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.
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.
Crash, bang: the rollercoaster physics of ultra-long financial bonds
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.