Financial author Michael Lewis has a sprawling new piece in Vanity Fair about former Goldman Sachs programmer Sergey Aleynikov, who was tried, convicted, and then later acquitted of stealing high-frequency trading proprietary code from Goldman’s servers.
Lewis’ “Goldman’s Geek Tragedy” paints a more nuanced picture of Aleynikov, a soft-spoken Russian computer genius who was picked up by the FBI for “stealing” Goldman code and trotting it off to use at another firm.
Aleynikov, once Goldman’s star programmer earning $400,000 a year, felt the full brunt of Goldman’s wrath. “Goldman Sachs’s role in the trial was to make genuine understanding even more difficult. Its lawyers coached witnesses; its employees, on the witness stand, behaved more like salesmen for the prosecution than citizens of the state,” Lewis writes.
In Lewis’ telling, that “secret sauce” code was anything but. Mostly open-source information that wouldn’t even help Aleynikov at his new firm.
One of Lewis’ sources uses the example of a spiral notebook you keep by your desk to jot down thoughts and ideas. If you left your job for another one, you’d take the notebook with you. It’s not that the pages would necessarily give you an advantage in the future, it’s that they are your notes.
Goldman disagreed. They alerted the FBI and sought to make an example of Aleynikov, who comes off as a brilliant, misunderstood patsy in the story. Goldman comes off as ruthless.
Here’s why. From Vanity Fair:
As one [market insider] put it, “Every manager of a Wall Street tech group likes to have people believe that his guys are geniuses. Their whole persona among their peers is that what they and their team do can’t be replicated. When people find out that 95 per cent of their code is open-source, it kills that perception. So when the security people come to them and tell them about the downloads, they can’t say, ‘No big deal.’ And they can’t say, ‘I don’t know what he took.'”
To put it another way: the process that ended with Serge Aleynikov sitting inside a federal prison may have started with some Goldman Sachs employees concerned about their bonuses.
A source at Goldman viewed the piece as pretty one-sided.
Lewis certainly makes his views known, but breaks down a complicated financial story in a way that only he can. The full story, on newsstands today, is definitely worth a read.