How some banks are luring talent from big tech

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Amy Brady, the chief information officer at KeyCorp, knows firsthand that hiring workers away from large tech firms can be a struggle.

Most financial institutions can’t compete on pay and resources, and many tech workers don’t envision themselves going to work for a bank.

But Brady has found success in touting advantages financial firms can bring to the table — mobility across business lines, a workforce that includes many different disciplines and the opportunity to tackle complex technological problems in teams now using agile development.

“As an industry we’re doing a better job at telling our technology story — the fact that we have smart engineers solving complex problems,” Brady said.

But persuading tech workers to sign up with banks remains a work in progress. Almost 80% of more than 200 bank and capital market CEOs cited a shortage of tech skills as a threat to their company’s growth, according to a recent PwC survey.

To fix that problem, banks are trying to emphasize what they can bring to the table.

One way is a focus on agile development, where developers work in short bursts rather than in long, waterfall project planning cycles. In April, KeyBank went from having two project teams to nine agile squads. Now it has 30 squads.

Brady said the agile squads are better for employees.

“We’re getting a lot of positive feedback from the participants in the squads,” she said. “They like the fact that everyone is together and decisions are being made by the product owner, and the developer and tester are working together to automate the test cases from the very beginning and prototyping and doing minimal viable products.”

In the last two to three years, banks have been finding new agile ways of working, including employing design thinking, experimentation and user experience into developing new products, said Bhushan Sethi, a partner in PricewaterhouseCoopers’ financial services advisory practice.

While the $12.2 billion-asset WSFS Financial doesn’t use agile squads, it is pouring more resources into its application development team, a decentralized team that goes across the bank to bring automation and breakthrough processing to various parts of the bank. (The bank is investing $32 million over the next five years in customer experience, risk management, workflow automation and its data platform.)

The idea is to make the team more nimble, and help make recruitment easier in the process.

“They were a kind of a hidden gem within the bank that not everyone was aware of,” said Lisa Brubaker, chief technology officer at WSFS. “We’ve had most of our focus on that team and expanding their role and their services within the organization.”

Mobility across the organization is also key. That’s part of the reason KeyBank consolidated marketing and client, product and segment analytics, which previously had been under separate directors. By creating a center of expertise for data analytics, those employees can feel that they have the ability to move across business lines and the most talented data engineers can work on the most important issues.

“For the analytics folks, they can see a career path of growing in that capability and progressing in their career,” Brady said. “Eventually, data analytics will be pervasive in all the roles throughout the institution.”

Additionally, having a place where tech employees collaborate can be a factor in recruitment, said Claudette McGowan, chief information officer of enterprise technology and employee experience for BMO Financial Group.

“Long gone are the days when you have the tech team in one building and business in another,” she said.

Last year, BMO Financial revealed plans to build an urban campus in downtown Toronto by 2021. The campus will feature open floor plans and collaborative workspaces.

Some of KeyBank’s squad teams have the opportunity to create their own workspace.

“They have tools where they can visually display their work,” Brady said.

KeyBank has also created a new “automater” role for engineers who have backgrounds in both process engineering and technology engineering. Automaters are responsible for investigating where the bank might deploy AI or machine learning around the bank.

More so than the right tools, the right mix of a multidisciplinary workforce also matters for advancing technology goals and attracting talented technologists who want to work with a variety of experts.

“We’re hiring for more cybersecurity and cyber-related engineering skills. Hiring for more data skills. Hiring for more user-experience designers,” Brady said. “The mix of technologists has definitely changed where we may have had less mainframe engineers, for example.”

And, of course, many banks are looking outside the tech workforce for help with tech problems.

“Many CEOs have switched from just hiring to also reskilling employees,” PwC's Sethi said. “Beyond the IT department, banks are working to develop a digital mindset.”

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