A short, sharp tool kit to get you to the top in financial IT
bullshit artists biz analysts with a Black Swan
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.
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.
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.
'All the deliverables you could want, by delivered by a team
that delivers. Quote me on that.'
Praise everyone except God, Lady Luck, or yourself. By saying one of your team delivered the goods, you make yourself look good for driving that team. Word then gets back to them that they are valued and more good people will want to join your gang. Saying in one week that five different members of your job did well makes you look good. Saying it about yourself make you an arse.
Hopefully you’ve noticed I’ve used the word “delivered” far more often than good writing style might dictate. OK, I’m no Terry Pratchett, but I am making a point here. You need to reprogram your speech for the business buzzwords that currently prevail in your firm and in 2013 “delivery” is the big word. When you warn of potential issues, use faux-Taleb language like “tail risk”, “black swan” and an important synonym for “flexibility” is that you are “buying options”, referring to a direction change as “swapping fixed for floating” is the ideal here. Try harder to use and abuse finance terms to express tech ideas. They get the message across better and make you look good.
This is both important and insufficient. What I can’t tell you is the local business correctness at your bank or hedge fund. At one firm I worked at the BC was “we are a Tier one Bank”. This was hilariously false to me until I discovered I could win arguments simply by saying “as a T1, we should…” which left my opposition faced with the equivalent of a BBC reporter being sceptical of global warming. At your firm at this time, the BC may be “reducing costs”, “expansion”, “China” or “making sure the regulators don’t find out”, but a gentle seasoning of your speech with BC will help your cause at least as much as actually doing anything useful.
One of the biggest threats to your empire building is too much of IT is invisible, with the worst case being to prevent some problem which consumes money without delivering anything (that word again). MS Project makes this worse by helping you structure projects based upon dependencies, resources, costs etc, whereas your advancement is achieved by orienting your work by observables, not functionality.
Following my doctrine of open-handed integrity, share this with your users. Don’t say “using the Azul JVM will kill the jitter in the CVA valuation engine”, but “you’ll see the valuation adjustment in real time”. Yes I know you can’t do real time in Java, but part of your role is to use words in the way that users understand.
Risk and compliance
Part of the new political reality at banks is that risk and compliance are now taken a bit more seriously. You should be angling to pick up more of the risk projects because for the next few years that is where much of the growth in headcount and budget is going to come from, even though we both know that being part of the process that makes money is always going to be a better place to be than if you are stopping a bigger sum from being lost through poor risk management. For the avoidance of doubt, sticking the word “risk” on proposals and deliverables as much as possible won’t hurt, the idea of course being a project funded as part of risk but wanted by the front office.
As you can read in “How City IT is under attack from politicians, diesel bugs, HR”, compliance is feared more these days, but it will never be loved. The less you get involved with them, the better. The tech reasons are the most obvious, since the monitoring and analysis experience you and your team will get aren’t highly portable. Also, you will find that you have mastered tools and techniques that are used in few other places and are “one-off”, the worst sort of skill to have.
Today there is work running these projects because all the banks and HFs are upgrading, but it will stop dead when they’ve got them going and then just require care and maintenance. You will then find yourself in a glut and that you will “have your expectations reset” on projects that follow on from this. Although I push integrity hard here as good for you, don’t expect it when being offered a “great opportunity to run a strategic project” of any kind - unless you have some visibility on what you will do next. A low-level manager whose reputation is managing something the bank doesn’t want is a dead man walking.
It may feel cool to be on the inside of some compliance issue and I really enjoy my expert witness work when tech and law clash. But I have the luxury that I walk away when it is over with a gentle but firm reminder from corporate counsel that I’m not even allowed to say that I have a non-disclosure agreement with that bank. I’m no longer there to remind anyone that I know their dirty secrets, nor do I really care all that much about which particular individuals get wounded. The people who lose their jobs are not your problem, but those you hurt either by choice or by the side you find yourself on will remember. Like HR, the job of compliance is to protect the senior staff and the firm in that order, not you.
Don’t trust vendors
When you were a junior cog you typically only got to choose between suppliers chosen by others and your spend was pitiful, but you’re now increasingly playing for big money when you start to make major decisions. Do not think for a femtosecond that a vendor who loses out will take it on the chin; if it is a strategic vendor with its claws deep into your firm expect them to go over your head and they’re playing to win.
You need to have prepared your position both financially and politically. So when Oracle wanted a truly outrageous amount of money in my biggest project and tried going over my head big-time, I was able to point out to the CEO (did I say they were hard?) that despite their view that I was going to destroy the bank with my “reckless” choice of Sybase, this was saving a big pile of money. A more senior manager who hadn’t hardened his position against Oracle left the bank shortly after under a bit of a cloud after he tried standing up to their pressure but then buckled. Changing your bank’s database is the corporate equivalent of an organ transplant. Keeping them sweet is often more important to the firm than some junior IT manager.
When the fan is hit
Your role in a clusterfuck has changed and there are two sorts of managers: victims and bounders. If you’ve got to top level management, you will have seen the dark side of IT, be not easily surprised and crave two things: a clear upper bound on how bad it can get then a plausible plan to move out of the shit.
Do not waste time blaming people. Perfection in this political arena is letting others blame each other for a while then grasp the nettle when all about you are losing their heads. Say “I don’t care whose fault it is, the way out is by X”, repeated quietly but firmly, where X has been supplied by the people whose job it is to make you look good. No, not business analysts. Your team must understand that their success and even survival in these tough times for banks is to make you look good so that you can get stuff for them.
One way I established this with my own gangs has been as a lightning rod, when traders or other self-important types start having a go them when they’re trying to deal with something that has gone titsup. It is absolutely necessary for you to defend your people when this happens and not by “having a quiet word” but saying “Joe is sorting this out, you do not shout at him, you shout at me, that’s what I’m paid for”, regardless of whether it’s Joe’s fault in the first place. Especially if it’s his fault.
That gets you credibility from the big swinging dicks - who may shout at you but in a more respectful tone - and loyalty, because when a problem hits you want your team at your back and feeding you ammo because we both know that everyone outside IT treats its chain of command with contempt and the scapegoat-hunters will be talking to them.
As a cross between a headhunter and tech journalist I get to meet highly successful people, some of whom have earned reputations for nastiness. We’ve all had bosses who seemed to take pleasure in being rude to juniors. Yet when I meet leaders, some of whom you’ve read about or seen on TV, they are unfailingly polite even before they recognise me from The Register with the respect that commands. That’s not coincidence, you need to save sarcasm and snide questions for when they will have most effect; the contrast with standard politeness then has more effect. ®
Dominic Connor is a City Headhunter whose misspent youth includes being a head of IT, C++ programmer, quant developer and Excel hacker, you can connect to him here.