FROM FUNDAMENTAL SCIENCE TO FINTECH: WHAT IS THE MOST VALUABLE KIND OF KNOWLEDGE TRANSFER? 

Many successful business professionals in the world’s fastest growing knowledge-based industries, including fintech, have backgrounds in academia and fundamental scientific research. But is it their expertise within specific domains, or the scientific mindset and culture they bring, that helps them create value when they move into industry?  

The answer can be seen in my own journey from academia to fintech and in Capco’s experiences helping others make that transition over the last few years – and it could prove important not only to industry but also to those individuals considering making the jump from the world of science into the financial services industry’s very different problem-solving environment. 

Unknown worlds

Fintech is fun, but I love physics more. From the age of 15 I studied with a single-minded determination to pursue my passion for space and the fundamental laws of nature. In the subsequent years I was lucky enough to study Astrophysics for my degree, followed by a PhD in Theoretical Quantum Physics, both at University College London (UCL).

Then in 2014 I joined Capco through our Associate Talent Programme, for a new journey into the (then) unknown world of consulting. I’ve since gone on to become one of Capco's senior solution architects, and have been lucky enough to work on several major projects, including being design lead for a greenfield mobile banking platform that now serves ten million customers.

During my nine years at university, I saw closely how academia sets about solving some of the most abstract questions that humanity has asked about the universe. My move to industry revealed a great contrast in environments, but also highlighted to me that some lessons can carry across the divide.

1. Establish your understanding of a problem from scratch

As my PhD supervisor once said to me, “You can’t ask the hard questions until you’ve asked the easy ones”. Every problem we encounter, in industry as in science, will be new and unique, so we should establish our understanding of it ‘ab-initio’ (from first principles). Taking the risk that others may think we’re asking silly or unnecessary questions requires self-confidence, but asking about the basics establishes two things:

- You care more about understanding the problem than hurting your ego
- You avoid the oversights that might be caused by making wrong assumptions

Both of which are good things.

2. Knowing what you don’t know – and being upfront about it

This observation is subtly different to the one above. So much of what we do, as architects, as consultants, is about building trust – in our solutions, our designs, and our decisions. And yet so often I see people attempt to build this trust on foundations of sand after trying to bluff their way through a conversation about something they don’t understand.

I’ve never once seen that tactic work, or indeed look remotely genuine. Have the confidence to admit not knowing something without it letting hurt your pride. It is much more impactful to say, “I don’t know the answer to this now, but it’s interesting and I want to find out how we solve it together”.

3. Peer reviews are not about having your homework marked

Collaboration is a good thing, so it’s important to be open to having your solutions poked and prodded for flaws. This is not about being right or wrong or having your suggestions criticized. In a healthy working environment, everyone is there to achieve the same goals – and peer review is a crucial part of ‘kicking the tires’ of new designs and ideas.

When designing solution architectures, I will always walk my ideas through with colleagues, managers, fellow architects, engineers, and anyone else with even a passing interest because:

- It tests the robustness of the design, and gets it seen in different ways through different lenses
- It creates group consensus on the best solution for the job. It stops being ‘your’ design, and starts being ‘our’ design
- The simple act of walking through and explaining the design multiple times can often open your eyes to your own oversights.

We often don’t fully understand something until we can explain it to someone else.

4. Every solution is imperfect

“It only takes one negative result to disprove 100 positives” is a well-known phrase in science. Every law, principle and theory can be judged to be right only to the extent of our knowledge and testing. That does not mean it is fundamentally correct.

We can apply the same logic to each solution we create, whether it be an operating model, a microservice architecture, or anything else. We can create these to the best of our abilities, but they will not be perfect. We should expect something to break, as new information comes to light, and prepare for that by building flexibility into our solutions and processes.

I would say one of the biggest developments that came to me as I learnt architecture, was realising there is no right answer, but instead many answers, to any problem. Our job is to pick the one that best addresses the requirements at hand, based on what we know. When our solution inevitably breaks, or needs changing, that’s ok.

“No solution ever survives the first encounter with reality”, to paraphrase a famous saying – or, adapting Mike Tyson’s modern-era version: “Everyone has a solution until it gets put into prod”.

Bridging the gap

When I joined Capco in 2014, I was the third person with a PhD to join the London office – and I’d studied with the other two through my time at UCL. From those modest beginnings, we collectively went on to set up Capco’s UK Architecture Capability, which now numbers over 50 people.

We also created Capco’s PhD Fellowship hiring programme to identify the next generation of academic talent who can bring their skills to a new environment. In the last four years we’ve hired over 30 promising recruits from diverse topics such as maths, computer science, biomedical engineering and neuropsychology. From these recruits we’ve developed successful senior solution architects, deep machine-learning data scientists, and award-winning product owners.

In general I think academia can get a rough time in the consciousness of the population, seen as the land of elbow patches and nebulous whiteboard scribbling. Consequently, it can be hard to level alongside our fast-paced world of finance. I believe where our industry can go wrong is by focussing on the wrong things. Academia very rarely gives you a self-contained, easy to transfer ‘tool’ to instantly make your financial institution more profitable, or your project more efficient.

What academia can do is create a mindset that places the group endeavor over the individual success, that favors humility over the ego, and that encourages structured problem solving over reactionary quick fixes. It’s much more about human behaviours than subject matter expertise (I’m still to find a way that understanding electron-molecule collisions has ever helped me be better at my consulting job). But the beauty of this is that we can all try to adopt this mindset, and it doesn’t require nine years of academic study.

Part of me will always remain academic (probably the bit that likes drinking tea and theorising), but my journey through Capco over the years has given me so much pride and joy on its own merits. It’s great to have played a role in creating such an amazing community of like-minded individuals, regardless of if they’re from academia or industry backgrounds, and fostering that spirit of curiosity and debate amongst them. I’m looking forward to seeing where it takes us all next.

Our PhD fellowship application can be found here, and we’re hiring across all types of architects here.

If this sounds like the type of community that you’d like to be part of, please get in touch.
Stephen Harrison, Principal Consultant