Interview with a Senior Software Developer for a Prop Trading Firm
1. What is your current job title and a one sentence description of your primary job responsibility?
Senior Software Developer
I write and systems for a company.
2. What are previous positions you have held and how many years of experience do you have?
2 years as a Python developer working the investment bank of a
5 years working on middleware for an excentric billionaire's pet specialized supercomputer
20 years working at a national laboratory (7 years of nuclear weapons design)
4 years programming ground systems for satellites in the Air Force
Plus some cool side jobs which include some teaching work around the Bay area, building a startup ISP (pulling a T1 into town, building out all the infrastructure, sales, everything. My partners took all the money and my computer and skipped town though, sigh). Hell, I even helped sell cat toys.
a. Did you go to a "target", "semi target" or "non target"?
First of all, I'm a college drop-out (oh, I dropped back in and eventually got my Ph.D, but the start was a rough one).
I went to a completely off-the-radar school; got a weird Bachelor of General Studies diploma.
The "story" goes like this…. Promising high school grad applies to one school, gets into a highly competitive engineering program no problem. 1st quarter on the dean's list, then it all implodes. Depression ensues, quits going to class, lot's of F's. Probation. Kicked out.
I join the Air Force and get sent to Omaha, NE. I drop back in, but still don't have my shit together. After a couple of F's, I realize that I better start trying or I'll be stuck as an enlisted man forever. I finally start passing and then excelling at my classes again and graduate before I get out of the air force.
On my graduation day, my Mom asks me if I've considered graduate school. It sounds better than working for a living, so I start trying to find a program that will take me in.
I get out of the Air Force and sweet talk my way into Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and take a double course load so I can graduate in a year (meanwhile applying all over the place for a Ph.D. program).
I go 0-for the Ivy league, but get offers from Ohio State, UC Santa Barbara, and UC Davis. The weirdest day was when I got letters from UC Berkeley and Carnigie-Mellon on the same day. The CMU letter was personal and signed by a human. The Berkeley rejection was a post-card that they made me fill out when I sent in my application (well before cheap computer printers!).
I ended up doing my grad work at Lawrence Livermore National Labs (associated with UC Davis). I never actually set foot on campus until right before I graduated.
Then for kicks, I got a graduate credential in teaching math and a management credential… School is fun. Still beats working for a living.
b. What was the most useful thing you learned in ugrad that you apply in your current position?
Find a way around the bottlenecks. Don't wait meekly in line if there's a better way.
This was a time when computer access was very limited. The campus shared one computer with the big central campus 50 miles away with a leased modem line between schools and a multi-hour long wait to get a seat at a terminal.
I bought a 300 baud modem (yes 300) and found the direct dial number and skipped out on the line.
c. What was your most useful class and why?
Most useful class was probably a "Theory of Analysis" math class. The prof was a bit of a hippy, but really great at explaining that there is theory all the way down to the bitter bottom and then proceeded to guide us through it. It taught me that it's OK to dance around at the high levels, but if you don't understand the foundations, you'll get lost. This tiny bit of understanding applies in math, finance, computing, whatever. You don't need to know it all, but it helps to have a working understanding.
In the end, maybe a 2.8 if you throw out the 1st year of engineering school. Maybe a 2.0 if you include it.
e. During recruiting, how were you able to set yourself apart from other competitive candidates at your school?
I didn't. I wasn't recruited. I didn't even try. I was just doing my time and thought I would get it all figured out after I got out of the service. By the time I got out, I figured that I should go to grad school to try to wash away the stain of a crappy undergrad experience.
f. What kind of internships did you have during ugrad?
I worked through my undergrad. Full time. I did a couple of semesters where I went to school full time during the day and worked full time at night. My schedule (two days a week) was Work 10pm to 6am. Sleep 2 hours. Wake up at 8. First class at 9am. Last class 9-10pm. Work 10pm to 6am. Repeat. Slept 2 hours one night. 12 hours the next night. Average was 7 hours a night, but with a high stddev.
3. Did you get an mba (or msf or equiv) or are you considering it?
Nope. Seems totally superfluous now. My Ph.D. works better for the computational finance jobs I'm suited for. My peers would laugh at me if I got an MBA (though I did go to a management school for a 6 month management credential program).
4. Do you have any professional certifications (CFA / CAIA / CPA / CIIA, etc.) ?
Nope. In computational science and IT, I think the more certifications you have the less likely you are to actually know something.
