But despite the current digital rhetoric from the likes of Blankfein and DBS CEO Piyush Gupta, actually working in banking tech was even more enjoyable way back in the early 2000s, says Asif Ghafoor, a former senior development manager at Goldman Sachs who now runs Hong Kong property website Spacious.
Ghafoor joined Goldman’s equities trading desk in London in 2001, just two years after the firm had gone public. “It was still transitioning from a private company so still had that culture – it was entrepreneurial, which amounted to freedom to work on whatever IT projects I wanted as long as they added value to the business,” he says.
“This made it a fun environment to start my career in and it remained a great place to work throughout my whole time there, both in London and when I moved to the equities desk in Hong Kong in 2008,” adds Ghafoor. “Working directly with the equities traders meant I got to really understand the user case – I learnt a lot about equities trading and developed the ability to create software to support it.”
Ghafoor says during most of his banking career – he left the sector in 2012 after his stint at Goldman and two years at Standard Chartered in Hong Kong – technologists were treated like part of the business. “Things are a bit different now – some banks see tech as a cost to be managed, rather than something integral to each team. There’s less comradery between tech and trading desks, for example. Traders are always looking to cut costs and tech is more on the defensive – having to justify itself – as a result.”
IT banking jobs have become less creative, according to Ghafoor. “It’s no longer ‘we’re all in it together to make money’. Developers don’t have as much knowledge of how the software they’re writing is impacting the business.”
Meanwhile, computer science graduates now have more employment options than when Ghafoor started out. “Banks still employ very capable people in their IT teams, but there’s much more competition from the likes of Google and Facebook. From a business-model perspective banks aren’t always the best places to work – you’re not seen as a revenue generator. And banks no longer have a big compensation advantage over tech firms.”
“While I always enjoyed working in banking, post GFC the focus became more on reducing risk. Protecting banks is very important, but work-wise it’s not quite as interesting or as complicated as developing a new revenue-generating trading platform. But my decision to leave banking was actually a personal thing – I’d been doing the same job for 11 years since graduating, I needed a change, and I saw an opportunity.”
Unlike many other banking professionals, however, Ghafoor was not tempted into fintech when he left his role as global head of equity-cash front-office technology at Standard Chartered in Hong Kong three years ago. “Given that my CV screams ‘fintech’, investors in fintech did approach me with blank cheques. But I wanted a different industry and I saw a big problem in Hong Kong real estate. Given the size of the market and people’s obsession with property in Hong Kong, I was shocked by how hard it was to search for property – no one had cracked the online property space.”
Banking got me there
Ghafoor’s online property company, Spacious – which he launched in 2013 after programming the prototype himself – now employ 20 people in Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai and Taiwan. He credits his experience in banking for giving him the skills needed to run the firm.
“In a bank you need to be hard working and have routines and mechanisms to get things done – this is also invaluable in business. The communication skills you get from management roles at banks also mean you know how to manage employees and investors – senior tech roles in banks are more about stakeholder management than they are about IT,” Ghafoor explains.
But it’s those early days at Goldman that really gave Ghafoor his business launch-pad. “I forged entrepreneurial skills at Goldman that are very similar to those required in business. If I had an idea, we’d cobble together a prototype, demonstrate its value to the MD and get sign-off. I learnt how to get thing done.”
What’s Ghafoor’s top tip for budding entrepreneurs? “A lot of banking professionals who want to start their own companies are waiting to be struck by a specific bolt-of-lightening idea. But generally it’s better that you identify a general problem area, throw yourself into it and over time a solution emerges that becomes the basis for your business.”
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