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Businesses Programming The Almighty Buck

How and Why Wall Street Programmers Earn Top Salaries 791

msmoriarty writes "Given the level of interest in the recent highest-paid programmers discussion, our reporter decided to do a follow-up looking into the languages and skills needed to work on high-frequency trading systems. There's actually a pretty wide range of languages/tools used, but Linux is the 'default' OS and, not surprisingly, the 'ability to work under pressure when the traders are screaming at you' is a must-have skill."
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How and Why Wall Street Programmers Earn Top Salaries

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  • by NFN_NLN ( 633283 ) on Saturday July 30, 2011 @11:13PM (#36936714)

    "In high-frequency trading (HFT), programmers eke out every last incremental tick in performance to build algorithms that battle other algorithms for computational supremacy and millions in profits -- and earn a lot in the process."

    Skimming money off billions of micro-transactions. Ahh, yes... forget investing in ideas and backing well managed companies... this is the way capitalism was envisioned.

    • by zippthorne ( 748122 ) on Saturday July 30, 2011 @11:16PM (#36936722) Journal

      Look, superman III had a lot of lessons to teach. It's really too bad on villains watched it...

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Skimming money off billions of micro-transactions. Ahh, yes... forget investing in ideas and backing well managed companies... this is the way capitalism was envisioned.

      Oh, admit it; this has been every computer programmer's dream since they saw Superman III as a child.

    • by jo42 ( 227475 )

      I call BS. You don't need much skill or talent in writing code that effectively does this in the end:

      account.balance *= 10.0;

      • by russotto ( 537200 ) on Saturday July 30, 2011 @11:41PM (#36936810) Journal

        I call BS. You don't need much skill or talent in writing code that effectively does this in the end:

        account.balance *= 10.0;

        The challenge isn't making the code do that. The challenge is making it look like the code is intended to do something entirely different, and that part is merely an unavoidable side effect.

      • by mikael ( 484 )

        A search for topics on "stochastic calculus" will be enlightening.
        Basically it's a form of one-dimension Brownian motion or card-counting with random noise rather than cards. You've got a share price you want to watch because it's constantly moving up and down; it's got an upper and lower bound as well as maximum/minimum deltas, so you know there are good times to buy and good times to sell. The electronic trading system gives you the option of buying and selling and canceling orders at different times in t

    • by fliptout ( 9217 )

      Oh, please, spare me. I see this sentiment everywhere, and it's nonsense. Traditional investing still works. At the end of the day, investors are still going to look at how much money a company makes and assess how much risk that company's stock poses. If HFT causes blips in a stock's price, the the market will eventually correct the price.

    • by MarkvW ( 1037596 ) on Sunday July 31, 2011 @12:47AM (#36937092)

      We pay our taxes to these guys as much as we pay them to the government.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday July 31, 2011 @12:55AM (#36937110)

      "Perversion of Capitalism"

      No it;s exactly what you get in the real world where market values (profit) drive everything. We see it all the time in offshored jobs, destroyed lives, rolling back of the welfare state, the election of extreme right wing conservatives like Stephen harper.

      This "there is some pure capitalism we have to get back to" bullshit is just that - bullshit. The left was born from captialism killing workers, it caused two world wars and then then there was the cold war. This idea that is some 'benign' capitalism we have to get back to is just utter american ignorance.

    • by Sir_Sri ( 199544 )


      Seriously, what's the problem? If there's a difference in price between two exchanges those prices should balance out. If there's a difference in price between trading in different currencies, they should even out. This is just doing it quickly. The money was always there to be made, it's just in smaller increments now.

      If you can, with the right data, specify an algorithm on which to base the buying of companies, then it is a problem best executed by machines rather than people. Your concept of "in

      • by bjourne ( 1034822 ) on Sunday July 31, 2011 @03:38AM (#36937638) Homepage Journal
        I think you are missing the point completely. It is not that money is being moved around in what basically amounts to a huge zero-sum game. One daytrader has better computers or lower ping to the nyse and beats out another trader who hasn't. That's really not a problem. The problem is the huge amounts of resources that is wasted on this game and the impact we are letting it have on our lives. The worlds brightest minds are spent in the game. You may not see it as a problem that the best mathematicians and programmers are working in the finance industry instead of developing a cure for cancer, affordable space shuttles, electric cars, aids vaccine or whatever because the salaries are much higher there so obviously that is what the market wants and the market is always right. But I do, I think it is a waste. But the worst problem is the importance we are giving to the stock market game. The idea was that the stock price should reflect the progress if its company. Now it's the other way around. It doesn't matter what the company does, if the stock price is high, then that's good otherwise it is bad. Oh and if the price of most stocks are low, and most players in the game have lost, then that is really bad. It's a depression coming and because the game was busted the rest of society will have to clean it up.
        • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday July 31, 2011 @06:39AM (#36938140)

          Look, what am I supposed to do.

          I'm a chip designer. I used to work on beautiful hardware, you might be using some of my products to play games even today. Turns out, ASIC design is screwed as a business in so many ways, and it's not because of outsourcing. People just don't want the hardware all that much, and they don't pay a lot for it. The chips are priced by cost of manufacturing, not cost of R&D, and so R&D is basically cut to the bone on salaries.

