The sun never sets on the Vanguard trading desk because they follow it. “Follow the Sun” served as the official title for the investment company’s massive, 5-year effort to enable portfolio managers to trade around the clock and around the globe. A few dozen portfolio managers sit at the white-hot core of the company and manage over $3 trillion in assets including the 401Ks for Google and Apple.
The mission of the project was to create an application that allowed managers in separate global regions to continuously and seamlessly manage all assets in all markets. They wanted to “pass the book from desk to desk.”
The effort falls in line with Vanguard’s ethos of frugality. They could bundle purchases and reduce fees. They also needed to time purchases. Vanguard buys in such large amounts that a single purchase can drive up the price of a stock. And passing the book de-risks trading in case of unexpected market and global volatility.
An internal UX strategist brought me in for UX design support. Project leads charged us to storyboard a high-level UX vision for the application.
We started strong. After mining a wiki full of documents and getting crash finance courses, we diagrammed a bird’s-eye view of the operations. The diagram clarified the scope, scale, and telling details of the effort for the hundreds of people working on the project. Big win!
The excitement and the possibilities for this system thrilled us! We continued to think big. What about contingency scenarios? Just how would the transitions from desk to desk occur? We explored displays. We re-imagined the trading floor. We explored data visualization concepts. We heard: “Good thinking!” “Great stuff!”
However, we soon flew into turbulence. “Follow the Sun” started two years before we arrived. Development charged ahead. A separate usability team fed them screens as soon as requirements came into focus. The gravitational pull of the development cycles increased. Coders needed screens.
The mood changed from “think big” to “scale back.” Pats on the back became “Hey, what’s this thing going to look like, anyway?” We climbed a steep learning curve, but were not prepared to design accurate screens at such a granular level.
We asked: “When can we talk to the portfolio managers?”
We heard: “We don’t want to bother them too much because they are managing trillions of dollars, the reason the company exists.”
I imagined the oracles of Minority Report, floating in saline administering the esoteric duties of high finance.
We did meet with portfolio managers but mainly in facilitated business process sessions where they debated and formalized task flows. They could not have been more passionate, articulate, and gracious. They completed requirements for initial sections, but most of the system remained to be defined. We made progress but not enough to design the interface of the entire system. We are creative, not clairvoyant. This was a tough spot.
The UX team is not faultless. Despite the heat, we stubbornly remained in blue sky. In principle, we did the right thing. Conversations about the big-picture issues we raised did not happen often or early enough during product design.
In practice, priorities change and we could have adjusted expectations – ours and leadership’s – with them. We could have pitched our effort at an altitude of 10,000 feet rather than 50,000. We could have come in for more frequent landings. We just flew too close to the sun.
Visioning ended. We submitted our findings and concepts to leadership. The strategist moved on to the next project. I joined the usability team to work on wireframes a few clicks ahead of the developers.
What a painful experience!
Looking back, I wish we had done a thorough current-state analysis. I wish we had navigated the choppy political waters to get more time with the portfolio managers. We could have conducted contextual analyses and stitched together all existing screens. It would have been imperfect, but it would have given us a solid benchmark from which to iterate.
Over the years, I worked on a series of interesting projects with Vanguard and loved it. I learned so much. The people are great. I invest with Vanguard and strive to be a Boglehead (and a Mustachean). I drink the Kool Aid.
I had never touched a project of this scale. The portfolio management tool was the Hollywood summer blockbuster of my career thus far. I glimpsed a rarefied world of finance. I was intrigued and wanted to continue. And I could have.
I had a divided heart, though. I would soon drive from Philly to LA with whatever I could fit into my 2003 Mini Cooper. I sold, gave away, or digitized all my worldly possessions. I was going Full Buddha.
And during the epic northeast snowstorms of 2014, I followed the sun to “Silicon Beach,” my new home.