Can passion get you ahead in financial technology?

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If you're working in a financial technology role, technical skills are of course incredibly important. But to truly excel in this field, do candidates need something that can't be taught - passion?

This might seem like a something of a woolly concept, but consider the example of Linus Torvalds, creator of Linux, the open source operating platform. Linux is fast-emerging as the predominant operating system for electronic trading, but initially started out as a "hobby".

Torvalds told Wall Street & Technology:

I've been around computers since fairly early on, and I was playing around - programming was (and still is) a hobby, so rather than have big goals in mind, my goals tended to be more along the lines "what can I write next, just to have something interesting to do". So Linux came about from me just trying to acquaint myself with my new machine, and exploring the low-level details of the hardware.

The more haughty technologists have always claimed that programming is more of an art form than a pure technical skill, but perhaps viewing it as vocation rather than a means to a pay cheque is the way to excel in financial IT.

"In my experience, the exceptional programmers treat technology as a hobby as well as a job," says Paul Elworthy, managing director of banking IT at recruiters Hudson. "For example, one candidate on our books managed to solve a problem in a live environment of his employer by deploying a tool he'd built in his spare time. His ascension has been phenomenal."

Quant headhunter Dominic Connor also teaches C++ to those with aspirations to work in the financial sector. His ex-students who have succeeded in the industry have combined technical expertise with "a passion for programming", he says.

"Investment banks pay technologists better than most other industries, and demand a level of business nous often not required elsewhere," he says. "However, you're never going to cut it in a technology role if you're not passionate about the position and are only in it for the money."

Google days?

The question is whether a passionate programmer will feel particularly at home within an investment bank. After all, the hierarchical environment hardly fosters innovation, and a desire for more control over projects is often cited as a reason for technologists switching from investment banks to hedge funds.

Elworthy suggests banks are taking steps to address this: "More banks are deploying teams to look at emerging technology, or partnering with academic institutions on how to foster innovation. We're also hearing instances of banks offering technologists time to work on personal projects - candidates are calling these 'Google days'."

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