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Businesses Programming The Almighty Buck

High-Frequency Programmers Revolt Over Pay 1018

An anonymous reader writes "Programmers who design and code algorithms for investment banking are unhappy with their salaries. Many of them receive a low 6-figure salary whereas their bosses — who manipulate these algorithms and execute the trades — often earn millions. One such anonymous programmer points out that he was paid $150,000 per year, whereas the software he wrote was generating $100,000 per day."
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High-Frequency Programmers Revolt Over Pay

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  • by Shugart ( 598491 ) on Friday July 30, 2010 @09:46AM (#33081922)
    It isn't that the programmers earn too little it's that their bosses earn too much.
    • by Chris Burke ( 6130 ) on Friday July 30, 2010 @09:55AM (#33082086) Homepage

      Yeah, really. Six figures for a programming job is fantastic pretty much no matter how you slice it. If it seems like the guy who's making ten times that isn't contributing a commensurate amount over what you do, well, welcome to reality. Especially the reality of trading and finance.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by daem0n1x ( 748565 )
        If they are making too much, they are sucking a lot of money out of the system. The finance system doesn't produce anything, so they're sucking money out of the real economy (and the investors). If this blood-sucking is stopped on its tracks, the overall economy will be more efficient. Out with those fucking leaches!
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by Chris Burke ( 6130 )

          If they are making too much, they are sucking a lot of money out of the system.

          Welcome to reality. Especially the reality of trading and finance.

          If this blood-sucking is stopped on its tracks, the overall economy will be more efficient. Out with those fucking leaches!

          Agreed, though honestly, good luck with that.

          But that still leaves me with no sympathy for a programmer earning a mere six figures.

        • by john.r.strohm ( 586791 ) on Friday July 30, 2010 @10:45AM (#33082836)

          No, they are not "sucking money out of the system". They are CIRCULATING money in the system.

          Economics 101: Money has no intrinsic value. By itself, outside the financial system, it is pretty pieces of colored, printed paper. Inside the system, it is an agreement to exchange goods and services for other goods and services.

          Assume that our uber-bloodsucker takes down a few million and buys a yacht. Guess what? He's paying the salaries for the people who build that yacht, the people who maintain it, the people who crew it, the people who run the marinas. All of them are now working, doing things they (typically) enjoy more than digging ditches on a road crew somewhere, and putting food on THEIR tables.

          Say he takes a vacation trip to, oh, say, Rio. He's paying the salaries for the guys at Boeing, who built the airplane. He's paying the salaries for the ramp rats at JFK. He's paying the salaries for the guys at the oil company who refined the fuel for the airplane. All of them continue to work and put food on their tables.

          They get the big bucks, compared to the Java weenies you see immortalized in, because they generate high returns for their employers. Their employers, in turn, get bigger bucks for taking bigger risks than the programmers do. All of them cause money to CIRCULATE in the economy, in the never-ending exchanges of goods and services.

          If you don't like it that someone else is making more money than you are, well, maybe you should have taken the tougher classes in school.

          Also note: part of the price for being a high-frequency programmer is generally living and working in New York City. It ain't all roses.

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            Yeah, but in the end HE is still the one riding on the yacht and taking trips to Rio. While the deckhands are likely paid a pittance for a similar amount of work.

          • by spiffmastercow ( 1001386 ) on Friday July 30, 2010 @10:57AM (#33083032)
            But here's the thing.. The money is circulating for no particular reason. There are not goods and services being exchanged in the frequent trading financial sector. It's a casino with the house skimming off the top. Banks could exist and function perfectly well without Wall Street. They would just have to back to traditional usury rather than bald-faced fraud.
          • by daem0n1x ( 748565 ) on Friday July 30, 2010 @11:20AM (#33083434)

            No, they'll probably transfer most of it to fiscal havens, helping to fund drug lords and terrorists.

            Have you heard about the Broken Window Fallacy? If these guys get money for nothing and recirculate it, the overall economy in the end gains nothing. The money that passes though these guys could have been used to produce useful goods and services instead of feeding the pleasures of fat greedy pigs.

