Surprise In the Elevator

En Français because it happened in French. But not in France. True story

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Hop on folks, there’s still room for more people.

Em… We’ll take the next one. See ya later…

Hmm. That’s weird! Why did they snob us all of a sudden?

Bonjour!

Ah! Bonjour madame. Vous parlez français.

Oui! J’adore cette langue. D’ailleurs, j’ai fait mes études en France.
Et je dirige la boite.

Silence. Stupeur. Un ange passe. Et la lumière fut!

Ah! Nous sommes donc avec la CEO de la boite!

Eh oui, c’est bien moi.

Puis, se tournant vers la seule personne dans l’ascenceur dont les oreilles sont sourdes au français, et très élégamment:

Oh I am so sorry to be speaking in French but I love this language so much and have very few opportunities to speak it.

No worries, I still have to learn it. Procrastination, you know… (avec un grand sourire, et ne réalisant vraiment pas ce qui se passe)

Et vous venez de France?

Oui!

Et que faites-vous chez nous?

Nous sommes les consultants du vendor, nous sommes là pour la définition de la phase 2.

Ah! Oui! C’est un programme très important pour nous! Bon courage à vous!
Je descends ici. Très enchantée!

Nous de même! Bonne journée!

Dude! You just missed a conversation with the CEO of the biggest bank in the country!

What?!

Dude! You should really learn French!

So, dear readers, maybe you should consider learning French. You might never bump into a French speaking CEO in an elevator, but then again, who knows? And at least, you will be able to enjoy this story without google translate.

Let the board sound

Rabih

On that moment when you start walking on water

One of the major traps in fintech is implementing the requirements of a financial institution without questioning the value it is expecting from them. Many times, the client would be describing how he or she operates a given business process in the system being replaced rather than the functional value expected from that process regardless of the platform. Many times, what the client does in a system is actually a workaround for a gap in functionality and you don’t want to be implementing workarounds and accumulating technical debt in the platform you are delivering to him.

Many years ago, I found myself in a meeting room somewhere in the UK, surrounded by representatives of the treasury, operations and finance departments of a humongous financial institution, trying to come up with a proper design for their treasury business processes to implement and automate in our platform. At some point, we stumbled on a concept we had never encountered before, the FTP, or Fund Transfer Pricing, which only started gathering interest by the end of the 2000s, after the sub-prime crisis had washed international finance ashore, a very recent topic back then. It felt like the client was speaking a different language and the meeting was reaching a dead-end when the senior architect suddenly rose to the challenge. He asked a simple question with his typical French accent.

“Why do you do it?”

Sometimes the most basic question can yield the most effective answers and this one proved it right. The client ended up explaining what he actually wanted to do rather than how he wanted it to be done. For the less experienced consultant that I was back then, it felt like magic. A very complex business requirement was unraveling, bit by bit, with every question the senior architect was asking. The guy was walking on water that day, and even the client was amazed by his magic: He went into the meeting not knowing a thing about FTP but still managed to save the day and get out of it with a clearly described business requirement which we could design into the platform. And all he did was ask questions. The right questions. That was my first true lesson into requirement gathering and design, my Fintech 101 moment if you will. It was very humbling, and I remembered thinking I could never pull off something like that.

I would however get a shot at it, some years later, when I found myself in a meeting room somewhere in northern Europe, in the middle of winter, surrounded by half the treasury department of one of my clients, trying to come up with an elegant design for their banking book accrual P&L reports. Fintech 101 was far away in time and I had done enough mistakes by then to have learnt a few tricks of the craft. It felt like walking on water to me and I like to think the client felt the same magic. But nothing is less sure…

Let the board sound

Rabih

On a cabin in the woods

Up in the Air, a movie starring George Clooney, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick, tells the tale of a guy who’s in-between the plane and the Hilton, all the time. I happened to watch it on a plane, one of the many I would be boarding in a globetrotting game which went on for years, taking me from Paris to Abu Dhabi to Beirut to Moscow to London to Hong Kong to Teheran to Stockholm to Istanbul to Rome to Hamburg to Dallas to Cologne to Milan to Warsaw to Madrid to Amsterdam and back to Paris, many times over and not in the same order. Too many trips to count, some for leisure of course, but most for preaching fintech to financial institutions around the world.

The movie felt so familiar.
Like George, I had more air Miles and Hilton points than I could spend.
Like George, I would be back home every few weeks, for a couple of days, and then back on the road.
And just like George, I had lost touch with most of the people I knew.
Mind you, I was surrounded by people, too many people at times, but still, it felt like being a lone soul in the middle of Times Square at rush hour. Like George.

