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RTC Conversation with Elaine Wah: My Path from PhD to Fintech

“RTC Conversations” is an interview series with mentors and advocates of Rewriting the Code. The series is spearheaded by two RTC alumnae: Lucy Zhang, a software engineer at Apple, and Alice Chen, a software engineer at Two Sigma.

Elaine Wah is the Head of Policy Research at IEX, a fintech company aimed at inspiring fairness and innovation by creating technology that levels the playing field. We spoke with Elaine over Zoom about her experiences as a woman in technology.

L: I see you have a background in electrical engineering (EE). What got you started going down the finance path at IEX?

It’s funny because I never planned on going into finance or policy or even CS. I majored in EE at the University of Illinois because I liked math and building things. I ended up switching to CS because it was more closely aligned with my research interests at the time. In grad school, I spent two summers interning at Citigroup in New York and really enjoyed my time there, which led to me exploring research in finance. I started working on more policy-related questions while I was doing my PhD at the University of Michigan because my dissertation was on the impact of different types of algorithmic trading strategies on investors, as well as ways to design markets, which has potential policy implications. In finance, there are lots of interesting research problems to solve because the financial markets really do affect everyone.

L: Were you always heading down the research path?

A lot of my career has been unplanned, as it turns out. Even when I first started grad school, I wasn’t sure it was the right decision, but then I discovered I really enjoy research—that’s what you spend most of your time on as a PhD student. It can be hard to get a sense of what the research process is like as an undergrad because as an undergrad, you typically work on a small part of a project and it’s hard to see the bigger picture. What I found is that research is this iterative process where each step builds on previous steps with the goal of confirming or refuting hypotheses. To me, that process is a lot of fun. You’re trying to answer a question that no one has ever answered before, and at least in the type of research that I was doing for my PhD, you have to piece together all these clues from your data to find out what’s going on and I found that really enjoyable.

L: Could you tell us a bit more about what you do at IEX?

I’m the Head of Policy Research for IEX, and in that role I do data science in order to advance our policy initiatives and conduct research on policy related questions concerning the stock market.

I’ve been at IEX for 4 years. I started out in Market Quality, where I analyzed trading data for potentially manipulative activity. That turned into broader research on execution quality which is relevant to our customers as well as policymakers and regulators. I then moved on to run Quantitative Research, which was a more client-facing role where I worked on helping clients leverage our products as effectively as possible. Now I’ve shifted to Policy Research, which is focused on our policy efforts and initiatives.

A: What does IEX look for in a potential candidate?

It definitely depends on the role, but we certainly look for people who are also driven by our mission. Sometimes we look for people who have a lot of experience in a certain area. For internships, we look for people who are proactive, excited about their work, and always ready to learn more about the space. The stock exchange space is fairly niche and specific, so we don’t necessarily expect people to come in with that knowledge.

L: Would you consider the work you do now still very tech focused or more people focused?

It’s definitely a bit of both. Because I’m a data scientist, I’m not building software but rather analyzing data. I still code on a day-to-day basis, whether it’s to pull data to look at current trends or to do more in-depth analysis.

A: Let’s zoom out and reflect on all of your career. What is one of the biggest challenges you’ve encountered as a woman in tech and finance?

The majority of people I’ve met over the years have been great. That being said, I’ve certainly been in situations where others have made assumptions about me based on gender and that definitely can be very frustrating. What I’ve found is you have to work really hard to demonstrate to them that their assumptions are incorrect.

L: Have you experienced any gender biases in your work experience?

I definitely notice instances where women don’t speak up. For instance, when I was younger, I was never the type to speak up in meetings or volunteer any information or ask questions. Ultimately, that’s just not productive because I did have a lot of questions and I shouldn’t be shy about asking them. Fortunately, I gained a lot of the skills and confidence to voice my opinion and speak up in grad school. In grad school, you take ownership over your research projects, and while it can be stressful to own a project and take it from beginning to end, in doing so you prove to yourself and others that you’re capable and can do it effectively.

A: Looking back, what do you wish you knew when you were just kicking off your career?

I wish I knew that careers are very long. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. It rarely follows a straight line from point A to point B. It’s important to keep in mind that the things you do now may not pay off immediately but they can and will pay off in the long term. One of the main things to do is to build and expand your network. Part of this is going out of your comfort zone to meet new people, but part of it is also keeping in touch with people you already know from internships, class projects, etc. This is something you have to do on an ongoing basis, not just when you’re looking for a new opportunity.

I’ve been very lucky to work with incredible people at a number of places. I interned a lot in grad school and had an amazing and very supportive PhD advisor. But when it comes to people supporting you along the way, it’s not just people in supervisor-type roles; it’s also people like your friends and family. Those are also important networks and made a big difference for me in terms of gaining confidence as my career progressed.

L: What’s your favorite work-from-home tip?

Creating temporal boundaries. By that I mean scheduling breaks or taking a walk outside or working out—something to help transition out of work mode. We no longer have things that break up the work day; we don’t have commutes that mark the beginning and end of each day, etc. I’ve found that creating some structure has been really helpful.

A: Do you have a long-term plan for your next 10-20 years?

I’ve been hesitant to make long-term plans because things have rarely gone according to my plan. So I just look for opportunities where I can learn and work with really smart, focused, and collaborative people. That’s what makes work exciting and fun for me. As long as I’m in a place where I can find that, I’m pretty happy.

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