Programming for Dummies: Dissatisfied, Some Wall Street Technologists Flee for Start-Up Life

“I mean, no one was being held with a gun to their head and forced to work at Morgan Stanley,”

“I mean, no one was being held with a gun to their head and forced to work at Morgan Stanley,” said Andrew Montalenti. “It was a very good job by any objective measure. But a lot of people did feel like if you just kept working there and pursued the career path that was laid out for engineers, you could blink and all of a sudden 15 years would have passed and you wouldn’t have anything to show for it.”

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Mr. Montalenti joined Morgan Stanley as a software engineer in 2006, after graduating from N.Y.U. with a computer science degree. He had applied after seeking the counsel of a friend from his department who had been working in a similar job at the firm for just over a year. “He told me that he really liked it there,” Mr. Montalenti said. “He said it was a very hacker-oriented shop, and that you had a really good environment for doing software engineering.”

Mr. Montalenti took the job, and, for awhile, he had a ball with it. The team he was placed in was made up of “extraordinarily smart” people, and the project they were working on–revitalizing the firm’s trading infrastructure–seemed exciting. But soon the work grew redundant, Mr. Montalenti said, and the problems he was asked to solve as part of his day-to-day responsibilities started to seem technically uninteresting. Like many other creatively inclined, intellectually ambitious programmers who took high-paying jobs on Wall Street after college, Mr. Montalenti found himself disillusioned and restless.

Then, in March of last year, he did something very few people in his predicament have the guts to do: He quit his job and founded a company of his own with one of his best friends.

“I’d just like to be able to point to at least one thing after 15 years of working as a software engineer and say, ‘I built that thing,'” said Mr. Montalenti, who, at 26, is now happily running, a Web-based recommendation service. “In one sense, a Wall Street firm is a hacker’s paradise, in that you can go to a job every day and get paid very well and not actually have to be that ambitious. If all you really want to do is sit there coding, but you don’t really care what you’re coding, then it can be a form of paradise. But that’s really where it broke off for me.”

There are other engineers like Mr. Montalenti in the New York tech scene, who initially gave in to the temptations of Wall Street but ended up leaving it all behind in pursuit of more rewarding work. But there are many more who remain in their finance jobs, earning enviable salaries but suffering as their energy and talent are expended on work that requires no technical creativity and affords them little autonomy.

“At my workplace, I did not know one single person who was happy with what they were doing–not even one,” said Puneet Mehta, who was a VP of technology with Citi Capital Markets before quitting and, along with two other Wall Street refugees, founding the mobile app start-up MyCityWay. “Each one of them was just getting through it because they had to pay the bills.”

Mr. Mehta and his co-founders, Archana Patchirajan and Sonpreet Bhatia, did not mask their contempt for Wall Street recently as they sat in their Flatiron office and described how financial firms are able to seduce the most gifted and ambitious computer scientists and mathematicians into coming to work for them after college. The firms carry out such robust and effective campus-recruiting efforts, they said, that start-ups are unable to compete for top talent. This is not only because they can’t afford to send their people, but because a lot of times the best engineers receive and accept offers from banks and hedge funds many months before they graduate–something start-ups can’t do because they simply can’t plan that far ahead.

In the process of recruiting, standout engineers–the kind of people who want to intellectually stimulating jobs–are often told that the programming positions on offer on Wall Street involve sophisticated engagement with cutting-edge technology, only to find that that’s not necessarily true.

“That’s how they attract top talent,” said Mr. Mehta. “Going in, most people do not expect to be bored. I’ve worked outside of Wall Street and I’ve seen how attractive it is from the outside and how most people just dream of getting one of these jobs.”

Mr. Montalenti said that when he was applying to Morgan Stanley, recruiters played up the bank’s “hacker credentials.”

“They talked about how it’s an entirely Linux shop, which resonates with hacker types,” he said. “They talked about how they had these millions of trades that they had to process every day, and how this was a major data-processing challenge that required deep understanding of algorithms.”

Often the malaise doesn’t set in until after a few years. The source of it is multifaceted, and varies depending on the function of the group an engineer is placed in after college. But the most common complaint, based on interviews with individuals who left finance for start-up life, is that the work they’re asked to do there is repetitive and boring.

“From a software standpoint, it’s still fundamentally a very basic set of operations that banks have to do,” said Mr. Montalenti. “Basically they have to book orders and they have to fulfill orders. Sometimes they have to do that kind of quickly, but it’s not really that crazy.”

According to Matthew Rathbone, who spent two years at UBS and is currently in grad school at N.Y.U. for computer science, engineers who want to do anything that involves real thinking must become “quants”–meaning they have to get into “how everything is priced and how certain risk values are calculated.” Quants are mathematicians with programming skills who have an interest in financial modeling, Mr. Rathbone explained, and they are distinct from regular developers, whose entry into computer science is motivated by a desire to build software. “If you want to be doing more than just connecting system A to system B, which is what 90 percent of developers do in finance, the way to progress technically is to become a quant and to have a higher competency in the financial markets side of it,” said Mr. Rathbone, who is also on the staff of file sharing start-up

But even quants are not immune to the feeling that what they’re doing for a living is not adding up to anything–that when all is said and done, their professional achievements will have only mattered to other people in their company and perhaps a few investors.

“There are a lot of people like me there who somehow wander into the space thinking there must be some intellectual merit to it because so many smart people are going there,” said Mario Schlosser of the social gaming start-up Vostu, who studied computer science in college before ending up at Bridgewater Associates. “But literally the feeling I always had is that it was basically moving things from left to right or from right to left. And those things would move just fine even if we didn’t move them. … If we hadn’t been there, the world would not be any worse off.”

“I remember overhearing people who were like, ‘Why should I really work hard on this, when all I’m doing is making some extra money for some rich guys who are investing in a bank?” said Mr. Montalenti. “I can tell you from experience that most software engineers I know really, truly want to have an effect on people’s lives with their work.”

There are certain coping mechanisms that make life on Wall Street more bearable for creatively inclined engineers. Some develop iPhone apps in their spare time; some attend hack-a-thons after hours. Some participate in internal group emails where they discuss technical problems with one another, and some work in private, solving computational mathematical problems on sites like to keep their skills sharp.

And while some driven individuals find their outlets in the development of personal projects that will ultimately serve as their escape hatch–see Joshua Schacter, who worked at Morgan Stanley while building the pioneering social bookmarking app Delicious–there are many more whose dreams remain fantasies, and who stay in finance because they can’t bring themselves to give up their massive salaries or yearly bonuses. 

Mr. Montalenti said he and his girlfriend now refer to his finance days as “the gilded age.” “Back then I was actually getting paid really well, I didn’t have to worry about health insurance–all that stuff,” he said. “Nowadays I make close to nothing and just scrape by.”

Nevertheless, he and others who have taken the plunge and found success on their own terms are unequivocal in encouraging other dissatisfied Wall Street engineers to consider doing the same.

“I really am blooming as an engineer,” said Mr. Montalenti. “I never wake up dreading my day of work.”

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Programming for Dummies: Dissatisfied, Some Wall Street Technologists Flee for Start-Up Life