Are you there FinTech? It’s me, Elizabeth

In between graduating from university and getting a job ‘in the real world’ I moved back in with my parents – as 22 year olds often do. For a few months I sat around applying for jobs, listening to Nine Inch Nails (Downward Spiral had just come out), and generally waiting for my life to begin.

I sat up one night listening to the radio. One channel had an online psychic/astrologer on a late night show that was taking callers. I picked up the phone and got through. They asked me my first name and my star sign. (It’s Aries, by the way). As soon as I got on the air and said hello the woman responded, “Oh, you’re allergic to chocolate.” This sent the two DJs into hysterics. ‘Who in the world is allergic to chocolate!? No Snickers bars for you!

I had to wait for them to calm down before I could respond with a quiet – ‘Yes, I am allergic to chocolate, how funny.’

Just to let you know, I can eat Snickers bars (and Mars bars and Cadbury Dairy Milk and Hershey’s Kisses). What I am allergic to is real chocolate, the cocoa bean. That dark, expensive stuff you see in Belgium and Switzerland. In other words, the good stuff. The lovely and enjoyable products from the likes of Cadbury’s and Hershey’s aren’t real chocolate. Trust me – I and the makers of Piriton know the difference.

Anyway, now that we got that strange ‘how would she know that’ episode out of the way, I asked my one question. I had just had an interview at a computer magazine earlier on in the day. I wanted insight on my job search, which was more than a job search. It was more of a ‘when will I be a real, grown up journalist’ search?

The woman on the other end of the radio dial paused and asked where this interview had taken place. ‘Newton’, I replied (I grew up in suburban Boston, inside Route 128). She paused again, ‘Whereever you go, it will be near water, or associated with water. I keep seeing water – whatever it is, it will take you far. You will go far with this – if you start near water.’

O….k

I grew up on the East Coast of the US. My job search was focused on three core cities – Boston, New York and Washington, DC. Any of those places would have magazines or newspapers whose offices could be near water. ‘Thanks dime store psychic, very insightful,’ I thought. I thanked her, and ended the call.

Soon after I answered an ad in the New York Times for a reporter. I saw the words ‘reporter’ and ‘New York’ and applied. It was for a few publications that covered real time market data and trading floor infrastructure at investment banks. I got the job. In October 1994, my Dad drove me down to NYC, with my three suitcases, and I started my career in FinTech.

Did I mention, in 1994, I knew nothing about FinTech?

Do I need to remind all of you – grey haired and man-bunned, alike – that in 1994 I had never used email or the internet or the web. And neither had my new employers.

I went to university with a glorified electric typewriter. My new desk, in a warehouse office building in Soho in New York, had a dumb terminal featuring WordStar (still the program that JRR Martin writes Game of Thrones on). The office was extremely excited the day I arrived – they had just installed a fax machine.

While there, I wrote an article that described a graphical user interface as ‘Gooey’. I spent 20 minutes with a globe trying to find a country called ‘Latam’. I was so scared, that I didn’t realize I could choose when and where I could go to lunch – I sat at my desk for two weeks – starving and drinking the free coffee. I was a virgin, in every sense of the way. My education was starting then – and I was going to have to learn, the hard way.

I read notes, that past reporters had collated and filed away in the office. Sitting until late at night, noting down questions, that I committed to memory – without really knowing their context.

  • How many terminals do you license?
  • What are your assets under management?
  • When was it installed?
  • Who else did you evaluate?
  • What did you replace?
  • C++, SQL, Cobol…?

I almost got fired.

My bosses took me out to lunch. ‘We are not sure you are getting this.’ ‘Your writing needs to improve’. ‘Are you sure this is what you want to do?’

I thought of my bedroom in my parents house, with the flowered wallpaper and the radio, and the childhood life I had left behind only months earlier. I didn’t want to go back.

I called Goldman Sachs (why not?) and I asked corporate communications if I could interview Leslie Tortora. At the time Ms Tortora was the highest paid CIO on Wall Street. Not the highest paid female CIO (honestly, count how many female CIOs you can name?) She was the highest paid CIO – period. (This was Goldman Sachs).

I got a call back that day. As long as I sent the questions before hand and didn’t make the sole focus of the article about ‘being a woman on Wall Street’ I was good to go. Wall Street firms were in the middle of the client server revolution. BYO meant bring your own bourbon, and clouds were only found in the sky at most banks. I sent Leslie Tortora questions about Microsoft and IT budgets and vendor licensing. I walked into the editor-in-chief’s office and said: ‘I have an interview with Leslie Tortora.’

To his credit, he didn’t take the story off me. He looked at me and said ‘OK, good job – just take one of the senior editors with you.’

Over the course of my career I have met some pretty big hitters. The global CRO of Citi had an office at the top of a tower in Canary Wharf, with two PAs, and a view down the Thames towards Tower Bridge. Mike Bloomberg, famously, had an office smack dab in the middle of the Bloomberg offices in New York. Leslie Tortora’s office was small. She had a desk and a computer. A view of the cubicles outside her door. Her lunch, a sandwich, juice and bag of chips, sat in a cardboard box at the side of the room (the interview was at 11:00 am.)

I interviewed the CIO of Goldman Sachs for 90 minutes. She talked about everything, from her caution around Microsoft, to how long it took her to get ready in the morning (15 minutes). I wrote and rewrote this interview, and read it outload to an empty office at 1 am, then rewrote it again. I wasn’t going back to my flowered wallpaper and portable stereo.

Was it the best thing I have ever written? No. Was it the best interview I have ever done? Not even close. Did my editor publish my story in the main glossy magazine, with minor edits, and smile? Yes, he did.

This was the start my my journey. Childish things were put away and FinTech became my new path. This was the magazine.

 Waters 2

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