- After graduating from Harvard with a degree in computer science, Harrison wasn’t sure what would come next
- Harrison interned at Jane Street before starting as a trader on the American depositary receipts desk
FTX.US president and former Jane Street software developer Brett Harrison straddles two worlds.
“What I discovered about myself at Jane Street was that I was able to pull together the business side and the technology side,” said Harrison. “I was the translator between these two areas and I helped the business really understand what it is they want from technology.”
After graduating from Harvard with a degree in computer science, Harrison didn’t know what would come next.
“I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do with computer science, I thought maybe I would become a professor or a teacher of some kind, maybe work for a big tech firm,” said Harrison. “But I had a number of friends, either my major or similar majors, who had done internships at different kinds of proprietary trading firms or hedge funds, and particularly a couple that had worked at Jane Street.”
Harrison interned at Jane Street before receiving a full time offer. He started on the American depositary receipts desk as a trader.
“It was an incredibly exciting place to be, just learning from all these amazingly smart people who are really the forerunners, they’re the experts in their field,” said Harrison.
Drawn toward technology
The business side was fast-paced and exciting, but Harrison found himself drawn to the technology.
“Even though I was a trader, I found myself very attracted to all of the different technology projects that were happening,” he said. “I really wanted to use my computer science background.”
Harrison decided to get more involved with different initiatives on the tech side, from improving the user interface and the automated trading systems to rewriting spreadsheets. He decided shortly after to move into a firm-wide technology and management role.
“My role became the person that would walk around all the different desks and ask people ‘what are you guys working on? What are you excited about? How can I help you?,’” said Harrison. “I would ask them what features they wanted, and I found that different desks often wanted the same things.
It became Harrison’s practice to gather different teams in a room together to work out different solutions that could benefit everyone.
The animal rights angle
It was while working with Jane Street that Harrison first became interested in digital assets. He and Sam Bankman-Fried, CEO of FTX, became close when they overlapped at Jane Street.
“It’s funny, a mutual acquaintance told us that we were actually very involved in donating to the same animal rights charity, so that kind of brought us together,” said Harrison. “We were both vegans and we bonded over that.”
Bankman-Fried left Jane Street to work with the Center for Effective Altruism in 2017.
“I was still at Jane Street after he left, but it was around the same time that Jane Street began getting into cryptocurrencies as well,” said Harrison. “I got to see some of the beginnings of real institutional involvement in that digital asset space.”
Harrison was intrigued, but skeptical.
“I remember back then thinking that this was the Wild West, just in terms of the exchanges and what their technology looked like, and managing different wallets and trying to move currencies around between different exchanges,” said Harrison. “It was really the beginning of something, and it had a very, very long way to go. But it was a really exciting space.”
Harrison stayed with Jane Street for about eight years before he moved to Chicago with his family. He worked for Headlands Technologies for about a year as a software developer. Most recently, Harrison served as the head of semi-systematic technology at Citadel Securities. Crypto was something he had always kept an eye on, but it wasn’t until very recently that he became professionally involved in the space.
A surprise move
“Sam and I had kept in touch a lot over the years and he had kept me up to date on a lot of the interesting things that were going on in his world, to say the least,” said Harrison. “We were just texting and he said ‘by the way, we have a lot of exciting things happening here at FTX, and we would love to have you.’”
In a move that surprised even himself, Harrison started as the president of FTX.US in May 2021.
“I hadn’t thought very much about the digital asset industry in terms of something that I could work in,” said Harrison. “But then, after discussing a possible career with FTX in the US, I started to really dig deep into what’s going on with this industry and thought ‘wow, this is just an opportunity of a lifetime to be a part of this amazing movement.’”
In his short time at FTX.US, Harrison has found that technology, finance and crypto aren’t really all that different after all.
“You know, as a software engineer, in many ways an exchange, writing an exchange, running an exchange is completely different from any of the work that I had done before. It occupies a completely different place in the financial ecosystem,” said Harrison. “But there’s a lot of overlap in terms of the need to build something that scales and is built in a financially responsible way.”
His traditional finance and technology peers were excited about the career change, Harrison said.
“We’ve really reached the point now where crypto is no longer something that traditional finance firms can ignore,” he said. “Many different firms have discussed getting into crypto, imminently. It’s probably the most talked about asset in the financial space right now.”
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