During his 17 years in investment banking, Kirat Singh has been at the forefront of some of the highest profile technology initiatives, but his tendency to fly under the radar means that you've probably never heard of him. He’s the sort of IT ‘star’ that banks are keen to keep hold of, but has now left his MD role at Bank of America Merrill Lynch to go it alone.
Singh started his career at Goldman Sachs, working as a programmer on its SecDb (Securities database) risk management programme, which was cited one of the main reasons the bank came through the financial crisis comparatively unscathed. After eight years, he moved to JPMorgan to kick-start Athena, its cross-asset market risk and trading platform and a core part of the bank's ongoing project to simplify its IT. Since 2010, he’s been working at Bank of America Merrill Lynch as a managing director and head of global risk systems, building Quartz, the bank’s main platform for pricing trades, managing positions and computing risk exposure across all asset classes. In short, he's been involved in some innovative projects.
“Starting at Goldman was undoubtedly the biggest break of my career. It’s a very collaborative environment in the tech teams and a flat structure, which you don’t always see at other investment banks,” he says. “I also didn’t get siloed into one asset class, and was able to work on SecDb across FX, credit and commodities, which was great exposure and definitely helped me secure a broader role at JPMorgan.”
Last month, though, Singh launched his own venture, Washington Square Technologies, which will act as both a consultancy, helping mentor quant developer teams, as well as offering its own trading platform. Mark Higgins is co-founder and CEO of the firm. He launched Athena with Singh at JPMorgan and also co-headed its quantitative research group in the investment bank before moving across to lead its FX algorithmic index division for the last two years.
“Most vendor packages are ‘black boxes’ that make it very difficult to add any customisation beyond some basic APIs, which makes it very difficult to expand,” says Singh. “The idea of our new product is to allow firms to build internally and really customise the internal plumbing of the system for their own needs.” Most of the customers are likely to be quantitative hedge funds, he adds.
Getting to managing director as a technologist is notoriously tough, with only a select few breaking through the glass ceiling and those that make it having to demonstrate business savvy as well as technical proficiency. So, why did Singh decide to give it all up?
“I’m a very hands-on technologist, and it’s difficult to maintain that if you’re in a senior position within an investment bank; you have to become a manager,” he says. “A lot of the senior technologists in investment banking haven’t written a line of code in 20 years, and that’s just wrong. Banks need to recognise that you can be a developer and still have influence and gain respect among peers. Because of the hierarchical environment, there’s a disconnect between those building the systems and those making the decisions.”
Investment banks are slowly starting to take influence from Silicon Valley, not just in terms of Googlising their office space, and are breaking down barriers for technologists. JPMorgan told us recently that it had both adopted an Agile approach and got rid of the “artificial glass ceiling” that made it difficult for core technologists to advance. However, banks are still struggling to shed their conservative ways, believes Singh.
“One of the main problems is that they don’t share code. If you look at Google, it’s a very transparent and collaborative environment. Investment banking is still very siloed, and every department has their own code base, which makes these organisations incredibly complex. This has to change, but it’ll be a slow process,” he says.
Technologists in investment banking may also have Singh to thank for bringing the Python programming language to the sector. A few years ago, Python wasn’t something many banks would ask for in their developers, but these days it’s an essential skill. Python was the core language for Athena and Quartz, and is something most tech recruiters now say is increasingly cropping up in job specs.
“Everyone at JPMorgan now needs to know Python and there are around 5,000 developers using it at Bank of America,” says Singh. “There are close to 10 million lines of Python code in Quartz and we got close to 3,000 commits a day. It’s a good scripting language and easily integrated into both the front and back ends, which was one of the reasons we chose it in the first place.”