Trader Jaime Swartz combines math and a competitive spirit
Jaime Swartz was a competitive kid, in school and on the volleyball court. She went on to major in applied math at Northwestern. At a college career fair, Jaime read a trading job description and says that, "every single bullet point was a description of me." Being a trader lets her be competitive and use math, and draw on her background as an athlete. And she's still an avid volleyball player.
FAST FACTS ABOUT Amber
Where she’s from: Des Moines, Iowa
Grew up with: mom and dad, five-years-younger sister
Education: Bachelor’s degree in applied math from Northwestern University
Where she lives now: Chicago, Illinois
Growing up she wanted to be: a lawyer
Now she’s: an option trader
Tell us about yourself growing up!
I’ve always been the kind of person that’s overbooked because I like to do all the things that I’m doing, and then it ends up being just a little bit too much. In high school, I always had a completely full class schedule, doing all the AP classes. I started playing volleyball when I was 12. I also played basketball, and golf. Volleyball ended up going pretty much year-round. The school season in the fall, then the club season, and then summer lifting and setting.
I was always staying up until midnight, getting up at seven, doing the whole thing over. I didn't want to be one of those people that came home and just sat around. I don’t want to say I wasn’t social, but I was not one of those people that just went out on the weekends and hung out with a group of friends just because. It was always for some activity, or tournament.
I was doing multiplication tests so fast that my teacher was giving me harder questions, twice as many questions, and half the time because I was so competitive.
How did you feel about school?
I’ve always loved being in school, even through college, and now I would love to go back to school. I always wanted perfect grades. I wanted to ace tests. All the way back to elementary school, when we’d do speed math tests, I was doing multiplication tests so fast that my teacher was giving me harder questions, twice as many questions, and half the amount of time to do them because I was so competitive. Now I conduct interviews for Belvedere [her firm], and speed math is a huge component of it, and so I’m trying to find people who have that trait.
I was in mock trial all through high school, started in junior high. I wanted to be a lawyer. I switched to engineering, because I found that what comes naturally to me, what I enjoy and find satisfying, is doing math problems, not reading and writing.
How did you choose Northwestern?
My mom pushed me to look at Northwestern. I had narrowed down my school list to Northwestern, Wash U, and Iowa. If I go to Northwestern, I’m not going to be able to play on the varsity team because they’re a part of the Big Ten. That’s really elite-level, and I wasn’t quite that high. [I could] go to Northwestern, be part of the Big Ten, not necessarily get to play volleyball, but then get to go to engineering school.
It was like, 50,000 dollars a year. I had to sit down with my parents. The deal that we worked out was they would pay tuition, and I paid everything else. I paid roughly 15 grand a year to go there, and I would work at least two summer jobs every summer from the second I was out of school until the second I went back. I always tried to make as close to $10,000 as possible every summer, which is very difficult to do.
I didn't love having to work that many hours, but I really wanted to go to Northwestern because I knew this was going to put me in an incredible spot career wise.
What kind of jobs did you have?
I was waiting tables, because that was the easiest way to make the money. My hours at On the Border were, at the earliest, 11 until, at the latest, 10 p.m. I’ve got this time slot before 11. I was working in a mailroom putting pieces of mail into machines. I would do that from 5 a.m. to 10 a.m. five days a week. I didn't love having to work that many hours and give up every part of my summers when I watched all my friends do all this fun stuff, but I really wanted to go to Northwestern because I knew this was going to put me in an incredible spot career wise. I loved the school.
The only loan that I used was a Stafford loan, and I don’t even remember how much I got per year, but it was not much. It was like 2,000 a year. I paid off all of it within a year or two of graduating.
What kind of engineering did you study in undergrad?
My major was applied math. I did not want to work in a lab. I did not want to build things. I didn't want to do anything medical. The applied math program at Northwestern was very flexible; 10 of your classes were a concentration that you got to build yourself. I built mine to be financial engineering. I got to take econometrics, and stats, and some industrial engineering classes about optimization. I found it so practical. This saves money. Of course a company would want to pay me to do this.
