To all the Ops guys in the world

Alex Medana
April 18, 2018

I have started working in banking in early 99, counting coins and notes at a counter of a retail bank in Paris and moved sideaways and up until I threw the towel in June 2015. I never had a plan to move to London, Bangalore and HK, I never clearly had a career path until maybe 2008 or 9, can’t remember and it doesn’t matter. The purpose of this post is to share my experience, why I equally strove in it and got shaped by it.

Whilst at Exane, working in the MO/BO “fails”, I learned to own a problem until resolution. Keeping a client abreast of development on knowing an issue, understanding its cause and fixing it pronto was the proper start of my juggling career. I also learned the linguo as my clients were mainly UK based.

At ML, my juggling accelerated as I was dealing with 9 markets daily, sometimes more if a colleague was ill or on hols. Some were easy to deal with like Scandies though with their own early deadlines, some had a lot of volumes to go through like the Euronext ones (particularly France) and some were plain stressful like Spain because a small mistake might mean to pay a fine or for an amendment (a put through if I remember well). Prioritisation, routine, sequencing was key to find my rhythm and reduce my stress.

Whilst at DB, I wrote partly on my own and partly with the help of BAs all the prime brokerage exception management workflows. Say if a trade is settled and it got cancelled what are the possibilities and outcomes. Those workflows had to be designed two ways: as a visual waterfall as well as a detailed operational procedure at keystroke level i.e. “click on this”, “type that”, “press enter” etc.. Equally mind-numbing (the keystroke level) and exhilarating (thinking, learning about all permutations). This taught me to think not in a single Y/N answer but more importantly in terms of scenarios. If you ask my views on a topic, I may have 5-6 answers equally distributed and well argued. I know it may seem puzzling at first and whilst I can have strong views and defend them, most of the times I come up with a multitude of explanations. I also moved from managing 1 to close to a hundred overnight, learning to navigate emotions and politics, manage egos and risk, not letting myself feeling down with all the mistakes I made, the misunderstandings and setbacks I experienced. I kept positive, I ploughed through change that was happening faster than planned. I love learning and still do and there wasn’t a day…well maybe a week or a month where I didn’t learn a new thing.

In my broker experience then I got to know about sequencing when brokers and buy sides exchange allocations, executions and confirmations during a time-sensitive dance. The timeliness of that workflow is very crucial for identifying discrepancies and fixing them, calculating the NAV and ensuring a timely clearing and settlement process. It happens in minutes (there are a lot of factors but that it is not the purpose of this note).

My time at SWIFT taught me about ecosystems, communities and standards. My view of financial services was then complete: from a role, a function, a business line, a firm and a market to an ecosystem. I also got to learn about KYC and AML, the final missing block on my front-to-back canvas.

Each role I was given (or I wrestled to take) taught me a piece of a bigger puzzle. In the last 3 years, since my journey in Fintech has started, I have come to realise I have been shaped by the many roles, encounters or situations I have experienced. All of that means that I think in three ways: workflows, Russian dolls and ecosystems:

- Workflows as in option 1, 2, 3 etc. whereby I follow a leg of that workflow to an outcome before following another path until I have a satisfactory and well-balanced explanation or solution.

- Russian dolls because there is always something bigger, there is always another side, another viewpoint. There is always another dimension and you cannot stop any analysis at a first layer. The process mapping I did whilst running lean re-engineering programmes could well be why I am thinking that way.

- Ecosystems because there is never one player, any action always creates a reaction and there are correlations and unintended consequences that we need to think about even we know we cannot know any ecosystem in its entirety.

In London, someone working in operations is called an Ops monkey and the image you get is one who moves from one thing to another where there is a lot of noise and a lot of chaos. I strive on chaos, I feel at ease when the adrenaline kicks in. Yes, I bloody get stressed though my stress now is different from then; it is mainly about speed and opportunities (well, opportunity costs too). Then, it was about moving from one thing to another, hardly ever get more than a few days of “quiet time” to perform tasks that were known in advance, controllable, recurrent. Most of the times, shit happened. I had to react to a problem without fully knowing the cause. My teams and I were driven to fix and find the root cause so that it could be shared with those affected and more importantly mitigated going forward.

Although I knew I wasn’t performing life-saving surgery and therefore could never take myself too seriously I had a couple of “once in a lifetime” situations.

How do you react to the demise of a great firm like Lehman Brothers and the subsequent flood of trades coming our way?

How to do you react to a complete outage that makes you blind for a week on your settlement obligations?

How do you react when a typhoon has destroyed datacentres and leased lines and you don’t get any market data or client allocations?

You get hold of yourself, focus, iterate, learn and share your learnings fast. Things blow up all the time.

You are a cost centre, the first ones that should go to make space for profit centres to maintain their status quo (and sometimes their ego and mediocrity)

You are seen as the dross, not adding value.

You are not seen as the most intelligent around.

If you are client facing; you got to think on your feet, resolve, learn from it…you don’t want a problem to last and you don’t want clients to be disgruntled though it is never about pleasing them.

Looking back, I have learnt a ton of things which are now very valuable and differentiating factors when I interact with buy and sell sides or any prospect for that matter. I really don’t know how I have kept my cool all these banking years, I really don’t know how I have gone through some the troughs I experienced but hell do I know that my resilience, good fortune and my character have been shaped positively by all these years. I am an ops monkey and proud of it but I won’t ever have a tattoo to prove it!

You now know sort of why I am crazy, can parallel-process, love chaos. You might relate to my story or have friends who have experienced those things. Share your experiences, don’t get consumed by them, realise when you are stressed and reach out to someone who can give you some space to express.

Finally, always look at an experience as something valuable that won’t last for long and with hindsight bias you will only keep in the foreground the good times and the lessons….the rest doesn’t really matter anymore.