At some point, Silence and Solitude became lifestyle, and for a while, they became friends. My only friends. They would greet me at the airport when I was back home. No one else would. I would take them out for a walk occasionally having nothing else to do in my free time.

The journey would start around the Place Saint Michel. Pretty lame for a Parisian might you think, but then again, why not? It is close to the Seine and a pretty central part of Paris. I would usually walk up the Rue Saint André des Arts, Solitude on my left, Silence on my right, and get myself a sandwich or a crêpe in one of the many restaurants in this street. I would then bifurcate to the right, through Rue Séguier or Rue des Grands Augustins to reach the eponymous docks, the Quai des Grands Augustins and the Seine river. But most of the times, I would keep walking up the street until I reached Rue de Buci and its many bars. Caipirinha and Mojito were trending back then. My least favorite drinks. There was a bar though, not too far from there, which served a very decent Old Fashioned and some interesting malts, but that’s for another post folks, and besides, I am not a fan of lonely drinking. My peregrinations would then take me south, through the Odéon area, down to the Jardin du Luxembourg where I would spend the rest of the afternoon or the day, not far from a bookshop where time stood still, one which I would be writing about many years later. And what would I be doing all this time? Well, owning time. Taking the time to tame solitude, to savor silence. To reflect on who I am, what I want from life. To think.

One of my fellow authors once quoted Sylvain Tesson, a French writer and traveler, in our e-mail exchanges.

Et si la liberté consistait à posséder le temps? Et si le bonheur revenait à disposer de solitude, d’espace et de silence – toutes choses dont manqueront les générations futures? Tant qu’il y aura des cabanes au fond des bois, rien ne sera tout à fait perdu.

« What if freedom consisted in owning time? What if happiness boiled down to having solitude, space and silence – all of which future generations will be lacking? As long as there are cabins deep in the woods, nothing will be completely lost. »

That walk was my cabin in the woods, in the middle of Paris.

Let the board sound

Rabih

On 2 PM meetings

I had been writing on serious stuff lately. Guns, revolutions, Fauré, explosions, or poetry and heartaches. Rejoice dear reader, for I will indulge in a lighter subject today, on fintech for a bit of fun, as always, and more precisely, on an everyday life black hole, a trap you cannot avoid if you work in French fintech:

The 2 PM meeting.

Photo by Jackman Chiu

2 PM meetings in fintech are a rite of passage into professional adulthood. A universal norm, a rule to abide by. An inevitable plague. More. A law of nature. Like the 2nd law of thermodynamics or Newton’s universal gravitation. The entropy of a system always increases. Apples always fall to the ground. Meetings always fall on 2 PM. The ones you cannot avoid anyway.

Here’s how the typical scenario unfolds. You are just back from lunch. All your resources – blood, energy, brain capacity – have been diverted to the central reactor – that’s your stomach – to avoid a core meltdown – that’s a steak-frites or a couple of ham and cheese sandwiches, unless it is chicken curry in which case you are in real trouble. You are not yourself anymore and your higher cognitive functions amount to idle. Everything else is in use by higher priority processes in your body. You spot an illusive lifeboat: a much needed caffeine dose you try to grab on your way to the meeting room in auto pilot mode. Trying to cross the Pacific on a raft.

The meeting starts. If luck is on your side, you will see it through without anyone soliciting your input. You might even get away with a quick nap, or a power nap to stay in the corporate lexical field. You try to convince yourself that fortune favors the bold, and you might be close to succeeding but the thing is, the bold is not you right now.

At this stage, odds are against you and the best you can hope for is a boss or colleagues who have been there before, or with a solid sense of humor perhaps, or past heroic feats to your credit which plead for mercy on your behalf.

Minutes slowly go by, and then you start counting the seconds. Still, you fight to keep your eyes open, to no avail…

And Sleep, the universal vanquisher,
Sets free the captives he enchained, at last

… because everything has an end thank God, even 2 PM meetings in French fintech companies.

Let the board sound

Rabih

On being cornered and the way out

Or when you think they expect you to be the intergalactic expert.

Many years ago, I found myself in a meeting room somewhere in the middle east, in the middle of summer, surrounded by half the finance department of one of my clients, trying to come up with an elegant design for the accounting schema to configure in the platform we were implementing for them.