          Outside of financial companies (and FPGA vendors, who have been trying to sell this idea unsuccessfully to everyone on the planet for the last 10 years), nobody seems to have recognized that bringing stuff into hardware (FPGAs, for instance) can make money through performance. So that's where I work.

  • Traders (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday July 30, 2011 @11:22PM (#36936730)

    "the 'ability to work under pressure when the traders are screaming at you' is a must-have skill.""

    Yeah, most of the 'traders' I've met were complete assholes, probably because they realised their high salaries were more down to luck than skill.

    Fortunately when I screw up air traffic controllers just have to start rerouting airliners with hundreds of people on board so they don't crash into each other, so I clearly couldn't justify being paid a Wall Street salary. I can't imagine the stress level of having a 'trader' screaming at me.

    • Re:Traders (Score:5, Interesting)

      by artor3 ( 1344997 ) on Saturday July 30, 2011 @11:30PM (#36936772)

      It's not even luck, either. It's down to your ability to hob-nob with other psychopaths. My friend's brother-in-law was a trader five years back (pre-recession) and lost something like $800 million (of other people's money) in bad speculations. He was fired for it, but hired into a new firm thanks to his "connections" a few weeks later, at a higher salary than his previous job. Oh, and of course he kept the bonuses he made at the first firm before his investment went bust.

      Wall street is the world's greatest argument against the notion that capitalism rewards people in proportion to their skill and hard work.

      • Re:Traders (Score:5, Interesting)

        by Jane Q. Public ( 1010737 ) on Saturday July 30, 2011 @11:51PM (#36936860)
        The thing is: Wall Street anymore is not very "capitalist", in the historic sense of the term.

        "Capitalism", in general, refers to making capital investments in goods that in turn will make a profit. Often, that means indirectly and over time: you spend $1M to buy a machine that makes thousands of widgets a day, and sell the widgets for $5.00 each.

        However, with the current obsession with turnover and a quick dollar, what you end up with on Wall Street is really much more pure money speculation, which doesn't have much in the way of capitalist underpinnings. In fact it is a lot more like gambling, which has been around a lot longer than capitalism has.

        We simply haven't been seeing the long-term investment in capital goods, which in turn power a robust economy, and at one time made the US the greatest economy in the world.

        Until we see a return to something resembling real capitalism (and it still does happen, just not so much on Wall Street anymore), we will continue to have economic problems. A corollary to that is something I have been saying for a long time: Washington needs to stop concentrating on viewing Wall Street as some kind of driver for the economy. That's a false economy. Reasoning: anything that can lose a large percentage of itself overnight is not a stable thing on which to base a real economy. Keynesian "created" fiat dollars can disappear just as fast as they are created, as we saw quite clearly in 2008.

        And for similar reasons, I believe HFT should be outlawed. It isn't even a real market anymore; it's simply a contest to see who can spot a discrepancy in perceived value the fastest.
        • Re:Traders (Score:5, Insightful)

          by timeOday ( 582209 ) on Sunday July 31, 2011 @12:43AM (#36937076)
          I agree HFT is rubbish, but where do you see justification for long-term investment in capital goods in the US? It seems that industry is being moved to where it can be operated more cheaply - there is no economic justification for more investment here. In fact there's a surplus of "capital," at lest in the sense of invested money seeking good returns. (Overall the S&P has returned almost exactly 0% over the last 10 years.) So we keep getting bubbles due to over-investment, first in .com, then housing... what is the "next big thing" where we could invest to bring real growth?
          • Re:Traders (Score:5, Interesting)

            by Jane Q. Public ( 1010737 ) on Sunday July 31, 2011 @02:14AM (#36937326)

            "I agree HFT is rubbish, but where do you see justification for long-term investment in capital goods in the US? It seems that industry is being moved to where it can be operated more cheaply - there is no economic justification for more investment here."

            Industry WAS being moved to where it can operate more cheaply. And there is plenty of justification. If you're American.

            First, let me say this and get it out of the way: China's economy has been slowing. It's not exactly something they advertise, but it's true nevertheless. Further (and I won't claim this is directly related): there is a new Chinese "consumer class" that scarcely existed before, and they are hankering for goods that are not made at home. But having said that, I'm not going to belabor it, and instead I will concentrate on the U.S.

            We have learned some things over the last couple of decades. One of the things we have learned is that regardless of whether it results in cheaper goods, outsourcing is bad for the economy. We know for a fact (it is not a guess or just a theory anymore) that it costs jobs at home, and those jobs are more valuable to our economy than the cheaper goods are.

            Further, outsourcing is not "fair trade", because it artificially bypasses exchange rates. It is easy enough to say that "U.S. labor can't compete with foreign labor for the same amount of pay". Which is a true statement... but it's only half the story. It's a lie by omission. Because we aren't really competing on an equal basis. Let me construct a simplified example to illustrate the point (numbers just pulled out of the air to make the point):

            Company X wants to hire people to manufacture widgets. It can hire unskilled Americans for $10 per hour, or Crotobaltoslavonian workers for $2 per hour. But here's the thing: In America, that $10 buys about 5 pounds of rice. In Crotobaltoslavonia, that $2 buys 10 pounds of rice. So in actual purchasing power, you're paying that Crotobaltoslavonian the equivalent of $20 per hour in America. Americans literally can't compete for that amount because it doesn't pay them enough to eat... in THEIR economy.

