In celebration of New York Magazine’s 50th anniversary, this series, which will continue through October 2018, tells the stories behind key moments that shaped the city’s culture.
In the summer of 1988, the hedge-fund manager Donald Sussman took a call from a former Columbia University computer-science professor wanting advice on his new Wall Street career.
“I’d like to come see you,” David Shaw, then 37 years old, told Sussman. Shaw had grown up in California, receiving a Ph.D. at Stanford University, then moved to New York to teach at Columbia before joining investment bank Morgan Stanley, which had a new secretive trading group that was using computer modeling. A neophyte in the ways of Wall Street, Shaw wanted Sussman, who founded the investment firm Paloma Partners, to look at an offer he had received from Morgan Stanley’s rival, Goldman Sachs.
Sussman’s career has been built on recognizing and financing hedge-fund talent, but he had never encountered anyone like David Shaw. The cerebral computer scientist would go on to become a pioneer in a revolution in finance that would computerize the industry, turn long-standing practices on their head, and replace a culture of tough-guy traders with brainy eccentrics — not just math and science geeks, but musicians and writers — wearing jeans and T-shirts.
A harbinger of the techies who would storm Wall Street in a decade, this new generation of hedge-fund introverts would replace the profanity-laced trading rooms of the 1980s with quiet libraries of algorithmic research in every corner of the markets. They would also launch an early email system and look into the prospect of online retailing, leading one of Shaw’s most ambitious employees to take the idea and run with it. Yes, the seeds of Jeff Bezos’s Amazon were planted at a New York City hedge fund.