Alumnus Profile: Landry Djodom (PhD '13)
Originally from Cameroon, Landry Fokoua Djodom (PhD '13) welcomes a challenge…and a change of scenery. With a background in math and physics, Djodom came to Caltech to focus on aeronautical simulation and modeling. After Caltech, Djodom did exactly what you'd expect someone with a PhD in aeronautics to do. He went into the financial sector. But Djodom's interest in financial research and modeling isn't a major change in direction, it's an enthralling challenge that leverages the unique benefits of a Caltech education.
From Cameroon to France, Pasadena, Baltimore, and now Houston, Landry is a Director and Commodities Quantitative Analyst at Citi. Djodom's current work involves the use of research and mathematical models to trade and hedge commodity assets, like oil, natural gas, corn, and gold.
ENGenuity spoke with Djodom to learn how his PhD work in aeronautics led to a career in the financial sector, and how his Caltech education continues to shape his approach to research.
ENGenuity: How would you describe your background and professional contributions?
Landry Fokoua Djodom: I'm originally from Cameroon, and I went to school in France where I studied applied mathematics and mechanical engineering at École Polytechnique. It was an intensive program of hardcore math and physics. When I graduated from Polytechnique, I joined Caltech for grad school. At Caltech, I completed the masters and PhD program in GALCIT in the computational solid mechanics lab of Professor Michael Ortiz [Frank and Ora Lee Marble Professor of Aeronautics and Mechanical Engineering, Emeritus].
During the PhD program, I focused more on mathematical modeling, numerical simulation, and engineering mechanics. So, it was a combination of engineering, math, and computational work. It was a very intense program with applications for materials science and solid mechanics. I graduated in 2013, and then I decided to pursue a career in quantitative finance, which leveraged the math and programming skills I learned at Caltech and Polytechnique. I applied all the skills I learned to financial markets and managing commodities portfolios.
I joined Constellation Energy in the commodities space. Constellation Energy is a commodities trading firm based in Baltimore, Maryland, so I moved across the country from California to Baltimore. When I joined, I focused on research and modeling for the commodities markets, with an emphasis on power and gas. I was building statistical and financial models, understanding fundamental data sets like weather, electricity demand, and power plants. Over time, I took on leadership responsibilities. I led Constellation's Monte Carlo research platform and distributional risk system, I was mentoring junior researchers, and communicating with senior management.
I spent six and a half years in Maryland, but I wanted to broaden my commodities experience, which was mostly focused on power and gas at the time. Then I joined Citi, which covers power and gas but also other commodities like metals, agriculture, and oil. Now, I'm located in Houston, Texas. I've been leading quantitative efforts in North American power and gas and global oil. I've also been involved with colleagues globally to help model various commodities assets. I continue to work with the business to help expand and acquire new transactions and deals.
ENGenuity: What inspired you to get into science and what inspired you to get into the financial sector?
Djodom: I like to be challenged intellectually. If you like to think about hard problems, then science is where you should go. There are very complex open problems that can really stimulate you, so it's an exciting field. In science and engineering, you learn so much that it opens the door for many opportunities. You can get anywhere after that. Being able to think about hard problems, be stimulated intellectually, and work with very smart people is what drove me to science.
The financial markets, and more specifically, the quantitative finance space, is an area that I discovered when I was at Caltech. During my time at Caltech, that desire to join the financial space was nurtured. If you have a quantitative research mentality, which you have when studying at Caltech, then naturally the financial space is a platform where you can leverage that mentality.
I'm trained as a researcher, so I wanted to be able to get into a field where my mathematical expertise could be leveraged. I also wanted to work in a space where I had direct impact on the world and people's lives, and in an area that still has an impact in the future. Finance fulfills those two things. People want to know what to do with their revenues, how to invest, and how to save. These are things that impact our lives daily. I wanted to get into an area of finance that is impactful, but also fulfilling from a technical standpoint. That's what drove me to quantitative research in commodities. The mix of actual finance with real world impact is what makes commodities a very interesting asset class.
ENGenuity: How has your Caltech education influenced you?
Djodom: It influences me every day. There's a discipline that you learn at Caltech; it's the way you research, the way you interact with people, the way you explain things, the way you approach problems. For instance, with my advisor, there were three main things that we cared about during the thesis: you care about doing the math; you care about doing the computational work, the programming; and you care about understanding the mechanics and engineering. Those three components are exactly what I do every day here. Just translate that into finance. In finance, you care about the math, the implementation, and the business—how to use the math and implementation to drive value. You need to be able to understand various aspects of the project that you're looking at. When I work on my various projects for Citi, I always look at those three angles.
At Caltech, I also learned how to present. During your masters and PhD, you attend conferences, you give talks, you present your work to people that have no idea what you're doing. The same is true in the business world. You do all this heavy lifting, but you still must understand your audience and communicate your work to your seniors and upper-level management in a way they can understand.
Caltech has been great at giving us fundamental knowledge as well as the behavior we need to have when it comes to solving problems.
ENGenuity: Is there a professor at Caltech who had the biggest impact on you?
Djodom: First, there's my PhD advisor, Michael Ortiz. He's always been a big supporter. Professor Ravi Ravichandran [John E. Goode, Jr., Professor of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering] was also helpful. Professor Beverley McKeon [Theodore van Karman Professor of Aeronautics] as well.
ENGenuity: What advice would you give to the next generation of Caltech students and alumni?
Djodom: Caltech is a tough place, so really take advantage of what's available. Focus on research, learn as much as you can, and go for what interests you. Figure out what you want to do next, put your heart to it, and then do it. As you're building your technical skills, build your soft skills as well. At Caltech, we tend to focus more on our research, but it's also good to be a bit less introverted. It's not necessarily a bad thing to be introverted, but it's important to socialize and be able to communicate with other people. When you get into industry, these soft skills become very important to have—the ability to not only do technical work but also collaborate with a team and fit within the environment.
ENGenuity: What is your favorite story?
Djodom: I don't have a definite answer, but I can talk about a show that I used to like back in the day. There was a popular TV show called Gossip Girl. I liked it because it was just fun; it was about young people having fun in New York. It was fun to see the lifestyle that young people had in a big city like New York.
ENGenuity: What is your favorite destination?
Djodom: I like California, Santa Barbara, and the Los Angeles area. I like Cameroon too. Every time I get to go back to Africa is enjoyable. In Yaoundé, Cameroon, there is a downtown area that's very chill and close to where I went to school. It's a very nice and walkable area. Whenever I go back to Cameroon I always go to that area.
ENGenuity: What gives you the most satisfaction in your work?
Djodom: I can see the impact of what I'm doing pretty much instantly. I can see the benefit that my solution brings to people. Tomorrow, you might see someone in the office talking about some important projects. When you dig further down, you realize they're talking about your work.
The second aspect is the type of problem that I'm solving. Every day there is something to be solved, something challenging. You know that when you solve a problem, there's going to be a direct business impact.
The third aspect is that I work with very smart people. It helps to learn from your peers. Most of the knowledge I have gained was a result of working with smart people.
ENGenuity: What keeps you up at night?
Djodom: We have a very exciting and challenging business. It's a bit of a high-pressure environment in the sense that it's competitive and people want solutions to be delivered. As my responsibilities have grown, I have a lot of weight on my shoulders. A lot of projects rely on me.
ENGenuity: What gets you up in the morning?
Djodom: The impact of what I'm doing keeps me motivated. Being within an organization that's driven makes you driven yourself.