            And that's the whole point. Economies are different. That's just the reality of the situation. And that's why we have exchange rates... to keep trading FAIR between countries. But hiring labor in a foreign country, in effect, bypasses that exchange rate, and so it is not a "fair trade". Americans are hurt in the process... even if rich Company X gets to keep a few more dollars. We are exporting even more dollars than what they keep as a result... and that doesn't help our economy, either. So it hurts in several different ways, not just one.

            Savvy companies actually realize this, but they just don't care. Which is pretty unethical, if you ask me. They are willing to sacrifice your $10 so they can make an extra $1 in eventual profits. And you should be angry about that.

            Plain and simple: we need to bring the manufacturing jobs back home. Partly because of the direct monetary imbalance that outsourcing causes, and partly because we need to keep that capital investment (in machines and buildings and other capital goods that can actually MAKE things) here at home, rather than letting it be done overseas at our expense.

            "In fact there's a surplus of "capital," at lest in the sense of invested money seeking good returns. ... So we keep getting bubbles due to over-investment, first in .com, then housing... what is the "next big thing" where we could invest to bring real growth?"

            The bubbles aren't due to a surplus of capital, per se. I mean they are, but the proximate cause of that surplus is indisputably government monetary policy. They have been keeping interest rates artificially low to "stimulate" the economy (BEFORE the 2001 and 2008 bubble burstings). Easy money means more capital. But it wasn't invested in capital goods, intended to

            • Further, outsourcing is not "fair trade", because it artificially bypasses exchange rates.

              Then perhaps the problem is that the exchange rates are lower in the first place. The "Penn effect" is an observation that less industrialized countries have cheaper currencies than purchasing power parity alone would predict. This is traditionally explained by the Balassa-Samuelson model that developed countries are more efficient at producing tradable goods and services. Some goods and services are "local": some goods spoil quickly in intercontinental transit, and personal services such as health and beau

              • I've been told that one of the justifications for the rise in subprime mortgage lending involved mandates from the U.S. government to make home ownership easier for lower-income people, especially those in groups that were traditionally targets of racist discrimination. See Community Reinvestment Act.

                Told by Fox News, I take it.

                If you'd bother to read the article you linked to, that myth is well debunked. Stick a fork in it already.

                Now if you can explain how the act caused such a fuck up in commercial prop

          • Re:Traders (Score:4, Insightful)

            by Jane Q. Public ( 1010737 ) on Sunday July 31, 2011 @02:21AM (#36937350)
            I meant to add:

            Q: How can we bring jobs back home?

            A: By directly -- and heavily -- taxing companies that outsource labor and manufacturing. This avoids the pitfalls of tariffs: we would not be blocking trade from coming into or going out of the country. However, we would be demanding compensation for our economy, from the companies that have been so harming it by their practices. That's about as fair as it gets.

            (It's also not a subsidy by the government... so it avoids those problems, too. Instead, it is a source of revenue TO the government.)
            • You realize all that would happen then is that the company itself would relocate overseas. It might have very large offices in the US, but they would all be "branch offices". All this tax would do is punish companies that are assholes enough to outsource labor, but not assholes enough to evade taxes by leaving the country.

              What do you do then? Require businesses that do business here to be based here? Ultimately, it's a walled garden approach. Someone will root it and break the system.

              No, the best optio

            • I meant to add: Q: How can we bring jobs back home? A: By directly -- and heavily -- taxing companies that outsource labor and manufacturing. This avoids the pitfalls of tariffs: we would not be blocking trade from coming into or going out of the country. However, we would be demanding compensation for our economy, from the companies that have been so harming it by their practices. That's about as fair as it gets. (It's also not a subsidy by the government... so it avoids those problems, too. Instead, it is a source of revenue TO the government.)

              All that does is add a "tax" on every product made in the US. It would essentially raise the cost of goods produced in the US to an artificially high level since now US labor and production is "competitive" to out sourced labor and production. As a result, the cost of goods increases and less people are able to buy them. You don't magically create more wealth, you just inflate the costs of goods - less people buy and the workers you helped are out of a job again.

              The key is productivity - if you can make mo

        • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

          by Anonymous Coward

          When people talk about 'return to a capitalistic base'. They are talking about the sort of thing where 500 people build things on assembly lines making things. That sort of thing only exists in very low wage countries these days. In higher wage countries those jobs are automated.