I picked up the trading job description, and every single bullet point was a description of me: strong quantitative skills, competitive, leader, leader in athletics.
How did you get into trading?
I went to the career fairs starting when I was a sophomore. There were a ton of trading firms. I was fascinated by the idea that you could be smart, efficient, mathematical, use models to make more money faster. Instead of working 80 hours a week, like I’ve been doing every summer, I can have a career where I’m just smarter about what we do with money, make more money faster?
I’d read other job descriptions from math jobs, finance jobs. Maybe half the description would fit, and half of it I felt like I was trying to mold myself to it. I picked up the trading job description, and every single bullet point was a description of me. It was strong quantitative skills, competitive, leader, leader in athletics. I was always a setter of the volleyball team, which is like a quarterback. I had to interview for this job and at least see what it’s about, because I’d never seen a description that was so close to me.
It’s like a long-term video game that allows you to make money. It’s a business, but it’s a game.
Can you explain options trading?
It’s like a long-term video game that allows you to make money. It’s a business, but it’s a game. What does a market-making company provide? We provide liquidity.
Most of the world doesn't even know what an option is or providing liquidity to banks, hedge funds, oil companies. We provide two-sided markets for options. When we’re trading oil, it’s a little easier for me to see. Companies like Shell or BP are trading options against their inventory; they’re trading against their oil inventory. It’s a business practice. They're basically buying insurance sometimes. Sometimes it’s countries’ governments trading oil options to hedge their inventory.
Can you tell us about some of the trading you’ve done and what you find interesting about trading?
I ran the Russell NASDAQ trading desk for a year, and I had one trader with me. It was just two of us trying to figure out what the right allocation and responsibilities was, and then six months in, we’re like, should we change this? Should we do this a different way? I like being in charge. I like being the one who plans the way that things work, and the structure and the business strategy part of it. I’m trying to look at it from the business strategy perspective.
I got rotated back to oil. I wanted to come back to oil. If I’m not going to be a volatility manager right now, why don’t I at least try to think about if I were the vol manager, how would I structure this team? This is a high-income generating product, so is there a way that we can make this more efficient? It’s fascinating to be back on a trading desk where we’re talking about that. I’ve considered going to get an MBA because business structure and organization is very interesting to me.
Do you want to get an MBA in the future?
I would love to get an MBA. I just am having a hard time justifying the cost. Maybe there is a way that I can pitch it, like I’m going to get an MBA because we need someone who knows some business strategy here. Maybe there’s a way to pitch it to try to get some tuition reimbursement here. You have to take 20 classes to finish the program. I could do it part time. I could do that, for sure, but do I want to go out of my own pocket? In the long run, would that pay off?
Probably, because I just would have so much ammunition to do anything. I want to be in a high-powered, high paying-job with flexibility. It’s thinking about this future of being married, having kids. I want the flexibility. I want to be able to come in at eight and leave at four. If I need to take a half-day, I’m going to take a half-day.
You cannot be mentally focused every single second for nine hours. I’ve been trying to be better about letting myself relax, even if it’s only for 10 seconds or 20 seconds.
Trading is a pretty stressful job. How do you manage stress?
Being a trader is this constant sense of urgency. You cannot be mentally focused every single second for nine hours, and if you are, you’re going to be so exhausted and so burned out, but also not have anything else for the rest of life. I’ve been trying to be better about using my energy where I actually need it, and when I don’t, letting myself relax for a second, even if it’s only for 10 seconds or 20 seconds.
I try to have more relaxing evening time. I’m trying to make sure I have time to unwind. I’m trying to make sure I have time to spend by myself.
You mentioned interviewing prospective hires. Is there anything else you do at the firm outside of trading?
I am one of the people who runs our training program: Who’s going to teach what, and why does this make sense, and let’s distribute workflow so that it’s equal across the whole group. Let’s figure out how to keep people excited about what they’re doing. It’s more personnel management; I feel sometimes like this is my project management experience. We’re running classes for every single new hire. Right now, we’re running four classes at the same time. There’s a lot of coordination going on.
The ability to quickly recover and say, “yes, I made that mistake, but I can’t be frustrated about that right now because I have other opportunities where I need to win.”
