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Future finance professionals should know machine learning tools – and Rotman’s FinHub gets them there

March 23, 2023

Blockchain and machine learning have been top of mind for leading organizations for some years now. But, with recent instability in some U.S. banks and the crypto winter that began in 2022, it’s even more important for future finance professionals to understand the pressing innovations and challenges in the sector.

“The world is changing quickly, and so too are the skills needed to thrive,” says John Hull, professor of finance at the Rotman School of Management and academic director of the Rotman Financial Innovation Hub (FinHub).

Now in its fifth year, FinHub was originally set up to help fintech practitioners, students and faculty to share insights and equip students with best-in-class knowledge of financial innovation. 

Professor John Hull speaking at an event.

The hub was created by Hull, Andreas Park, professor of finance at the University of Toronto Mississauga, and the late Peter Christoffersen, who was a professor of finance at the Rotman School.

“We recognized there were lots of things happening in the financial sector that are transformative and different, and we wanted to develop the knowledge base and pass it on to the students so they can compete in this space,” says Park, who has a cross-appointment to the Rotman School.

Each year, students can take courses taught by FinHub-affiliated faculty, including Hull and Park, who offer courses on machine learning, blockchain, decentralized finance and financial market trading.

One of the most in-demand MBA electives, Machine Learning and Financial Innovation, introduces students to the tools of machine learning. A similar course is compulsory for students in the Master of Financial Risk Management and Master of Finance programs.

Students are required to learn Python in this course, which Hull says is “the new Excel” as it becomes a common requirement for many jobs in finance.

“I’ve met traders in their 40s who go and learn Python because it simplifies their workflow,” says Park. “It’s all about inferring data and making sense of it, and then predicting future data using machine learning tools. And to do that, you need to learn Python.”

“The world is changing quickly, and so too are the skills needed to thrive.”

—John Hull, Academic Director of the Rotman Financial Innovation Hub (FinHub)

The machine learning course is offered to full-time MBA students in March and April of their first year. It’s also available as an elective in their second year.

“Many MBA students get involved in machine learning as part of their summer internship, so it's important to give them an opportunity to familiarize themselves with machine learning and Python applications prior to that time,” says Hull.

Cameron Thompson (MBA ’23) took the Machine Learning and Financial Innovation course in his first year, prior to an internship at Boston Consulting Group (BCG), which has a robust AI team. He says the hands-on practice in class was invaluable, with or without an extensive background in computer programming.

“Being familiar with common machine learning terminology from day one on the job was quite useful,” says Thompson, who will be returning to BCG full-time following graduation.

“The course builds a solid foundation for using data in a strategic way, and then adds the machine learning content — it’s hard to go anywhere without seeing an application.”

In his second year, Thompson pursued an independent study project through FinHub, working with researchers from Rotman and the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering on a natural language processing model. The project is sponsored by the Bank of Canada.

For Fengmin Weng (MFRM ’20), who also took the elective course with Hull, the insights from class prepared her to lead a machine learning project at TD.

“Machine learning is definitely the trend in the financial industry, particularly in the risk management area,” says Weng, who came from an accounting background when she pursued the Master of Financial Risk Management program.

“It definitely helps us to make better decisions around our strategy,” she says. “If you want to develop your career in the risk area, machine learning is your weapon.”

Richard Liu (MBA ’20) says the machine learning course was one of the most eye-opening parts of his MBA experience. Today, he says he uses many of the concepts from the course in his work as a financial planner. 

“I’m able to recognize when it’s more effective to train computers to enhance our work, how to co-exist with robo-advisors and how to automate some of our financial planning processes,” says Liu.

By the end of their time at Rotman, students involved with FinHub courses are equipped with the tools to think critically about the implications and benefits of emerging technologies in the financial sector.

“They’re able to enter an organization and use these tools to help improve processes and strategies,” says Park.

“The students who take the course recognize the way in which the world is moving – that machine learning is becoming more and more important in business,” says Hull.

Written by Jessie Park | More Student Stories »