Opening Cross: Balancing and Evolving with Your Greatest Asset

A company's greatest asset isn't the products it creates, or even how it uses them; it's the people who create them.

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The lights dim. The room goes silent, as awards host Leigh Diffey opens the envelope containing the winner’s name. “And the award for Best Trading Performance goes to… Algorithm X29a4!” Amid applause, a rack of servers trundles up to the stage and is greeted by guest speaker Steve Matchett, who poses for photographs with the winner.

In a voice somewhere between Siri and Stephen Hawking, X29a4 thanks the gathered audience, lists those it couldn’t have won without—its datacenter, FPGA supplier, and datafeed provider—and gives a tearful thank-you to its parents Algo BestEx29 and  Algo TCAa4 (and ,of course, God—aka Skynet).

At this week’s Inside Market Data and Inside Reference Data Awards, we recognize the latest technological achievements, but it’s the individuals who sweat and toil to create these capabilities who we praise for their success or hold accountable for their failure.

And for each and every company up for an award, it’s important to remember that their greatest asset is not a piece of hardware or software, but rather the people behind it, who will be creating new code and chips long after today’s components have been rendered  obsolete.

That’s why I’m always heartened by stories that are fundamentally about people, rather than the products they create.  So stories like those about low-latency data and trading infrastructure provider Fixnetix hiring a raft of new salespeople, or Swiss momentum analytics vendor Trendrating  planning to double its headcount over the next year fill me with encouragement that—in a time when so many technology processes are geared towards eliminating the need for people—some still see a need to go long on the human asset. After all, using technology to make a process more efficient doesn’t automatically mean you should cull those people—and their experience—from your roster. But it does mean you can have them focus on high-touch, high-value areas instead of the commoditized areas that are ripe for automation.

After all, without the people, we’d be awarding recognition to specific microwave dishes on towers for their low-latency connectivity. But really, how far is this from reality? OK, so the idea of an algorithm ambling up to accept their award then getting into it with a Big Data program at the afterparty is still a fiction. But the time when people will become even further removed from the engineering and configuration processes behind low-latency networks and trading may not be as distant as we think.

For example, the advent of software-defined networks and microwave connectivity means that not only can a network administrator configure wireless connectivity across different routes on the fly, but that significant parts of this process can be automated. Instead of waiting for network providers to dig trenches and lay new fiber routes, antennae can be remotely re-directed to face another direction, to obtain a better or faster signal, or to route trade flow to a different marketplace. Coupling this with network monitoring tools could allow these antennae to automatically re-route data flows based on unexpected latency, adverse weather that might affect a signal, or in the event of fault equipment. A human may still be required to set up the rules by which the network would decide what to do under certain circumstances, but it isn’t too far-fetched to say that person could then move onto more strategic initiatives, like deciding which marketplaces are worth adding to the network, or how to approach trading in new regions, and leave the execution to the machines.

Or maybe when drawing this Terminator-like fine line between man and machine, I shouldn’t use “execution” and “machines” in the same breath. Because at the end of the day, it’s not about pitting one against the other: each needs the other in order to evolve, and this industry’s greatest future successes will come from finding the right balance between our greatest assets and the new assets they create. 

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