5. How did you initially "break-in" to the industry?
I had done a little interviewing around with a few hedge funds (mostly set up with recruiters who searched me up and likely mistook the associated XXXX Research for XXXX Finance). Then I saw a LinkedIn post looking for a Python Guru. It was clearly a big bank because it had a long list of checkboxes (top 10 engineering school, etc…). Took the interview on a whim and then started looking around more seriously. Had offers from and Goldman by the time I was through.
6. What were some of the main factors in getting the job position you have now?
I kept connections with people that I used to work for. A former colleague left his research job to go work for a prop trader in Chicago. He knew I was a good fit, but he also knew that I wouldn't move until my kids got out of high school. He called me and said they were opening a NY office… I was ready to leave the BB and get back to a smaller, better shop.
Always keep in touch. Never burn your bridges. I've left on pretty good terms everywhere I've been. The community is really small and everyone knows everyone.
7. What are some of the specific things you do in your current position?
My job is a mix of complex, long-term projects, fire fighting problems, consulting work with quants and programmers, and a few short term projects.
8. What is a day in your life like during the workweek? Can you give us an hour by hour run down of your typical day?
Get in around 8'ish and check the financial news. I work with a lot of quants and it's good to at least know what is happening in the macro-economy (even I'm working for works at a much tinier time scale).
Catch up/respond to any late emails coming out of Chicago/Singapore/London.
Check up on any long running, overnight test jobs.
The rest of the day is mostly working on long-term projects with breaks to answer short (5-30 minute) questions and occasional 2-hour quick and dirty projects.
Lunch is either a trip to the gym, some quick "street meat", a group of 3 or so of us heading out to some local place, or a trip back to visit old friends at my former shop.
Watch for problems around the market close.
Launch some overnight test runs.
Grab a city-bike and head back to Grand Central.
Rinse. Lather. Repeat.
9. What is your favorite part about the job? What is your least favorite?
I love it when I solve a problem…. When the answer lays itself out before me, fully formed. This mostly happens outside of work… walking or biking on my commute, sitting on the train, grabbing a shower, whatever. It's better even than actually fixing the problem (which is often the grunt work of implementation). I've scratched out bug fixes that took weeks to find. Hidden in the tiny folds of interoperating libraries. Just love it.
The worst part is when I'm stuck on the project that won't die. It isn't an end solution, but it keeps sucking me back in to patch it up just a little more. Every office has one of these, but I seem to attract them.
10. How did your background (life up until graduating college) best prepare you for where you're at now?
The military prepared me to work in bureaucracies. They were really horrible in the BB, but exist even in the smaller prop trader I'm in now.
My student work at the national labs taught me how to really work with big, cutting edge computing platforms. In finance now, it is important to think at scale. Big data. Big clusters. Big GPUs. Slow disks. You need to pay your dues.
11. What is the company culture like at your firm? What is the size of your firm?
The prop trader is about 300 people. That's a good size for me. Easy enough to know just about everyone. Big enough to have a lot of opportunity. It's also important that a company be big enough for you to showcase your specialty. This fits my bill.
12. What type of person (what background / knowledge / experience / personality) is best fit to do your type of job?
In my group, most of the people did not come out of finance. The backgrounds are a mix of scientific (national labs mostly) and industrial (graphics card industry). People tend to be generalists capable of picking up any problem and whacking it. Lots of depth. Lots of low level knowledge.
13. How do you see your type of role and your industry as a whole changing in 5 years? 20 years?
I'm a computational scientist. This role is going to dominate in both the short and long terms. I think the days of big, easy money in the market are gone. The easy stuff has been pre-packaged so that anyone with a bit of cash can get in. So many people compete there, you can never shine. The real innovation requires grinding through quintillions of tiny bits of data and assembling the whole. You need to look where no-one else is looking. That requires computational expertise. I help people do that. My role is safe until I retire.
14. Did you ever have a mentor and who were some other influential people who helped you along the way?
I had a couple of great mentors along the way. Interestingly, I didn't go seek them out. They found me, saw some glimmer of hope that they could foster, and took me under their wings. They gave me exposure to problems I wouldn't have seen otherwise. Most importantly, I got access to their network of connections.
15. Are the sacrifices you've made to date worth the benefit realized by you so far in your career?
I think so. I had a really rough start, but I've moved so far beyond that such that it still boggles my mind. My finishing salary in the Air Force was $8000/year. I now do better than that in a week. I'm able to pursue my ambitions and still enjoy going to work.
16. If you weren't working in finance, what do you think you would be doing?
I would likely be working in Silicon Valley. My background is appealing (they still keep calling) to them. They have interesting problems too.
