When you google ‘what is fintech?’, you’re provided with the answer ‘computer programs and other technology used to support or enable banking and financial services’. That sounds like something that’s been happening for years, doesn’t it? Technically, credit cards, ATM machines and many back-office systems were all examples of fintech. But today, largely thanks to the start-up scene, fintech is considered a hot industry that people want to break into.
To date, it’s also an industry dominated by demand for tech skills, which not everyone in financial services has. But while tech knowledge is extremely important, it’s not the be all and end all. You can become an employee of a fintech firm without it, and I’m a case in point. I don't have a programming background (I graduated in economics and started my career at a bank), but I do work in fintech. Although I’m not a recruitment expert, I have recently completed an MBA, gone through interviews with various start-ups, and landed myself a job at FinFabrik, a Hong Kong-based fintech firm. So I do have a good idea of the steps that you should take to break into fintech, especially here in Hong Kong. Here’s what to do.
If you’re just starting your research, you’ll quickly realise that the fintech industry is extremely diverse. Saying that you want to ‘work in fintech’ just won’t cut it anymore. In fact, saying that to someone from the industry will make you sound like you haven’t done your homework. The first thing you need to do is identify which area in fintech interests you. Payments, lending, insurance, regulations and data science are just some of the possible areas. Another advantage of being specific is that when you reach out to someone for advice, they’ll be much more willing to help you.
As my CEO often mentions, there are three tiers of fintech companies in Hong Kong. There are those that have been around for five or six years and are on their way to becoming unicorns; those that are between three and five years old; and those that are just getting started. If you lack technical knowledge, then you’re much more likely to land an opening in a slightly older company. Younger firms are just starting to build their products, so they need experienced developers to build things from the ground up. If you have a more design-centric background, you still have a shot of breaking into a very young company, but if your experience is more banking, sales, operations or marketing related, then you’ve got a better chance with firms that already have some scale.
Everybody loves free help, start-ups more than others. If you’re a student, then getting a summer internship would be the ideal way to get a foot in the door. Fortunately, for more experienced job seekers, Hong Kong fintech companies typically have internship positions open all year round. Although these jobs often don’t pay much, they give you fintech-specific experience. My company alone has had almost 10 interns just in the last 12 months, with varying levels of experience: from high school students to people who already have a day job. Check out the websites AngelList or Whub for internship openings in Hong Kong.
From my experience, fintech managers’ response rate to job seekers is typically low – in a time-strapped start-up people usually have a million other things going on. If you’re truly interested in this industry, start identifying individuals that you think will be able to help you, and reach out to them early. LinkedIn is a powerful way of doing this. I’d recommend getting a premium membership and start sending LinkedIn mails to people that you want to connect with.
If you don’t have time for a full-time internship but are still interested in getting a foot in the door without quitting your job, this might be the way to do it. When I say volunteer, I don’t mean handing out flyers at an event. I offered myself to work on a consulting project with a Hong Kong-based fintech company while doing my MBA. Having that experience on my CV greatly helped boost my credibility in the local fintech sector.
If you’re based in Hong Kong or Singapore, where fintechs are flourishing (and I cannot stress this enough) you must properly take advantage of the many networking events and meet-ups in your city. Don’t walk into these like a lost puppy and start asking for jobs; do your homework on people at the event and walk in with valuable things to contribute. Even if you just want to ask questions, make them challenging and memorable. I know it’s easier said than done, but nobody said switching industries was easy.
Tanuj Bathla is a product manager at FinFabrik, a Hong Kong-based capital markets and wealth management fintech firm.