A short, sharp tool kit to get you to the top in financial IT

Battling the bullshit artists biz analysts with a Black Swan

Tojiro Senkou 15cm kitchen knife

Congratulations, you’ve started moving up the food chain. But there is still a long way to go. Having been an occasionally competent head of IT at a midsize City firm after working my way up, I’d like to share with you things I should have known then. These are the lessons I’ve learned at some cost to both my employers and myself as well as things senior IT leaders tell me in the pub. A chunk of this applies to IT management wherever you work.

Go away

Get yourself off the critical path. Do it now. Hello?  Why are you still reading this? Go away and make sure no time-critical task is on your shoulders and come back here when this is done. The first and most stupid mistake I made when I first started bossing people around was to think that I could do my tech work and manage others at the same time.

Like me you may have been promoted because you could do the job well, but you will get torn apart trying both to do and to manage the do-ers and it will look awful to those above and below. It also means you get seen as favouring the people who share your skill-set and even though your superior ability actually means you are harder on them because you know the tricks, that’s not how it seems when you make technical or personnel decisions.

By all means be the wise old bird (yes I know you’re 28, “old” is relative) who has argued C++ closures with Bjarne and risk with Wilmott and has written scads of mission-critical code. But remember you are now the tactical reserve when fans are hit, not the turbocharged engine of progress you once were.

Your technical skills are there to give you credibility with your team and the business and although you can do some programing to keep them in the working set, know now that the LRU cache in your brain will flush arcane tech out as surely as the “plot” of So Long and Thanks For All the Fish, which leads nicely to your new reading list.

Among the decision-makers you must now please Nassim Taleb is a prophet. To be sure a good number want to stone him for his blasphemy - and feel free to join that evangelical horde - but the key is not whether or not you agree with him, because no one really cares about your views on skewness, fat tails etc.

The key here is to build your credibility as someone who “gets it” and that means talking within the same culture as the key decision-makers, so even if his Dynamic Hedging is beyond your maths, you need to read Fooled by Randomness, the Black Swan and especially Antifragility. The latter, since he sent me a draft for review, has formed a major component of the way I express my career counselling for bankers.

That’s partly because for me - as for you - credibility is the thing that pays my children's the school fees these days. If you persist in talking like a code monkey, AVP is the sticky boundary of your random walk up the food chain. To keep yourself looking credible, you need to keep an eye on market news via Bloomberg and Reuters just to stay inside the conversation.

Business analysts

That doesn’t mean you should start talking like a BA. There’s a reason there are more former OS/2 developers in senior IT management than ex-BAs: it’s that some business managers regard biz analysts as a “fucking waste of space” whose ignorance of IT is matched only by their pompous conceit that they have a clue about the business.

Others aren’t nearly so kind and in many large banks they serve as a sort of PR for the IT department - and the business guys aren’t impressed with their bonuses being reduced to pay for people to bullshit them. Although, I really do hope by now that in no way is it news that traders regard everything that they can’t see as parasitical impediments to their personal wealth creation.

One of the great myths is that hardcore techies aren’t interested in how their firms make money. This is fuelled by BAs and insecure management types who want to be the only information conduit for their group. In my experience almost all IT pros are deeply interested in the commercial reasons for what they are doing and often come up with ideas for making more money.

OK these ideas aren’t always good and I’ve been in enough conversations floating ideas whose implementation would actually lead to jail time to know that they can’t always be used, but it shows a clear motivation. This gives you a key to motivating your team, that you control rather more than their bonus.

When you catch one of your team doing something right, or at least trying hard, or (and most importantly) making you look good, you can reward them with better work.

Carrots and er, carrots

Of course what constitutes "better" is highly subjective and not even constant, which means that upon getting a team, you need to ask what they want to learn, what they enjoy and what they hate. Do not promise anything at this stage, but be clear that the information flows both ways. since the message they must get is that successful delivery is rewarded by assignments where they can get into a tech skill they desire or a business area they see as useful.

This game has a third gripping hand, since you have to manage the politics of assigning a less-than-ideal person to a project, while keeping the business manager happy. You sell this as “Joe has done a good job in delivering that CVA module and I’d like him to understand what you guys need”. This simple sentence all by itself sums  what I’m saying in this article. First and foremost, you are being honest. When the Reg’s glorious leadership assigned me this article to write, they explicitly expected back-stabbing, politicking and financial nihilism in a cross between The Borgias and The Apprentice. Sorry.

Any good book or course on leadership has “integrity” as a key virtue, being trusted and trustworthy. I’m not so naïve as to say you should never lie, because I see integrity as a capital asset. But to have value, your lies must be surprises rather than what people expect of you. [This certainly surprises me - Ed.]

BAs are a symptom of the quaint way that tech in banks is managed in a silo that is separate and by design as impenetrable as an actual hardened missile silo. Unlike other types of business or even hedge funds, the large investment banks experience sluggish response and political blocking that would shock someone from a modern business. Not only can you not do anything about this as a junior manager, but any attempt to change this is fraught with peril.

Be clear that the head of IT at a major bank is there because he is world class at internal politics and no other reason at all. Taking a poke at him is like throwing a punch at a professional boxer: your only hope of survival is that it is beneath his dignity to swat you like a bug. That counsel of despair does have some loopholes if you create some tactical reserve, people in your team who can respond quickly to minor requests from users, which makes you friends, scores you points and as a side-effect makes the IT at your firm less of a liability.

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