          • by JoesRagingBileDuct ( 452917 ) on Friday July 30, 2010 @01:21PM (#33085664) Homepage

            The problem with this free market fantasy is that its not actually reflective of what reality nor does it come up with an ideal productivity.

            Lets take the 100k/day guy. He makes 3.65 million a year. He's only going to buy 1 yacht with that because he only needs one at a time. Maybe that costs 1M, the rest goes in the bank or into derivatives trading or currency trading or into his bath tub so he can bathe in it. This is all financial masturbation, it doesn't really produce anything. So saying that making that much money ends up circulating it a fallacy because it only ends up circulating amongst the other financial types and not the economy as a whole.

            "But he did end up paying for the boat" you say, "he employed all those people". OK, but lets compare that to what would happen otherwise. Making the yacht gives a few artisans a fairly decent amount of income once in a year. If you take that 3 million and give it to 10k poor or middle class people (in the form of salary for actual work done), they will spend *all* of it. Why? Because they are not flush with cash and have lots of things they could buy including things they have been needing but have been putting off buying because they didn't have the cash. So you have circulated a lot more money to a lot more people, and since the money is going into buying things that are useful to more people (as opposed to yachts) the business that flourish are the ones that actually mean something to society and the economy. And you get bonus points for actually making more stuff that has more value.

            Those people making all the goods also end up buying things to make the goods, so there is a multiplier effect happening. Now you have can compare a smaller base ($1M vs $3.65M) and a smaller multiplier (yachts need wood, paint, canvas and a small number of other parts vs the wide variety of other things that people would buy with the money such as cars, TVs mobile phones, college text books, groceries etc which are lower margin items that require a lot more investment into their production ) and you end up contributing a LOT less to the GDP as Mr. $3.65M than you do if that money was more evenly distributed.

            Not to mention the fact that there is no way that guy deserves to get 100 times the pay. He's not 100 X smarter nor is he 100 X more hard working. Given the recent financial troubles it is rather easy to argue for the reverse. So now you are rewarding the wrong person a disproportionate amount in a way that hurts the economy relative to doing it the right way.


            People really ought to stop thinking that they are going to become rich one day. It skews their perception of whats happening in the real world and makes applaud the people who are taking advantage of them.

          • by epine ( 68316 ) on Friday July 30, 2010 @04:56PM (#33089210)

            Economics 101: Money has no intrinsic value.

            Your Econ-101 course would have been improved by including a copy of Animal Farm. In the lost epilogue, the pigs mint coinage to invest German efficiency into everything they were doing already.

            The principle you seem to be ranting on here is that voluntary transactions create wealth, no matter how the transaction is instrumented (coins, jars of pebbles, jiggling twins).

            Monopoly is the word we use to describe the situation where voluntary rubs noses with indentured servitude. If there's only one place to purchase food, well, no-one is forcing you to chose survival.

            In high speed computing one tends to compute bisection bandwidth: given any way of partitioning the system, what is the maximum bandwidth across the partition boundaries.

            The concept of monopoly is similarly fungible. The banking industry has sliced up the economic system so that one partition (the high velocity insiders) have access to first-mover advantage, and everyone else doesn't. One term in what constitutes voluntary trade has been supremely tilted in favour of a group that isn't working nearly as hard as they ought to relative to the resources they command, even if it does, as you point out, greatly enrich Columbian farmers who would otherwise have to grow vegetables.

            If the glorious concentration of wealth directed equated to aggregate productivity, Russia would be a model economy.

            I will say your recitation of why money in and of itself can't be blamed was superbly rendered.

            On the other hand, somehow you didn't manage to notice that typing the query "apple suicide" into Google no longer brings up a fairy tale: it brings up Foxccon in the "I feel lucky" position.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by jgagnon ( 1663075 )

      I disagree. Programmers are a lot easier to find than people willing and able to lead/run a successful financial firm. And it takes more programmers. The problem is that people want the big bucks without the big risks. And since experience is the best (and often harshest) teacher, these guys going off on their own guarantees an education. I'll bet that many of them will go back to their $150k per year jobs after they realize how hard and risky it is to run a business like that.

