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Why banks’ best technology jobs are not where you think

If you want a technology job in an investment bank, you’re probably thinking about something working alongside the front office – maybe building new trading or messaging systems to help banks keep ahead of competitors, or new user interfaces (UI) to allow customers to access banks’ systems directly. There are plenty of opportunities in both areas: Goldman Sachs, for example, has been heavily advertising roles for its Marquee platform which allows clients to access its SecDB risk and pricing system directly, and most banks are looking to expand in systematic trading.

While aspiring to become a revenue-generator in the front office might be a good idea if you want to work on the trading floor, however, technologists in banks caution against getting too close to the action. The best jobs, they say, are in the back and middle office – behind the scenes, working on so-called “software libraries” or building systems for HR, or finance. Here, the jobs not only pay well, but offer an easier life.

“It’s personal preference,” says one technology associate at Morgan Stanley, “but I think that the less you have to do with the business, the better.”

Technologists who work with traders in the front office complain that they (the traders) “pile on the pressure” and don’t treat them with respect. The archetypal experience of front office technologists is that of Antonio Garcia-Martinez, a former pricing strat at Goldman Sachs, who famously wrote a blog complaining that he and his colleagues were treated like, “little bitches,” and that he had to work alongside “complete tools” in sales and “bat wielding gorillas” in trading.

In the middle and back office, there’s none of this. More importantly, technologists in these areas say the work itself is more rewarding.

“When you’re working with the business, everything is driven by regulations and short term revenue considerations,” says the Morgan Stanley associate. “This affects the quality of the software you can create.”

He adds that working with the business is fine if you’re genuinely interested in banking, but says most technologists really aren’t. “In the front office, the emphasis is on solving business problems, not technological problems. With time, this will bind you to a banking career. If you want to work for industries other than banking, you need to avoid becoming too specialized.”

“If you’re purely interested in tech and you want the tech company lifestyle, you should go for the back office,” agrees one J.P. Morgan tech professional.  “It’s lower pressure and there’s less finance on a daily basis.”

Of course, not everyone agrees. Front office technology jobs not only pay more, they’re also more likely to be located in London or New York City. Middle and back office tech jobs are more likely to be in India or Florida or Dallas or Poland.

“If you’re interested in the business, you should choose the front office,” says one developer. “That way you can learn how a bank works and maybe even move into a non-tech position. The front office is also probably better if you’re a UI developer.”

Alternatively, there’s always the possibility of working on middle office teams in areas like risk and finance, which straddle both worlds. “I’m interested in how the business and the tech side of banks fit together,” says one Goldman analysts. “This is why I’m in a middle office tech team – learning about both!”

Ultimately, banks’ technologists say it’s wise to establish exactly what kind of team you’re going into. “There’s huge variety in technology at Goldman Sachs,” says one. “Some teams are very tied to finance and others feel much more like pure tech. You need to work out whether you want the “relaxed” option or not.”

Have a story or comment you’d like to share? Contact: sbutcher@efinancialcareers.com

Photo credit: Hidden by Fabio Barbato is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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