People Feature: Firms hunt for tech talent amid short supply in Asia

 

Article published on May 16, 2018 
By Wong Wei Han

 

Technology has moved centre stage in the financial services industry. Asset management companies are developing new investment and analytics capabilities, creating online platforms while improving IT support.

 

These new business priorities are throwing up fresh challenges for companies to ensure they have the right people and skills, with fund companies looking overseas for suitable candidates, hiring young graduates with millennial skill sets, and ramping up efforts to train existing staff.

 

Tech talent in demand

 

One area where technology comes heavily into play is investment and trading operations, particularly with more companies adopting quantitative – or “quant” – investment strategies.

 

Quant strategies use advanced computer and algorithmic capabilities to try to enhance asset investment performance, such as screening a larger number of stocks for certain characteristics over a short period of time. Quant capabilities can also be used to help improve trading efficiency.

 

J.P. Morgan Asset Management is one of many companies that has stepped up hiring on this front in recent years.

 

 “Over the past five to six years, we have seen a new breed of people coming in. We have been actively recruiting quantitative analysts, and today we are supported by seven quant analysts, up from just two five years ago,” says Lee Bray, Hong Kong-based head of JPMAM’s Asia-Pacific equities trading desk.

 

Bray runs a team of 16 traders across Hong Kong, Japan and Taiwan, executing the equities portion of JPMAM’s client portfolios. The team is also supported by specialised quant IT specialists who operate more like data scientists and are ingrained in the investment process.

 

Principle Partners , a recruitment consultant for regional asset managers, hedge funds and private equity firms, has helped place over 30 people into roles related to quant processes and data analytics in Singapore since the start of 2017, says Will Tan, the company’s Singapore-based partner.

 

 

“Companies prefer people with actual working knowledge and commercial experience, but clearly, the talent pool in Asia for experienced candidates is very limited,” says Tan.

 

“Some firms spend up to nine months to fill their hiring needs. The next-best thing to do is hire less experienced people and train them,” he adds.

 

Meanwhile, companies are also committing more resources to ramp up the more traditional IT support functions.

 

“There is now more significant investment and backing from senior management to expand local IT teams,” says Serena Tang, associate director at recruitment consultant Michael Page in Hong Kong.

 

“Companies have also moved away from relying on offshore teams and acknowledge the benefits of local or regional IT teams in increasing efficiency,” she adds.

 

“As a result, demand has risen for both IT project management, business analyst and application support talent, since it is critical that technical issues are resolved as quickly as possible during business hours,” Tang adds.

 

When a company implements new systems or improves existing ones, business analysts collect requirements from end users and translate them into technical specifications for IT teams to act on.

 

“They play an increasingly important role as fund firms are looking to maximise the use of technology across different functions, including both front and back office,” Tang says.

 

Hiring overseas and training amid shortage

 

While the demand for a variety of technology skill sets and talent continues to grow, good candidates are by and large in short supply.

 

The challenge is not just that suitable candidates are scarce; it is also that demand is strong in other industries, such as biotech, software firms, and indeed any global firms that want to solve custom software problems.

 

With candidates in strong demand and short supply, sometimes the top-level job applicants are examining the companies rather than vice versa.

 

An account provided by Shanta Puchtler, Boston-based president and chief executive of Man Numeric, which is part of Man Group, points to the strain on companies to compete for the best technology talent.

 

A year ago, Puchtler received a cover letter and résumé of a technology professional who was potentially interested in working at Man Numeric, but the résumé was password protected and the cover letter outlined a difficult math problem, the answer to which was the password to open the résumé.

 

“We solved the problem and were able to open the résumé, but this gives you a sense of how competitive the candidates are getting – they are only interested in firms who can solve their math problems!” says Puchtler.

 

To fill their technology hiring needs, regional companies often have to fork out large sums to hire from overseas, Principle Partners’ Tan says, adding that many of these are hired from Silicon Valley and Europe.

 

At one of the regional sovereign wealth funds where Tan was engaged to recruit people for a new trading desk, “about three quarters of the 20 plus people in the team were from overseas”, he says, without naming the company.

 

This is partly why, for some companies, technology-related recruitment cost has crept up to 20% of total recruiting expenditures, according to Tan.

 

Another key issue that companies face is the fact that, while there may be many well trained technology experts in the market, these candidates often lack the financial know-how to add value immediately.

 

“You can find coders and engineers with PhDs, but these guys are useless to fund managers if they don’t have the financial knowledge to apply their skills,” explains Tan.

 

“So, fund managers will take these people in and train them up for sometimes up to a year. But only the big companies have the budget to do so,” he adds.

 

But companies that can afford to will gladly spend time and resources training newcomers, knowing it’s part and parcel of the evolution of technology.

 

JPMAM’s Bray doesn’t see this as a problem. “Ultimately anyone who comes in, the company has to invest time and effort to train them and get them up to speed. It’s about recognising where the future is and investing in that future,” he says.

 

Given the need to train existing staff with the latest know-how, some companies set aside a portion of their budget for skill training, Michael Page’s Tang says.

 

“Staff can be reimbursed for acquiring professional certifications, such as PMP, PRINCE 2, ITIL, or product-based qualifications, such as cloud and networking. This is becoming a common benefit when offering employment opportunities and has proven to be a good retention strategy as well,” Tang adds.

 

Certifications such as PMP and ITIL are globally recognised qualifications that train candidates in the best practices and techniques for leading technology projects, such as IT service management and system implementation.

 

People aspect still key

 

Another key aspect of getting the right talent for technology needs is actually less about the know-how of technology. Some companies, like Old Mutual International in Singapore, are more concerned about getting those who can help manage the relationships and people aspect of a new solution.

 

Old Mutual International, part of U.K.-based wealth manager Old Mutual Wealth, rolled out its online client service platform, Wealth Interactive, in 2014. OMI’s 12 team members in Singapore are all in one way or another involved in supporting the platform’s rollout and enhancement through their engagement with distribution partners.

 

The team may help OMI’s partners understand Wealth Interactive’s interface and functions, appreciate the benefit of moving away from paper to online, or identify technical issues and manage fixing these issues even if they themselves are not personally involved in the technical processes.

 

Ian Kloss, Old Mutual International

OMI Singapore CEO Ian Kloss says he is looking to expand his team by the end of this year. But the new joiners don’t have to be tech whizzes. They have to be good communicators.

 

“We actually want someone with the skill sets to go out, do training, manage relationships, take feedback, enhance our system, and use that feedback loop to help us grow market share. We want people who are willing to listen, learn and communicate,” Kloss says.

 

Ultimately, in financial services, people skills still command fundamental importance, even when it comes to digital innovations.

“At some point, an online platform will touch people. How the platform interacts with people really matters. If we’re not capturing that interaction, then we run the risk of creating a digital solution that quickly becomes irrelevant,” Kloss adds.