Career Paths: Yellow-brick Road or Snakes & Ladders?

Hello, I’m Gabriella, a headhunter within Tech/Finance and this is my first Crypto Newsletter article.

I’m excited to be able to use this platform to share with you a few career-path insights based on conversations I had with many of the engaging and driven ladies I met at the Durlston Partners ‘Women at The Table’ event we hosted recently. Join our designated page!

The conversation usually started with a question, “I’m currently at [x], and I’m aiming to get to [y], do you have any advice?”, and was sometimes caveated with a “I’ve been applying to [y] roles but not having much success”.

For [x] and [y], insert:

  • Types of firms (retail bank, FinTech, investment bank, buy-side, startup)
  • Industries (insurance, tech, finance, crypto, AI)

Of course, I can’t speak for every person’s career path to certain roles or positions, but I want to lay out the most common patterns and preferable backgrounds for certain roles as often expressed to us by our clients. I figured the best way to demonstrate would be to use a few examples I discussed at the event.

Finance to… Finance?

Job requirement: Financial experience

Where this seems like a straightforward requirement, the meaning of ‘financial experience’ can vary with context. Where you may already work within the financial sector, this may not cover the understanding required for certain roles and their requirements.

The crucial distinction to be made is between firms, or even teams within firms, that operate on capital markets (investment banks, hedge funds, asset management, exchanges, market makers) and those that do not (retail banks, commercial banks, insurance, payment platforms, accounting).

For many of the firms Durlston Partners works with, predominantly in the Quant Trading space, this ‘finance’ requirement denotes capital markets understanding.

A career path leading towards the Buy-side (most commonly Hedge Funds) is one of the most common desires expressed by candidates I speak to, who are already working within finance. They’re known for paying well, tasty open-ended discretionary bonuses and with the smaller ones, less bureaucracy than investment banks – what’s not to love?

The invisible hurdle of needing to have had exposure to capital markets (even if not necessarily a hard requirement but a desirable piece of experience) may be holding some candidates back when applying directly. Don’t be disheartened, as some buy-side firms will have this preference for certain hires, some do not. Speaking to a recruiter from Durlston Partners who knows individual clients on this front is a great place to start and avoid wasting time on such applications.

And do remember, you are not having your previous experience held against you! Speaking from every good rom-com, ‘it’s not you, it’s me’. These discrepancies can come down to a whole range of reasons. An example is the maturity of the hiring team/firm for whether they’re open to someone with or without domain knowledge – whether they have experienced engineers ready to take on a strong technologist and get them up to speed or does the hiring team need all hands on deck for an urgent release and don’t have time to train.

Another trend worth noting when migrating across the finance space is the evolution of stances on working from home. Speaking to one client, I asked why a certain software engineer (trading platform) role required 4 or 5 days in the office. We will often find that, within firms that are in-office inclined, the closer a role sits to the actual trading function, the more you’re likely to be required in the office. This can be attributed to urgency and ease of communication between traders and technologists working together.

Tech to Finance

As a technologist looking to start their career in finance, there is such a huge array of options it can be difficult to know where to start. It can be easy to group them together under the financial umbrella and dive into applying. However, the nuances I’ve outlined above certainly apply to broaching the finance space as a whole.

There is no right answer and no correct path. Every option has pros and cons. If you’re deciding which route to take, there are so many I could weigh up but that would result in a book, so here I’ll lay out 1 of the decision crossroads for you.

Big firm, big bucks? Small firm, high impact? Let’s discuss.

Large finance institutions:

  • Perfect, they have the resources, training programmes and management team in place to get you up to speed on whatever you need if you’re coming from tech into finance.
  • The hierarchical structure has the benefit of there always being a clear line of report. You’ve got a question? You definitely know who to ask!
  • In a similar vein, within a firm like this, your career path is never clearer. And if people management or focusing on architectural design is where you could see yourself ending up, here the step-by-step to get there is laid out for you.
  • Bureaucracy and the potential for getting siloed into a team working on a very specific technology arises. Then again, with such a big firm, there is scope for internal movement more than a firm with only one tech team.

Small startups:

  • Need I say it? “Wear many hats”. Everyone who’s done it will agree, it’s a blessing and a curse. Your skillset will certainly get broader at this firm where with the siloed team I mentioned above, it would get specialised and deeper.
  • Who loves startup experience? Startups. A classic ‘not on the job spec’ client preference. If you have an entrepreneurial spirit and love to really get behind a product, this path could certainly be for you. The more startups you’ve worked for – whether they’ve made their millions or fallen apart – the more valuable you your skillset will be in your next role.
  • As I mentioned before, resources for personal development may be less, but the personal impact and opportunity for decision-making is higher.

The Management Path:

Management. For some, it’s a natural progression, both on the technical design side and the people management side. Whereas some engineers prefer to stay as an IC (individual contributor) for a much longer period of their career. Both are equally valid and below a certain level, there is often not a huge difference in compensation depending on which route you take. However, when it comes to more senior engineering roles, they are usually specified as ‘hands-on’ or ‘hands-off’, requiring an engineer to have spent a certain portion of their time still actively coding in their recent professional experience.

Not infrequently I speak to engineers who have almost accidentally found themself meandering down a more management-focussed route. Maybe they joined a startup and a job well done and a few promotions later, as an early-joining engineer they’re tasked with building a team under them. Suddenly they’re spending less time coding, more time interviewing and carrying out reviews and can feel their technical development taking a backseat. This happens and, don’t panic! You’ve built up a valuable new skillset that you can bring into your next role.

To Conclude

Every company and every candidate is unique, hence no two career paths are the same. I’m here as an agency recruiter who gets a bird’s eye view of the market that neither our clients nor candidates often have. We take a long time to speak to and deeply understand not just the baseline requirements for the positions we’re filling for our clients, but the profile for the perfect candidate, including not only the technical requirements but potential job history that would be useful contributory experience that would result in a hire not just doing a job but thriving in it.

We are aware of the extra colour that you’ll never get on a job spec (usually the reason we want to get you on the phone!) and the particular niche snippets of experience that have historically resulted in particularly strong hires for that firm/ team.

With this article, I’m hoping to show you that none of these points are guarded secrets and that being as transparent as possible at every step benefits everyone.

So, while it’s no yellow-brick road, your career path is no game of snakes and ladders either. Yes, making a decision as important as a career move can be a daunting one. But speaking to a DP recruiter can help expose the odd hidden caveat by asking questions and working out what’s best for you, and then advising you on the best route to reach your long-term goals – a personal career satnav if you will.

Written by Gabriella Newton