"I quit banking for fintech in 2002. This is what I've learned."
Moving from management consulting to investment banking – or vice versa – is a well-trodden career path, and now both consultants and bankers are entering the financial technology space in droves. However, Don Henderson made that move 25 years ago before it was the thing to do.
Henderson joined McKinsey fresh after graduating from Rutgers with a double B.A. in economics and computer science. He said he had idea what it meant to work for McKinsey, but he rose to project manager over four years.
Drawn to banking due to the fast pace, innovation and risk-taking, Henderson made the jump to Wall Street in the early ’90s.
“Early in my career, I had little fear of failure and little concern about the consequences of not being successful,” Henderson says. “My goal was to lead by example and to work harder than everyone around me – investment banking and finance was the perfect challenge.”
Henderson started at Bear Stearns as a network engineer in the telecommunications group and headed the design and migration-planning of the IT infrastructure for the bank’s new corporate headquarters at 383 Madison Avenue, which J.P. Morgan later acquired. He climbed the ladder to co-CTO and senior managing director over 11 years at the firm.
Henderson left Bear Stearns in 2002 because he wanted to be more involved and have greater influence on company strategy.
“I was heavily involved with infrastructure engineering, so I needed to be at a technology company to grow my career,” Henderson says. “The change also gave me an opportunity to take on additional responsibilities and to learn more about operating a company instead of a technology platform.
“The difference between 2002 and today is risk, compliance and governance have significantly changed the working environments within the big banks, and the regulations have given fintech companies commercial opportunities to solve these problems,” he says.
Moving from investment banking to fintech was easy, Henderson claims, because he was a technologist who wanted to contribute to the business strategy and success of a startup called NYFIX – then in 2009, that fintech startup was acquired by a giant, the New York Stock Exchange, to be exact, where he became the CTO.
Now he’s a senior vice president of product and customer success at IPC Systems, where he leads operations and the overall product roadmap for the trading software-as-a-service (SaaS) company known for Unigy 360.
Banking vs. fintech
The biggest differences between working at a big bank and a fintech firm is the broader exposure you get at the latter.
“Everything must work together – billing, service, tech, price – [whereas] at a large financial institution, you specialize in your own silo so you tend not to be as day-to-day aware or concerned about those other aspects,” Henderson says.
Despite the differences, Henderson believes working in banking is a good foundation for a career in fintech.
“Understanding the [financial services] industry and the customer perspective gives you a strong foundation for engaging with your fintech customers, and it also helps to understand the business workflows and operations,” Henderson says.
“It was beneficial to my career to have a solid understanding of how the markets operated, which then enabled me to apply that knowledge to decisions and recommendations for building products in the fintech industry.”
Try both early in your career to see what environment you are more comfortable operating in, he says. Also, don’t stay static for too long – look at each role as a stepping stone.
“I prefer to see people in project roles, since projects tend to be shorter-term and you can leverage the lessons learned to gain experience for your next role,” Henderson says.
That said, he doesn’t plan to hire just for the short-term success. He looks for people who have the following qualities: success working in teams, small and large; a creative background; willingness to work hard; and strong computer skills.
“Technology underpins all positions – your [tech] skills will create more value for you as progress your career,” Henderson says.
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