          I was watching a 'how its made' show. They showed a factory that was picked up 100% brick by brick and moved to another country from the US. Why? The factory was build for building things using humans. The labor here costs to

        • Wall Street can be a driver for economy, but we have to get rid of the locusts. The "investors" that try to squeeze money quickly from companies, bleed them dry, dump them and repeat this bloodletting with the next. To do this, there is very little actually needed: Reward long term investment and the creation of goods and services (and jobs!), and punish short time gambling. For this, all you have to do is to install a hefty tax on short term trading and reward holding stock. One could, e.g. create a tax th

  • Stress (Score:5, Interesting)

    by MichaelSmith ( 789609 ) on Saturday July 30, 2011 @11:27PM (#36936754) Homepage Journal

    I used to co-locate in the same building as the local stock exchange. One day, very late, I took the elevator down to the car park, which was where the computers were. There was a guy in the elevator who looked absolutely wrecked. He was sweaty, shaky and not taking things in. He got off at my level and stumbled off towards a porsche which appeared to be similarly young and in equally bad condition.

    The thing is, I work in air traffic control, where the stakes are even higher. The difference is that the operational people have an absolutely obsessive approach to managing their workforce. Traffic controllers are just not allowed to get upset or stressed. In many environments they have unlimited sick leave.

    The difference, I suppose, is that traders personally stand to take home a lot of money. You could do this in any field: offer ridiculous compensation for ridiculous effort. But if you work it out, I doubt the long term returns justify what this does to people.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday July 30, 2011 @11:29PM (#36936764)

    I'll be posting anonymously, but I think many here have a very poor understanding of what we do. Most of that is because we do tend to be a very secretive group, but if you were to sit down with some of us, you would see that we really do very normal (and useful!) things in the market.

    I work on the algo and core infrastructure. I wrote price feeds that take 1/5th of a microsecond in C++ and (a little slower) in Java. I understand in fine detail how cache and the the PCI-e bus works. I have a very good understanding of algorithms and the constant-time tradeoffs. I know when to make something simple, when to use and avoid threads, and I can debug in minutes and push out a new version in the seconds before market open (not many people can handle that level of stress well). I read the C++ and Hotspot assembly, and know how to program for superscaler architectures specifically. If you really need me to, I can even crank out some VHDL code.

    On top of that, I understand market microstructure and derivative pricing. I work 12 hours a day on average and do 100 hour weeks. I am on call during Asian hours and need to come in sometimes on holidays when other markets are going nuts and we need to plan.

    I also hope to make $500,000 this year.

    You always hear about Google programmers being the best in the industry, but I've been to a couple Google interviews and turned them down both times because the engineering quality just isn't there. I'd put the average HFT programmer up against the best in Google anyday.

    Ask away, and I'll answer to the best of my ability.

    • I can debug in minutes and push out a new version in the seconds

      You must be taking a huge gamble by doing that. I don't see how your new version could be considered safe to use if it is deployed that fast.

      • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday July 31, 2011 @12:06AM (#36936922)
        Another HFT programmer here. I once had to make a run-time modification to an algorithm to keep about $100 million from going at a lower price than what the traders wanted. Sometimes market conditions change so fast that the traders demand the ability to make rapid adjustments to the algorithm. They're willing to take the risk. They can't wait for the safe development cycle.
        • by Mr. Freeman ( 933986 ) on Sunday July 31, 2011 @01:02AM (#36937130)
          "They can't wait for the safe development cycle."

          This, from the people in charge of trading amazingly large amounts of money in a market which influences the global economy in a big way. (remember that billion vs. million mix-up awhile back that caused some pretty big problems until it was fixed)

          You call it risky, I call it reckless. You try what you're doing in any other field and you'd be fired pretty damn quick.

          That said, I'm not so much angry at you as I am at the people who ask you to do this.
          • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday July 31, 2011 @01:42AM (#36937232)

            Yet another HFT programmer here. Let me address your concern about the risk to the market. HFT systems have tons of controls which govern our ability to trade. We have what we call 'doors', which act like circuit breakers. When a door is closed, it prevents any further trading. Doors can be triggered by any number of conditions (abnormally high P&L, too much exposure, etc.), and there are strict compliance policies governing how and when they can be reopened. We also have throttle-style controls ("speed bumps") which effectively limit how many trades we can make in a given time window. These controls can be configured per security, per name, per exchange, or globally. They are extremely robust, and we maintain them meticulously.

            We take these matters very, very seriously. We are at the mercy of the exchanges: if we screw up and don't contain the damage, they will revoke our ability to trade, effectively shutting us down.

          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            by Anonymous Coward

            Not HFT here, but I'm a finance quant. Testing is a critical part of banks' infrastructure--for the obvious reasons but also regulatory reasons. For example you'll find derivative pricing models subject to high levels of scrutiny. The standards may be lower at hedge funds and other unregulated (in the legal sense) entities.

            But you have to be able to fix stuff in the middle of the day. Sometimes things break, or market are going crazy, or maybe the trade you thought you booked wasn't the actual trade you

      • by Jayson ( 2343 )

        To some extend yes, but the order management and routing systems have checks and there are circuit breakers to prevent total trainwrecks. It is a cost/benefit thing. How likely am I to lose $10k immediatey verus make $50k on the market close? One very important skill is in being able to estimate how likely you think you are right.

        I wouldn't do this for huge programs or where the lost can be gigantic or I couldn't evaluate the risk.

