As the biggest earthquake ever recorded in Japan rocked the Roppongi Hills skyscraper in central Tokyo, Makoto Yamada put on his helmet, dropped to his knees, and traded.

"We had an option to leave, but we couldn't leave the position at the time," the 39-year-old former Goldman Sachs Group quant said, recalling the March 2011 quake and hours of aftershocks that he and some trader colleagues braved from the bank's offices on the 48th floor. My "life is important, but protecting the P&L is more important."

It was that kind of dedication that propelled Yamada from a childhood in regional Japan to a prestigious place studying computer science at the University of California at Berkeley right at the height of the dot-com boom. He went on to join Goldman Sachs as a programmer before switching to the trading floor, using his math skills to value esoteric derivatives.