Banks are on the hunt for tech veterans

Written by: Patricia Nilsson
Published on: 9 May 2018

Source: Financial Times, published on 16 January 2018

When Ron Knapp joined Citigroup’s fintech unit as head of technology, he sent a note to his new managers with a suggestion: “Given what we’re trying to achieve I think I should come in wearing my boots and jeans.”

Mr Knapp joined Citi FinTech in 2016 to build a team of technology specialists, a few months after the bank had launched the division to “design and deliver the bank of tomorrow”. Having spent 16 years at Amazon, latterly in software development, his move meant he joined a tribe he says will become increasingly valuable to big banks — established tech professionals.

Financial institutions started poaching professionals from the tech world about three years ago in response to disruption from fintech competitors, says Max Johnson, manager at the recruitment agency Robert Walters. But to convince tech tribes to work for them, they have had to change.

“Banks stereotypically have very rigid structures in a corporate lifestyle kind of way,” Mr Johnson says. “These [tech] people want to be creative, they want to be in an environment that is not constricted.”

Small alterations, such as relaxing the dress code, can help. But in the end, Mr Johnson says, it comes down to pay. “Banks have had to compete with very competitive salary structures for tech,” he says.

In the UK, starting salaries for technology roles are higher at banks than at tech firms, according to data from the pay comparison site Emolument. However, just under half of the tech companies have fewer than 250 employees, and Tom Chambers, data science and analytics consultant at Robert Walters, says a shift is under way. “Banks are taking over in terms of salaries,” he says. But salary is only one attraction, says Faye Woodhead, director of Deutsche Bank’s global employer brand and graduate recruitment. “Opportunity and ability to make a difference, be challenged and learn is as important. Dress code may help but it is window dressing.”

Most importantly, banks are offering roles that did not exist in the industry a few years ago, according to Elly Hardwick, head of innovation at Deutsche Bank. “There are so many opportunities in artificial intelligence, machine learning and distributed ledger technology,” she says. And banks have something tech companies do not — financial data.

“Think of the reasons why tech companies want to partner with big banks,” Ms Hardwick says, “exactly the same things are attractive to employees at these companies.”

“Five years ago I never thought I would be at a bank,” says Carey Kolaja, Citi FinTech’s global chief product officer. Up until late 2015, Silicon Valley had been the centre of her professional life after years at eBay and PayPal. She switched because she wanted a role serving people who lacked access to financial services. “It is about the magnitude and scale of the problems you can solve at a bank,” Ms Kolaja says.

She and Mr Knapp have made changes to recruitment at Citi FinTech, in order to make the bank more attractive to the tech specialists they want to hire. “You have to start with the language of job descriptions, they have to speak in a way that demonstrates we understand current technology,” Mr Knapp says. “It is easy to say you are going to be innovative, but you have to convince potential employees you actually have a plan.”

Ms Woodhead at Deutsche Bank says the traditional banking candidate knows what to expect. “We communicate to the tech talent pool in a different way — we want to surprise them.”

Some banks have introduced separate web pages and social media strategies targeting tech talent, but Deutsche has a presence in developer communities, advertising on sites such as Stack Overflow, where developers exchange ideas, and Built in NYC, a website for tech start-ups in the city.

The influx of tech professionals means banking staff are developing, too. “Exposing internal people to new ways of doing things is just as important,” Ms Hardwick says. “When tech and business sit together at the table, that is when you get the real culture transformation.”

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