How to move into invesment banking IT... or not

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You're a systems developer or project manager with a record of successful achievement in the healthcare or oil and gas sectors. What are the chances of shifting sideways and applying your skills in the lucrative world of investment banking?

Not much, according to recruiters practising in the area. It's an unfortunate truth that most banks prefer recruits seasoned with prior banking knowledge.

"It's extremely difficult to move across," says Tim Doran, a financial services account director at recruiter Spencer Rose. "Banks will hire entry-level people without experience, but at mid-ranking and senior levels they tend to move people internally rather than hire an inexperienced outsider."

"If you're coming in from something completely left of centre, it's very hard," confirms Chris Rowbotham, an IT consultant at recruiter Robert Walters. "You're unlikely to do it through a recruiter - you'd need personal contacts."

And, "Most banks won't touch people without experience," explains Robert Lycett at Elan, another IT recruiter. "My advice if you want to go into investment banking is to do anything you can to get in straight out university, otherwise it's virtually impossible."

The good news

So far so gloomy: if you're not a fresh faced university leaver, you could be forgiven for swiftly ditching your aspirations and making the most of your existing niche. The good news is that total outsiders can occasionally break into banking. But it's not easy.

"It all depends what you've done in the past," says the head of IT at one European bank in London. "If you come from the oil industry, for example, you might have worked on risk management software and you'd already know the products. We have a few people with this background."

One recruiter reports placing a former British Airways IT project manager at Goldman Sachs: "The environment at BA turned out to be very similar to that on a trading floor," he says.

How to do it

Recruiters offer handy tips for technology professionals devoted to making the arduous journey from 'sector-X' into investment banking. They are as follows:

Move into the 'back office.' So-called 'back office,' or non-client facing roles in investment banking, are not always specific to financial services and may not require prior banking experience. "If you're building a payroll system or working on a database, you won't need to know about financial products," says Sheetal Patel, a consultant at recruitment firm Project Partners. The problem is, that having moved into one of these roles you're still likely to find it hard to land one of the really lucrative positions working on cutting edge trading systems. Patel says that C++ developers with no banking product knowledge are likely to be paid at least 25% less than those that have it.

Get a job with a financial services software provider and move into a bank from there. Another alternative is to start off at a software supplier used by investment banks. Companies such as Fidessa, Murex and Summit supply trading systems to banks. Lycett says banks will sometimes take people with knowledge of these systems, even if they don't have direct banking experience. And Doran says these software houses will often hire technologists from non-banking backgrounds into software development roles, thereby circumventing the no-experience trap.

Learn about the products. It might also be possible to demonstrate enthusiasm for banking by taking a few courses in banking products and systems. Recruiters say the Investment Management Certificate (IMC) and the Securities and Investment Institute's exams (https://www.securities-institute.org.uk/web5/infopool.nsf/HTML/qQualifications) are popular. However, it's open to dispute whether exams really make much difference - see below.

How not to do it

Send off a totally unrelated CV and hope for the best. As recruiters explain, it's difficult to break into financial services IT at the best of times. If you want to improve your chances, you'll need to go out of your way to draw parallels between what you've done previously and what you could do in a bank.

Study an MBA. Recruiters are divided on the merits of learning about financial services products prior to applying to banks. "A lot of line managers take no notice whatsoever of qualifications," says Rowbotham. "They're looking for real world experience." But while some agree that the exams referenced above could be relevant, none prescribe an MBA for would-be banking technologists. "It's neither here nor there," says Doran. Given the hefty cost of studying an MBA, this is probably good to know in advance.

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