Preparing for the age of machines: Nariman Farvardin, president of the Stevens Institute of Technology, at the school’s Hanlon Laboratory for Financial Analytics and Data Visualization
Image: Matthew Furman for Forbes
Twenty-two-year-old Dakota Wixom is waving an 8-inch wand as he manipulates layers of screens containing data visualisations, applications and stock market charts, moving them around between five large presentation screens in a darkened room. The scene is reminiscent of one with Tom Cruise in Minority Report, but with a Wall Street twist. There are about two dozen undergraduates sitting attentively at workstations in this computer finance lab at the Stevens Institute of Technology, across the Hudson river from midtown Manhattan in Hoboken, New Jersey. It’s a Thursday in mid-July, and a leading financial newspaper has just run a cover story titled ‘Man vs Machine’, which obsesses over the onslaught of index funds and algorithmic trading that is currently driving the market and bringing turmoil to the $75 trillion asset-management business.
Wixom has just completed a bachelor’s degree in quantitative finance, which required him not only to become Bloomberg-certified as a freshman but also to take a minimum of 14 classes in computer science and advanced mathematics. He is already a wizard at using the lab’s state-of-the-art interactive system, which was designed by Oblong Industries and is used by the likes of IBM’s Watson team and Nasa.
“You can’t just buy growth stocks and expect to outperform anymore,” says Wixom, a native of Vancouver, Washington, who graduated near the top of his high school class and intended to major in electrical engineering. “It becomes a data-science problem. There’s hundreds of hedge funds out there, right? And there’s a few that actually generate alpha consistently—firms like D.E. Shaw and Renaissance Technologies. What do those guys do? They hire quants. They hire data scientists. They hire programmers.”
After summer internships in Schwab’s risk department and as a quant in the investment banking division of Japan’s Mizuho Bank, Wixom accepted an offer at Yewno, an artificial intelligence startup in Redwood City, California. Already working and based in New York City, he is building new financial products driven by machine learning. “If you want to measure a true exposure to a country, maybe you want to measure political unrest, right? We can now build indices by connecting concepts, by measuring the performance of a concept over time. The idea is that you understand what’s driving the markets in the same way that a human analyst does. This is really exciting to me.”
Wixom is one of 32 such quantitative finance graduates in Stevens’s class of 2017. QF, as it is known on the 55-acre campus, is a hot new major—another is cybersecurity—that is helping make Stevens one of the most desirable STEM colleges in the nation. With more than 90 percent of its students securing employment or a spot in graduate school, and placements at employers ranging from Google to Goldman Sachs to Two Sigma to Verizon and Johnson & Johnson, the school has been attracting record numbers of applications even as its median SAT scores have risen by more than 50 points in the past five years. Its admissions rate has fallen to 39 percent in 2016 from 54 percent a decade ago. It ranks 180th on Forbes’s annual list of America’s Top Colleges, up 68 spots from last year.
It’s part of an impressive turnaround orchestrated by Stevens’s president, Nariman Farvardin, an Iranian-born, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute-trained electrical engineer who has been running the college since 2011. Farvardin’s CV is more than you might expect from someone in charge of a regional tech school. Besides his seven US patents and 150 technical research papers, he has co-founded two companies: A fabless semiconductor firm and a startup that sought to make buildings more energy-efficient. He did all this during his 27-year tenure at the University of Maryland, including seven years as dean of its Clark School of Engineering, four years as provost of the entire university and a spell as acting president. He was recruited to Stevens after the college’s former president became embroiled in a self-dealing scandal that levelled the school’s finances and morale.
Farvardin has streamlined Stevens’s senior management, plucking talent from not only industry but also non-traditional sources like New York City’s Fashion Institute of Technology, where Stevens found its new enrollment czar, Marybeth Murphy, who arrived in 2013 with a mission that included boosting female enrollment (it’s now at 30 percent). Overall undergraduate enrollment is up 28 percent in the past five years, to 3,100. Operating revenues are on the rise, and despite major construction under way all over campus, its endowment has increased to $166 million from $144 million five years ago. Stevens’s debt was recently upgraded by Standard & Poor’s to A–.
“ We can now build indices by connecting concepts, by measuring their performance.
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(This story appears in the 27 October, 2017 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)