        Trying to cut corners, I did lose $1.6 million one day because I had a bug in

        • by Jayson ( 2343 )

          FYI, I'm not the original poster, but another HFT developer. That is the only >$1mm loss I've ever had, but have had smaller, and it wasn't exactly for what some consider HFT, but for a trend prediction system. It was for an overseas illiquid market across a couple instruments and we had a bug elsewhere that didn't count our position properly.

        • It sounds a bit like:

          • If I change nothing I am out of business
          • If I make a mistake I am out of business
          • If I change the code and it works then I am in business

          So you change the code and take the risk.

    • by demonlapin ( 527802 ) on Saturday July 30, 2011 @11:38PM (#36936800) Homepage Journal

      I also hope to make $500,000 this year

      That's all? Demand more, if your skills are what you say. You should be pulling in $2M/yr minimum.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday July 30, 2011 @11:41PM (#36936808)
      how do you feel about having all that talent and technical ability, yet produce absolutely nothing of value to society and instead spend your time allowing psychopaths to beat other psychopaths by fractions of a second, all to the detriment of everyone else?
    • by NFN_NLN ( 633283 )

      ...we really do very normal (and useful!) things in the market...

      You can't tell me that a company changed direction in 1/5th of a microsecond. You're not allocating capital investment to companies based on actual merit, you're skimming money from other investors.

      John Templeton and Warren Buffet didn't get rich through micro-transactions. They allocated capital to companies, allowed them time to prosper and *if* they did, then they were rewarded.

      You've convinced me of your technical skills but not that "[you] really do very normal (and useful!) things in the market".

      • I can tell you that the investors who bought the stock _first_ after the company's announcement of better-than-expected annual earnings was published, and started to push up the value of the stock, might indeed make a lot of money. Being the stock trader that handled the trades for them is also a reliable source of revenue. Being able to sell your stock clients a slight advantage in profits, one that you can measure, can easily bring in an unreasonable amount of extra business.

        The business is very strange,

      • Warren Buffet didn't get rich through micro-transactions.

        Warren Buffet gets rich by loudly proclaiming that estate taxes should be increased. Then he buys distressed companies out from under the family of the founder when they prove impossible to pass on to the next generation.

        And he buys companies distressed in other ways to 'fix' them or to chop them up and sell the parts. Truly an American Hero, worthy of the adulation he gets as the poster boy 'good capitalist' by the left.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday July 31, 2011 @12:14AM (#36936948)

      $500,000 divide by 52 weeks = $9,615 / week
      $9,615 divide by 100 hours = $96.15

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward
        $9,615 / (40 hours + (60 hours overtime * 1.5)) = $73.96 hourly wage
    • Where do you get these price feeds from (or route the prices to) ? surely you could save 5e-7s just by using shorter cables or putting the mic and speakers closer to the traders.
      • by pyite ( 140350 )

        Where do you get these price feeds from (or route the prices to) ? surely you could save 5e-7s just by using shorter cables or putting the mic and speakers closer to the traders.

        Nearly all market data is transmitted from the exchanges via IP multicast. Typically you will have servers in each exchange to trade on that exchange, but you also will have links pulling in market data from every other relevant venue as well.

        See, for example, Spread Networks [] who made a lot of money by digging a really straight tren

    • and how many prostitutes do they kill, on average, per year?

    • You may call yourself skilled but I call you lucky. Too many in finance mistake luck for skill. You cannot possibly understand all of the problems and assess all the risks that is the market (equities, futures, forex, whatever) without a lifetime devoted to study of advanced probability and game theory. But then again, Im just a mathematician and we tend to be anal about what it means to understand and be sure of things.
    • by sjames ( 1099 )

      If you mess up, some pampered asshole takes a temporary financial setback and you're fired.

      If the guy who designs nuclear reactor control systems messes up, an entire state becomes uninhabitable for decades and countless people die.

      When Apollo 11 was executing the moon landing, a warning light for the computer came on. Some guy had 30 seconds to make a go or abort decision with millions of dollars and two lives on the line and the entire world watching.

      Surgeons regularly have people's lives in their hands.

    • by bertok ( 226922 ) on Sunday July 31, 2011 @02:20AM (#36937346)

      Just because you're good at what you do doesn't mean that what you do is good.

      Microseconds? Why not nanoseconds? How about femtoseconds? Why wouldn't that make just as much sense?

      What could possibly change in the underlying value of a corporation made up of flesh and blood humans and capital with decades of depreciation in a fucking microsecond? Here's a hint: nothing. You are not investing, or trading, but simply racing other gamblers. Investing doesn't benefit from microsecond response times, and trading doesn't need it either. People could buy IPO shares just fine over the phone. Nobody ever needed a microsecond response time to buy a thousand bushels of wheat, and never will, because bread is baked daily, not a million times a fucking second.

      If politicians had two braincells to rub together, they'd enact a law to prevent trades faster than some tick, say, an hour. Your 'trading' company would go out of business in a week, and nobody would care. Farmers would still sell their wheat, and bakers would still buy it, but without you leeches skimming off the top.

