Rymden - stock.adobe.com

Chief data officer interview: Neema Raphael, Goldman Sachs

After two decades at Goldman Sachs, Neema Raphael tells Computer Weekly about his tech journey at one of the world’s biggest banks

Neema Raphael left San Francisco in 2003, and headed to New York to apply his tech know-how to the enterprise sector. He soon landed a job at Goldman Sachs, and within five years, the self-confessed “tech nerd”, who knew nothing about the finance sector, was part of a team helping the banking giant survive one of the biggest crises it has ever faced.

Raphael says he is a “Californian kid” who grew up in Los Angeles and completed his undergraduate tech education at the University of California in Berkeley.

After graduating in computer science in 2003, he immediately headed to New York, where he joined Goldman Sachs for what he describes as his first and only job. “I was studying computer science, which I love as I am a tech nerd, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do pure tech for tech, and I wanted to learn something new,” says Raphael.

He says he knew nothing about the finance sector, but had completed a couple of internships at Goldman Sachs in San Francisco. “The finance sector seemed a like a cool way to marry my tech skills with a new domain,” says Raphael.

After interviews at Goldman Sachs in New York, he says he was “totally sold” on the idea. Raphael was 22 years old when began his journey as a computer programming analyst, where he coded back-office accounting systems.

But it was in 2008 that he really cut his teeth, in the bank’s IT department. “The financial crisis hit, and people were actually worried about whether the firm would [continue to] exist,” he says. This was just after the collapse of investment bank Lehman Brothers.

Raphael tells Computer Weekly: “There were a few groups that came together from different parts of the firm to try to bring company data together. Data about our exposure to Lehman Brothers, about how our business is running, our daily risk to get a more holistic view of how the firm was doing, and our exposure. I was put into this sort of swat team building a database.”

Award win

The database, known as Cptyr, won a prestigious award at the bank. Raphael says this was unusual because it would normally go to the best banking or sales transaction rather than an IT project. “The database won the award,” he jokes. 

The first iteration of the database took weeks, but it continued to be developed to support the business. “The database not only helped save the company, but became a business driver,” says Raphael. Different parts of the Goldman Sachs business, including salespeople, traders and quantitative analysts, began to approach the team to find out more about the database that brings together all the data they need in one place. “This is where my data focus and passion came in,” he adds.

Goldman Sachs has three business arms: investment banking and sales and trading, asset/wealth management and private wealth, and a third business known as Platform Solutions, which focuses on fintech and digital transactions.

Raphael’s current role, which reports to the chief technology officer, covers all three. Each business line has its own engineers who are supported by his “horizontal team”, which builds platforms for all business verticals. The team comprises about 500 tech professionals out of Goldman Sachs’ total tech workforce of 12,000 – about a quarter of the company’s total staff.

In his current role, Raphael says the biggest challenge is dealing with the “explosion of data and what people want to do with it”.

“Finance has always been heavily data-driven, but now it is even more important with machine learning, so my biggest challenge across the firm is organising data in a sane way that people can tap into, and to make sure it can be used for things like trading, making decisions and meetings regulations.

“We have to make sure the data is organised, clean and high quality, and make sure non-techies, as well as techies, can use it,” says Raphael, adding that data at the bank is “medium-sized but highly complex”. “The complexity of our data is the challenge that makes it super-interesting here, not the volume, as we are not a web-scale company,” he says.

Data variety

Raphael says it’s the variety and linkages between data that creates challenges. “Even engineers here struggle with the variety and complexity of our data,” he says.

One major project that Raphael’s team was involved in is the bank’s OneGS programme, which set out to clients that Goldman Sachs was one set of businesses and salespeople rather than being siloed. “This was a strategy to cover our clients holistically, but to do that on our side, we had to do a big data project to bring all client data together and organise it.”

OneGS turned into a two-year “data organisation, data normalisation and data curation project”, he says.

Another important project – completed recently – which utilised data, has been “useful in the current financial crisis”, says Raphael.

“There was recently a lot of stress on the firms in the banking sector, so normalising the data on our exposure to these banks and what trades we had done with them was another project,” he says.

This had to be done quickly, but Raphael says work has continued on this ever since the Cptyr database project was created in the 2008 financial crisis. “This was an upgraded version of the original Cptyr database,” he adds.

Read more about IT at Goldman Sachs

Raphael says that going forward, there is a “unique opportunity” for Goldman Sachs to bring its tech prowess and put its hat in the fintech ring. “We have always been tech-forward, and now we can help our clients and customers bring the tech to bear for them,” he says.

For example, Goldman Sachs has built a lot of the tech platform used by Apple Card.

In terms of technology projects of the future, Raphael speaks of moving data to a multi-public cloud environment to create “a single data infrastructure backbone for our analytics”. “As a company, we have been moving to the cloud opportunistically, and there are pockets such as transaction banking, which is public cloud-native, but we are at balance still heavily private cloud-based,” he says.

Raphael adds that the creation of a single public cloud-based data backbone is a very large, two- to three-year project that kicked off this year.

The current economic challenges across the world and difficulties faced by organisations have led to cutbacks in IT investments, but Goldman Sachs is continuing to invest heavily.

“The great thing about Goldman Sachs is that even in these super-challenging times, we invest in the right places and in where business and the world are going,” he says. “All the way to the most senior people, they see the importance of not only protecting, but investing in engineering, automation artificial intelligence and data.

“Relationships are a big part of our edge, but so too is technology and data,” concludes Raphael.

Read more on CW500 and IT leadership skills

Data Center
Data Management