Developers to the Rescue: A Career in Financial Services Software

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For Jim Mullen, the path to CTO started over a game of golf.

“My partner [Sam Mele] and I used to golf a lot because he left his company,” Mullen said. “We spent most of 2004 not only golfing, but really going around to different firms and trying to vet some ideas.”

During their golfing excursions, Mullen and Mele realized that the business problem they tried to address with their first business venture, Intercap Systems, a financial services software company, still existed.

“We started to look at the business and realized that the post-trade, or back-office, side of this business had changed. And it wasn’t getting any better — in fact, it was kind of getting worse,” Mullen said. “All the ECNs [electronic communication networks] that were out there in the front office were producing lots and lots of volume that couldn’t be cleared. You couldn’t figure out how much you owed, what the charges were. We felt there was a great opportunity [here].”

Their thinking eventually led to the conception of startup Firm58, where Mullen serves as chief technology officer. Similar to Intercap, Firm58 offers post-trade management software solutions for the financial services industry.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, software development is expected to be one of the fastest-growing fields through 2016. And business in the financial services software space seems to be particularly hot in light of the economic climate in the U.S.

“We consider the fact that the market is tough one of the reasons why we’re excelling,” said Mullen, adding that 2008 was a year of tremendous growth for Firm58, and the first half of 2009 has followed suit.

“In these market conditions, I think a lot of these financial firms are trying to do a lot more with less. They’re not open to building in-house, proprietary systems anymore. They want to offload the IT cost; they don’t want to have a huge IT staff.”

This is good news for Firm58, which builds software for back-office functions such as billing, fee calculations, and customer, financial and operational analytics — services that are especially crucial during this tough economic time.

“We provide visibility into what your true costs are,” Mullen said.

Humble Beginnings

Despite his success with Firm58, Mullen said his interest in software — and in computers in general — didn’t start as early as some might expect.

“I never took any computer courses in high school because, quite honestly, we didn’t have computers,” he said. “At home, we had a gaming system, probably an Atari, that you could actually write basic programs [for]. I got interested in that. And then in college, you were required to take, as part of engineering, a computer course. I almost flunked the course because I never went, but I wrote all the programs for my roommate and others.”

Mullen attended Purdue University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in computer and electrical engineering. This degree is typical of a software developer, he said, but another path one might take is a math degree, with an interest in programming.

“So generally speaking, [the necessary background is] a college degree, with an interest in programming,” Mullen explained. “[At Firm58], we don’t hire exclusively people with just B.S. degrees or people with engineering degrees. In fact, if [graduate work] is in computer science, I take points off. Just because I think that oftentimes you get people that are very analytically based and have a very hard time making decisions fast.”

Mullen refers to this problem as “analysis paralysis” and said it’s especially prominent among those with doctorates. Developers at Firm58 don’t have time for extensive analysis, he said.

“We’ve got to build stuff and get it out the door and be practical about it.”

The Path to Success

After college, Mullen started his career as a software engineer at a small company, Rich, which Reuters purchased just after he came on board. This was his first experience with the financial services industry. He developed software products related to the distribution of price quotes. One product, Reuters Source Sink Library (SSL), is still marketed by the company today.

After Rich, Mullen took a different path in pursuit of a new technology — relational databases. He took a sales and consulting role working with telecom companies at Oracle. In his seven years in the position, Mullen helped his group grow from $350,000 to $85 million. He left Oracle in 1997.

Mullen’s next venture was founding Intercap, which was sold in 2001. After a brief stint at Townsend Analytics, where he helped the company launch a new software group in the back-office financial services space, he founded Firm58 in 2005.

Day by Day

Even as CTO, Mullen has a hand in many aspects of development at Firm58. Much of his time is spent on regular meetings to track the progress of current projects and to plan for future ones. The bulk of his work, though, is with customers, trying to figure out if the company’s solutions are meeting their needs.

“There are very few typical days, I have to be honest,” Mullen said. “I’m probably more involved with the product planning and the customer interfacing than anything else. [The] bulk of my time is spent talking with customers about our product, trying to determine if our product is a fit for those customers, that type of thing. They’ll bring us ideas, and it’s kind of vetting out those ideas and making sure we’re going to hit what their goals are. That’s the fun part.

“I [also] spend a lot of time managing my team, managing that we’re on track,” he continued. “And then [it’s], ‘What are we going to build next?’”

Another part of the job involves maintaining and adapting the business strategy.

“We might craft a yearly vision but take turns as we go throughout the year in realizing that vision,” Mullen explained.

Keys to Success

Despite Firm58’s success, the path of a startup is never easy, Mullen said. In his daily work managing the business, Mullen has sacrificed in many ways to keep the project going.

“It’s not a sprint; it’s a marathon,” he said. “We’ve been plugging at this for four-plus years. I’ve been coming in at 8 and leaving at 6:30 or later every single day. And you take a lower salary in a startup situation. It’s a challenge not only to start a company, but to build a product from scratch.”

For these reasons, it’s important to ask yourself if you’re ready for this type of job, Mullen said.

“I think that you have to be honest with yourself. There’s a commitment level that it takes to build software, especially for the financial industry. Are you ready to do this in terms of your personal life?” he said. “It’s a very tough crowd out there in terms of your customers, and so I think that you have to ask, ‘Are you hungry enough and are you driven enough to want to go after this, and then [are you] persistent enough to stay with it?’”

Mullen also stressed many other soft skills that are necessary for a software developer. First and foremost, a developer needs an open mind.

“You’ve got to be open minded about looking at new technologies, open minded about what’s out there, not reinventing the wheel,” he explained. “Often, developers gravitate toward trying to solve really hard problems that have little value.”

Also paramount to success in the industry is broad knowledge and being aware of what’s in your toolbox. Knowledge of databases, programming languages and messaging all add tremendous value for a developer.

“Keeping up with technology is another great skill. You’ve got to know this space. You wouldn’t go to a doctor or a dentist who didn’t use Novocain because he didn’t know how.”

Meagan Polakowski is a freelance writer based in Traverse City, Mich. She can be reached at editor (at) certmag (dot) com.

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Meagan Polakowski

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