‘The Big Short’ is a 2015 biographical film that recounts the story of a group of geniuses who made billions because they anticipated the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-08. Five minutes into the movie, the character played by Ryan Gosling mentions ‘Mortgage-Backed Securities’ and describes how the idea of Mortgage-Backed Securities or MBS has changed everyone’s life more than Michael Jordan, the iPod and Youtube put together. While watching the movie a few weeks ago, my brain took two whole seconds to make the connection that this was the same MBS as in the MBS index parameter that I had been regularly dealing with for the past month in my internship. As I enacted the pointing-Leo meme a few more times for several other familiar terms I encountered while watching the movie, I realized that – the little knowledge of finance and investments I gained during my stint at Franklin Templeton has definitely helped me wrap my head around the sheer brilliance of the group depicted in the movie. No, this is not a movie critique essay. This is the story of my internship.
Hi, my name is Harshad Ingole and I’m a second year computer science undergraduate. I have been interning at Franklin Templeton Investments (FT) as a full-stack developer/data analyst for the past few months. Here, I have tried to pen down my experience with hopes that it will help people who are, like I was a few months ago, oblivious to the opportunities that the realm of finance has to offer to data analysts and quantitative developers. Also, with the prophesied economic depression due to Covid-19 almost upon us, I think it will help motivate people to have a little knowledge of this field. And who knows, just like in the movie, someone might make their own billions out of this forthcoming crisis with this knowledge.
In mid-November last year, FT came in through the PT cell looking for CSE sophomores for the profile of a data analyst. It was one of the first few companies to come in through the internship cell being preceded by only a couple of foreign univs in which I had no luck getting shortlisted. Looking at the profile which only mildly piqued my curiosity and the decent stipend, I signed the JAF a little hesitantly. Hesitantly because I was still hoping to land a foreign univ intern at the time. But seeing how things turned out, I am glad that I didn’t let go of this opportunity.
The selection process consisted of a two-hour coding test through which about half a dozen students were shortlisted for interviews. The test had fairly doable data processing and data analysis problems but time was scanty. I made it to the interviews where the questions were mostly about concepts pertaining to the projects on my resume. A couple of days later, I got the news that I was selected and that I would be joining the Hyderabad campus of FT in the third week of June 2020. But well, 2020 had other plans. Thankfully, FT was open to shifting the internship to a WFH mode for the period of April-May which, for me, got extended to June also.
A large chunk of my internship was spent on creating a widget which helped my mentor/boss, Vivek sir, perform daily analysis of the company’s portfolios at the click of a button which would otherwise take him a couple of hours daily. Every weekday, FT receives gigabytes of data on how their various portfolios have performed in the market. Portfolios are basically collections of investments held by a financial institution. Along with that, they also receive the benchmark data, which describes how the portfolios should have performed ideally. Now earlier, Vivek sir used to perform some analysis using all this available data on Excel (I know, ugh) which took a good couple of hours out of his precious time. I was assigned the project, called ‘Performance Attribution’, in which I had to automate this whole dreary process. I started with writing a general-purpose parser for the XML data files and uploaded the data onto clean pristine tables. This took up most of the first month and was the worst part of the work as it involved a lot of, what seemed like, grunt work. But all this was worth it as the rest of my work proceeded pretty fluidly because of the extremely convenient format I had the data in. I spent the next month coding up the data analysis algorithm. This was a little tough as I had to get myself acquainted with laborious financial jargons that served as attributes of the data. This was followed by finally creating the widget which performed the analysis in the background and displayed the results on a click. Using these results, the company could decide which bonds to sell and which ones to buy, called portfolio trading, in order to maximize their daily profit which was in billions of USD.
I created other widgets later with similar functionality and differing only in the algorithm implementation. But the Performance Attribution widget was the one for which I received the most accolade. After I presented it in a meeting to several other FT portfolio managers from around the world, Vivek sir was soon approached by a few of them asking for this functionality to implement for their own good. My internship was extended by a month and I am now working on another similar project.
I had a rocky start to my internship. In the beginning, I did face some hiccups as I had a hard time setting up the virtual machine, installing the relevant software on it and getting access to databases. For the first week, I made frantic calls to the FT help centre almost daily in order to get my WFH environment fully set up. Another slight problem I faced was that of communication. At times, I had to wait for a couple of hours to get my doubts cleared because my superiors would be busy in virtual meetings. I would like to take the benefit of doubt in believing that the situation would not have been a whole lot better in a workplace intern either. But barring these minor hindrances, the WFH experience has been quite fulfilling.
While working from home is very convenient, the work feels like just any other course assignment given to me with a deadline with the overhead of frequent calls to report my progress. Because of WFH, I feel like I have been deprived of the insight I would have gained of working in the corporate world. While I could not fully get the experience of working in the corporate world, and of being a corporate slave, I could get a flavour of it and judging by whatever little I could taste, it doesn’t seem as bad as portrayed by the masses.
Working at Franklin Templeton has been amazing overall. As I was working alone on this project, I had to directly approach my superiors for any doubts I had. And they made it a point to help me out whenever I was stuck at something. When I expressed my grievances after the first month about how I felt that the data preprocessing work seemed too monotonous, Vivek sir very nicely elucidated that if I have to eventually perform analysis on this data, I had to get myself acquainted with the various features involved. Without its knowledge, we can’t expect to do higher-level stuff like feature selection and principal component analysis. And he was right, in that tedious process, I could get myself familiarized with the data so well that it all made sense when I ultimately performed the analysis. One simply cannot expect to leap over to the good stuff without having to get one’s hands dirty.
On the whole, this internship has been quite enriching for me, both learning and experience wise. I learnt the importance of time management which, seemingly contrarily, is a very important skill to yearn for, especially when we have a lot of free time at hand. I got the opportunity to build something useful and I delivered. When my widget was finally deployed on the prod server, to be used by other portfolio managers, I felt proud and satisfied – the feelings I hadn’t really felt together in the longest time. It has motivated me to work on building more such useful things. The stigma attached to corporate jobs, that I bore in my mind earlier, has evaporated after seeing how immediate and immensely useful the effects of my work were. I have realized that it is the academicians that do groundbreaking research which leads to giant leaps forward in development of this world, but it is these corporate “slaves” that keep the world up and running. While the technical aspects of learning attained from this internship provide me with their own appeasement, it is the outlook gained towards building utilitarian stuff in a pragmatic way that I consider to be my greatest take-home message from this internship.
Lastly, yes, with a stellar cast, ‘The Big Short’ is a solid 9/10. Would recommend.