Careers Talk

Secret dev offsite

31 July 2018 Frazer Bennett-Wilford, Developer, BidFX

Last week the BidFX dev team went on a mystery day trip. During the minibus journey towards a classified location, many guesses were made as to where we were heading, everything from London zoo, to some dilapidated fairground we passed. It took quite some time, and a bit of cheating with Google maps, before we realized Bletchley Park would be our final destination, leaving behind the busy streets of London for the top-secret home of Britain’s World War II codebreakers.

What followed was a tour of The National Museum of Computing, with a guide who helped illustrate in a very surreal way just how far we have come in 75 years of digital computing. The massive array of vacuum tubes that were used in the first generation of computers, weighing tons and yet being computationally tiny in comparison to modern machines, were marvels of human progress. The storage of the EDSAC comprised 1024×17-bit words of memory, crammed into a wooden box the size and shape of a coffin. Compared to my phone, that’s a hundred millions times less storage than something I can hold in the palm of my hand.  

Our museum tour guided us from the metal behemoths of first generation electronic computing, through the Cray-1S supercomputer, to the slightly off-white plastic laptops of the early 90s. The technological progress from valves to decatrons, through transistors and onto integrated circuits was impressive. The whole experience that at first felt like a quaint history lesson with a side of humour, began to feel more and more like a nostalgic trip through my own past. As the items we saw grew closer and closer to those I could remember from my earliest days as a technology obsessed youngster, I realised this was the sort of off-site excursion that knew the audience it was trying to please.

At the end of the tour and in a pleasant homage to the boom of personal computing, a sweep of 8-bit to 64-bit game demos, from Lemmings to Crash Bandicoot were on hands-on display. The team and I were quick to forget our day jobs as we focused on thrashing each other’s best arcade scores. I would say it was quite satisfying as a new hire to beat my more experienced colleague at Mario Kart 64, although he did come bang on last, and coming second to last never really does feel like much to boast about.

Following a spot of lunch was another tour, this time of the code breaking machinery used during the war. We viewed a recreation of a Bombe designed by Alan Turing to break Enigma and the mighty Colossus – the world’s first electronic computer – built by Tommy Flowers to break the ultra secret Lorenz ciphers of German high command. It was quite amazing to look upon these when you realize the significance they had on the war’s outcome, why Churchill praised their creators as “the geese that laid the golden eggs – but never cackled”, and the Germans being quite unaware of Bletchley Park’s ability to crack their most secure communications.

Next up was our turn at egg laying: the Colossus challenge. A manual code breaking race, using the same techniques as followed painstakingly by wartime code breakers. In teams we were given the task of breaking a Lorenz ciphertext, the plaintext of which formed a clue that would reveal the location of a keycode to some goodie filled chest. Still buzzing from the rush of video gaming, we respectfully let one of the other teams collect that prize.

Finally, we received a presentation from our CTO which covered not only our future project aims but also discussed a refocus of our approach towards development. This is when the relevance of our formerly secret location became clear: as a fintech firm, security is at the heart of everything we do. Other topics such as documentation, source code control, time management and the renewed focus on pair programming were discussed as effective methods of improving development practices. It seems to me having been in the firm for only a short time, that BidFX is a young company with a progressive view on development practice. The company is actively pursuing change provided it brings about better outcomes and is clearly focussed on developing secure and well documented software.

Overall the day felt well planned and it was enjoyable to observe the past foundations of a technological landscape that we at BidFX are now poised to build upon. I very much look forward to future trips of this kind and am excited by the reaffirmed vision this company has to deliver the cutting edge of fintech in the global FX market. It was also interesting to be reminded that, although our modern technology may be much smaller and faster than ever before, information security is just as essential today as it was in the 1940’s.