Reflecting on 20 Years in Bloomberg Engineering: Paul Williams, Head of Application Frameworks (London)

Our London-based head of application frameworks, Paul Williams, is celebrating 20 years at Bloomberg. We asked him about his experience working in software engineering over the past two decades:

Can you sum up your career at Bloomberg so far?

I started working for one of the founders and have been working my way down ever since!

Come again?

When I started, Engineering comprised 300 programmers, all in our Park Avenue building in New York City. As the company has grown, I went from being a maverick experimenter to joining the London Engineering leadership team, also forming my own specialist group building real-time components for the Bloomberg Terminal.

Along the way, it’s been thrilling to see some of my ideas become part of the product, learn from others, and guide leaders who have moved Bloomberg forward with their own innovations.

And I’ve learned that, at Bloomberg, position in the org chart isn’t the primary factor defining one’s impact and influence.

How did you get to Bloomberg?

After university, I coded games then designed supercomputers at a startup. In the early 90s, we got a call to help Bloomberg. I remember being presented with printouts of “contributor pages” – the human-input data-screens that brokers used to advertise bond prices. My mission: find a way to get that data to Bloomberg and for our systems to understand it.

The feed-handler I designed contained heuristics to turn text pages into digital updates thereby feeding our ticker plant and analytics. No one was doing this. We installed this system worldwide – pre-web, pre-Google Docs! This increase in contributed data helped Bloomberg become stronger. I saw what a great company Bloomberg was, quickly became a contractor, and then, 20 years ago, joined as a full-time employee.

You helped start the London Engineering group.

Yes.  London Engineering was born in 2002 when 10 managers joined me from New York. One member of that group, Christine Flounders, now runs London Engineering. Another, Mario Cadete, recently moved from London to lead our San Francisco Engineering team.

Recruits from our first London graduate intake have gone on to great things at the company. For example, one leads our Production Visibility and SRE teams globally, while another runs Trading Systems / AIM engineering, where he became the first in the department to champion Agile methods. And, we now have more than 900 engineers in London!

Tell us about a ‘Bloomberg moment’.

Originally, I was the “skunkworks,” trying stuff that might become viable. I’m grateful that a few ideas turned out well. I remember one dramatic day in New York. Co-Founder and then Head of Engineering Tom Secunda was at his desk in front of the console room, the nerve-center of Bloomberg’s operations in our Park Avenue office. I was visiting from London and sitting nearby. There was a new project being started to embed a charting package in the Terminal. Suddenly, Tom stood up, scanned the room, pointed at me and said: “You – take this on!”

That was my chance. I figured out how this package connected to the Terminal and built a framework supporting independent elements such as grids, charts, scrolling quotes and news monitors living together within the terminal window. As development teams began to understand the power this brought, user-customizable applications within the Terminal started to come to life, supporting real-time spreadsheets and trading platforms. I loved this project and spent every waking hour adding new features.

Did that go any further?

The Terminal comprised 4 panels, but still felt quite inflexible. I thought, “what if any visual component could be dragged out anywhere on the desktop – a bit like ‘wallpaper’ – allowing our users to fill any available surface with data?” Without changing our fundamental architecture, I built a working prototype and showed it to a product manager. To my surprise, he said, “We have to get this in front of Tom and Mike (Bloomberg)!” That must have gone well, as a team was soon formed to harness this capability and build a product. Today, we call this Launchpad.

Launchpad became a big part of the Terminal. You started it?

Yes! Clients were soon filling all their screens with Bloomberg data – sometimes 200 components across 8 displays. It was great to see this on trading floors, though this also filled me with a deep sense of responsibility not to break it!

Bloomberg Launchpad is a customizable workspace that brings the most critical information and functionality forward to help our clients make informed decisions in real time.

What else have you worked on?

A few colleagues in New York started the back-end for an internal chat system, and I built mini-browser-like windows for the front-end. Someone had the sense to show it to a few clients. Following a favorable reception, it also became a full product: Instant Bloomberg, or IB. We were astonished at how this was adopted as the way of doing instant communication across the finance industry, in addition to being considered secure and compliant for trading. We’ve even heard that some clients have had 500 chats open! We also made it possible for real-time prices to be embedded, making it the first system with live financial data within chat.

What are you working on now?

Three years ago, I helped start our San Francisco Engineering office, designing a workplace and meetup space specifically tuned for developers’ needs.

My passion is still the Terminal – which is fundamentally a browser, but also handles real-time data and applies complex transformations via “Datalayer” to update the UI. My infrastructure and application development teams here in London own Datalayer and tooling for the Terminal.

Personally, I still try to code when I can and am currently building tools that help us better understand performance hotspots within the Terminal.

What challenges do you have?

Often, in this era of the cloud, the way to scale is to add more servers. But, this isn’t an option on a trading floor PC. It’s our responsibility to ensure our software runs responsively, even when breaking news sends the markets wild. I’m forming a new team dedicated to understanding and solving these issues for the long term.

I champion initiatives to make the terminal more accessible; to aid those with visual impairments, for example. Real-time financial data, which is often presented as charts and graphs, presents a unique set of challenges for these users.

Whilst benefitting from my team being culturally diverse, I believe we would be even stronger in innovation and leadership with more women within my group and across the department. New approaches to recruiting are leading us to fantastic candidates from a wider pool. We must ensure every opportunity is given for our female employees – as well as male – to rise into tech leadership positions.

And we need to get the next generation ready. I’m passionate about encouraging kids to stick with STEAM: Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Maths. I champion Bloomberg’s partner charities involved in education: Code Club, First Robotics, Teach First and the Prince’s Trust, and I personally support Galactic Unite and Big Change through mentorship and fund-raising. Bloomberg’s Employee Match scheme has helped me raise significant amounts for these charities by creating a photography book and participating in endurance challenges – the latest of which I embark on next month.

Why are you still here? What gives you purpose?

The challenge of making our product more useful, powerful and responsive still excites me. I enjoy being part of an engineering organization led by our Global Head of Engineering, Vlad Kliatchko, and his team. With their serious technology credentials, they also understand the dynamics of software engineering and push us all to work better.

I love that Bloomberg is at the intersection of business and technology. We innovate internally to build powerful systems, but also engage with the external computer science community, influencing the direction of the discipline itself. Our presence on the C++ Standards and the JavaScript (TC39) Committees enables us to move important programming languages forward in ways that benefit us and the wider programming world, and our growing open source engagements help raise our profile. I enjoy being challenged and educated by new recruits and experienced developers alike.

Underlying all this is the fact that Bloomberg is a philanthropic foundation at its core, with our profits fueling education, health, environment, science, and the arts around the globe.

Any advice for other employees or prospects?

Success doesn’t just require being smart and working hard – it requires teamwork and trust. We’re all in this together, so the pathway to success involves respecting what has gone before, having a hunger to do things better to serve our customers and each other, and building relationships across the company. Embrace everything this company has to offer and you will contribute to a great product and also improve the wider world around us.

When I first became aware of Bloomberg, I was trying to research the company – you couldn’t Google it then! I remember picking up Bloomberg Markets Magazine, and there was an opening letter written by Mike, entitled “True Investment.” It was aimed at our customers and it said: “Go to the schools your kids are at – find out what they need. Go to your local hospital – support their projects. This is true investment.” I saw then that Bloomberg is a unique company that combines innovative technology, a razor-sharp focus on what our industry needs, a vibrant, transparent working environment, and a desire to change the world in ways that go far beyond the box of blinking amber-on-black. I’m very grateful for all the opportunities I’ve had so far and for the colleagues I get to work with.