March 27, 2012

Wall Street technologists might be thinking twice about their financial-industry careers in what once was considered to be a lucrative and prestigious gig. Now some of Wall Street's top tech talent is considering other options, and many already have fled their once-coveted jobs on the Street.

Four factors play into their decision-making process: 1) earnings potential, 2) growth potential, 3) the ability to innovate and work on interesting projects, and 4) the cachet and clout of their potential employer or industry.

[Job prospects for financial services IT workers seems to have hit a speed bump. Read: Job Market Softens for Financial Services IT Professionals.]

Wall Street traditionally was one of the most desirable industries for technologists, but things are starting to change. Tough economic times have put pressure on financial services firms. A mix of layoffs, bonus freezes and an overall reduction in IT budgets has made the industry less appealing, according to industry experts. In addition, Wall Street's image had taken a few dings lately, further reducing the appeal of working in financial services. For instance, Greg Smith's highly publicized resignation from Goldman Sachs was the latest controversy that sent tremors through the industry.

Silicon Valley's tech industry -- with innovative companies such as Google, Facebook and others -- is the place top tech talent wants to be, says Marc Adler, managing principal at SunGard Global Services. Adler, who has more than a decade of experience on Wall Street, including jobs as chief architect in equities at Citigroup and head of desktop applications and the real-time multi-asset trading platform at Citadel, recently left the hedge fund to become a consultant at SunGard. His move is not unlike the career shift many Wall Street veterans are taking as consulting firms and tech start-ups woo financial services tech veterans.

Adler says technologists at most financial firms are being asked to work more hours while compensation stagnates. "Rather than be a slave to Wall Street's bonus cycle, I figured, why not do something interesting for me?" Adler says.

NO REGRETS
Adler says he is beyond happy with his decision to leave Wall Street. First, he insists, his work for SunGard is more rewarding; and rather than work for one firm on the same technology infrastructure, he gets to bring his knowledge from years on Wall Street to other firms that are just building their technology infrastructure, Adler adds.

For instance, Adler relates, he just returned from a trip to Brazil, where he was helping to educate several firms on how to re-architect their trading systems to incorporate straight-through processing. He estimates that their markets are probably 20 years behind New York with regard to messaging and STP. "It's satisfying to be able to take your [experience] and apply it to other customers that are very receptive to this knowledge," Adler says.

Another recent example of the attitude shift among technologists on Wall Street is the departure of Citigroup VP and senior engineer Adam Shapiro, who left Citi in February to become chief technology officer for Breakthrough Technology Group, a five-year young cloud and managed services provider. According to Shapiro, the attraction was the chance to work in an emerging field for a firm that is poised to capitalize on the promise of virtualization.

Shapiro worked on Wall Street for 11 years, during which time he architected Citi's data center automation and engineered the worldwide deployment of the bank's virtualization initiative. Shapiro says he enjoyed his time on Wall Street, but he was offered a great opportunity that he couldn't pass up.

"The opportunity to take on a CTO role and use the skills that I acquired with multiple different clients, not just one client, was very appealing," Shapiro tells WS&T. "It's an engineers dream to come here and work on bleeding-edge technology," he adds, noting that he'll be continuing to learn with an industry that is in its infancy. "And that's attractive."

BURNOUT AND BONUSES
While Wall Street has been known for outsized bonuses, the compensation elsewhere may not be as large. The differential a technologist faces will depend on the type of company he decides to join -- compensation at a start-up, an established technology firm or a consulting firm will all vary.

SunGard's Adler, who works for a consultancy, acknowledges that his bonus and pay structure won't be the same as it was when he worked for Citi. "You're not going to get the Wall Street bonuses, but there are other upsides," he says. "This is the first time in years I am not stressed. From a lifestyle standpoint, it's completely different." Adler notes that although the work is hard, the stress level is just not as intense.

Adler says other companies in Silicon Valley had also approached him, and he knows this is happening with a lot of talented Wall Street IT executives. While poaching top talent from other industries isn't anything new, he notes, the frequency of the requests, and the willingness of financial IT workers to entertain the offers, is something new. For instance, Adler says, he has friends who have gone to Facebook, Twitter, Four Square and other tech companies. Simply, he says, "They were burnt out on Wall Street culture."

[IT workers may be leaving Wall Street because companies aren't providing training, but a few banks are taking steps to counter the trend. Read: IT Skills Shortage? Quit Whining .]

During previous recessions, Adler points out, there was no other place to go, as companies across all verticals cut back. After the dot-com bubble burst, for instance, there were no jobs in the tech sector. "You'd have to move bank to bank, particularly after the tech bust in 2001," Adler recalls. "But now there are lots of jobs available in Silicon Valley. You see all kinds of jobs posted; you're being called by recruiters or reached out to on LinkedIn. There are a wealth of jobs available, and more start-ups are being funded."

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