Never EVER stop coding: even when you're a director or MD

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It’s not easy to make managing director (MD) if you work in the technology function of an investment bank. For example, although Goldman Sachs elevated more technologists than ever before in its last round of MD-promotions in 2015, all "federation" promotions (including technology, compliance, operations and internal audit) combined still only accounted for around 20% of the total. This isn't great when you consider that nearly a third of Goldman's employees are now technologists. If you want to make it to the top in tech, you’ll need to be fortunate.

Marc Adler has been up there. He spent three years as a director and chief architect in Citi's equities division and two years as head of front office development at Citadel Securities. He's been chief architect for insurance firm MetLife and head of the platform and architecture group for Quantifi, a provider of risk, analytics and trading platforms.  Right now, he's on sabbatical before beginning a chief architect's role with a "company you would know."

However high he rises in the corporate hierarchy, however, Adler says he doesn't stop writing code.

“My mantra is ABC,” Adler says. “Always Be Coding. I saw what happened when the dot com bubble burst in 2001 and 2002 and I saw what happened after the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009. Companies cut back on technology managers and if you don’t have hard tech skills, you can be very vulnerable when the market turns.

“It’s the ability to code that gets you through the downturns,” adds Adler. "If you're a technologist you need to be learning all the time."

In Adler's case, learning all the time has meant developing a clone of Uber, the ride-sharing device app using Scala Akka within the Play Framework. "These are interesting new technologies," says Adler. "You always need to stay current. I subscribe to hundreds of blogs and read through as many as I can."

Staying current is a struggle though, particularly when your day job doesn't involve writing cutting edge code but managing teams of programmers maintaining legacy systems.  "You're going to need to this in your own time," says Adler. "You need to make the time in your lunch hour, when you get home, or when you're riding the train to work."

It helps too if your employer encourages coding among senior staff. In this sense, rising through the ranks of a bank as an engineer can be similar to rising through the ranks as a trader: the more senior you get, the more you're expected to manage people and the less time you have to code or trade yourself. Some banks are better at making time for senior staff to code than others: Goldman Sachs, for example, has a reputation for keeping its MDs hands-on.

"When I became chief architect at Citi I still managed to code while leading the dev teams because I had an understanding with the business owners and a very understanding CTO," says Adler. "But at another organization, I had to spend weeks every year budgeting and planning and reviewing systems and it was almost impossible to maintain a hands on capability."

Burned by this experience, Adler advises senior engineers to find out as much as possible about a company's culture before joining. "Chief architect can mean every different things to different people. Some companies will expect a chief architect simply to evaluate technology and to be a proof of concept and governance role. Others will expect the architect to be involved in building the system. You need to do your due diligence before you start."

And if you join a firm which expects it senior engineers to be hands-off? Adler says to beware: "Once you've gone into a pure management role, it can be very difficult to get back to coding."


Photo credit: Danger Cliff Edge by Tom Parnell is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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