Little more than 10% of Asian technology vacancies at global banks are based in Hong Kong. But banks there are increasingly struggling to find suitable candidates when they do have tech openings.
After several years of offshoring to markets like India, Hong Kong IT jobs tend to be highly skilled and front-office facing. And global skill shortages in emerging technology functions like AI are compounded by Hong Kong’s small population and talent pool.
What are the tech skills that banks in Hong Kong need right now, but can’t seem to find?
Banks in Hong Kong are setting the bar high when recruiting AI candidates and are struggling to attract enough people. They want a Masters or PhD in statistics, computer science or maths; experience in machine learning; knowledge of data science; and skills in C++, Python, R, KDB or MATLAB, says Warwick Pearmund, an associate director at headhunters Harvey Nash in Hong Kong. “Banks prefer people with financial industry experience, but in reality there’s only a small pool to draw from, even globally,” he adds. “And AI candidates are just as likely to opt for a tech giant or boutique trading firm, which often offer more nimble, more relaxed environments.”
“One firm I speak with has suggested that successful implementation of RPA could lead to it replacing 90% of its call centre workforce,” says Pearmund. “But RPA is very new and there are very few people with expertise in this field in Hong Kong. Given that the technology can be applied well beyond financial services, there’s a huge gap between the supply of candidates and demand from banks.”
C++ has become a “rarer skill” in Hong Kong because banks prefer C# and Java for their main trading platforms and Java is the dominant language taught in computer science degrees, says Peter Barker, a partner at Atlas Global Search in Hong Kong. But banks and hedge funds still need the language within the newly hot area of low latency exchange connectivity. “There’s now a dearth of skills in C++ in Hong Kong, especially candidates with low latency skills. So a number of banks are hiring people from telecoms or hardware firms to fill this skills gap.”
Within low latency trading, Banks in Hong Kong are increasingly looking for candidates who have experience in coding FPGAs, reprogrammable silicon chips, says Vince Natteri, director of search firm Pinpoint Asia in Hong Kong. “Equities trading is all about speed these days and banks here are doing whatever they can to get to the next level. But this is a relatively new skill for many banks and it’s taking them time to find good programmers.”
“A lot of banks in Hong Kong are looking for Scala developers. Scala is a functional programming language, which both IBs and fintech firms want to use right now,” says Natteri. “It’s become more popular over the past couple of years, but especially in 2017. Many Java developers are also starting to learn Scala in order to boost their careers.”
“Because this area is still evolving, candidates will not only be chosen based on their technology skills, but also on having mathematical/logical minds,” says Riley King, manager of digital technology at recruiters Hays in Hong Kong. “The function is still a bit blurred and the role not well defined – sometimes it is about machine learning or statistical modelling, while at other times it’s just data analysis. This is part of the reason why banks are looking to buy fintech firms – they can onboard data talent already solidified in a company.”
Banks in Hong Kong are replacing old core banking systems and they need business analysts and project managers to drive these complex initiatives. “As talent within these niche professional backgrounds for specific technology projects is scarce in Hong Kong, banks are competing against each other to hire PMs and BAs,” says James Redshaw, manager of IT and technology at recruiters Randstad in Hong Kong. “Banks should instead look to retrain their current PMs and BAs who might not yet have the right exposure to technology projects.”
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