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Stay Hungry: A Fintech CTO’s Advice to Interns

On July 14, I gave an address to interns at the 2016 MarketsWiki World of Opportunity Summer Intern Education Series. What follows is an extended version of my remarks.

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Trading Technologies has spent the last few years working on the next-generation TT® platform. Through the process, we’ve learned a lot about what makes a good team and how a product needs to challenge the status quo if to make a long-term impact.

It’s fair to say that any great accomplishment has as its first ingredient the people themselves. This is absolutely the case at TT, and growing our team over the last two years has been one of our major focuses. When I think about the type of people we’re looking to add, the most important question I have about any individual is: are they hungry?

As you start your careers and think about what you can do to get ahead, to set yourself apart, I can tell you that there is nothing that can separate you more from your peers than having greater desire and greater motivation. There are many words we can use to describe this hunger: initiative, ownership, self-directed, passionate, the list goes on. Intelligence and expertise can take you a long way, but inevitably, we all reach a point in our development where we are no longer the smartest or the most experienced.

The hunger to succeed

There will always be others as smart or smarter than you, and you have no control over that. But you always have control over whether those people are as hungry as you.

One of the challenges you have to battle is to stay hungry and not develop a sense of entitlement. Everywhere I have worked, in nearly every professional situation in which I have found myself, I have come across someone who is entitled. People who think that their experience or education somehow guarantees they should get the next opportunity or that their opinions are worth more than others’. Entitlement is human nature, and it’s dangerous. The world doesn’t owe any of us anything, and even if it did, we would all still be better off if we lived like it didn’t.

One of my favorite characteristics of this industry is that it is a meritocracy. Getting in may be difficult, but advancing in this industry is based on the work you do and the hunger you bring to it. I’m a living example of that.

If pedigree and qualifications were what mattered, I wouldn’t be here today. My undergraduate degree is in theology. I’ve never taken a course in computer science or engineering, or in anything related to capital markets and trading. I was given the opportunity to enter the industry more than a decade ago by someone who believed I had the mix of intelligence and hunger required to do the job, and I’ll be forever grateful to them for that opportunity.

When I was interviewing for that job, no one there wanted to hire me except the one guy who had recruited me. He put his reputation on the line to get me the opportunity because he believed that hunger and passion are better predictors of success than anything you can put on a resume. What I love about this business is that once I got in, no one has ever looked at my resume again. They didn’t care about my pedigree or qualifications. They only cared about the job I did and how I did it. Your reputation and your career will be built on the character you bring to your work, not on external qualifications you possess.

At TT, as we think about how to build our team for the next phase of growth and transformation, we still look for people who show technical competence, and occasionally we even look specifically for experienced people who are senior and who we think can do a particular job well because they have done it before—in other words they have the resume for the job.

But more and more, we’re looking for junior or less experienced people who are hungry and passionate because we believe those are greater indicators of long-term success than technical expertise.

So there’s no doubt, my experience tells me that hunger is going to be the primary driver for your success, or lack thereof. But secondarily, I believe you need to challenge the status quo.

Try new things

What TT has done in the last few years is try to rethink how trading platforms are delivered from the ground up. Despite quite a few software vendors offering electronic trading systems, the basic infrastructure is the same. You have to get colocated data center space and pay for power, rack and cooling along with the physical servers.

Of course, if you go to a hosting provider, some of those costs are blended, and you pay less than if you had to do it all yourself, but you’re still basically racking and stacking servers, acquiring network connectivity, etc. Trading Technologies legacy product is no different, but we have been inspired by two recent shifts in the software world to find a better way to deliver trading systems: the rise of the web platform and Software as a Service, or SaaS.

Our next-generation product, TT, challenges the status quo of the typical trading system infrastructure. We are asking our users and ourselves: why should you have to acquire any hardware to access markets with low-latency or high-frequency capabilities? Why do you have to pay for network access to every market globally? How can you compete as a small firm if you have to bear the same operational costs as the giant proprietary trading firms or hedge funds? We think the answers are in rebuilding the trading system to be delivered on the web platform with the commercial model of SaaS, which should democratize markets further and increase the access any trader has to markets globally.

