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Q&A: JPMorgan’s Asia Pac CTO says JPMorgan is hiring 100 technologists in Singapore and that people like working there so much that only 3% leave

Stewart Carmichael

We spoke to Stewart Carmichael, chief technology officer of JPMorgan in Asia Pac. This is what he told us.

Q:  Did you always want to work in financial services?

No, I originally joined a technology firm because I was looking to leverage on the education I had in computer science. Twenty five years ago, there wasn’t as much awareness of financial services, which is much more mainstream now. I worked for a couple of technology firms in the first five years, including Sun Microsystems in the UK.

Q: Why the focus on investment banking technology?

Personally, I was more interested in solving business problems in technology, rather than IT for IT’s sake. I got into IB technology with Merrill Lynch in 1993 because I was challenged by its complexity, fast pace and constant change. In the past 20 years, there’s always been a new horizon – whether that’s driven by the financial crisis, market practices, or the technology of the time, it’s never gotten boring.

Q: How did you get to where you are today?

My career has been built on taking opportunities, trying out new roles, continuing to develop my skills laterally and challenging myself. I’ve worked in London and the US and moved to Singapore in 2007, before moving to Hong Kong with J.P. Morgan in 2009. Being mobile, has been part of my career growth. My wife thinks I’ve got gypsy blood in me! It’s about broadening horizons; I saw these different opportunities, new roles, new locations and new horizons as challenges. I found it quite exciting. Quite frankly, the 21st century is Asia’s century, so I’m very lucky to have the opportunity to move out to Asia.

Q: What was your toughest career challenge and how did you cope?

I think the hardest thing was working in the aftermath of 9/11. I was back in the UK then, but because Merrill Lynch in the US was heavily impacted, I was returned to New York to join the taskforce that was working on getting operations back to normal. It was one of the most challenging periods in my career because there was enormous pressure and we were working 20-hour days. It was a close-knit team and we sometimes had stand-up arguments, but we worked through those issues. It’s important in times of stress to realise that everyone is trying to achieve the same thing.

Q: What are the key factors that make you stay on with a firm?

I’ve never considered leaving financial services. For me it’s always about opportunities, and new challenges to build and develop my career. The team I work with today at J.P. Morgan has some of the smartest and best technologists in the industry; I feel very lucky that I work with them.

The culture of the firm plays a big part in retention. The culture here is based on team work and collegiality. Another factor is success; people like to feel that the team is achieving something and helping the business achieve its goals. New challenges (like re-engineering our legacy platforms and using new data storage techniques) are what drive me. But ultimately, people need to manage their own careers and take a full and active role.

Q: As a boss, what is your philosophy on retention?

I oversee about 2,000 people across Asia. Our attrition rate is about 2 to 3 per cent, so I think we must be doing something right. I think people generally look for the same things that I look for; they want to develop, so we focus a lot on training and development and very strongly promote both online and classroom training. We’ve got a great deal of commitment to individual learning and I think that’s a big retention tool.

Employees want career enhancement, career plans, and to be able to talk to their managers and have a supportive and collegial environment. Technologists are also driven by innovation and being able to work on new projects and ideas.

Q: How would you describe the current hiring demand for finance technology people in Asia? Are you looking to hire this year, and if so in which specific roles and in what sort of volumes?

We’re bucking the trend at J.P. Morgan because we’re hiring quite significantly. We have about 100 open roles in Singapore. These are positions in many areas including production support, processing, cash management, prime services infrastructure and treasury services. We are building up our global platforms, so recruitment remains quite strong.

Q: What’s a typical day like for you?

I usually reach the office at 7.30am. That one and a half hours before 9am is the only quiet time I really have. From 9am to 6pm, my day is usually taken up with a great deal of meetings. These can be on strategic initiatives, projects, operational reviews, or the regulatory landscape in Asia. Two to three times a week, I catch up with my colleagues in the US. Working in a global bank means being an advocate of the region and making sure we get support from New York. On these days, my work day ends at around 10 or 11pm.

Q: What is your favorite interview question? And what do you look for in the candidate’s response?

I always ask candidates open questions; it could be about their toughest career challenge to date, or the failures they’ve had and what they learnt from that. I think questions like that tell a lot about the individual’s character

We look for technical competence, product knowledge and depth of understanding of the business; that’s something, we won’t drop the bar on. It’s absolutely fundamental to ensure that we develop the best solutions for our business; we would rather not hire than compromise on standards. Of course, a mid-career change is possible for technologists from a non-banking background, especially at the junior end. There are a number of different routes, for instance if a candidate has good maths skills, it’s possible to have a great career in algorithms and quants.

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