The lure of iPhone app millions keeps digital talent away from banking

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If you work in the digital sector the idea of a nine to five job isn’t appealing. Better to be the next Naratsu Baba, the Japanese app developer who made billions producing games featuring zombies and bears, or Nick D’Aloisio, the teenage multi-millionaire courtesy of Yahoo!’s purchase of his news app Summly, right?

Seduced by the idea of producing the next killer app that will propel them to riches within weeks, digital talent appears to be eschewing regular jobs. Banks have been struggling to find digital professionals despite offering bigger salaries, but this is also a problem in the supposedly cooler start-ups.

In London’s Tech City, the so-called ‘Silicon Roundabout’, there’s a scarcity of available tech employees, according to a recent report by GfK. 90% of the 131 companies it surveyed said they struggled to hire coders and developers, and 84% said that user experience professionals were difficult to find.

“People who come from a gaming, digital, or e-Commerce background tend to be driven by exiting products,” said Robert Grant, director of IT recruiters Cititec. “Looking at the example of Tumblr’s recent acquisition by Yahoo! for over £700m, it is no surprise why.”

There are plenty of iPhone app millionaires to look for as inspiration, and D’Aloisio’s advice to burgeoning app developers to “just do it” is unlikely to inspire many to look for a desk job. Those that do tend to gravitate towards start-ups, rather than banks.

“It's a case of risk-reward: start-ups are inherently more risky but may offer a larger upside through an exit,” said Alastair Patterson, CEO of Digital Shadows, a tech firm in Canary Wharf’s Level 39. “For a skilled developer the risk is actually incredibly low as they will be snapped up by another firm if things go wrong.”

Banks are a particularly unattractive option, despite generally offering up to 15% more in pay than elsewhere in the digital sector. Barclays, Citi, Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs, Nomura, RBS and UBS have all launched apps for institutional clients, but banks are also trying to bring in digital talent at the retail level in order to gain an edge in mobile banking.

"There is a lack of digital talent. Not enough people are choosing IT at college and the more needs to be done to encourage people to get into the industry," said Andrew White, CEO at financial technology firm FundApp. "We are finding it difficult to find suitably qualified people."

Grant believes that bank’s strict recruitment rules aren’t doing them any favours: “We see a number of banks only really looking for people with specific banking experience and not trying to look outside of their current pool of people.”

The reality is that there are worse options for technologists hoping for a relatively secure vocation. Banks are trying to make their apps increasingly innovative, even if the hierarchical and political working environment isn’t exactly conducive to creativity.

One digital specialist working in an investment bank tells us: “I’ve been here for the past five years, but often get four months of annually, which gives me enough time for something more creative. I’ve been launching a site for homemade homeware and tried my hand at a couple of games, which haven’t really taken off yet, but there’s always a chance they will.”

The UK’s more restrictive visa requirements haven’t helped the supply of talent, said Patterson: “Given the shortage of talented developers in the UK it seems bizarre that many of our top universities are providing scholarships to some of the brightest technology students in the world but our visa restrictions then force many of them to leave the country shortly after graduation.”