      • by IICV ( 652597 ) on Friday July 30, 2010 @10:27AM (#33082536)

        Can you quantify what "big risks" are involved in running a successful financial firm? That's something I hear a lot, but I've never actually seen a breakdown of what exactly is being risked by upper management vs, say, the programmers. Sure, if the business goes bust upper management loses their jobs, but then so do the programmers.

        • by turbidostato ( 878842 ) on Friday July 30, 2010 @10:34AM (#33082648)

          "Sure, if the business goes bust upper management loses their jobs, but then so do the programmers."

          And even then, management will have better compensation, if not golden parachutes.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Shotgun ( 30919 )

          If you're the CEO of an international energy conglomerate, you might end up with a multi-million dollar payout, only a few million a year in salary, and a job in Siberia. Poor Tony.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          That seems about right. In this game, the investors are the only ones who "risk" anything. And ironically, they're also the ones with the least amount of power to decide how the money is managed.

      • by American AC in Paris ( 230456 ) on Friday July 30, 2010 @10:40AM (#33082746) Homepage

        Heh. It isn't risky to run a Fortune 500 company. It doesn't matter how well or how poorly you do; you're guaranteed to make enough money to lead a rather lavish life several times over. Carly Fiorina seems to be doing just fine, despite having driven HP into a brick wall. Tony Hayward may not have much of a future with BP, but you'd better believe that he's already "got his life back." The only risk you run is having to wrestle with the demons you create when your actions destroy the lives of other people, and while I'm sure that's an absolutely miserable thing to have to do, it sure as hell beats being one of those other people whose life is, y'know, destroyed because somebody other than themselves fucked up.

        If you're running a successful financial firm, "risk" simply doesn't exist for you, at a personal level. It's why so many financial firms so royally fucked up; the cost of failure is borne by your clients and your employees. All you need to do is go before a Congressional panel and say how very sorry you are.

        Hell, you don't even need to say that.

      • Big risks? (Score:4, Insightful)

        by saleenS281 ( 859657 ) on Friday July 30, 2010 @10:56AM (#33083022) Homepage
        What exactly are the big risks? If you fail, you turn to your buddies doing well for an "angel investment" and start all over again. If you get caught lying/stealing/cheating, you have to give up about 10% of your hundreds of millions in profit to make the SEC go away.

        The people who are investing their money are the only ones taking a risk. If the boss gets greedy and makes a few bad trades, they can kiss a nice chunk of their 401k goodbye. If he does a good job, he'll take 20% of the earnings for himself because he managed to find a couple of sucker programmers willing to write something to do all the work for him.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        Programmers are a lot easier to find than people willing and able to lead/run a successful financial firm

        Or, financial firm executives just overvalue the skills of other financial executives and managers because doing so is natural and self-validating.

        If programmers were making the decisions on who to pay how much, programmers would probably get paid a lot more and non-programming managers and executives would get paid less. But, obviously, its going to be managers -- and particularly executives -- making t

      • by Aceticon ( 140883 ) on Friday July 30, 2010 @11:19AM (#33083406)

        We're talking about Hedge Funds here, so their bosses are in fact ex-Traders, ex-Sales and ex-Analysts from big investment banks and such.

        - The reason why they are the bosses of the hedge funds is that they had millions of dollars to start their hedge funds, business contacts to get extra founds at low cost and already potential customers lined up from their time with the big banks.
        - The reason they made millions of dollars in the first place is because they got fat bonuses in their previous job.
        - The reason they got their bonuses is because they were lucky: I work in the industry and I know what I see. Also, studies show that the best performing hedge funds in one year are less likelly to be in the top the following years - in other words, hedge funds are not consistent in their performance, which indicates that chance, not skill is what determines most of their it.