      • by Renevith ( 1556657 ) on Sunday July 31, 2011 @12:13PM (#36939528)

        Do you ever buy or sell stock? Perhaps indirectly, through a mutual fund or 401k type plan? If so, then you benefit from high liquidity in the market. HFT and other Wall Street shenanigans do skim from the top, but they also provide liquidity. It's almost certain that the liquidity benefits small market players more than the skimming hurts them. In other words, the money they're skimming comes from the banks and brokers rather than you and me.

        For example, take the stock of Red Hat ( Yahoo Finance right now shows that, as of the last time the market was open, I could buy 100 shares for $42.56 (that's the "ask" or best current asking price), or I could sell 300 shares for $42.09 (the best available "bid"). That's a bid-ask spread of about 50 cents. That spread is a hidden cost to either buying or selling stock: If you buy and then sell RHT, you will have paid about 50 cents per share just for the privilege, even if nothing in particular happens to the company. Let's split that 50-50 and say that every stock transaction in RHT (buy or sell) costs you 25 cents per share in implied fees.

        Those bids and asks are set by individuals and companies who are competing. They want to get a good deal for either buying or selling the stock, but they also know that if they set asking price too high or their bid too low, they'll never make any trades. The more competition there is, the tighter the bid-ask spread will be. HFT and other algorithmic approaches allow firms to set prices on tons of stocks without requiring human attention for each one, which dramatically increases the competition and thus tightens the bid-ask spread.

        In this example, if you outlaw HFT and similar trading strategies, maybe RHT will have a spread of $1 intead of 50 cents. Maybe you'll be happy that HFTers aren't making ther 5 cent skim off the top anymore, but it'll be cold comfort when you're paying 25 cents more on each transaction and it's just going to a different Wall Street firm.

        If you think I'm exaggerating the effect of computerized trading of the spread, have a look at slide 8 (page 4) of this study: []. Starting in 1960, the average bid-ask spread has ben dropping steadily every decade to a small fraction of what it used to be.

        Background: I am an actuary trained in quantitative finance. I've never worked in Wall Street or done any HFT or other algo trading.

        • You haven't really explained why that's a bad thing. If the spread is more, then that means you can't make money from he noise as easily, you have to actually invest your money based on your expectation of the long-term performance of a company (or invest it in unusually volatile stocks, if you really like gambling). It seems that this would make it easier for companies that had good long-term business models to get investment, which would be good for the economy overall.
      • Why would information about a company only change on some tick, say, an hour? Wouldn't that be unfair to firms that are not a phone call away? Why not make it 24 hours, or a quarter? Open the trade floor once a year for 15 minutes. You make a mistake, wait a year. Probably often better than waiting an hour.

        So, what could possibly change in the underlying value of a corporation in a microsecond? Nothing, you are right. The stock market is however not trading the underlying value (as this value is unknown

    • by rdnetto ( 955205 )

      What can you tell us about the trading algorithms? I understand that it's mostly trade secrets, but if you could even say what broad area it's in, I'd appreciate it.

    • by Alex Belits ( 437 ) * on Sunday July 31, 2011 @06:11AM (#36938080) Homepage

      I am most likely better than you at each and every aspect of software (and HDL) development you have mentioned. Except, of course, "debugging in minutes" -- that kind of irresponsibility would get me fired. I also have to work long hours, and have to have clear understanding of complex issues unrelated to software.

      Except I do embedded software and FPGA development for professional audio equipment. Each device I worked on, each firmware release, each line of code, does something useful for many, many people. Some of those people don't even know that audio equipment, leave alone software, is involved with what they are hearing. Large fraction of my work ends up being free/open source, too -- platform, drivers, etc.

      I also don't have any problems with posting here under my real name. Or with telling you, and people like you, to die in a fire.

  • They're paid not to steal (or at least not get caught).

  • yeeeeeah (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday July 30, 2011 @11:33PM (#36936782)

    I'm past the whole "a-holes can yell at me if they pay me enough" phase.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    I'm a developer at an HFT firm and can say that it is some of the most interesting work I've done in my career. You need to wear many hats for the job.

    On a daily basis I multitask between making low-level kernel modifications to reduce system latencies, to refactoring our high level marketdata->prediction->execution engine. It's a never ending balance/conflict between making things as fast as possible while trying to maintain good design principles and not take shortcuts in the sole interest of effi

    • by pyite ( 140350 )

      However, the amazing advancement in network technology and all these crazy RDMA and 10G user-space network stacks is literally due to the HFT community

      This is completely true. Financial applications are driving HPC components in a way that educational and government spending haven't in years and years of use.

  • by kervin ( 64171 ) on Saturday July 30, 2011 @11:39PM (#36936804) Homepage

    As some of the interviewers in the article hint at, HFT is a small niche that's getting way more than its share of attention.

    I'm not saying HFT isn't dangerous, or something to keep an eye on. But if you're looking for a job in Manhattan financial sector, you'll more likely be working in web or other "high level" stacks.

    Java is *huge*, .Net is also very popular. Web is, of course, very important with just about every stack, from Ruby to ASP.Net represented. I see a surprising about of MatLab for analysis ( I guess I just wasn't expecting to see any with QuantLib [] and similar floating around ).