17. What keeps you motivated?
Problem solving. It's at the heart of what I do. I almost don't care what kind of problem it is, I want to grok it, decompose it, fix it. Luckily for me, there are always problems lurking out there.
18. How much does money motivate you?
Money does three things: It lets you keep score. It lets you buy toys. It lets you retire in comfort.
I like to tell people that nothing motivates you to go to work like a mortgage payment and the hungry mouths of your children. Once you have that taken care of, the money is for "fun" and for "future" things.
19. How much does someone in a role like yours make per year (base + bonus)?
It varies widely. I'm in the mid-to-high 6 figures range, but I'm pretty senior. I could probably top out around $1 million if I really tried to maximize my potential. $400K is probably a good figure for this role across the industry. Not as good as a successful trader, but not bad!
20. Have you ever considered leaving your job to start your own company?
My wife always says to me, "Keep your day job!"
A co-worker and I tossed around some ideas and made some protoypes, but we never got far enough to consider a launch.
To go the start-up route, you need to be young enough to recover from the likely flop or old enough to be doing it for a hobby. I'm in the latter category.
When I retire, a start-up is a real possibility to keep me out of my wife's hair.
21. What is the one tip you would give to current students (ugrad and/or grad students) to help them succeed?
Look broadly at the kind of internships you pick. Sure, scoring an internship at a big bank is great (especially if you are targeting them post-graduation), but I think you'll learn more working at a tech firm or national laboratory.
Be prepared to explain in detail your part in your summer projects. If you say you helped run some big deal, I don't want to hear that you just were a glorified coffee runner. Get your hands dirty!
22. What are some tips for moving up and becoming "the boss" (i.e. a department head / managing director / partner)?
First, understand that moving up means understanding and playing the game of politics. It is rough and tumble and the grounds can move out from under your feet at any time. The key guy that you've been sucking up to one day can be out the next.
So, be attuned to the politics. Understand that it is important. Understand where and how it brings value.
I moved into management (back in the day) because my group was growing and I wanted to have an absolute say in how the group was assembled (hiring), run (tech management), and rewarded (administrative management).
Then, in a "Game of Thrones" moment, my management mentor was cut down in a coup and all his minions (me included), humbled. You win or you die. It wasn't the end of the world because I didn't (and you should never!) bank on pure management skills. Always have hard skills to fall back on.
23. Any specific cold-emailing or cold-calling tips you can pass on?
First of all, it works. One of the guys in my group just mailed in a resume and got a great job. The firms hate paying head hunters (More than half of our people are internal referrals).
The important thing is that it is up to you to show what the value proposition is. Spell it out. Don't make the screeners work for it. You have to know enough about the company to understand how you can bring them value.
Best to work your network to get someone on the inside to submit your resume. The screener then has to answer that person, so at least you'll get a good close look instead of a 5 second scan.
Cast your net broadly. Don't be a sycophant and only suck up to people above you. Your peers and junior people all have something to contribute. Over time, this can pay dividends.
One of my early mentors called me up one day to chat. After a bit, I finally understood that he was looking for a job! I was able to give him a good tip that led to a position. Keep in touch with everyone (and not just when you need a job!).
25. What is a memorable experience you have of how someone got your attention? (for networking / internship / job purposes)
I was reading SlashDot and an article on a kid who built a wooden laptop caught my eye. After following some links explaining his project, I hit a post that says essentially, "Hey, if you have a cool internship, let me know!" I passed his resume up the chain with a glowing recommendation. He got the internship and a full time job to follow. I got the recruitment bonus.
26. What are unique things college students and young-professionals can do to separate themselves from the crowd?
Do something fun, but go all in with it. Know something from top to bottom. The intern above impressed me because he built a computer from scratch (microprocessor instruction set, simple OS, a tiny programming language). Even though he was a hardware guy, he wanted to know about how the whole thing worked
This is an interdisciplinary world. Don't stovepipe yourself. Be a polymath.
27. What are some ways (in general) someone could best prepare for an upcoming internship or ft job at a firm like yours?
The screening for interns is really tough, but if you make it through, you have a fast track for a job. It is probably easier to catch on full-time.
Be good at many things, but be especially good at one thing.
28. What is your opinion on gaining relevant experience at a lesser known firm vs. working for a brand name firm (with less relevant experience)?
The big banks are incestuous. It is hard to break into the circle without checking the right boxes. A lot of people I was enthusiastic about never made it past first on-site because they did not have a big bank pedigree. I only made it in because I so wowed the group with my expertise that they had to overlook my lack of previous bank experience.
