Blockchain, machine learning, Python coding language—how the Cal Poly Fintech Club is blurring the lines between finance and computer science.
Zach Harris, the president and cofounder of the Cal Poly Fintech Club, started trading bitcoin in high school. At 15, he enlisted one of his friends who knew enough about coding to build a cryptocurrency from scratch in an attempt to carve out his own slice of the market.
Fintech Club senior vice president Evan Shui also started tinkering with finance technology early in life as a self-assigned project. With a few months to burn, he spent the summer after his freshman year at Cal Poly building an app that used sentiment analysis (a positive/negative value system to gauge emotion in a dataset of language) to analyze stock ticker comments, which he scraped from Reddit in order to determine trends on Wall Street.
Both projects, as described by Harris and Shui, were utter failures. “Mine never ended up working because it was just a really bad cryptocurrency,” says Harris and laughs.
“I spent most of the time learning how to actually write the code for mine,” adds Shui. “I got a protype working but the sentiment analysis needed a lot of tweaking. Sometimes I’d stop and read through the comments it was processing, and it would clearly indicate to a human that you shouldn’t buy a stock, but the model was saying to buy it.”
Harris, a fourth year Business Administration major, and Shui, a fourth year Computer Science major, are also quick to point out that these early experiments were simply stepping stones. Now, in their current roles as board members of the Cal Poly Fintech Club, they’re hoping the skillsets and knowledge they’ve acquired in the years since will help place their fellow members in the middle of a rapidly-emerging tech sector that’s on course to rewrite the traditional financial services industry.
Fintech, for the uninitiated, is simply a broad description for software, hardware, and other technology used to support or enable banking and financial services. It can include high level tools like machine learning that can be applied to tasks like loan-risk assessment, cloud-based solutions for storing and processing big data, and blockchain ledgers for secure and transparent transactions. These and other aspects of the technology, with the ability to automate tasks in accounting, futures analysis, and other financial services, have major implications for big banks, investment firms, and other players at the tip of the sword of the economy.
“We all think differently. Computer science majors tend to focus on the program itself and whether or not it’s functioning correctly. Business majors give us the creativity and perspective to consider what features we should implement to provide a bigger impact.”Evan Shui
In our always-online lives, fintech can also be applied in more everyday settings, from a banking app on an iPhone to tools and services that run the gamut from hardware to software. As Shui points out, Square, the mobile payment company, is a good example. Not only does it supply its customers with communications and security software for running transactions, it also manufactures and delivers the point-of-sale hardware and tablets that seem ubiquitous at registers across small businesses. These services create millions of data points, which within the Square ecosystem feed analysis dashboards, tracking spending and sales trends and drilling down to help owners make decisions about which days of the week to stay open late, for example, which products to market to which customers, or which quarters were their strongest.
Basically, anyone who’s used Venmo or run their card at a street taco cart has dipped their toe into the world of fintech. Where Harris and Shui come in, at least at Cal Poly, is with their club’s effort to keep its members apace of a finance and computing sector that’s developing in real time, requiring a new generation of leaders to jump the divide between business mindsets and the hard-skills found in computer science. “Fintech really is blurring the lines between traditional financial services companies and technology and telecom companies,” says Harris. “And that’s the same thing that’s happening with fintech education. It’s blurring the lines between a traditional business student and a traditional computer science student.”
“I know a lot of the stuff we tend to focus on as computer science majors is very mathy,” says Shui, “so working with business majors gives me a lot more insight into what the real-world outcomes are of the stuff we’re creating. We all think differently. Computer science majors tend to focus on the program itself and whether or not it’s functioning correctly. Business majors give us the creativity and perspective to consider what features we should implement to provide a bigger impact.”
With members that range from mechanical engineering students to environmental engineers to food science majors, plus the business and computer science students who make up the bulk of its numbers, the demand for this type of collaboration is apparent. The club only received its official charter from the university last year—and launched in the fall of 2019—and already has more than 450 members.
One of the main draws, according to senior vice president of events Jackson Yates, is its eight-week programming workshop, which focuses on the Python coding language and is based on the College of Engineering’s Computer Programing 101 curriculum. Taught by Shui and a handful of other CS majors, it allows business and other non-computer-science students to learn directly, peer-to-peer, about the basics of coding and computer language theories. The idea is to give members the training they need to lead hybridized developer and business teams imagining, creating, and deploying new fintech tools and services when they land in the workforce. “We’re really focused on educating students for the future of finance and technology,” says Yates, “which is going to be a conglomeration of financial knowledge and technical skills.”
“We’re really focused on educating students for the future of finance and technology, which is going to be a conglomeration of financial knowledge and technical skills.”Jackson Yates
In addition, the club also seeks to invite hands-on leaders and practitioners to campus to speak to its members and conduct their own workshops, augmenting Shui’s curriculum and passing along skills, knowledge, and perspectives from the field directly to students. Meanwhile, the Finance Area at the Orfalea College of Business has bolstered these efforts.
Finance Area Chair, Dr. Ziemowit Bednarek, and associate professor Pratish Patel, are each developing new courses in both fintech and fin-analytics, which will teach Python coding and data interpretation to finance students as part of their concentration, plus deepen their understanding of blockchain and data visualization approaches. In addition to these courses, Dr. Bednarek also says that the Finance Area has been evolving their existing curriculum towards fintech and fin-analytics.
“By combining technical skills with a financial management background, it creates a natural breeding ground for ideas,” he says. “Our goal is to give our business students the coding skills to build solutions for their employers. They won’t be as specialized as computer scientists, but they will have enough background in these hard skills, like Python, to know they can create a solution, or find an existing package of code, that will help them very quickly.”
“Companies really need employees and recruits who know fintech—both computer science students who know business, and business students who know computer science,” says Harris.
“We’re living in a new age of automation,” says Shui. “It’s exciting.”