What we’ve been observing as we’ve been building our next-gen TT platform is that you can only offer something that is transformational if you’re willing to challenge the status quo, rethink what you thought you knew and try new things.

The same can be said of career growth. Following the conventional path and working within the bounds of your role when you first get started can set you on a trajectory that is distinctly status quo.

Do you desire something extraordinary? It won’t happen if you aren’t willing to test boundaries and reach for something great.

Challenging the status quo can take a few forms.

Ask “Why?”

One is in asking questions, especially the question “why?”

You will be shocked at how frequently established organizations do things without knowing the reason why. If you want to set yourself apart, be bold enough to ask why frequently.

You have to be careful that it doesn’t come across as arrogance, as if you’re already assuming that there’s no good reason why. Ask “why do we do this?” with grace and humility, and you’ll find you are proving yourself to be thoughtful to your colleagues. And at the same time, you’ll get a better understanding of how the organization operates.

Another way to challenge the status quo is to experiment.

Obviously, this has to be done in a way that doesn’t make it look like you’re going rogue. For example, an engineer at TT could experiment with new ideas or ways of doing things by taking some time during off hours to put together a proof of concept to share with others. Regardless of whether it results in a new product offering or a change in our business processes, the experience would be a win-win because both the rest of the team and the employee would learn something from the process.

If you’re not in a technical or engineering role, it may be more difficult to figure out how to experiment, but there’s always a way. Investigating new processes or ways to work or doing research into a new market or other opportunity are all things you can do to show initiative and a willingness to experiment.

Share your opinion

Lastly, the boldest way to challenge the status quo may be simply to speak up and share an opinion. Similar to asking the question ‘“why?” this can be delicate, and you don’t want to come across like a know-it-all, especially early in your career. On the other hand, if you’re not willing to share your opinions early, how long will you wait? How much knowledge or experience will you have to acquire before you’ll give yourself room to have an opinion and promote it with your colleagues and teammates?

Each quarter I meet new teammates who’ve started on our engineering, quality, product management or project management teams. It’s a chance for them to meet me, ask me anything, and get a feel for what is on my mind in terms of the team and how they can make an impact at TT.

At one of those recent meetings, when I asked what questions or concerns they had for me after their first few weeks or months, one person was bold enough to speak up. It was his first time meeting with me after he started at the company.

He challenged me that the assignments he’d been given thus far hadn’t had clear enough requirements, and he felt like he was spending too much time going back to rework some of the code as a result.

He was gracious, admitted that he may not have had enough experience to judge yet, but given the opportunity, he was bold enough to tell his boss’s boss’s boss that I should do something to improve this part of how we build the product. I loved it!

We can’t improve unless we get fresh ideas and opinions. I won’t always agree with them, but I’d rather have something to discuss and debate—and eventually disagree with—than have nothing at all to talk about and no reason to re-evaluate how we do what we do.

Finding your place

There is one final thought I’ll share with you about challenging the status quo. If you find yourself working for someone who is offended when you ask “why?” or criticizes you for taking time on your own to experiment, research or test the waters with a new idea, or who is uninterested in hearing your ideas, begin looking for your next opportunity.

Life is short, and you’ll spend the majority of the next 40-50 years of your life at work. If you aren’t working for and with people who embrace these concepts, find a team that does. This industry is full of people who embody these principles, and it’s a big reason I’ve loved being in it for the last 11 years.

So I would challenge you to think about your career a little bit like a product. Don’t let it happen to you. Be intentional. Be hungry. Let your desire and passion set you apart. And be relentless about challenging the way things are. Ask why, take risks and be bold. Your growth potential will be radically different if you do.

Posted by: Drew Shields, CTO

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