Why I Am Learning To Code

November 29, 2017 - John Osbon (3 mins to read)

There is more freely available high-quality financial data out there than ever before. But the quantity of data doesn’t necessarily translate to quality of decisions. Big data can mean big problems when it comes to organizing, filtering, analyzing and displaying it — all of which are prerequisites for using the data to make a decision.

So I’m learning to code.

A Big Step Forward

I’ve been in the business long enough to remember the dramatic transition from pen, paper and calculator to excel spreadsheets. Spreadsheets revolutionized finance by making it possible to manipulate lots of data on your desktop, without the help of an IT pro. But it was never automatic, quick or painless. Importing data was a cumbersome, error-prone headache. It sometimes took half a day to corral data that would be obsolete by the closing bell. And a giant spreadsheet was and is a terrible way to convey information to a colleague or client.

Our current transition from excel to dynamic databases, APIs and customizable dashboards is a quantum leap forward, allowing us to extract exactly what we need from torrents of data and deliver it however and whenever we need it. We no longer have to be thankful for whatever data we can buy; we can now access what need and tailor it to answer specific questions. And because code never sleeps, we can finally answer questions in real time, 24/7.

Easier than learning Mandarin

Fear not, MIT computer science undergrads, I won’t be competing for the next great programming job at Google or WeWork. My interest in coding is mostly to understand what’s possible. My goal is more to increase my code literacy than to write complex web applications. Understanding the conventions, capabilities and constraints of code is unlocking new ways of thinking for me about how data can enhance what we do for our clients.

Coding sounded intimidating at first, until I dove in. Coding is really nothing more than writing very specific instructions for a very dumb and obedient machine. My first decision was, which programming language should I learn? All roads led to Python, a language that emphasizes readability and favors simplicity over complexity. Perfect for my needs. While I expected code to be like hieroglyphics, I was pleased to find understandable English words and instructions like “if, while, else, pop and append.”

Max is learning Python, Javascript and HTML because his coding needs are more extensive. He is coding screen scraping and web crawling for some of our market information. Coding is helping us create robust links between our data research tools, risk analysis tools, trading software and reporting platform.

Just like being in high school again

I don’t have to learn to code. I want to. I want to improve myself and broaden my perspective. I know it will help me understand more about the financial and technical ecosystem I live in every day.

I faced a similar choice when I had the chance to learn Latin as a teenager.  At first, I thought “why learn a dead language like Latin?” until I realized that Latin is part of many alive languages, including English. I learned basic Latin, which I use to this day, especially when traveling in Europe or New York.

Understanding code is also helping me look at business decisions in new ways. Where I once saw problems that could only be solved at unreasonable costs, I now see new options and opportunities.  IF smarter, THEN easier.



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