Sébastien Lleo, Professor of Finance, NEOMA Business School, and CQF Program Tutor
Sébastien earned the CQF in 2003 and is now a Professor of Finance for NEOMA Business School and the CQF. We spoke to Sébastien about this transition into academia and his advice when choosing a career path.
Why did you decide to pursue your current career path and how you did you reach the level you are at today?
I have had a relatively classical career in finance. Starting out, I earned a dual degree from France and Canada, with a master’s in management from ESC Reims (now NEOMA Business School) and an International MBA from the University of Ottawa. I then took a job as a Business Analyst at the Bank of Canada where I worked on one of their computerized systems that allowed employees throughout Canada to buy savings bonds through installments. Then I moved to the financial markets department, where I worked in a team that handled cash management bills, Treasury bill, and government bond auctions. After some time there, I moved into risk management and I continued my professional education with the CFA charter and the FRM designation from GARP, which was brand new at the time. These programs were quite useful, but I felt that I was still missing a more formal quantitative education. There was huge growth in financial innovation then and I began taking night classes at the University of Ottawa on derivatives pricing, and later mathematics. At the same time, I moved into risk management and portfolio management at Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), with a focus on fixed income and real estate.
You had put in quite a few years professionally at that point, how did you discover the CQF and what made you decide to enroll in that program as well?
I was becoming more interested in applied math and thought about doing a master’s degree in financial mathematics. However, pursuing a degree full-time would have meant leaving my job. I considered that briefly, but then I discovered the book, Paul Wilmott Introduces Quantitative Finance, and not long after that, I learned that Paul had launched the CQF program. My boss at CMHC was very supportive of my interest in quant finance, and I was able to get approval for what was then an 11-month course. As a member of the first cohort, I followed the lectures online from Ottawa and applied what I was learning in the CQF directly through experimentation with portfolios, quantitative methods, and algorithms, which was fascinating.
What did you do after finishing the CQF program?
I was so intrigued by these ways of thinking that I decided to get a PhD in math and Riaz Ahmad convinced me that the best place for that is Europe. My wife was very enthusiastic about it as well, so we moved to London and I started at Imperial College, where I studied under Mark Davis’s supervision and had many other great professors. I was getting ready to finish my PhD when Mark asked me if I wanted to stay on for a postdoc. It was late 2007, I enjoyed working on research, and I had also started to teach on the CQF. So, I agreed immediately. Toward the end of my postdoc, I had several interviews with investment banks and asset managers, but I really enjoyed teaching and academia, so I have stayed in that field since. It is a very good way to combine a career with family life and I also feel that you must follow your interests and your heart when it comes to your life plan.
To that point, as CQF alumni are looking out over the financial landscape and thinking about their own goals, what would you advise them to do?
Well, say someone's in the CQF now and they're thinking, “I have some skills and several years of work experience, but I don't really know what I want to do next.” The first bit of advice I would give is to follow the old saying, “Don't pick a job, pick a boss.” I’ve been fortunate enough to work with excellent managers who have encouraged me to develop my skills and to explore several different areas of finance. This has had a huge impact on my life. You should always look for the people who will help you grow. My second word of advice would be that you must pursue what you are most interested in. Life is short and we only have 24 hours a day. Naturally, in any job there may be some things that you don't enjoy as much; that's normal. At the same time, if you are not thriving in a particular role or area of finance, maybe you have made the wrong choice and you need to have the courage to change. Go out and explore, discover what interests you and pursue those things where you are engaged and can excel.
That sounds like a very good philosophy. To support that kind of effort, what skills should people inspired by quant finance develop in the years to come?
Throughout quant finance, there is so much interesting work to be done and we can certainly see how mathematics connects it all together. We make use of linear algebra, algorithms, partial differential equations, stochastic differential equations - all of which are tools and techniques that you can apply to real-world problems in finance. You can build a model and code it up in C++, Python, or Julia. You can conduct regressions and simulations and tune your models in so many ways. By combining your understanding of math with practical statistics, probabilistic thinking, and rigorous data analysis, you can go a very long way in quantitative finance these days.