        Keep in mind that, most of the money made in Investment Banking is of the rent-seeking variety, such as:
        - Decieve your customers by creating and selling them strange, complex and expensive derivatives to protect them from a certain risk when they could get equivalent protections from buying cheap standard products from the market.
        - Get yourself in the middle of a transaction and take a cut. The transaction would occur anyway if u weren't there but either it would be cheaper for the buyer or more profitable for the seller.
        - Get 20x your core capital in cheap loans (thanks to low interest rates and an implicit government guarantee). Invest those 21x core-capital in safe, low return instruments (say, 5% yield bonds). At the end cash it, repay loan, post more than 100% returns on your core capital (since the 5% return was applied to the 20x loan + 1x core capital), pay traders big bonuses for their "skill".

        Essentially Investment Banking (and Hedge Funds) are the posh version of the Car Mechanic: professionals in the business use their superior knowledge of how finance works to decieve the customers (which are not specialists in that domain) to think that what they really need to "fix the problem" is something a lot more expensive that what is actually needed.

        This would be alright if it wasn't for the fact that some of their customers are the managers of things like pension funds which (mis)manage our money and "invest" it through those guys instead of doing the due dilligence themselves to figure out that the average return after comissions and costs of a hedge fund is lower than the return on major market indexes (which you can get cheaply via ETFs).

        - Guys that started working in an industry which is mostly parasitic got lucky and made millions in bonuses.
        - They used those millions, plus the contacts they created while working in that industry to setup a company and make money directly from the suckers^H^H^H^H^H^H^Hcustomers instead of via bonuses.
        - They setup systems (i.e. auto-trading) that allow them to insert themselves into and get a cut from other people's trades because their systems are faster reacting to the market than other traders since they're located next to the exchanges and react within milliseconds.
        - Add to this that in many cases, after they left their big bank jobs their old employer lost money on their bets and had to be rescued by the state using our tax money.

        There are plenty of bosses out there that one can respect for having real risks and clawed their way to success by creating companies that provided real products/services to their customers but these guys ain't it.

        These guys are more like pimps that made enough from forcing junkies to prostitute themselves that they could afford to open a brothel.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      I wrote a program that takes the remainder of thousands of fincial transactions that would be otherwise be rounded off... and puts them into a bank account under my control. It would accumulate these funds slowly over time. Hopefully I got the decimal place right in my program.
  • by grasshoppa ( 657393 ) <skennedy@tpn o - c o .org> on Friday July 30, 2010 @09:46AM (#33081930) Homepage

    I mean, correct me if I'm wrong here, but the programmer in question agreed to the terms BEFORE he wrote the first line of code.

    Shouldn't gripes like these come up before you begin working? Maybe this is part of the problem, non?

  • Accountability (Score:5, Interesting)

    by phorm ( 591458 ) on Friday July 30, 2010 @09:50AM (#33081986) Journal

    "One such anonymous programmer points out that he was paid $150,000 per year, whereas the software he wrote was generating $100,000 per day."

    And if said software screws up and costs a few hundred million, or otherwise causes other "bad things" to happen, what's the accountability of the programmer or the manager?

    • Re:Accountability (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 30, 2010 @10:02AM (#33082188)

      I know guys in that sector... What happens is, whoever they can pin it on gets fired immediately for cause (no unemployment), with the cause being gross incompetence. This, combined with his I.P, noncompete and nondisclosure agreements makes him unemployable in his sector (and possibly all of New York, which upholds such agreements for up to 5 years).

      There's accountability. It's called "career death".

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by d474 ( 695126 )

      And if said software screws up and costs a few hundred million, or otherwise causes other "bad things" to happen, what's the accountability of the programmer or the manager?

      Nothing. CEO's wreck companies/cause damages all the time, and all that happens to them, personally/financially is NOTHING. Maybe they get fired and then receive a nice golden parachute. Why should it be any different for the programmers who are the architects of the entire groundwork allowing the company to exist in the first place?

  • by Ihlosi ( 895663 ) on Friday July 30, 2010 @09:50AM (#33081988)
    He can have mine, where he'll write code that helps save lives everyday, for less than six figures.
  • Good news (Score:5, Insightful)

    by sco08y ( 615665 ) on Friday July 30, 2010 @09:52AM (#33082038)


    "Now some programmers feel used and are instigating a revolt.

