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Tricks of the trade: How Optiver software engineers thrive within the trading industry  

Working at a trading firm like Optiver provides unique opportunities for individuals to grow and enhance their careers – especially as an engineer. Not only does the culture encourage bold idea sharing and concept creation, but the work environment itself presents different challenges and opportunities that simply aren’t as prevalent in other industries. All of these things combined pave the way for continuous career development and rapid improvement.   

At Optiver, we have engineers from all backgrounds, majors and walks of life who have accelerated their career in tech by working in trading. Below are a few of their comments on cultivating a successful tech career within a proprietary trading firm.

About our engineers:

Andrew is an electrical engineer originally from Sydney, Australia, and is currently the Head of Options Trading Technology at Optiver. He has previously worked in software-defined radio (SDR) building radio systems for emergency services.

Robert is a software engineer working on building out and scaling up Optiver’s research and data platform. Before joining Optiver, Robert managed the embedded platform team at Amazon’s satellite division. Prior to Amazon, Robert managed the wireless connectivity team at Google’s general-purpose microkernel operating system, responsible for anything between vendor drivers and user-facing APIs.

Kirthi currently leads the base valuation team at Optiver. Previously, he was a tech lead at a self-driving car company, Argo AI, working on machine learning libraries and performance optimization. Prior to that, Kirthi was a quant strategist, focusing on futures and cryptos.

Vlad is a software engineer within Optiver’s ATS team, currently working on infrastructure for scaling up and improving the performance of our autotrading software. Previously, Vlad spent 15+ years at Google working on a range of products and projects (web search, Google Maps, speech recognition, machine learning and Gboard).

What is the role of technology at such a long tenured trading firm like Optiver?

“When you think about the trajectory of Optiver and the trajectory of trading from the 1980s until now, one of the main areas where we have made the most headway has undoubtedly been in tech. Of course, our trading has gotten better and we’ve improved in a lot of other trading-related areas, but the rate at which technology affects the business has been immensely greater. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that we started building our own software, and over the last 15-17 years we’ve gone from people using Windows machines to execute to a very intense focus on engineering. That trajectory and focus is only going to continue, and trading as an industry is only becoming more engineering focused.

We’ll always need traders – they’re one of Optiver’s greatest strengths, but I would argue that an engineering and technology focus is critical to Optiver’s success and will only become more critical each passing year.”

Andrew Hankins, Head of Options Trading Technology

How would you sell Optiver as a technology-focused company to someone (especially a non-trader?)

“Before I joined Optiver, I had the notion that a trading firm – or really any firm in finance – was doing financial stuff, whatever that means. You just sprinkle a few software engineers here and there and that’s it. Once I started looking at what comes after Big Tech and exploring which fields I could be interested in (and letting finance actually explain what they do), I realized that it’s not just traders doing math, it’s a combination of both trading and engineering. There’s a giant ecosystem that supports that.

At the end of the day, when you perform trading, making trades is just one thing at the very top of a really large deck. That whole deck is what is required to make Optiver really successful.

At the start of my career at Optiver, I worked in automated futures trading, where most projects consist of traders and engineers working together. At one point, I had an “aha” moment, when I realized how much I could influence the growth of trading and research through tech. If you provide the ability for a trader or researcher to explore new areas, add new models, explore neural networks, if you as an engineer make that possible you can take the whole company in a whole new direction.”

Robert Hahn, Senior Software Engineer

How would you compare and contrast Optiver to Big Tech firms? What do you like about Optiver, what did you like about Big Tech? How are you processing that comparison yourselves?

“To some degree, we ask for initiative from everyone from Optiver. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been with the firm for ten years or are on week three as a new grad – we want you to propose new ideas, come up with new concepts and ways of doing things, bring innovation into the field and really drive something yourself to get it across the finish line. I think that’s significantly harder if you’re at a company where there are a quarter million engineers – literally. You’re just this tiny little gear who can only move the needle in the slightest bit; you’re not going to propose some massive overhaul that changes how the company operates at a fundamental level. At Optiver, you’re encouraged to bring those ideas to life, and I think that’s a really big and interesting difference.

I have first-hand experience spending a lot of time and effort [in previous roles] on projects and never seeing them launch or go live for reasons that were never made clear to me. That was pretty disappointing considering how much time is dedicated to your work, the engineering hours put into it and how much you spent on the project. I think that happens a lot in Big Tech, and what I realized is that this time, I want to make a difference.”

