Robert Cooke is the CTO and co-founder of 3Forge, a real-time data visualization platform.
In this episode, we delve into Wall Street's high-frequency trading evolution and the importance of high-volume trading data observability. We examine traditional software observability tools, such as Datadog, and contrast them with 3Forge’s financial observability platform, AMI.
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In this episode of the Software at Scale podcast, Robert Cooke, CTO and Co-founder of 3Forge, a comprehensive internal tools platform, shares his journey and insights. He outlines his career trajectory, which includes prominent positions such as the Infrastructure Lead at Bear Stearns and the Head of Infrastructure at Liquidnet, and his work on high-frequency trading systems that employ software and hardware to perform rapid, automated trading decisions based on market data.
Cooke elucidates how 3Forge empowers subject matter experts to automate trading decisions by encoding business logic. He underscores the criticality of robust monitoring systems around these automated trading systems, drawing an analogy with nuclear reactors due to the potential catastrophic repercussions of any malfunction.
The dialogue then shifts to the impact of significant events like the COVID-19 pandemic on high-frequency trading systems. Cooke postulates that these systems can falter under such conditions, as they are designed to follow developer-encoded instructions and lack the flexibility to adjust to unforeseen macro events. He refers to past instances like the Facebook IPO and Knight Capital's downfall, where automated trading systems were unable to handle atypical market conditions, highlighting the necessity for human intervention in such scenarios.
Cooke then delves into how 3Forge designs software for mission-critical scenarios, making an analogy with military strategy. Utilizing the OODA loop concept - Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act, they can swiftly respond to situations like outages. He argues that traditional observability tools only address the first step, whereas their solution facilitates quick orientation and decision-making, substantially reducing reaction time.
He cites a scenario involving a sudden surge in Facebook orders where their tool allows operators to detect the problem in real time, comprehend the context, decide on the response, and promptly act on it. He extends this example to situations like government incidents or emergencies where an expedited response is paramount.
Additionally, Cooke emphasizes the significance of low latency UI updates in their tool. He explains that their software uses an online programming approach, reacting to changes in real-time and only updating the altered components. As data size increases and reaction time becomes more critical, this feature becomes increasingly important.
Cooke concludes this segment by discussing the evolution of their clients' use cases, from initially needing static data overviews to progressively demanding real-time information and interactive workflows. He gives the example of users being able to comment on a chart and that comment being immediately visible to others, akin to the real-time collaboration features in tools like Google Docs.
In the subsequent segment, Cooke shares his perspective on choosing the right technology to drive business decisions. He stresses the importance of understanding the history and trends of technology, having experienced several shifts in the tech industry since his early software writing days in the 1980s. He projects that while computer speeds might plateau, parallel computing will proliferate, leading to CPUs with more cores. He also predicts continued growth in memory, both in terms of RAM and disk space.
He further elucidates his preference for web-based applications due to their security and absence of installation requirements. He underscores the necessity of minimizing the data in the web browser and shares how they have built every component from scratch to achieve this. Their components are designed to handle as much data as possible, constantly pulling in data based on user interaction.
Using the example of a dropdown menu, Cooke explains how a component initially designed for a small amount of data might eventually need to handle much larger data sets. He emphasizes the need to design components to handle the maximum possible data from the outset to avoid such issues.
The conversation then pivots to the concept of over-engineering. Cooke argues that building a robust and universal solution from the start is not over-engineering but an efficient approach. He notes the significant overlap in applications use cases, making it advantageous to create a component that can cater to a wide variety of needs.
In response to the host's query about selling software to Wall Street, Cooke advocates targeting the most demanding customers first. He believes that if a product can satisfy such customers, it's easier to sell to others. They argue that it's challenging to start with a simple product and then scale it up for more complex use cases, but it's feasible to start with a complex product and tailor it for simpler use cases.
Cooke further describes their process of creating a software product. Their strategy was to focus on core components, striving to make them as efficient and effective as possible. This involved investing years on foundational elements like string libraries and data marshalling. After establishing a robust foundation, they could then layer on additional features and enhancements. This approach allowed them to produce a mature and capable product eventually.
They also underscore the inevitability of users pushing software to its limits, regardless of its optimization. Thus, they argue for creating software that is as fast as possible right from the start. They refer to an interview with Steve Jobs, who argued that the best developers can create software that's substantially faster than others. Cooke's team continually seeks ways to refine and improve the efficiency of their platform.
Next, the discussion shifts to team composition and the necessary attributes for software engineers. Cooke emphasizes the importance of a strong work ethic and a passion for crafting good software. He explains how his ambition to become the best software developer from a young age has shaped his company's culture, fostering a virtuous cycle of hard work and dedication among his team.
The host then emphasizes the importance of engineers working on high-quality products, suggesting that problems and bugs can sap energy and demotivate a team. Cooke concurs, comparing the experience of working on high-quality software to working on an F1 race car, and how the pursuit of refinement and optimization is a dream for engineers.
The conversation then turns to the importance of having a team with diverse thought processes and skillsets. Cooke recounts how the introduction of different disciplines and perspectives in 2019 profoundly transformed his company.
The dialogue then transitions to the state of software solutions before the introduction of their high-quality software, touching upon the compartmentalized nature of systems in large corporations and the problems that arise from it. Cooke explains how their solution offers a more comprehensive and holistic overview that cuts across different risk categories.
Finally, in response to the host's question about open-source systems, Cooke expresses reservations about the use of open-source software in a corporate setting. However, he acknowledges the extensive overlap and redundancy among the many new systems being developed. Although he does not identify any specific groundbreaking technology, he believes the rapid proliferation of similar technologies might lead to considerable technical debt in the future.
Host Utsav wraps up the conversation by asking Cooke about his expectations and concerns for the future of technology and the industry. Cooke voices his concern about the continually growing number of different systems and technologies that companies are adopting, which makes integrating and orchestrating all these components a challenge. He advises companies to exercise caution when adopting multiple technologies simultaneously.
However, Cooke also expresses enthusiasm about the future of 3Forge, a platform he has devoted a decade of his life to developing. He expresses confidence in the unique approach and discipline employed in building the platform. Cooke is optimistic about the company's growth and marketing efforts and their focus on fostering a developer community. He believes that the platform will thrive as developers share their experiences, and the product gains momentum.
Utsav acknowledges the excitement and potential challenges that lie ahead, especially in managing community-driven systems. They conclude the conversation by inviting Cooke to return for another discussion in the future to review the progression and evolution of the topic. Both express their appreciation for the fruitful discussion before ending the podcast.