'To Seek a Newer World'

In his final column, Tim reflects on his time at Waters and implores the industry to think — and speak — bolder as another era takes hold.

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Goodbyes are hard to do.

In his final column, Tim reflects on his time at Waters and implores the industry to think—and speak—bolder as another era takes hold.

As I depart the magazine after almost four years, I return back to the lines from Lord Tennyson’s Ulysses I read for a high school graduation speech years ago—perhaps because we all search for grandiloquent ways of leaving, and often lack the words to do so. Or perhaps because Ulysses' lines were so drilled into my eighteen-year-old brain that I can still recite most of them in my sleep.

TS Eliot called it “a perfect poem.” Robert Kennedy frequently used it in his rhetoric. Dame Judi Dench even recites it as M in one of the more dramatic moments in the James Bond film Skyfall.

Four simple declarations Ulysses ends with—“to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”—make for a strong choice of parting words.

So, in light of them, I ask myself: what to remark upon or emphasize? What can be done better? Luckily, my time at Waters has proven that financial services and its technology are ripe for this kind of reflection and advice.

Post Post-Crisis

It’s a comfortable instinct to hedge or moderate; many chief technologists have ridden this very strategy to great careers, just as many vendors thrive on it, too, and lately, so have regulators. But that’s not what’s needed to truly push things forward. As I noted above, occassionally being dead wrong is often more useful than always being half-right.

Much has changed since March 2012. When I walked onto the scene—sporting one of the more ill-advised mustaches of all time—it’s fair to say the industry was still shocked by the aftermath of 2008. Every argument, whether smart or facile, began with “The crisis; ergo…”

I fondly remember my first Waters feature predicted swap execution facility (SEF) consolidation and aggregation before many SEFs were even operational. I’ll pat myself on the back for that one. About six months later, I wrote that corporates were just about ready to go fully electronic. We’ll politely note that I was dead wrong (or at least two years too early) on this score but, as the caveat often goes, I was far from alone!

Fast forward to today and especially over the past year, things have become markedly different—and not just our new website design.

Rates in the US just went back up. Cyber-security is a top-line operational risk. Fintech might actually be overheated by venture capital. Robo-advisors now manage billions. Flash Boys may yet get a movie treatment, as Dan DeFrancesco mused yesterday. And crypto-currencies and blockchain—things the capital markets wouldn’t have touched with a 10-foot pole—are all the rage.

The point is: The crisis is over, but maybe the “post-crisis” period finally is done, too. In fact, I’m happy to declare it so.

This is all good news to a journalist who came on board and found—if I may hyperbolize just a bit—a rather moribund scene. Today’s challenges are multi-vector and aren’t just solvable with a new data warehouse (maybe a lake?) or reporting widget; they’re puzzles evolving on their own, whose stakes reach well beyond an enforcement action or fine.

Just the same, new solutions aren’t just testing the laws of physics anymore but smartly applying them, and take leads from technical advances in industries miles from our space. After years of preoccupation with regulation and mostly looking inward, fintech is getting back in sync with the rest of the world. It’s dynamic, which is great.

Raise Up

That said, if there’s one piece of kind advice I can give, it’s this: Let’s raise the level of rhetoric to match the new environment.

Naturally, it’s the fate of any financial journalist to run up against and cut through industry speak and marketing hype on a daily basis. That's our job to know what's what.

But my best sources—CTOs and CIOs at massive asset managers, hedge fund pioneers, and alternatives giants—were those who wouldn’t parse words or settle for incrementalism.

My favorite stories, likewise, staked out genuine and, at times, even impassioned positions on both sides, rather than presenting two views but ultimately meekly waffling, “well, it’s a bit of both.” I'd like to think in my time since joining Waters and later taking over BST that we've brought you more of the former and less of the latter.

It’s a comfortable instinct to hedge or moderate; many chief technologists have ridden this very strategy to great careers, just as many vendors thrive on it, too, and lately, so have regulators. But that’s not what’s needed to truly push things forward. As I noted above, occassionally being dead wrong is often more useful than always being half-right.

So it is that I leave for greener pastures with a different thought from that same Tennyson poem—though this one is an invitation rather than declarative, and is suitably posed right in the middle of Ulysses, rather than as a valediction.

Come my friends,” it asks. “‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.

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