    They are doing so by striking out on their own or forming profit-sharing arrangements."

    That's hardly "whining," in fact it's precisely what they ought to do.

    The outstanding part is that Forbes is recognizing this. We all know that folks in IT are underpaid in many professions, but the proof is when people actually say "fuck you" and go work elsewhere. That will *force* salaries up to the real market rate. And when publications like Forbes notice this, it's harder for managers to pretend it's not happening.

    Thank you, to the ladies and gentlemen who struck out on their own, and thank you to Forbes for noticing. Both of these will make life a little better for the rest of us.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 30, 2010 @09:54AM (#33082052)

    A counter-point to all of the hate.

    a. The American Dream (tm) says that if you work hard, you will benefit in the end. High risk / effort jobs should pay well
    b. I bet these guys signed some sort of non-compete contract. Let's say that you and your buddies are the golden boys of financial trading algorithms. I think that you should get pay increases if your company is doing well. A 20% pay increase would probably shut them up.
    c. After actually scanning the article,

    Computer jockeys setting up own shops in bids to make millions.


    They are doing so by striking out on their own or forming profit-sharing arrangements. Jeffrey Gomberg, 32, worked for a trading firm that paid him a low-six-figure income after four years on the job. His trader colleagues, by contrast, made millions manipulating the algorithms he'd written.


    The programmer's bosses offered him an office and a $45,000 raise, but he left instead. He found a partner, and together they began trading on their own. The programmer now pockets more than half of any profits his software generates. The programmer says he's making about the same money he did at the job he left. But at his old job he'd topped out in pay while now he says the sky's the limit.

    “I'm on my way to making a ton,” he says

    It seems that they did the right thing. Why are all of you complaining? They didn't like their job, they grew a pair of balls and went out on their own.

    It's amazing what reading TFA can let you know.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by cc1984_ ( 1096355 )

      I cannot speak for these guys, but where I work, software I write for the company stays with the company. If I were to leave and go out on my own, I would be violating the terms of my previous contract so in effect I would have to write my software again. I'd be very surprised if this weren't the case here as well.

  • Car analogy (Score:5, Insightful)

    by TwiztidK ( 1723954 ) on Friday July 30, 2010 @09:55AM (#33082066)

    "Many of them receive a low 6-figure salary whereas their bosses — who manipulate these algorithms and execute the trades — often earn millions."

    A Nascar Driver's pit crew recieve a low 5-figure salary while their bosses - who use the cars to win races - often earn millions.

    I get why the programmers are disgruntled, the code they write makes a lot of money and they aren't getting a huge cut, but it seems like the algorithm the program is based on would be the most important aspect. Besides, $100,000 a year doesn't seem that bad to me.

  • That's the point (Score:3, Insightful)

    by bigsexyjoe ( 581721 ) on Friday July 30, 2010 @09:56AM (#33082088)
    Everyone is paid less than their worth. That's why people would form unions before they were stupefied by tv and the false hope that they would rise to the exploitative class. The fact that people are now paid less than 1/100th their worth isn't surprising but it is pathetic.
  • Ripple effect (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Linker3000 ( 626634 ) on Friday July 30, 2010 @10:03AM (#33082206) Journal
    Yes, and I am the IT Manager who makes sure that the bankers and analysts have the hardware, software and comms tools to do their jobs. Right down the corridor is Michael's room - he's our maintenance guy - if he didn't empty my bin, keep the area tidy and make sure the lights stay on...
  • by kidcharles ( 908072 ) on Friday July 30, 2010 @10:04AM (#33082214)
    Those programmers and those brokers are doing nothing of worth to society. They are just playing games with currency. If our government wasn't in complete collusion with Wall Street, millisecond trading would be illegal. The issue isn't that the programmers aren't making enough money, it's that their jobs and the jobs of their bosses should not even exist.
    • Indeed.