What are some of the things that you think make someone a good trader?
I ask candidates this when I interview them. Competitiveness is number one. You have to want to win all the time. You have to always be looking for ways to make money. The job is to make money. If you’re the one that was really focused and really competing, and you get it, that makes you valuable. Math skills.
Patience and forgiveness of yourself is huge. When you’re in a really competitive environment where the expectations are that you are as close to perfect as possible and that you’re always winning, when you make an error, are not perfect, are not the fastest, you can let that seep over into your next opportunity, and in trading, that can be seconds.
The ability to quickly recover and say, “yes, I made that mistake. It needs to not happen again, but I can’t be frustrated about that right now because I have all these other opportunities where I need to win.” That’s one of the things I think comes from athletics, learning how to lose and recover quickly. I have a hard time with that. I beat myself up hard.
I would love to know a little bit more about your commitment to volleyball.
I play two weeknight leagues and then USA Volleyball. On Monday nights, I take the people that are on that USAV team and put us in a league and use that as practice, because what adult wants to practice? Thursday nights, I’m in a league that’s three on three. I do those and the USAV season.
You can play different tournaments throughout the year in your area. Basically I’m the captain of my adult USA Volleyball team. I have been a team rep for three or four seasons, and I’m just getting my team set for this upcoming season as well.
I coordinate the whole thing. During the season, I have a spreadsheet that I keep it all on, the roster of players, and what tournaments we’re going to, who can go, coordinating travel. I love it so much that it’s worth it. Every time I update my résumé, I have volleyball in there.
When did you get started coaching?
I started coaching when I was a junior in college. There was a club looking for coaches. I played club volleyball at Northwestern, and was interested in making some money and coaching a team. I’ve been coaching ever since. I keep coaching because that is my commitment to the community. I’ve coached girls when they were 14 that are now getting recruited to play Division I volleyball.
What do you like about coaching 14 year olds?
Watching a 14-year-old not really get it at the beginning, and then, all of a sudden, have this huge light bulb moment is so satisfying. Eighth graders are the perfect age. They’re old enough to physically do things correctly. It’s a crucial transition year. When they go to high school, that freshman try-out is huge, and our job is to make sure that we’re preparing them for that. I love the kids that are only behind due to lack of training. We had the best listeners, the hardest-working kids. Ones that tell me I want to make the elite team next year, I'm like, okay, let’s do that.
The coaching becomes more rewarding the older I get. The playing’s less rewarding. I told [my boyfriend] last year I would quit playing before I quit coaching. That’s the first time I’ve ever said that.
What advice would you give to somebody who wants to be a trader?
Prepare for the constant demands. Living in a constant state of urgency is a tough thing. You don’t get breaks when you want breaks. You get breaks when the market gives you breaks, and when the market wants you to be busy; you’re going to be busy. Preparing for the balance between competitive and collaborative. We trade in teams here, so it is collaborative.
At the same time, everybody’s supposed to be pushing everyone else to be better. So you’re always trying to beat your own teammates. You’re competing with your peers even though you’re on the same team. That’s one. Learning healthy ways to manage stress.
I knew I needed to continue to be challenged, because, otherwise, I get bored.
How does your life now compare to what you thought your life as an adult would be when you were growing up?
I knew I wanted to be in a bigger place than Des Moines, Iowa. I wanted to be in an environment for my job and for school where I was going to be truly challenged and motivated by the people that were around me. I didn't know, necessarily, that that was going to end up being finance. I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. I knew I needed to continue to be challenged, because, otherwise, I get bored.
I knew I always wanted to be involved in volleyball. I didn't realize that there was USAV for adults. I played USAV as a junior. I knew I could play club volleyball at Northwestern. I had no idea that it was going to continue beyond that. Even now, I don’t love working out. I ran a half marathon earlier this year, so I was doing running training. I can do this because I’m mentally tough enough to do this, but I don’t love it. Playing volleyball is awesome. I would not trade this for any other sport, for any other physical activity. If you have something that’s like that, you have to keep it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Check out books Jaime loves and find out more about her!