Wallis' Blog

My Journey from Wall Street To & Through Flatiron School

3 Lessons From the Financial Crisis for Learning to Code

1) Don’t settle for a superficial level of understanding.

To really know something, you have to dive into the details, test your assumptions and understand what it is that you don’t know. It’s “easy” to listen to a pitch about subprime mortgage-backed securities and hear “enhanced yield” and “low risk” because of “product structure” and then think that you understand subprime mortgage-backed securities. It’s also pretty easy to do a few online tutorials about HTML/CSS, Javascript, Ruby, etc. and think that you have a decent understanding of what’s going on. In both cases you’d be wrong.

Diving into the material, understanding the details and challenging yourself to discover just how much you DON’T know is the hard part that ultimately leads to really, truly knowing something. Not that you will ever know everything, but you will know enough to be effective if you push yourself to dive deeper and commit the time and effort to really learn.

2) If you don’t truly, completely understand something…ask a question.

There’s a natural human instinct not to risk “looking stupid”. This usually results in fewer questions being asked. A room full of bright, hard-working people can listen to a presentation on something, a few questions will be asked, and at the end a number of people will still have a bunch of questions that have gone unanswered…because they were never asked.

I’ve been in a lot of investor meetings and brokerage meetings where assertions are made, explanations are given, and everyone sounds quite intelligent. But 99%+ of the time that something hasn’t quite made sense to me or added up and I asked a question, an interesting thing happened: either (most of the time) I learned something and it was a completely positive & constructive experience or (more often than should be the case) it became clear that the people making the assertions didn’t really have more than a superficial level of understanding themselves.

So what happened the rest of the time? The old adage “there’s no such thing as a stupid question” is definitely false, but….so what? Arguing that you shouldn’t ask a question b/c there’s some probability that it’s stupid is like arguing that you should never eat fresh fruits & vegetables b/c some of them are contaminated with e coli. The benefits of just doing it far outweigh the risks.

3) Work hard but keep yourself balanced & healthy.

During intense periods with long hours, a lot to do, and constant flow of new things flying your way it’s easy to get sucked into a relentless rhythm of too little sleep and too much caffeination. After existing in this state for awhile it starts to feel normal, even oddly empowering and exciting. But beware this feeling of turbo-charged productivity – that caffeine-and-adrenaline-fueled working frenzy can work fine for a short period of time, but it’s no more sustainable over a 12 week programming course than it was over a multi-month financial crisis.

The truth is, you’re not of much use to anyone (including yourself) if you’re amped up on a week+ of 4 hours/night of of sleep, 3+ daily cappuccinos and whatever Costco-sized package of caffeinated beverages you’ve polished off. Extreme exhaustion has been shown to have a similar effect on driving ability as intoxication, and quality of one’s work product is no exception - keep yourself reasonably rested and maintain some semblance of a “normal” rhythm, whatever that is for you.