feed and you are bound to see photo after photo of her with students and graduates of what is one of the toughest master’s programs on the planet: Berkeley’s Haas School of Business master of financial engineering.
Like a proud mother eager to show off her children, Kreitzman has been known to form unusually close bonds with her students. And why not? Doing this 12-month program can be a grind. The March-to-March program is something of an intellectual minefield through courses that would cause most poets to roll their eyes: Emperical Methods in Finance, Stochastic Calculus with Asset Pricing Applications, Derivatives: Quantitative Methods, Financial Data Science, Asset Backed Security Markets, and Building Machine Learning Systems. All told, MFE students must complete 30 units of coursework, including an applied finance project along with a 10-to-12 week internship project.
“It was a ton of work, at a very intense pace, comparable or harder than other academic experiences,” says Andrew Alden, a 2013 graduate of the program who now heads up quantitative research at WeatherStorm Capital in San Francisco. “But it was exactly as I’d expect from a school like Berkeley. And i t was very transformative for my career. Prior to the program I was struggling to transition into a front office role. Post-graduation I immediately took a front-office position and within two years became a head of quant research for a small/mid-sized buy-side firm.”
Kreitzman, the program’s executive director who is better known as the Queen of the Quants, makes no bones about it. “It is a hard program,” she concedes. “It is a tough program. I tell my students you are going to surrender your life to us for this time so I need you to be ready.” In fact, it is not uncommon for Kreitzman to literally mentor applicants into the program for up to two years, suggesting online courses in the programming language Python and additional pre-program work in such esoteric topics as stochastic methods to get ready for the inevitable boot camp experience.
‘I AM THEIR SURROGATE MOTHER’
Once on campus, she will do whatever it takes to guide her students through it all, from impromptu teaching sessions to one-on-one motivational talks. “I adore my students, unfortunately, because it’s a lot of work to take care of students and place them,” she says. “And they love me back. They always want to wish me well. I am their surrogate mother.”
As demanding as the program is, the retention rate for the master’s degree is 100%. “They all pass,” assures Kreitzman. She largely attributes the success rate to the pre-screening of applicants and the suggested pre-program prep work. The prep includes a trio of pre-program taped courses in mathematics, statistics and programming that can be accessed from anywhere, “For every student who comes, I am going to look at what they have done and determine their preparation for the program. If they have a strong background in programming and mathematics, they may lack a macroeconomics course and an investments course. They can do those over a summer session at UC.”
But it is her personal handholding that has truly made the difference. She might pair a student having difficulty in a subject with an alum who will tutor the person. Or do a bit of one-on-one coaching herself. “I am a tough person, and sometimes you are going to say, ‘I can’t take it,'” she says. “And I will tell you, ‘I want you to look at the horizon. It’s eight weeks, buddy.’ I am very, very cautious. I tell the MFE (student) president and co-president I need you to watch the students. Students come to me and say they are worried about someone who thinks he cannot make it. I will call them in and say, ‘I admitted you because I believe in you and know you are going to make it. Nobody has ever failed. Failure is not an option.’”
FINANCIAL ENGINEERING DID NOT CAUSE THE GREAT RECESSION
Kreitzman looks like your highly approachable French teacher in high school, almost always with a silk scarf tied around her neck with a Parisian twist. Her rapid-fire, slightly accented speech betrays her roots as well as her fluency in French and Spanish. In fact, she came from France “a long time ago” as a rather unlikely quant (she won’t say when). She boasts an honours degree in political science, and master’s degrees in English, French and Spanish, only later in life gaining her PhD in economics. “I became a quant,” she says, “by formation through my job. I learned with my students. I needed to master every single job that the firms were giving the students through me. I have a passion for education. I think it’s a way to achieve something and when you have a job that you love it helps a person feel comfortable with himself or herself. it’s not a matter of being proud, but it allows you to give back to the community.”
People who blame the Great Recession and Wall Street’s implosion in 2008 on financial engineering, Kreitzman says, don’t know what they are talking about. “It’s ignorance. You have crooks everywhere in marketing and politics. At the end of the day, the financial engineers did not cause the crisis. People who gave variable mortgages to people who could not afford them caused the crisis.”
Just before the collapse, she had placed five or six at Bear Stearns and a dozen at Lehman Brothers. “We adapted. The world of finance is still looking for talent. My story with that world has always been positive. I have met wonderful individuals who have been really helpful. The image I have of finance is of people who have helped me and the program. I spend a lot of time with finance folks. Did I know we were going to have the crisis? Absolutely. Everybody was talking about it. But I was so surprised when Lehman Brothers collapsed.”
‘EXPECTS TO ADD A COHORT TO THE PROGRAM NEXT MARCH’
The master’s program in financial engineering was one of the first to be housed in a business school rather than an engineering or math department. The idea came from Banking and Finance Professor Emeritis David H. Pyle who resigned as soon as Kreitzman started. “Dr. Pyle gave me a pile of papers and said, ‘Go ahead. Do it. I’m leaving.’”
Kreitzman launched the program in 2001 with John O’Brien, now a Haas adjunct professor who invented the Wilshire 5000 index. The first class graduated in 2002 and she has been with it ever since. Over that time, more than 1,000 students have graduated from the program in cohorts that number roughly 70 students each. Next March, for the first time ever, Kreitzman plans to add an extra cohort, one that will put greater emphasis on data science and artificial intelligence, and enroll as many as 120 students in the program.
In the early days, however, an early challenge was placement. “It became evident to me from day one that the MBA Career Center was equipped to help students with their careers but they thought our students were meant for the backrooms doing number crunching,” she says. “So when I started, I had to conquer Wall Street and I think I did it with dedication.”