They were having trouble projecting themselves in the new system and at some point, a very senior stakeholder asks a very precise and arduous question on the amortization of bond premium and discount and the expected impacts from an accounting perspective if my memory serves me well. I was young. I was foolish. He was an intergalactic expert on the topic. I was not. Here you go. Cornered!

And lesson learnt.

Photo by pixel2013

Fast forward nine years. I found myself in a meeting room somewhere in northern Europe, in the middle of winter, surrounded by half the treasury department of one of my clients, trying to come up with an elegant design for their banking book accrual P&L report to configure in the platform we were implementing for them.

They were having trouble projecting themselves in the system and at some point, a very senior stakeholder asks a very precise and arduous question on the amortization of bond premium and discount and the expected impacts from an accrual P&L perspective if my memory serves me well. I was older. I was wiser. He was an intergalactic expert on the topic. So was I. I had nine years to become one.

The next question nearly got me cornered though. Arbitrage swaps this time … 

Fortunately for me, I had realized by then the vacuity of trying to become an expert on every topic l might encounter some day in my career, especially as an architect. My job is ensuring consistency and sound design of the delivered solution, front end to back end across all the business processes in scope and through to the integration with the IT landscape of the client. Consistency, not expertise. And for that, you need to be knowledgeable on many subjects but it would take many lifetimes to become an expert on all of them. Beyond the reach of mere mortals.

I mean where would you start… The finance industry is an ever changing one and when expertise on funky derivatives and hybrid products was sought after in the 2000s, banks moved back to cash products in the aftermath of the Subprime crisis. Then came new norms and new processes: EMIR, Dodd-Frank, Basel III, MIFID, SFTR, FRTB. Affirmation platforms, LIBOR transition and so on. Even project and development methodologies have drastically changed in recent year, from a waterfall approach to Agile, SaFe and DevOps. Besides, the platforms at hand are huge enterprise wide modular software and expertise on them can only be, well,  modular.

So intergalactic expert? No. But you can become the next best thing by mastering a basic skill: asking the right questions and be honest about your limits.

Broadly speaking, as a FinTech professional, clients do not expect you to come up with answers on the spot, or devise a solution out of thin air as much as they expect you to understand their requirements first and foremost. You can always rely on your subject matter experts when you are out of your comfort zone, expertise is their job and they would be more than happy to oblige. However, not understanding the requirement in the first place makes the point moot. And for this, what better than to ask questions? Try to understand what the clients are talking about, use the board to draw your understanding of it, get their feedback on the result, ask more questions, rephrase to make sure you got it right and do not be afraid to say you are not an expert on a given subject. 

In many cases, you are not expected to be one. 

Or maybe just on asking the right questions…

Let the board sound

Rabih

On FinTech and people

Or how it looks from the inside.

Every experience is unique and different people can have different accounts on a career in FinTech. Here’s mine.

I got in FinTech by chance. I received a call I was not expecting. Until that moment, finance did not ring a bell. Trading floors seemed like movie stuff. The Wolf of Wall Street was not out yet so none of the people I knew whom had embraced this career could explain it to me with a simple example. But it struck some strings: the job required extensive travel and I would be expected to become autonomous fairly quick. I was in for both.

I had to learn quite a few things in little time, and this was a major motivator. Learning how a financial platform is operated, learning the operating model of investment banks, funds and treasuries. Learning finance. Bonds, foreign exchange, rates, equities, derivatives, valuation models. Learning how an operations department works, how a front office desk operates, how risk is managed and what is risk for a financial institution. I am still learning 15 years later.

I started on support but was soon entrusted with high stakes decisions and started looking after much larger accounts. I worked on delivery projects around the world. I got to manage senior and less senior people and I thrived to give them opportunities to grow and that place in the sun at which everyone deserves a shot. That was probably the most rewarding part of the ride.

Although many in the field usually come from engineering, computer science or finance backgrounds, I found out later that many of the fintech professionals I would meet, and not the least impressive ones, came from backgrounds as far from banks and finance as can be. I met business architects who graduated with a BA in geography. Traders who studied history. A project manager who was a commissioned officer in a previous life, honorably discharged after having served his country well and lead battalions on many theaters of operations. Another one who was in the navy and an expert on submarine propulsion. And a legendary developer, trained in chemical engineering and a collector of rare minerals.

