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Jonathan Marcus of Conducto: “Disruption is usually good for consumers, great for the disruptor, and terrible for the disruptees”

Zooming out to a macro level, automation is probably the biggest story of our generation, disrupting more industries than I can count. When it works, automation allows a few engineers to have a huge impact, but getting there is a hard and iterative process. Conducto speeds up the code🡪test🡪debug🡪repeat cycle that is the bottleneck for […]

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Zooming out to a macro level, automation is probably the biggest story of our generation, disrupting more industries than I can count. When it works, automation allows a few engineers to have a huge impact, but getting there is a hard and iterative process.

Conducto speeds up the code🡪test🡪debug🡪repeat cycle that is the bottleneck for so many engineers, doing everything from automatically deploying apps to building AI models. It gives disruptors a simple way to build bigger things, faster.


As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jonathan Marcus, CEO and co-founder at Conducto.

Jonathan worked at Jump Trading for 10 years, programming computers that trade the market automatically. He built Python infrastructure of massive scale and complexity, handling petabytes of data with petaflops of computing power. A graduate of MIT in Computer Science, Jonathan has been programming since he was 6.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I grew up programming but have always been fascinated by the idea of beating the markets. A lot of my MIT classmates went into trading, and so did I, but I always approached it with an engineer’s mindset. When I was hired into a small trading team at Jump Trading, I built some automation software to help us scale. The tool helped us become one of the most successful trading groups in the world for nearly a decade. After lots of positive feedback from my impressive coworkers (ex-Google, ex-Microsoft, academia, etc.) I realized this tool — which was never just for finance — would be valuable to the programming world at large. My co-founder and I created Conducto to bring this technology to developers and data scientists everywhere.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

Zooming out to a macro level, automation is probably the biggest story of our generation, disrupting more industries than I can count. When it works, automation allows a few engineers to have a huge impact, but getting there is a hard and iterative process.

Conducto speeds up the code🡪test🡪debug🡪repeat cycle that is the bottleneck for so many engineers, doing everything from automatically deploying apps to building AI models. It gives disruptors a simple way to build bigger things, faster.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

The internal version of the automation tool was called Ferrari. I’m not much of a car fan — we had a whole Ben Stiller/Zoolander naming convention, with tools named Tropic Thunder, Magnum, and Blue Steel. When Ferrari became popular at Jump, nobody knew the backstory, so they all thought I was really into cars. Someone even built a Lego Ferrari F40 for me because he was such a fan of the tool.

I keep the Lego Ferrari on my desk now, mainly because it’s amazing, but also as a reminder to trust your users. When you put your product out in the community, your users will do things you never imagined. Embrace it, don’t fight it.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

I have to give a lot of credit to Saurabh Sharma, the partner at Jump Capital who has guided me through the startup process. The startup world is very different from electronic trading, and he’s taught me a lot about how to navigate it. He’s helped me find bookkeepers & lawyers so I can stop doing admin and focus on building the business; he’s helped us with recruiting, networking, PR, marketing, and sales. Being CEO of a startup means I’m always working on new problems I’ve never seen before, and Saurabh’s broad knowledge has made sure I don’t get lost.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

Disruption is usually good for consumers, great for the disruptor, and terrible for the disruptees. Think about buying stocks. For centuries people gathered on trading floors, wearing funny jackets and communicating via elaborate hand signals. In 2000, Goldman Sachs bought a major floor-trading company for 6.5B dollars. By 2014, they sold it for under 30M dollars. What happened in that time? Stock trading was disrupted by electronic trading firms like the one I worked at.

This has been fantastic for investors, who now pay dollars to trade stocks in an instant. It’s been terrible for the old floor traders, many of whom came from blue collar backgrounds and were outcompeted by machines. An economist would compare the public’s gain with a few people’s loss and declare victory, but those are real people who lost their livelihoods. “Creative destruction” is still destruction. It’s important to keep making progress, and it is just as important to take care of those left behind.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

What am I shaking up next? Wow, tough crowd, I’m just starting my current shakeup.

One of my friends said, upon seeing Conducto, “It’s like all other automation tools are SVN, and you just introduced Git.” Conducto has the chance to be a better way to run all computing at scale, one that focuses on the humans who are building it.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

I have three:

  • Star Trek was my favorite science fiction growing up. I’m an optimist, and it presented a world where technology has solved all of humanity’s problems and we all live in peace. Most fiction these days is about some future dystopia, and yet Star Trek has endured because people want to believe that the world will keep getting better.
  • I saw Andrew Yang speak about how automation is going to change the world, and I was floored. I’ve been saying this to all my friends for years, but he distilled the ideas and built a political movement around it. I was very impressed how he embraced the productive power of automation while being compassionate to those it hurts.
  • Accelerando by Charles Stross is a fascinating and thought-provoking sci-fi story about the logical conclusion to automation. It’s hard to describe it without spoiling it, so just go read it :).

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

If not for technology improving over time, all economies would be bitterly competitive zero-sum games. Automation can bring a future of plenty, where everybody’s needs are satisfied. Right now its gains are distributed unequally. As a society we need to find a way to encourage innovation while sharing the rewards. We need to balance a deep respect for the difficulty of achieving technical progress with a compassion for those who cannot adapt. A movement dedicated to that? Yes, please.

How can our readers follow you online?

Twitter (me): @jm_conducto

Twitter (Conducto): @ConductoTech

LinkedIn (me): www.linkedin.com/in/jonathanamarcus

LinkedIn (Conducto): https://www.linkedin.com/company/conductoio

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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