Carnegie Mellon University

Jennika Thomas

Jennika Gold Thomas

Chief Operating Officer & Co-Founder, Isle Data

When did you first become interested in quantitative finance?

I have had a lifelong affinity for mathematics. As a child, I loved the subject, and the subject matter came easily to me. I later became interested in the practical application of mathematics – especially within the financial markets – and started to pursue opportunities in applied mathematics, which led me to quantitative finance.

Can you describe your career path and where you are today?

After several college internships exploring various industries and applications of mathematics, I started my full-time career as a trader and financial engineer at Goldman Sachs. In this role, I had the opportunity to work with and enhance algorithmic trading models and processes on the desk. I later transitioned to Derivative Solutions as a quantitative analyst and financial engineer. Shortly after, FactSet acquired Derivative Solutions. Over time, I had many roles at the firm, including leading the fixed income financial engineering analytics team and now serve as the head of product development for fixed income and risk analytics in my role as vice president. In this role, I lead a global team of 40-45 developers who are responsible for the integration, maintenance and support of a variety of third party risk models as well as our proprietary industry leading risk models. The team is responsible for our Fixed Income and Derivatives analytics development and calculation.

What do you enjoy most about your career? 

I enjoy translating the cross-section of mathematical and financial skills into products that meet client workflows, taking a holistic perspective when considering client solutions, considering challenges, needs, and opportunities through the eyes of the client first, This career path allows me to focus on the investor community – balancing focusing on the future while driving the existing business. I also enjoy the opportunity to serve as an advocate for diversity and inclusion, actively seeking input from diverse constituents to make more informed decisions.

What skills are required to be successful in this field?

The required skillset evolves as you advance through your career. In early phases, the technical skills take precedence and sharpening your technical abilities is imperative. Having a strong understanding of the fundamentals, across financial modeling, statistics and programming is key. As you progress through your career, other skills such as communication, management and courageous, decisive and influential leadership will serve to continue your advancement. What I enjoy most is having the opportunity to join both of these dimensions in one career. 

How has MSCF helped you in your career?

MSCF really helped on the technical side and helped establish a solid grounding in finance. I was coming from a purely mathematical background, and the program gave me the foundation I needed in finance, applying techniques I learned in mathematics to this field. The courses in interest rate modeling, financial products, programming and statistical and time series analysis provided a helpful introduction to all of the different financial products and nuisances.

What advice would you give to someone considering a degree in quantitative finance?

Master technical skills and never underestimate programming ability. Understand the fundamental modeling approaches and the variety of modeling techniques so that you can develop an intuition of when, and under which circumstances, to use them. Develop an understanding of the modeling practices – not just the formulas – but the limitations, assumptions and weaknesses. Over time, this knowledge turns into more of an art than a science. Mathematics is a technical field, but as you become an industry practitioner, having intuition will help you be successful. Also, don’t limit your career options. Explore all of the different avenues that are out there to find what you enjoy.

How important is a master’s degree in your field?

It’s the minimum criteria. Depending on what direction you want to take, at a minimum, you will need some master’s level education or graduate degree to be successful in the field.

Why did you choose MSCF?

The MSCF program is truly multi-disciplinary and the curriculum is specifically tailored for this program. Other programs simply compile classes from different departments, but the applications are not always in quantitative finance. You can take a coding class from a computer science school, but you won’t apply what you learn to finance. All of the courses in the MSCF program are specifically designed for its customized curriculum. I was also attracted to the program’s recognizable reputation and alumni base. MSCF has been consistently ranked in the top three programs since it was created, and its credibility is based on the proven track record and the skillsets students possess when they graduate.

Was there a faculty member who stood out?

Dr. Steve Shreve, for many reasons. He is a pioneer in the field. His reputation precedes him. More importantly, and personally, he has been completely dedicated to the program for the last few decades. He tirelessly dedicates himself to the program and really supports his students. He is hands-on and truly makes an effort to know each student on an individual level. He is and continues to be an amazing mentor to me and many other alumni.

Did anything surprise you during your time at MSCF?

The program’s level of difficulty and how challenging it was came as an initial shock as I entered the program directly from undergraduate. The MSCF program really does require full-time dedication – even if you’re only in class three hours a day, the workload consists of an additional 12 hours a day. The time required to get the most out of the program is intense and rewarding.

Was the MSCF alumni network helpful for you?

As I was recruited to Goldman Sachs for my first job out of the MSCF program, one of the individuals interviewing me for the position was a fellow alumna of MSCF. This immediately gave me visibility and helped me in that process. The Speakers Series was also helpful. Through those sessions, I learned that opportunity exists outside of just the front office and the buy side, but that the skills we were learning were applicable throughout the entire industry.