  • I get e-mails ALL the time from these people up in NYC. If i so much as wink at my resume online differently I can always be certain that I will be receiving many opening jobs in the trading and banking industry. In fact, throughout my career, this has always been the case. I live in Florida. Why in the world would they be trying to recruit me from florida and why have I always gotten e-mails from them. Is it because they have a lot of people leaving? Do people get frequent burnout? Are they just spamming?

    The last "recruiter" to e-mail me wanted to know if I was looking for a 'great' opportunity in the banking industry writing C++ applications with a big whopping salary of $100,000 with a 12 month contract. Since i was tired of these people wasting their time trying to contact me I e-mailed them back and asked why they thought I would just get up and move from Florida to New York for a 1 year contract and i tried to get confirmation of a starting salary of $100,000 a year. He e-mailed back stating that $100,000 was indeed the starting salary with great 'benefits'. So i e-mailed back and informed him that i was already making $75,000 there and no state taxes so $100K really wasn't that great of a deal, especially considering that I would have to make 4 times my current salary that I am making now just to come close to breaking even in NYC. Incidentally I never got another e-mail back from him.

    When you have a family, there is no way I am giving up a house to move to NYC to live in a one bedroom closet for the same price as my 4 bedroom house. - with less income coming in.
    • by malakai ( 136531 )

      You do it for the bonus, not the salary. But either way, you don't do it for a 1 year contract.

      • yeah but the cost of housing costs about 3 or 4 times as much for what i am living in now. how much does a 3,000 sq ft home cost in the NYC suburbs anyway? I am also aware of the fact that if i want to maintain that same sort of lifestyle then i am not going to be living in city which is not going to work with kids - but maybe if people do end up working 100 hour weeks, then it is probably more suited to people that have no family at all to take care of. So what are we talking about here? A 1 hour commute o
        • Lived in NYC, worked there in Fortune 10 (yes ten) companies as a Sys Admin, got out when I got a chance and a nice offer far-far away in a land of sanity, relaxation, no state taxes, affordable housing, and am never coming back to NYC. The quality of life anywhere else is so much better in all the ways than the daily grind in NYC no matter how much they pay you. The disgusting NYC subway system shows the true underbelly of the city.

          NYC financial recruiters (aka head hunters) and companies always get thei

  • Unfortunately, us systems/network engineers in the HFT industry don't get the same level of respect (or pay) as the developers... It's better than other industries, but yeah...
  • When I worked on the Canadian Automated Air Traffic Control System (CAATS) Ada skills were at a premium, and I was recruited from Australia on $80,000, in 1998, so that's probably $150K plus in 2011. The project had nearly two hundred Ada engineers recruited from around the world, on similar, or better, salaries. Plus, it was a great project, great team, moderate pressure, and in one of the worlds most beautiful cities!

    I shifted to C++ and then .Net, but I think the Ada market has kept high salaries, even w

  • I interviewed once for a trading firm. They were honest at the interview and told me that someone would probably scream at me for something that wasn't my fault. I declined.

    I had another friend who did take a job up there (different firm and not a programmer). She was ready to quit and was complaining about how mean they were. I tried to console her and told her she had no way of knowing what it would be like. Then she told me that they actually made her cry during the interview but she took the job an

    • by jcr ( 53032 )

      I've heard stories like this, but I never encountered anyone yelling at me in all the time I spent in the financial industry. This was over several years in NYC and Chicago, at Salomon, UBS/Warburg, JP Morgan, and Phibro energy. The only time anyone ever did yell at me at work, I just turned my back on him, went to my desk, and calmly packed up my stuff while he and his boss were frantically apologizing and begging me to stay.


  • Wall Street (Score:5, Insightful)

    by br00tus ( 528477 ) on Sunday July 31, 2011 @02:05AM (#36937296)

    I worked for a Fortune 100 financial company in Manhattan. Some of the nastiest people I ever worked with were there. I also never worked anywhere where the company made more clear to me that I was a disposable cog. Not that that isn't the case elsewhere, but management usually tries to at least conceal it. I worked 60 hours a week, including weekends, and I was on the low end compared to others who were working to move up in the hierarchy.

    There was a limited and fixed bonus pool, so if you got less money, others got more. I'm sure this was a plan by management - the firm was so wealthy, they felt it better their workers be divided against one another than working together. They did this in a variety of ways - staff versus contractors, contractor firm versus rival contractor firm and so forth. This encouraged people trying to rip one another apart during weekly meetings, code reviews and the like.

    The office politics can be strange too. I used to be on conference calls with a programmer with a huge ego, and who people deferred to because the program suite he wrote was important for the firm. The program was shoddy though, it had massive memory leaks and the like. But he and the team under him were able to throw it together quickly and the business people were happy with him so he was a golden boy. It wouldn't have been so bad if he wasn't always denigrating everyone else's work with a holier-than-thou attitude. I wasn't in a position to say anything though. Lots of stuff like this happens. A lot.

