You want the MacBook-and-sneakers vibe of a tech firm, but without the low pay and instability of working for a startup. You can, at least in theory, achieve this within one of the so-called innovation labs that financial institutions have launched in Singapore to partner with fintech companies and launch new digital products.
Over the past six months there’s been a surge in technologists wanting jobs at labs, which now number about 28 in the Republic, say recruiters. But while banks aren’t struggling to attract candidates, they are facing difficulties retaining their recent hires, according to insiders.
Innovation ‘labs’ – alternatively known as centres, studios, hubs and hives – are located across the spectrum of the Singapore finance sector, from global banks (e.g. Citi, BNP Paribas, Deutsche Bank, HSBC, Standard Chartered, UBS) and local banks (DBS, OCBC, UOB), to insurance firms (AXA, MetLife), payments companies (Mastercard, PayPal, Visa) and the Big Four. Most of these labs are expanding their headcounts. UOB’s eLab, which was set up last year and focuses on AI technology, is hiring about 15 people in the 12 months to October 2019, for example.
The most popular job vacancies at innovation labs include data engineers, mobile developers and full-stack developers with web experience, says April Jimenez, a senior consultant at recruiters Huxley in Singapore. Business development roles are also on offer. Citi is currently seeking an “innovation specialist” who will be “shaping and executing initiatives within the lab”, while OCBC’s Open Vault lab recently poached Reuben Wakeley from EY as its new head.
If you join an innovation lab, even in a programming role, you will need strong communication skills because you will be working closely with staff from fintech startups whose technology your bank wants to tap. “There may even be times you need to pitch ideas that seem not directly aligned with immediate business goals, so banks look for people with confidence and charisma,” says Clarence Quek, a strategic account director at recruiters Randstad in Singapore. “Technologists with business acumen stand out as candidates as they understand the needs of the bank and the customers.”
The hype surrounding innovation labs – most have only been operating in Singapore for three years or less – has made them attractive new destinations for technologists. Having a funky workplace located away from the bank’s main office also helps. The DBS Asia X lab in Fusionopolis, for example, features project pods, journey rooms, agile co-working spaces and recreation areas. “Most technologists we present with an opportunity to work in an innovation hub are keen to explore it,” says Quek. “They’re keen to use new technologies that they might not be able to use outside the innovation ecosystem.”
Still, after their initial hiring spurt, Singapore’s innovation labs aren’t always finding it easy to keep their employees happy. “Some engineers at labs don’t think banks are fast enough to implement their ideas, so they leave. Banking is still a heavily regulated industry with its own bureaucracy,” says a former programmer with knowledge of several labs in the city state. “And there are sometimes disagreements with lab heads who’ve come from a traditional banking background.”
Moreover, while developers will probably be using leading-edge tech within labs, the projects they’re assigned to won’t always be business critical. DBS has developed AI for job candidate screening via its lab, for example. “A lot of partnerships between banks and fintechs are for consumer research and marketing campaigns,” says the ex-programmer. “But for, say, a trading platform, banks will typically still do this with their veteran in-house developer teams. The virtual bank that Stan Chart is building in Hong Kong isn’t being developed via its innovation lab.”
Therein lies a potential problem if you take a job at a lab: business-as-usual tech teams at banks are themselves working on increasingly innovative projects, says Jimenez from Huxley. “Instead of incubating ideas externally via a lab, these teams are sometimes doing it themselves,” she adds. “The challenge when it comes to labs is how to keep them relevant.”
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