Ask me anything: Jessica James – ‘I am never happier than with my head down doing maths and coding’

Science

Jessica James, who is managing director at Commerzbank AG in London, UK, has spent almost 30 years in the world of finance after originally doing a PhD in theoretical atomic physics at the University of Oxford in the early 1990s.

Jessica James

What skills do you use every day in your job?

I am glad I learned not to be afraid of coding when I was doing my PhD – many periods of my life have seen me buried in code and spreadsheets for hours on end. I think that my ability to be completely obsessive is extremely handy here and in other areas of work. My PhD also started my writing career. I have published several books and many articles on physics and finance, and the ability to write for a variety of reader types, from technical to layperson, is very much part of my life. Public speaking is another part of my world; I’ve given talks at many different levels and I love audience feedback. I mourn the growth of remote presenting when all you have is a screen to talk to, though its undoubted convenience means that I can reach a global audience without leaving my home. Leadership and teamwork are likewise so important; I’ve always been able to switch between “team mode” and “manager mode” pretty easily, and many of these skills began to be acquired during my PhD. Finally, science has a strong code of ethics and integrity that has transferred to my finance career.

What do you like best and least about your job?

What is best is the excitement of discovering new things and I have found areas of finance and financial mathematics that other people did not even know existed. I am never happier than with my head down doing some maths or coding, and then finding that the clock has moved on many hours while I was working. I love being in a team and engaging with clever, interesting people. Also having writing and presenting as part of my job is a real pleasure. My least favourite thing is the time pressure – long hours, stress, demands on my time for crazy things. And I resent having to do my travel expenses when there’s a juicy problem to work on.

What do you know today that you wish you knew when you were starting out in your career?

A view on the future of the markets would have been useful. But I think it’s so important to value your own time and set limits and boundaries. We all need a balance in our lives and it’s so easy to get subsumed in work. Apart from that, there are two things I always say to people starting off in my industry: never be embarrassed about saying “I don’t understand” and never be afraid of saying “I made a mistake”. If folk could say these things more easily then a lot of the problems in the finance industry might never have happened. Personally, these days I love to say “I don’t know” – because then there is an opportunity to learn.

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