This day in history: August 19, 1991 – Andrew Saks-McLeod joins the FX industry

On this day in 1991, I received a letter in a ‘Manila’ envelope, which would signal the beginning of my career. I take a look back at the institutional financial technology world on the day of my silver anniversary in the industry.

10BASE2 networks could not be extended without breaking service temporarily for existing users and the presence of many joints in the cable also makes them very vulnerable to accidental or malicious disruption. There were proprietary wallport/cable systems that claimed to avoid these problems (e.g. SaferTap) but these never became widespread, possibly due to a lack of standardization. Can you imagine that in today’s retail trading environment, where best execution and nano-second response is demanded? – Andrew Saks-McLeod, CEO, FinanceFeeds

It was 8.00am, on a rainy summer morning, during the height of the largest school vacation of the year.

An ambitious and eager 15 year old with two years of tireless part time work behind me which included three jobs each day, beginning at 5.30am delivering newspapers on my 1984 Pinarello racing bicycle that I had meticulously assembled myself from a component group set saved up for by said newspaper delivery round, before returning home and during term time attending school.

My work would recommence at 4.30pm each day mowing gardens in the neighborhood and volunteering in the community.

A lifelong technology enthusiast, I had written a litany of (in those days hand written!) applications and letters to large institutional technology companies in major cities in Britain in order to attempt to commence a career in technology.

My father, ever since his immigration to the UK, had worked in banking, and had remained loyal to one company throughout his career. Although he managed retail divisions of the bank during the trade union-focused, disruptive days of the 1970s and early 1980s, having to work 6 days per week for no extra pay whilst those on strike or long-term incapacity did not work for two years, protected by firebrand shop stewards, my father demonstrated an outstanding example of work ethic, attention to detail and how to turn situations such as the ‘dinosaur effect’, the ‘tail wagging the dog’ and lackluster staff in such a vast institution into a bastion of efficiency.

Thus, I learned tremendously from the extremely positive influences in my very large close family, from a very early age and listened with open ears and a fresh and eager mind in order to investigate how I could combine my love of technology with what appeared to be a fascinating career in some of the world’s largest financial institutions and professional services consultancies.

Today it is all about Computer Science Degrees and KPMG internships – back then there was another way, but only just!

8.00am was a time during the day in the early 1990s when a familiar sound occurred almost routinely, that in the age of the internet does not exist anymore – that being the sound of the mailbox as a ream of envelopes in either plain white, or what was always mysteriously called ‘Manila’ by Britain’s large paper manufacturers, making me wonder if the Filipino capital city really was completely mid-brown in color.

On this day, at 8.00am 25 years ago, one of those letters in a ‘Manila’ envelope was addressed to me, the characters neatly typed by a manual typewriter, and the postmark denoting its originator – British Telecommunications PLC.

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I had hair 25 years ago

The offer was to join the national telecoms and connectivity firm’s apprentice program, in which I would spend two years in the bowels of the company’s server and network development rooms, concentrating on institutional and interbank network connectivity, which British Telecommunications provided to London’s banks and institutional firms on an outsourced and managed service basis.

Arriving at the company’s Bristol facility which was a former telephone exchange that had been already condemned for dereliction, I considered that one day there would be less demand for large physical hosting facilities on the server and connectivity side of the financial services industry also, because the exchanges had already gone that way, digital and compact, and for sure, the same companies that had driven that corporate methodology of reducing real estate liabilities by not needing large exchanges and making systems adaptable so that they are not region-specific (the stuff of Buck Rogers back in the early 1990s!) would do the same to the financial technology sector.

Indeed the founding in 1998 of North American multinational giant Equinix went some way toward confimring my opinions of the time. Founders Al Avery and Jay Adelson believed that existing data centers would not be sufficient to support the rapid growth of the internet and saw the opportunity to deploy data centers on a much larger scale to support this growth. Nowadays, colocation at the company’s LD4 an NY3 facilities is very common indeed.

British Telecommunications had been a pioneer in the provision of IP connectivity and network development to the financial services industry, however whilst I gained some highly valuable qualifications and a very early insight into the industry, there were some characters that I had not been so prepared for.

Whilst spending one day per week in evening school as part of the apprenticeship, where I studied my Cisco Certified Professional qualifications and began studying for Microsoft Student Partner (the stage before Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer), the remainder was spent inside the firm’s server rooms, configuring PBX switches and Cisco routers for banks and institutional partners in London when not polishing (or saving up for fuel!) for my recently restored 1982 Jaguar XJ in which I took my first single-handed journeys on Britain’s roads, aged 17.

It was a very interesting two years. I came out of the apprenticeship aged 18 with full ability to connect and test performance of networks that hosted server farms that deployed applications to roaming profiles on the desktops of users, was able to ‘ghost’ workstations remotely to rebuild them via the network, reducing outages by saving images of workstations and deploying a new image via 10BASE2 bayonet connectors (hard to imagine that kind of slowness these days) as banks began to tighten up on what users were allowed to store on their own local workstation.

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10BASE2 connector circa 1994

The IBM Middleware system provided my insight into back office and operational software such as database connectivity and regular visits to Sun Systems and Oracle in Reading took place, in a 1989 Ford Orion driven by one of the technical team leaders, whose name was unknown to most engineers as he was more notable for his extremely short temper and continual hushed cursing whilst performing any activity, whether it be driving, or installing 400 non-conflicting bank applications onto a deployable folder on a main server.

The constant stream of expletives were the source of amusement for many colleagues, and this, until today, was one of the many things that bonded us all.

In 1994, I became an adult, thus my apprenticeship ended and I founded my own financial software consultancy, spending the next 18 years on various contracts, supplying deployable applications, network performance optimization and pre-migration compatibility testing to management consultancies, financial sector giants and telecommunications conglomerates, with 3 business partners with whom I am still very good friends today.

There are still those all important ‘in jokes’ that are regaled, dating back many years, some polite, some profane.

During the end of the 1990s and through the Millennial years, I saw the retail FX industry grow, and subsequently emulate the institutional business once it became much easier to connect platforms to liquidity via non-physical methodologies such as liquidity bridges with relationships with aggregators, and latterly FIX APIs.

This is the key. Relationships.

Knowledge and experience of course is vital – this is something of a major point for me, in which I have the utmost respect for the professionals and leaders in this industry who have gained their astute and detailed knowledge via continual commitment to their careers, the majority finding extreme satisfaction in the quality of their work. This applies to almost every single executive that I know and have the great pleasure of interacting with on a daily basis from London to Sydney to New York and Chicago.

The people who lead this business are as equally interesting as the technology behind it and the electronic financial markets structure that they take their instrumental part in furthering.

For the past 25 years, I have spent a considerable amount of time maintaining my relationships with everyone that I have met along the way, which in my opinion is priceless.

BT Radianz, as it is called today, operates a shared market infrastructure via a neutral platform that provides access to pre-trade, trade, and post-trade applications across the straight-through processing chain is the evolution of British Telecommunications’ pioneering efforts in the financial markets industry.

In 2005, British Telecommunications bought Radianz which was founded as a joint venture between Reuters and Equant. In April 2008, British Telecommunications (known as BT by then) added an alternative trading system, Chi-X Canada, to its Radianz Shared Market Infrastructure system, and the entire financial technology division of BT was amalgamated.

So today is my Silver anniversary within the industry. An industry that I love and an industry whose leaders continually strive for development, further refinement and attention to detail. Long may this continue

Photograph. Long Acre, London, 1991.

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