I also got to work with people from all around the world. French, Italians, Germans, Spanish, English, Welsh, Scots, Icelanders, Swedes, Americans, Brazilians, Lebanese, Syrians, Emirati, Indians, Iranians, Australians, Romanians, Russians, Pakistani, Egyptians, Jordanians, Iraqi, Algerians, Moroccans, Tunisians, Senegalese, South Africans, Ivorians, Belgians, Chinese, Pilipino, Indonesians, Malaysians, Japanese, Singaporeans, Kazakh, Turkish, Greeks, Canadians, Polish, Irish, Omani, Kuwaiti, Palestinians, Columbians, Czech, Dutch, and Bulgarians, to name a few. I faced cultural challenges at times, but it was an enriching experience every time.

I got to travel a lot. There were years I would spend most of my time on business trips, in between the airplane, the hotel and the trading floor. Projects took me to the UK, Italy, Spain, Germany, Sweden, Poland, Iceland, The Netherlands, The United Arab Emirates, Hong Kong, Russia and Turkey, many times over, and I have more stories of nearly missed planes and last minute miracles, of 2AM naps on a random couch on a trading floor somewhere in the world and all night celebrations when the fight is finally over, of epic fails and even more epic successes than I can count.

I have had Borscht in Moscow, duck tongues in Hong Kong and donkey meat in Milan. I have been challenged to the hottest curries by Indian colleagues and to the most treacherous vodkas by Polish ones. I have laughed my head out countless times cracking jokes around a beer with the same clients who had cornered me in a workshop earlier in the day.

I’ve lost many hours of sleep across the globe but won so many good memories along the way. I also gained a few friends for life. Folks, I hope you are reading this, you will recognize yourselves.

Make no mistake, the job is not for the faint hearted. The pressure is tremendous, the working hours long and the clients very demanding. Nerve wrecking situations are the norm, especially if you work in delivery. You get humbled quite a few times, but on the bright side, you are surrounded by extremely bright people and the rewards are at the level of the challenge.

I hope my colleagues and fellow professionals will recognize themselves in these stories, that it will bring a smile on their faces in these dire times and wish that readers see the job for what it really is, a people job. And no amount of Work from Home will change that.

Let the board sound

Rabih

On FinTech and a bit of fun in a post for once

Or how to explain what you do as a fintech professional to people who have no clue about technology and/or financial institutions, without quoting The Wolf of Wall Street.

Photo by Timisu

The average tentative involves you saying that you work in fintech (that’s financial technology) and having then to explain that your clients are mostly banks which rely on complex technologies and heavy computing power to operate, which will not make sense to most people because, well, why would you want a data center and cutting edge software to track the account balances of your customers and run your accounting, there’s Excel for that, but heeey, nooo, it’s investment banks and funds we’re talking about, not retail banks, you know, the type of banks which trade complex financial products which require heavy math and intensive computation to be valued and processed, and it goes sideways from there on because, well, you find yourself compelled to provide an example, so you try to explain what an option is, a contract which conveys its owner the right to buy or sell an underlying asset or instrument like an Amazon stock at a specified strike price prior to or on a specified date, and that the math to value it was only developed in the 70’s by Black, Scholes and Morton, which sparked a boom in the trading of options which has not waned ever since, and by the time you start explaining the Black-Scholes equation and the fact that it relies on the volatility of the price of the underlying, what underlying? Well the Amazon stock remember? No? That’s exactly my point: they are either completely lost or completely bored. At this point, you can always try to rely on your wingman, the Wolf of Wall Street, because that’s the closest most people will ever get to a trading floor and I do not blame them for not trying harder, it is an acquired taste.

If this long explanation still sounds obscure to you dear reader and possibly fintech professional, just know that a retail bank is the one you go to to open a bank account and get a credit card and it caters mostly for individuals whereas an investment bank is the place where options and other financial instruments are traded, on a trading floor. 

And for those who have never seen one, a trading floor can look and sound like a high-tech fish market, a bit toned down maybe, no fish smell, less decibels, but a fish market still. People selling stuff to other people, trying to agree on a price, managing their stock while keeping an eye on the market and the competition. There you go. It might not be entirely accurate, but it has the merit of demystifying the place. 

At this point of the reading, you might want to realize that we have still not explained what it is that a fintech professional actually does. I personally work in delivery, that’s implementing complex financial software solutions at investment banks and hedge or mutual funds. But it is not about me, it is about you dear reader/possibly fintech professional.

So the next time they ask you about your job, and unless it is alright because you like the way it hurts, swallow your pride, give The Wolf of Wall Street a break and say you work in IT, full stop. 

And point them to this post.

Let the board sound

Rabih