    It was not all bad. It was a large environment. Stuff I would have done maybe once a year at a smaller company I was doing every day there. I was surrounded by dozens of people who were sharp and knew what they were doing. There was a feeling of camaraderie among some of us. It is hard to explain the change in quality due to the sheer size of the company, with its ability to spend massively if needed.

    One thing I will say - unless you are there to work 24/7/365 and try to make it to be one of these "highest paid programmers", there is no reason to be there. Some of my co-workers joined straight of college, which seemed dumb to me. Anyone who takes a job for less than six figures is a fool - if you don't have the skills to make at least $100k, there is no reason to work there. It is not the place to come in at a low level and hang around.

    To repeat a point - anyone who takes a job on Wall Street right out of college is a fool. They recruit heavily on campuses for the same reason Microsoft and Intel and Electronic Arts do: so they can take advantage of suckers with no work experience who don't know any better. Thankfully I didn't make this mistake. I was able to put everything I saw there into perspective. Going from college straight to Wall Street as a programmer is a dumb move for most people.

  • by hsk17 ( 1156449 ) on Sunday July 31, 2011 @03:19AM (#36937562)
    Disclaimer: I work at an HFT firm.

    The implied accusations are flying out of the page like daggers. I wish you, Slashdot readers, could see the world through my eyes. As techno-savvy as you are, you somehow love to hate on HFT without having any idea what it is. Don't get me wrong -- I really don't care if you hate it. What bothers me is that haters have NO IDEA what HFT is doing and basically project their hatred for finance onto it.

    I have to say, this article is pretty level-headed. I was expecting more baseless accusations. Of course, the article throws around the typical "HFT was blamed for the huge drop in the stock market in May 2010..." If you cared to look at the linked WSJ article, you would have read that Waddell's desk had sold 75,000 E-mini contracts at the start of the flash crash. If you cared to look at the CFTC report that officially investigated the flash crash on May 6th, you would have read that CFTC blames the flash crash on some trader who executed a large sell order worth $4.1 billion dollars -- why, isn't that just about 75,000 E-minis?

    You would have also read that HFT firms actually mitigated Waddell's mistake. They were there to absorb the thousands of E-minis and so dramatically lessened the initial impact. It's really quite admirable the amount of precision coders needed to invoke in order to create a system that executes so quickly and at scale during such a turbulent period. I was hoping that the discourse here would be more along those lines.

    Unfortunately, the amount of volume that Waddell executed was too much risk for the traders to bear, so they started getting out of their positions. In fact, no one could handle a trade of such size. It was as if someone predicted the collapse of the US economy and bet $4.1 billion on it. The ensuing chaos was purely the after-effects of the initial destruction caused by Waddell.

    New technologies can be used for bad. I bet there's plenty of bad traders manipulating the markets and using speed as an unfair advantage. We need to police HFT, for sure. But I'm also sure that people are using guns to kill other people out of malice, using cars to traffick illegal drugs, and using airplanes to destroy buildings. HFT is a style of trading. It's a technique, not a strategy. The sooner we realize this, the more progress we will make as a society in implementing policies and regulations.

    You guys all hate on HFT, but you are really the ones benefitting from this technology. In market making there's a spread -- the difference between the lowest ask price and the highest bid price. Take a look at the most liquid stocks. They are probably trading at 1 cent wide spreads. Compare that to years ago when spreads used to be dollars. Go to a bank and look at the currency exchange rates. I just did a look into Bank of America's spreads. 100 euros gets you 135.35 dollars. Based on recent trading prices on the public exchanges, 100 euros should be able to fetch closer to 143.62 dollars. BoA is charging a spread that is more that 5% of the value of the product! I don't blame them -- the landscape in the currency markets discourages technological innovation and competition.

    This phenomenon isn't true just for currencies. It's true for most products that are not regulated or traded publicly. You, the average investor, are being ripped off dearly investing into these opaque markets. The size of spreads is truly a symbol of capitalism. If there's competition, the spreads are tight. If there's monopoly, the spreads are wide.

    You complain about HFT being super fast and "shaving off transactions" as if we somehow have access to your accounts and embezzle money a la Office Space. That's like complaining about WalMart having such efficient systems and internal logistics that your cereal is getting too cheap. Yes, I do believe that some traders use speed unfairly, and yes, WalMart probably did shady things we don't know about, but my point is that not every trader is bad. Technology
    • Sorry, but I don't buy it. I posted something similar above, but please explain how pushing transaction speed from 50 microseconds to 44 microseconds actually benefits any normal person. I honestly don't believe it does. But, the HFT who has that faster algorithm becomes tremendously wealthy while the 10% slower algorithm is put out of business.

      You can state that you are providing liquidity to the world, which you are, but compared to the liquidity we had perhaps 10 years ago, I really don't see how you're

    • by Xyrus ( 755017 )

      I don't think people here have a problem with HFT technology or understanding it. It's how it is being used (and abused) that make people angry.

      The anger directed at HFT is really misplaced. It should be on the banks and firms who use it, shady practices, and dark markets to bend the world over so they can make more money. I think people are also angry with the fact that these companies continue to rake in the cash and profits, while simultaneously bitching about taxes. A recent report cited companies makin

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