Inside Goldman Sachs’ secret sauce

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From a tech point of view, it’s always assumed that the secret to Goldman Sachs’ success is the proprietary code it develops for trading platforms. Former programmer Sergey Aleynikov went to great lengths to smuggle code out to a new high frequency trading employer in 2009 – and has been embroiled in a legal case ever since.

However, Goldman’s technology for high-speed, high volume trading platforms contains, according to Aleynikov’s defence, a lot of open source software. If you wanted to see at what really separates Goldman from the herd, you need to look somewhere decidedly less glamorous – its risk system, SecDB (or securities database).

When CFO Harvey Schwartz was asked about new technological innovations that could give Goldman an edge during the bank’s  second quarter conference call, it was this that he highlighted: “One of our competitive advantages assuming we execute is the fact that now we have SecDB, which is our internally developed platform,” he said “It is the platform that we use across all of our businesses whether you’re trading currencies in Asia or if you’re trading stocks in United States and so that should give us some advantage in terms of how we vision our self and our speed and our ability to adapt.”

In other words, everything that matters in terms of risk exposure at Goldman Sachs runs through SecDB. It means that every position, every risk that is run through Goldman can be accessed instantly traders and risk managers across the firm. Sales and traders can value and book any transaction through SecDB. It’s a  proprietary programme that oversees derivatives pricing, risk management and massive scale data analysis across the bank.

If a proposed trade in London has potential downsides, colleagues on the other side of the world can see it as fast as someone sitting next to you.  This may not seem like a big deal, but at other banks like Morgan Stanley and J.P. Morgan, this process can still take several hours.

In fact, SecDB has long been credited as the reason that Goldman made it through the financial crisis without any major blow-ups. A 2009 report by ZDNet, said that using SecDB: “Goldman can and did model the effects of different extreme economic circumstances on an estimated $10bn worth of CDOs it held as well as other investments”.

Predictably, SecDB is aligned with Goldman’s proprietary trading language, Slang, meaning that any developers joining to work in the programme need to be trained up. One of the open roles at Goldman mentioning SecDB – a junior object-oriented developer working in financial risk technology – requires an “ability to quickly become competent in the firm’s proprietary language (Slang) and platform (SecDB)”.

In other words, Goldman’s preferred method is to hire developers with general object oriented programming skills, and knowledge of object oriented database management systems and then educate them on in-house systems.

Goldman’s SecDB  system is not, however, a pretty thing. For all its processing power, the GUI is reportedly more akin to a Commodore 64 screen than a cutting edge piece of software.

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