This Women’s Month, QuantifyYourFuture reached out to women in quants careers for advice on building your career as a quant. In this profile, we ask Thloni Mhango, Executive Assistant to the COO at the FirstRand Group for advice on building your career.

On studying Mathematics

Thloni completed a BSc in Computational and Applied Mathematics (CAM) at Wits in 2012, followed by an Honours and Masters in Operations Research at Stellenbosch University.

She originally intended to study Actuarial Science, but a chance encounter with a lecturer convinced her to broaden her undergrad. “He pointed out that the equations that everybody else uses – actuaries, statisticians, computer scientists, engineers – all come from pure mathematics and are various disciplines in applied mathematics,” she says. “He said: ‘If you join CAM, you’ll be able to work with all these different types of mathematicians because you will be exposed to the formulas and methodologies they all use.’ And I liked the idea of having a foundation that could apply to any industry and any challenge.”

On a male-dominated environment

“There is this perception that, as a woman in a male-dominated field, you need to behave in a more masculine way but that only works if it’s in your nature. It serves you better to bring your authentic self to the space. So, if you’re soft-spoken for example, embrace that. Yes, you need to be assertive and stand up for yourself but trying to be someone you’re not at work is unsustainable. I’m soft-spoken, and I’ve found that, actually, people pay more attention when I speak because they know that I also listen.”

On choosing the right opportunities

“You’ll often see the word ‘analyst’ in job titles, but this doesn’t always mean the role is quantitative,” Thloni warns. “Do some research into the type of work you’re likely to do before accepting a role. When you’re looking for your first job, look for roles that ask for a science degree and that specifically mention quantitative analysis. The role should mention statistical or mathematical modelling – terms you will recognise from varsity.”

On the flexibility of being a Quant

Thloni moved from product analysis into Risk Management within RMB. She was a Risk Manager for almost four years, and then went on to head up Market and Counterparty Risk. “It all involved a lot of risk modelling, modelling of financial instruments and their underlying risk factors to enable the traders to trade within the Bank’s risk parameters,” she says. “Counterparty trading risk was a big topic after the 2008 financial crisis and included forecasting the future value of derivatives to understand the exposure at default, which is possibly one of the more difficult types of simulation and modelling to do in financial services globally.”

Her latest role at First Rand allows her to apply her quant skills to something new and in areas that are otherwise non-quantitative. “For example, we’re looking at perpetuity modelling for some of our grant funds to make sure we can still pay out some of our corporate social investments given a limited pool of resources. There are many areas for quants to carve out new ground.”

On order and chaos

“Ironically, a lot of people who go into STEM like structure and guidance,” Thloni says. “When you get into business you find that people look to you to provide that structure and guidance about the unknown. Remember that, as a quant, you have learned the ability to define your parameters and methodology, do research and reference what’s been done before, then back test it, and these skills are all you need to make sense of that unknown.”

On building your career as a quant

Making decisions to advance your career can be challenging in a field that is being defined and redefined all the time. “No two quants are the same,” Thloni says. “Some start with computer science, some with pure maths, some with engineering… There are all sorts of quants in the world and our skill sets are unique. Identify a niche for yourself early on and carve out that niche. Quants tend to grow their careers as subject matter experts, rather than aiming to become the CEO.

“As a quant, you get to define what your unique selling point is and keep developing that distinct skillset. Engage in research and continuous learning so that you stay up to date with developments in your field of practice. Practice your skills as often as you can, so you can apply them to the challenges that will arise in your field in the future.”

On stereotypes

The stereotype of the extremely introverted, highly gifted Quant that doesn’t want to work with other people persists. “But it’s not so much about the skillset as it is about the personality,” Thloni says. “You get non-quants that are not very sociable and highly intelligent, too. So, if you’re a sociable person and a quant, you’ll find the stereotype gets dispelled quite quickly when people engage with you. In my experience, women quants are particularly good at this – I have yet to meet one that doesn’t enjoy engaging with her colleagues.

“On the other hand, you do still get quants that like the stereotype and identify with it. To them, I would say that it’s worth your while to grow your EQ as well. It’s one of those nice things that you can develop, and it will help you in further your career if you do.”

On being the new kid at the office

“If you find yourself feeling socially anxious at work – maybe because you’re shy, maybe because you come from a rural village and aren’t used to big cities – it’s really important to recognise something: The fact that you have been offered a job at a company means that someone sees value in you. You need to trust in that value.”

In practical terms, Thloni advises: “Because you are entering an environment with unique cultural expectations and values, find someone that you can have a conversation with and ask about those expectations. Even if it’s just one person. As time goes on, you’ll have to have conversations about salary and performance. You might have a bad day at work. You’ll need someone that you can speak to about these things.

“Sometimes it’s just about overcoming a kind of language barrier. You’ve studied science or maths your whole life and not everyone speaks STEM. So, you must develop the skills to translate numbers into language that is meaningful to non-quants. Reach out to HR as well. There are courses on things like business etiquette and communication, so take advantage of them.”

A final word

“I’m really excited about the field of STEM – how quickly it’s evolving, and how we’re evolving as the human species. There’s so much opportunity and scope to get involved. So, push the boundaries and push yourself. The stereotype of the super mom vs the super career woman doesn’t have to apply. You can be multifaceted, and you shouldn’t let that idea hold you back. There are going to be tough days, but that’s ok too. Just get out there and do it anyway.”

More in this series:

Universities encourage young women in analytics

Balancing work and postgraduate studies