Open Source Code At Heart of Wall Street Programmer’s Bust

Programmers and Wall Street haters alike may join together to support a convicted computer programmer from Goldman Sachs after reading the full-throated defense he receives at Vanity Fair by noted financial journalist Michael Lewis.

Programmers and Wall Street haters alike may join together to support a convicted computer programmer from Goldman Sachs after reading the full-throated defense he receives at Vanity Fair by noted financial journalist Michael Lewis.

Lewis, the former Salomon Brothers banker known for breaking down the most complex ideas into lay terms, sinks his teeth into the case of Goldman Sachs programmer Sergey Aleynikov while simultaneously tearing down the jury, the Wall Street firm, the judge and the government for their lack of understanding behind the technology involved in high-frequency trades.

Here’s a recap of Serge’s story:

Aleynikov was arrested one month after leaving Goldman Sachs to create a new trading platform for a hedge fund run by another Russian named Misha Malyshev.

During the last six weeks of his employment, Aleynikov emailed himself four times the source code he was working with. The files contained open source code, code that the programmer had tweaked and Goldman Sachs proprietary coding. The government claims the programmer sent himself 32 megabytes of code, but it was essentially the same 8 megabytes of code sent four times over. Goldman Sachs’ entire system contains more than one gigabyte of code—so what the Russian took was minuscule in comparison to the whole.

His aim was to try and disentangle the two forms of code so he could understand what he did in case he had to replicate it later.

He sent the files the same way he had done since he first started working on Wall Street, through a “subversion repository,” a free place where he could store the code he was working on. Those servers were based in Germany.

He also deleted his bash history, which the programmer claims “wasn’t an entirely innocent act,” but something he had done since he first started programming computers. If he didn’t, his password would be exposed to anyone with access to the system.

Lewis makes clear that the FBI assigned to the investigation and even Goldman Sachs knew little about computer programming and even less about the complex world of high-frequency trading.

In the month following Aleynikov’s departure from Goldman Sachs, Lewis notes he hadn’t touched the flash drive that contained some of the code he had taken which makes the journalist question whether any of this material was even important to either the programmer or the bank. Goldman’s code was considered “clunky,” so why would he use that code if he was hired to launch a new system?

In one of the most disheartening statements from the article, Serge describes the FBI agent in charge:

“I thought it was like, crazy, really,” he says. “He was stringing these computer terms together in ways that made no sense. He didn’t seem to know anything about high-frequency trading or source code.”

It’s a lesson that repeats those of the financial crisis that Lewis also covered: The agencies and people in charge of monitoring corruption don’t understand the technology or the principles they are hired to protect.

Lewis covered subprime lending and the 2008 economic meltdown in The Big Short; Silicon Valley in The New New Thing, and he even reviewed Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In for Vanity Fair.

Image by Itay.G via Shutterstock.