Goldman Sachs CIO Elisha Wiesel Speaks to Computer Science Students

YU Students Gather to Hear “Centralized vs. Distributed Thinking at Goldman Sachs”

On Wednesday, February 14, Judah Diament, program director of undergraduate data science and professor and co-chair of computer science at Yeshiva College, hosted a Q&A with Elisha Wiesel, chief information officer of Goldman Sachs. Wiesel spoke to students studying finance and computer science about his 23-year tenure building the information architecture that Goldman uses to manage its businesses.

As he explained, Goldman has created a technological structure that both centralizes information and systems management while distributing to every Goldman employee the means to query that information to assess risk, gain and prediction in very fine-grained ways.

Elisha Wiesel, CIO of Goldman Sachs

However, as he pointed out, this simple description does not capture the dynamic back-and-forth that happens between what he called “the technicians in the core office and the traders on the floor.” Technologists must learn the core practices of the Goldman businesses they serve to deliver the services the businesses need; at the same time, the businesses must be conversant enough with the technology being used so that they not only know what can be done but also know what to ask for in terms of improvements.

This interplay between central and distributed services also requires a balancing act between the conservative process of maintaining the integrity and efficiency of the systems and the creative process of incorporating technological innovations to meet new market challenges.  Wiesel achieves this balance not by top-down directives but by dropping people with certain skill sets into the middle of a problem and giving them the resources to define the problem and solve it.

He concluded his talk by saying that “the best approach for us in finding solutions to our challenges is to embed smart people with certain skill sets into a problem, provide them the means by which they can identify the problem and then let them dig as deep as they can to find the solution.”

In the follow-up Q&A, many students were understandably interested in finding out what skills they would need that might equip them to work for companies such as Goldman Sachs. He had three pieces of advice for them.

First, Wiesel said that people should learn to code to some degree so that they can understand how the back ends of systems work. They don’t need to become full-fledged programmers, but it’s now an expected part of people’s résumés to have some coding knowledge.

Second, people must have what Wiesel called “lateral skills,” character aspects such as an excited curiosity about the world and a passionate desire to pursue a problem’s solution doggedly. A crucial lateral skill is an understanding that it’s necessary to make mistakes in order to succeed and that intellectual playfulness is as important as academic credentials.

Third, people must continue their learning beyond their formal education. “We have never lived in a better time to learn anything,” Wiesel noted, “and there is no barrier to finding a way to learn what you want to learn. At Goldman, we are agnostic about where you come from. We focus less on the degrees you bring and more on your track record digging deeply into challenges and opportunities.”

In response to a question about how the legacy of his father, writer, activist and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, has influenced his career, he spoke movingly about how he believes that his father’s greatest skill was “listening to people closely and making them feel like a human being.” He wanted his legacy at Goldman to reflect that he did the same thing for the people who worked for him by making the profession of technician equal in status to the traders and other financial people in the company. But more importantly, “how I raise my children is the best way for me to honor my father—that will be my true legacy.”

Wiesel was impressed with the students he met, commenting afterward, “You turned out some quality individuals.” He also emphasized the need for computer science programs to focus on the concrete skills students will need to succeed as individuals and as team members in industry, saying that “Good computer science programs get their students to code (especially collaboratively) and build things in addition to learning theory!”

Diament was pleased with the event. “Hearing a talented technology leader talk about his own career as well as what the firm looks for in new hires is an excellent way to help the students understand what they need to do in college while giving them a perspective on what to expect in a tech career.” He added that “Elisha Wiesel’s visit is another example of YU’s commitment to giving our computer science students the guidance and industry knowledge to succeed.”