Robert Hahn, Senior Software Engineer

“I always forget that Optiver has been around for over 35 years because when I look around, it feels like a startup. Other tech companies, including a startup I worked for, move slower than Optiver. That’s a huge factor to consider, especially when you’re early in your career, because the best way to develop professionally is rapid iteration. You develop, then critique, critique, critique, put something into production and see the outcome. A 10-year cycle at Big Tech? It’s much harder to grow as an individual.”

– Kirthi Banothu, Software Engineer

Andrew, you’ve been someone who has led really big teams at Optiver, both here in Chicago and in Sydney, Australia. Is there anything that you’ve noticed in terms of mindset, perspective or skill that is different based off of where someone has come from in their careers?

“Something undeniable about Optiver is that we hire incredibly intelligent people. You quickly realize that everyone who works here is an expert in their field, which can be quite frustrating at times, because if you’re into something, there’s always someone who’s better. In Sydney, we have an Olympic medalist so if you’re into swimming, there’s someone that’s better than you. Like solving a Rubik’s cube? We have the world champion. I think there’s like a chess genius at one of the offices as well, so you’re truly surrounded by brilliance everywhere.

As a caveat to that, not everyone will find success at Optiver, even though they have all of the raw materials. I think the biggest difference here is motivation, and referring back to your original question, there has to be some interest in the trading problem and there has to be a need to constantly want to do better. You have to want to continuously improve.

Something else that I speak to a lot of people about when they join Optiver is, “what makes Optiver successful?” We sit down when people join Optiver, hand them a textbook and say, “Here’s how you trade options.” I’m simplifying a little bit, but literally, our strategy is in a textbook. So what makes us better? We improve at a rate that is faster than our competitors. The only way to do that is by moving very quickly, getting feedback from the market and being very open and honest about where you actually are, and, in a very constructive way, addressing those issues. So what makes someone successful at Optiver? They’re dedicated to continuously improve.”

Andrew Hankins, Head of Options Trading Technology

When you were making career decisions coming out of college, what were things you were taking into consideration?

“After college, I was determined to find a place that would accentuate how good I am technically and the details of it. I wanted to be somewhere where I didn’t just get the fuzzy details about a project I’m working on, but the deeper why behind it all. I wanted to be somewhere where we could dive under the sheet of every single thing we’re doing, and trading is one of those things where you have to go to the lowest level. That was a sign to me that I would build up this really tool belt of technical expertise, and from that point on I could point it at any problem that I wanted to solve and take it from there. That was my motivation for choosing trading.”

Kirthi Banothu, Software Engineer

Do you collaborate with engineers from other offices? If so, what’s that process like?

“Definitely. I had the good fortune to be involved in a couple of projects over the last year or so working on software handling our theoretical prices. It just so happened that the person who was the expert in this area specifically actually lives and works in Australia. This person is a very senior engineer with a lot of experience and understands how to write excellent software extremely well. Just being able to send him my code, get feedback from him and iterate on it together was incredibly valuable.”

Vlad Schogol, Software Engineer

“When I started at Optiver, I didn’t think I was going to be working with so many people outside of the Chicago office. I work on base valuation stuff so I spend half my time working on things with people down in Austin. Then I started working with people from Sydney, they came over to Austin and we started discussing base valuation and they’d built software to achieve specific results so I spent a lot of time working with them. Then I went to Amsterdam for a week, and Amsterdam uses some of the stuff that we’ve built for base valuation for their trading and if everything fits into the plan we’ve set going forward, there’s going to be a lot more of that sharing going forward. So what’s really cool is that our impact is not limited and that’s what I meant about collaboration, it’s very rarely just the team that you’re on that you have an impact on. Coming to Optiver, I didn’t expect that to happen but it’s almost hard for it to not happen here.”

Kirthi Banothu, Software Engineer

How did you end up here and what advice would you give to a college grad as they embark upon their journey of figuring out what to do with their lives?

“I’ve been in Big Tech, as I mentioned before, and after a while, it just gets boring. You’ve seen it, you’ve done it, and everything takes a considerable amount of time before it really lands. Personally, I just wanted to see something move quickly, get constructive feedback and actually move the needle. I wanted to have a significant impact on how something works fundamentally, and not just on a tiny little tier.

Somehow I heard about Optiver, read up on the firm and got super stoked. I went through the interviews, which was the best interview experience I’ve ever had. The interviews were actually fun, and that’s pretty rare. When they ended, I thought, regardless of outcome, that it was a really cool experience. In the end, I received an offer and it ended up working out; I took the opportunity and have really enjoyed my time and decision since.”

– Robert Hahn, Senior Software Engineer

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