Atfirm, we are much more open to players from small firms. You've proven that you can play the game. If you are coming from a smaller firm, you can even show that you've done more than someone at a big bank/well known firm.
It comes down to your ability to sell yourself and explain what you've done and can do.
29. What do you look for in a potential intern candidate?
Intellectual curiosity and the ability to work from rough ideas. I give interns half-baked ideas that I don't have time to fully explore. I want to toss out a rough idea and have the intern look into the problems involved and make a stab at solving them.
30. What do you look for in a potential entry level hire?
I want some depth. I hate people that think that because they've checked off all the boxes that I will beg them to come work with me. I prefer someone who has done some exploring (projects, weird internships, competitions, whatever…)
31. What are your favorite interview questions you like to ask potential new hires?
I ask people to write a program for me on the whiteboard. I don't ask straight theory questions (please implement quick sort!) or algorithmic ones (please implement a queue using only stacks!). I ask a strange little string verifier question.
It shows me a few things. Firstly, can you code at all! I get a lot of people that can't write anything coherent.
Also, what is it like to problem solve with you? I want to see what kinds of questions you'll ask about the problem. I'll see if you're thinking about the edge conditions. I'll see if you can discover the common mistakes and work back from them.
Perhaps the worst time candidate I ever had turned his back on me and refused to talk with me for 40 minutes while he sweated out a (very flawed) implementation before turning and declaring that it absolutely worked. He refused guidance. He didn't want to talk though what he was thinking. Even if his implementation had been flawless, he clearly failed the exercise.
32. (If you are in a hiring position) What are some of the worst mistakes you've seen people make in interviews?
People who put tasks/projects/skills on their resume that they don't understand well enough to talk about in detail.
Remember. Your resume is a guide to what you want to talk about. I expect that you know an awful lot about it! If you put down a Master's project or thesis, I'm going to ask you in-depth questions about it. If you wrote down that you worked on a project, I'm going to ask you what you contributed to it.
A guy came in for an interview. He listed some cool project that was right up our alley. Sounded great. But he didn't understand what the project was really doing at all. I pushed and found that he wrote a couple of 50 lines scripts to do some minor task. He didn't make it any further.
33. If you review resumes (or have in the past) - what are some of the most common mistakes you've seen?
Don't list the (required) classes you took. I know your resume is short. You're just getting started. It's OK. Describe some personal project instead (more interesting to me than most classroom projects).
Don't list every programming language and office tool and operating system you've ever used. It's not cool and it opens you up to questions you cannot answer. Oh, you've used APL! How cool! Oh, you wrote a 3 liner in your programming language class. Sigh! My personal rule is that if I didn't use it to make money, I don't put it on my resume.
Oh, and watch the typo's. I'm not going to hire a guy who thinks he is good at C/C+.
Most of all, don't exaggerate! I phone screened a guy who was passed to me because he and his recruiter said that he was a Python expert. I started asking questions about the language in the phone screen and he said that he was an expert, but he couldn't answer any question of detail (I could hear him trying to Google answers while we talked). Then he said he was an expert because he knew other languages and taught himself everything he needed to know 10 days ago. Then he admitted that his recruiter told him that he needed to know Python to get a job at my big bank. Fail.
34. If you review resumes (or have in the past) - what is something someone can do to make their resume stand out among the crowd?
Show me your breadth… I want to know that you can do many things well.
Show me your depth. I need to know that you have really specialized knowledge that I can use.
I really prefer something narrative that I can dive in on during an interview rather than a laundry list of places you worked and project names that I can't understand.
35. What are your thoughts on this statement: "Wall Street is a more meritocratic place than most. If you are a young person and you have good ideas, people will often listen to them, if you are in the right role" ?
It is a meritocracy to a point. But there is always someone else taking a slice out of the money you're earning for a firm. Just because you make the firm $3 million, don't expect to see that in your bonus check.
Wall St is much more about riding the risk vs reward curve. The town is full of people that had a great idea that didn't get traction where they were working, so they took the idea out the door and made it big. Being meek might get you a paycheck, but it won't get you the big bucks. YMMV.
Ideas are great, but never underestimate the power of inertia. Good ideas will get more traction at small places (good ideas with working prototypes even more so!). Good ideas at big firms will be smothered with a pillow.
36. Any other interesting stories or wisdom you would like to share with the WSO readers?
I came to finance via a very circuitous route. There are many interesting back door ways into the industry. I did not have a high GPA at a target school. I did not come in through on-campus screens. I did have enough vision to see that my skills were valuable. You have to be a salesman. You always have to be ready to seize the opportunities that come along.