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Wall Street or Silicon Valley? Which is best for a technologist?

Tech or banking?

Tech or banking?

You’re a technologist. So, do you want to work for a bank? Or do you want to work for a technology company? It’s a question worth asking because banks are increasingly busting their duodenums to hire tech people and historically tech people have resisted their advances. If you’re torn, here’s our suggested checklist of points to help make up your mind:

1. Can you handle working with tough traders?

Traders in investment banks can be uncouth and unpleasant – witness the transcripts to the FX chatrooms that emerged last week. Historically, technology professionals in banks have been subordinate to traders, and traders have vented frustrations on lowly techies. This can sometimes make life unpleasant. “If you work on the front office, then you will have at some point to deal with a frantic trader that is wondering why the numbers are off,” says Jospeh Wang, a former quant developer with an investment bank in this post on Quora.  

2. Do you want to swap jobs often during your career?

Historically too, the way to progress in banking has been to jump from place to place every two to three years, securing a pay rise each time. “It’s very much up or out,” says Wang in the same Quora post. This is changing as banks focus on staff retention and ‘internal mobility’, but a random selection of quant developer resumes in London reveals plenty of job-hopping, especially in the early stages of a career.

3. Are you happy to work with people who earn a lot more money than you?

Banks pay their technologists well. Our own research suggests a senior software developer in a bank can earn a salary up to $194k (£124k), and a bonus will be awarded on top of this.

However, this is nothing to the amounts banks pay their front office ‘revenue generators’. Data from Emolument, the pay benchmarking company, suggests front office bankers can expect to earn an average of £354k ($578k) by their mid-30s.

That said, however, banks are ramping up pay for technology professionals – especially in business critical areas like cyber-security, where PWC predicts their spending will increase to $2bn in the coming years.

4. Are you happy to become siloed?

Banks are also susceptible to the allegation that their technology employees become siloed, both away from the technology industry and within banking itself. Goldman Sachs, for example, uses its own proprietary programming language known as ‘Slang.’ Some programmers argue that working heavily in slang can lead to neglect of more commonly used languages like C++, which will render you less employable elsewhere.

Similarly, Kirat Singh, former head of BAML’s Quartz programme and CEO of start-up Washington Technologies, told us that because banks are so hierarchical people there tend only to be exposed to one area of technology. “We prefer people who are well versed in all aspects,” he told us, explaining why he prefers to hire from rival start-ups instead of banks. 

5. Are you happy to work somewhere where technology hasn’t been the main priority?

Goldman Sachs says technology has become the most important part of its business. “Goldman Sachs is a technology firm,” said CEO Lloyd Blankfein last July.  Goldman certainly employs a lot of technologists – it revealed recently that 25% of its staff now work in the technology division and that technology headcount has risen by 43% since 2009.

Nonetheless, there’s an enduring suspicion that the really cutting-edge technology development work takes place outside banking.

Banks are doing their best to counter this perception. JPMorgan, for example, has launched a new area of its technology site explaining all the innovative projects it’s working on. Deutsche Bank has just signed an agreement to launch a joint innovation lab with IBM. And Goldman’s new technology recruitment website comprises profiles of people like Anand, a vice president in the operations technology division, who clarifies that his work developing technology that generates a report for Goldman’s exposure to any counter-party is essential to the functioning of the firm.

6. Do you want to do something ‘meaningful’?

If you work for Google, you will theoretically be bound by the motto ‘Don’t be evil.’ There’s none of that stuff in banking. “It breaks my heart when my engineering students use the talents I taught them to engineer the financial system instead of engineering solutions to the world’s problems,”  Vivek Wadhwa, a former entrepreneur who teaches at Stanford told the New York Times.

7. Do you want to make big money?

Our research suggests salaries in banks and technology firms are comparable. However, banks also pay bonuses. “As soon as we start talking to the candidates about what our starting packages look like, the lifestyle questions about flip-flops and beanbags really start to go away,” R. Martin Chavez, Goldman’s chief technology officer told the New York Times. 

8. Do you want to put in face time?

You will work hard in banking and you will work hard in a tech firm. Anecdotally, however, the nature of the hard work will differ. If you work for Google or Facebook, it’s almost impossible to leave the office, say technology recruiters – Google even offers employees the option to sleep over when necessary. In tech firms, however, employees say you’re free when the work is done. “The big difference is in terms of flexibility and work-life blend. There’s a lot more flexibility in the technology sector than in banks – people leave the office early to spend time with their kids and then log in late in the evening when their children are asleep,” one senior human resources manager who’s worked in both banking and tech told us. In banking, by comparison, he says there’s much more emphasis on ‘face time’ and being seen in the office, regardless of the work to be done.

What is certain is that banks and tech firms are becoming more similar as employers. While JPMorgan is doing its best to emulate the hipness of tech firms in its Bournemouth office, employees at Google and Facebook complain that the start-up vibe is being dispelled by corporatism. Ultimately, it may come down to where you want to be located physically – Silicon Valley and Silicon Roundabout, or Wall Street and Canary Wharf?

Comments (1)

Comments
  1. Isn’t it interesting that Anand finds that working for a bank is not that different from working for a technology company – even though he didn’t actually work anywhere else ?
    Most technologist in banks are actually deluded – they think they innovate and develop technology, without actually knowing how different the life in a technology firm is.

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