      People shouldn't be allowed to own parts of a company for intervals of less than a month, at minimum. I'd make an analogy here, except there's nothing in society we let people buy and sell that fast, certainly not giant entities....I'd like to see someone try to buy a house and resell it ten milliseconds later. I'd like to see someone buy a can of soda and resell it ten millisecond later!

      What happens on Wall Street is simply a fancy game of roulette. Which is fine, I've got nothing against gambling, except they're playing roulette with ownership of the economy, and the only place people can actually invest in the economy.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 30, 2010 @10:20AM (#33082458)

    I was a programmer for one of the companies mentioned in TFA; you've heard of them. The algorithms they're talking about are not really developed by the programmers, they're typically invented by the phalanx of PhD mathematicians the company also employs; the programmer's job is to implement it in the most efficient way possible.

    Day one I was handed a paper on Eigen-related trading, straight out of TeX and was told to implement it. I admit that I had to go to the bookstore at lunch just to figure out what some of the symbols were. What I had two weeks later was a working version in C++ that did the job; over the course of a few months I refactored and refactored it to run faster; no object copying (everything using references), bit shifting, you name it, I used it. The code was tight and ran fast; as far as I know it's still being used.

    I see it more as being a waiter; you may be the "face" of the restaurant, delivering the meal, but your tips also go back to the cooks, busboys, etc. I helped out on another project where, to this day, I *still* don't get how it works, yet the code too runs fast and correctly, as far as I know.

    It should also be noted that the pay might be good, but the life is horrible; if you're young and single it's definitely something to go for, but save your money because there will come a time when you just can't do 100 hour weeks, week after week after week for years and years.

    The only memory I really have of my 20s and early 30s is the glow of a screen.

  • Same Old Story (Score:3, Insightful)

    by b4upoo ( 166390 ) on Friday July 30, 2010 @10:30AM (#33082598)

    Many years ago I created fancy condenser units. I could easily create four or five a day and they sold for 5K each. I was payed about $10. per hour and creating $25,000 in product each day.
                        My point being that our economic system is slanted in such a way that those that actually create are often not paid much at all whereas those that create nothing often are very well paid. That attitude is beginning to trigger some real negatives. The car mechanic or tradesman now often has little conscience and is likely to cheat and do poor work to whatever degree he can get away with it while charging huge rates for his efforts.

    • Re: Same Old Story (Score:4, Insightful)

      by History's Coming To ( 1059484 ) on Friday July 30, 2010 @11:57AM (#33084166) Journal
      Devil's Advocate:

      The $25k pays for mining the ore, extracting the metals, drilling kilometres under the sea for the oil, polymerising it, designing the units, injection moulding and, yes, your job putting it all together. I'm guessing you didn't do all of that...but if you did, then yes, you should get a pay rise, or at least a funkier job title ;)
  • by MaWeiTao ( 908546 ) on Friday July 30, 2010 @10:44AM (#33082812)

    Here we have a bunch of jerks whining about the 6-figure salaries they earn. I wish I were earning what these guys earn. If they have a problem they can go find a job elsewhere. Or do what everyone else has to do, rise through the ranks of the company and get promoted to the point where you're earning the kind of salary you want to see.

    While I agree it's quite insane what some in management are earning they also have the responsibility of the entire company on their shoulders. I have a friend who's a programmer at a billion dollar firm that does business related with the stock market and the upper management is comprised of middle aged guys who's entire life is work. The majority are single or divorced and don't even have time for a girlfriend. But anyway, my point is that pay isn't based on what management is earning. It's based on your perceived value to the company. There are probably countless other programmers lined up behind these guys hoping to take their jobs. Not all are qualified but some are.

    The whole point of having employees is so that they generate more income, directly or indirectly, than is expended on them. Otherwise, what's the point of keeping them employed? Again, it's rare that you're going to earn a lot more than you do now at the same job you're doing now. So the two best avenues to seeing your income increase is to get promoted or to start your own business.

It is not for me to attempt to fathom the inscrutable workings of Providence. -- The Earl of Birkenhead