If you work in banking technology, you might wonder how you'll get ahead. - After all, this is an area of banking that's notorious for having comparatively few managing directors (MDs) and far too many people left as frustrated vice presidents (VPs).
As someone who works in finance technology for major banks, though, I'd like to offer some reassurance that it's not that bad. There is a career path in banking technology; it's just not very well known.
This is what you can expect.
The Tech Lead - VP
Becoming a Tech Lead is a challenging step on a technologist’s career path. You’ll be expected to keep delivering as if you’re a single contributor whilst line managing a small team and being accountable for one or more important projects. In general, Tech Leads report up to a team lead who manages the wider group (say Equity Derivatives Tech in EMEA for example). This is a thankless job and one that leaves you relatively exposed if things go wrong. You may also be in it a while if you don’t move yourself – to climb up the management ladder requires political acumen and networks that new managers usually don’t possess.
It's standard for senior engineers to be given line management responsibilities for new interns and graduates first, and then to progress in responsibility from there if they are deemed to have done a good job. The best Tech Leads are basically good mentors – they must be talented from a technical perspective and keen on helping those reporting to them in a servant leader style. They will also develop good relations with the business who can then go out to bat for them when their name comes up for promotion or to take on a bigger leadership role.
The Team Lead – Executive Director (ED)/VP
The team lead is an experienced engineer (or sometimes infuriatingly for their directs, not really an engineer) responsible for the management of a large team or multiple teams that could be located across the globe. They are usually long tenured and well-paid VPs or Executive Directors for banks that have that rank. Most of their time is taken up fronting-up on the most important projects, engaging with other teams in technology, line management, maintaining business relations and helping the MD negotiate books of work, budgeting and all sorts of other admin. Team Leads in core areas may have less to do on the business relations side so they can still contribute technically, but this is quite rare. More likely they are setting technical strategy and helping to define the architecture – which languages, frameworks, databases get used and how the software fits together overall.
Having a good team lead is crucial for line level developers. A bad one can make life miserable and a good one can be highly motivating. The worst ones are generally clueless technically, place no trust in their directs and practice anti-patterns like design by committee because they can’t decide for themselves. You can also get those that over-promise to the business placing unnecessary pressure on their teams.
The Project Manager – ED/VP
Many project managers come from the Business Analyst / Business Management route. They are responsible for tracking and delivering complex interdepartmental projects. A good example is all the work done by banks around MIFID II. Regulatory initiatives tend to be very complex functionally and it’s the project managers who are responsible for banging heads together between departments and teams. The best ones I have worked with are communicative, very outgoing and are not afraid to call people out if they are behind. Having said that, in my opinion it is not a particularly skilled job. You need more business knowledge than technical knowledge to get by, and it’s a natural route for the less technically minded folks in technology.
Managing Director – Line of Business
Managing Directors in Technology are typically in charge of a large organization that could span from hundreds of technologists, and up to many thousands for CTOs. Budgets go well into the tens of millions and essentially Managing Directors are running a mini software company. The youngest technology managing directors I’ve seen are late 30s and in general those people had successful stints managing teams abroad or have religiously job hopped and got lucky. More usually Tech MDs are late forties onwards.
Technology MDs set the overall technical direction of the department they manage. They maintain relationships and negotiate the book of work and budgets with the heads of the business they support and their superiors in technology. They are responsible for all hiring and compensation in their teams, and what makes or breaks an MD is having a very good set of team leads reporting directly to them. Occasionally you’ll come across meddlers. These are MDs who will go into unnecessary detail on pet projects and even accost and agree things with line level developers, skipping management levels. These types of MDs present good opportunities for advancement for line level developers. Others will tend to keep themselves to themselves and rarely interact with anyone in their department but their directs.
In my view, being a Tech MD is relatively cushy. I’ve observed that overall they don’t work particularly long hours and they get paid extremely well. They generally use up much of their departmental travel budget meaning lots of business class flights and nice hotels. It’s not the end of the road once you make Tech MD. Increasing responsibility and leading bigger teams is usually the ambition and it can get super political.
Managing Director – Technical Specialist
There are roles where Managing Directors are more subject matter experts than people managers. Think Distinguished Engineers at JP Morgan or Technology Fellows at Goldman Sachs. There are also roles in AI, Machine Learning and the like where there is more emphasis on bringing in experts from academia and have them lead R&D rather than having them manage large organizations. Morgan Stanley for example hired the inventor of C++ Bjarne Stroustrup and he operates almost as an internal consultancy. I have seen long tenured employees make MD as a technical specialist, but I think this is becoming rare in favor of hiring experts externally.
Photo by Alexander Milo on Unsplash
Troy Dawson is the pseudonym of a technologist in a major U.S. bank
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