Banks need not always compete head-to-head with big tech firms when trying to recruit elite technology professionals, says the man who heads up Citi’s massive tech operations in Asia.
“It’s becoming popular to compare banks like Citi to the FAANG firms, but that’s not necessarily a sound comparison,” says Vikram Subrahmanyam, Asia Pacific chief information officer and head of operations and technology at Citi, referring to the acronym for Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google. “The attractiveness of tech companies isn’t going away, so we don’t necessarily want to target job seekers who only have their eyes on these firms – we don’t want to be a second choice,” he adds.
Citi is instead playing to one of its strengths as an employer: its ability to offer the kind of dramatic career changes that tech professionals may not enjoy at the likes of Google. As technology becomes more central to Citi’s business, it’s no longer unusual to start out in an engineering role and then move into a “business-focused job” with PNL responsibilities in a department such as markets, consumer banking, or treasury and trade solutions, says Singapore-based Subrahmanyam.
There are former technologists in Citi’s upper ranks, including Stephen Bird, who’s now chief executive officer of global consumer banking, but who originally joined in 1998 as Asia Pacific head of operations and technology. “Even if you don’t transition into a front-office role, spending 10 years at a bank like Citi will likely give you broader and more business-focused skills than you’d get at a tech firm during the same period, because you’d have spent more time interacting with the business. Tech companies are great at building more niche tech-only skills in one particular area,” says Citi veteran Subrahmanyam.
Still, Subrahmanyam isn’t averse to hiring from technology and other companies outside of finance. “Many of the skills we need are now industry agnostic,” he says, adding that he expects Citi to recruit more than 1,000 people into technology jobs in Asia over the next 12 months, including both new headcount and replacements for staff who leave. Subrahmanyam oversees more than 32,000 people across Asia Pacific, including operations as well as tech staff.
While some of these people will work on legacy platforms (mostly build in Java), Subrahmanyam is also focusing his hiring on several other fields. Like most banks in Asia, Citi is recruiting for regulatory technology roles, which are mostly based in its tech hubs of Singapore, India and China. Citi’s need for ‘regtech’ staff, who build compliance systems and handle vast volumes of regulatory reporting data, is driven not just by changes to global frameworks like Basel III, but by the governance challenges the bank faces in Asia. “Asia is complex because you have so many types of markets – from emerging to highly developed – and regulatory regimes here,” says Subrahmanyam.
Citi is hiring more cyber security specialists in Asia, including in Singapore, although it’s not a “big ramp up”, says Subrahmanyam. “As more of our processes and customer touch points are digitalised, there’s more to protect, and at the same time the sophistication of the bad actors is increasing,” he adds.
Later this quarter, Citi is launching a new eFX currency trading and pricing engine in Singapore which is designed to reduce the costly millisecond delays currently caused by routing FX trades from Singapore clients via cities like Tokyo or London. The hiring of developers to build the platform has been split between Singapore and London, says Subrahmanyam. Citi is also opening a new stand-alone data centre in Singapore by the end of the year, although the data analysts and data engineers it continues to recruit in the Republic may not all be based there. “Not many jobs will sit in the data centre; it’s more about showing our commitment to Singapore as a technology hub,” says Subrahmanyam.
Asia-based jobs requiring skills in emerging technologies such as machine learning and blockchain are mostly found in Citi’s Singapore innovation lab. Citi has, for example, used machine learning to power robo advisers and anti-money laundering systems. “It takes time to rollout emerging technologies in a meaningful way,” says Subrahmanyam. “Further down the track, I think we’ll see AI being used for facial recognition within our apps, beyond the phone-native authentication we have today. And there’ll be more use of blockchain in trade services, for example,” he adds.
Cloud computing skills, meanwhile, are already in high demand at Citi in Asia. “In the recent past, there was a lot more focus on mainframe development, but now we’re moving more systems onto the private cloud, with some limited uses of external cloud,” says Subrahmanyam.
Citi’s Asia-based technologists work on global as well as regional projects. If the firm needs, for example, 100 new tech professionals to work on equities systems, it will look to base some of them in Asian countries, says Subrahmanyam. The exact location – Citi has “strong franchises” in Singapore, Hong Kong, China, India, Malaysia and the Philippines – depends on the size of the domestic pool of experienced candidates and the “pipeline” of students on relevant local university courses, he adds. Citi is, for example, partnering with Singapore Management University to provide “experiential learning” on financial technology to its undergraduates starting from next year.
Subrahmanyam says today’s graduates and interns are joining Citi as its technology unit becomes a more powerful force within the bank. “During my career, tech has moved from being just an enabler to being strategic to how our business is run,” says Subrahmanyam, who joined Citi in India in 1991 and made managing director in 2005.