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Implications vary for early-, mid-, and late-career stages, but there are more exceptions than rules.


Key Points

  • A rapidly changing market for investment jobs is making traditional career planning less relevant.
  • The mix of opportunities and limitations may still differ at early-, mid-, and late-career stages, but adapting to change will be key at all stages.
  • Many of the changes are counterintuitive. For example, although fintech startups are associated with young innovators, research shows that twice as many startup founders were older than 50 compared with those younger than 25. 

Introduction

CFA® charterholders and other investment professionals increasingly are transitioning to jobs involving fintech. Although the transformation of asset managers into technology powerhouses is in the very early stages, the signs are now unmistakable. The future of the investment profession will be intimately involved with technology because hardware, software, and data analysis have progressed to the point of outdoing humans in many investing functions.

Fortunately, there are already successful examples to follow. Having created disruptive financial technologies or started fintech-based firms, some of these investment professionals now thriving on the fintech frontier shared their experiences and insights for this article.

Career as a Random Walk

A discussion of how to transfer to fintech is hard to categorize neatly into early-, mid-, or late-career characteristics. Experts often advise young people to plan careers in five-year increments, but change is happening too rapidly. Even the term “career path” is becoming quaint. “Career random walk” might be closer to how  early-stage professionals need to envision their future work life. Those in mid- or late-careers face the challenge of adjusting as the rules of the game keep changing.

If a career path is a random walk that might move forward, then move sideways, and then circle back on itself, does it make sense to talk about opportunities in terms of career stages? Both retirement-age professionals and young charterholders are founding companies to disrupt the industry.

Today’s young investment professional might have Warren Buffett as an investment hero but might also admire Vitalik Buterin, who invented the technology behind cryptocurrency platform Ethereum. And investment professionals who are new to finance are not preparing for what used to be considered the typical career stages in asset management: gaining entry to the industry, becoming an analyst and then a portfolio manager, retiring to write books and speak. At one time, that typical career would span 40 years. Today, a professional might have only 40 months before an employer shutters the company, a computer eliminates the job, or regulations eliminate the role. In addition, a professional who studies only finance and investment could be replaced by someone who has, say, a computer science degree or programming skills.

There’s no denying the paradigm shift after the public claims by JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs that they are technology companies. Goldman says that as of the end of 2017, 46% of its job postings were for tech talent. On JPMorgan’s “investor day,” the chief financial officer pointed out that the firm employs 40,000 technologists, including 18,000 creating “intellectual property.” Add to the mix the changes forced by geopolitical shifts, such as Brexit, or massive regulatory changes, such as MiFID II, and most investment professionals must continually consider how to reposition themselves.

The implications differ according to career stages but share some overlap. Early-stage professionals have the potential to pursue a range of opportunities along their professional track. Mid-career professionals are now retooling their skill sets to solve problems that they have worked around for decades. Those in the later stage of their careers (who in past generations might have turned their focus to retirement) are being lured back by the promise of innovative solutions to problems. Nevertheless, traditional early-, mid-, and late-career stages still reflect some central truths. Young professionals have fresher knowledge but lack experience. Mid-career professionals have tested their education and developed experience, but they are still able to rapidly develop broad skill sets as well as the personal characteristics that make them able to pivot. Later in their careers, accomplished professionals who stay engaged can draw on personal resources and vast amounts of contacts to start companies or they might become investors, advisers, or board members for startup founders.

Starting Out

Young investment professionals today typically spend a few years in traditional finance, but the stints are often very short. Consider the paths taken for founding two notable fintech companies: PocketSuite and Grow. Both founded by CFA charterholders, they are among the 34 companies that were founded by CFA charterholders or that have job openings for CFA charterholders on angel funding platform Angellist.com.

PocketSuite founder Samuel Madden, CFA, started as an investment banking analyst at Credit Suisse in 2005, became director of a hedge fund in 2008, and moved on to work as a portfolio manager of a resource-oriented fund, earning the CFA charter in 2012. The following year, he founded PocketSuite, which provides software for client management, scheduling, payments, and accounting for young companies still unable to support a full-time finance team.

The founder of Grow, Kevin Sandhu, CFA, graduated college in 2005; got a position in investment banking at RBC Capital Markets the same year; earned his CFA charter in 2007; took a position in private equity at Connor, Clark & Lunn Financial Group in 2008; and worked in structured finance at Bilfinger Project Investments from 2011 to 2014. In 2014, he founded Grow, described on the company website as a provider of “consumer-facing, white-labelled SaaS [software as a service] solutions to Canadian financial service providers to become fintech providers in their own right.”

In short, as the fintech sector expands, many founders of startups are driven by a motivation to fix what they think is wrong with the way investing is done. This trend (combined with disruptive technologies and the influx of people with tech skills who may lack financial training) means that existing job functions in the investment industry will be increasingly influenced by professionals who don’t have traditional career histories themselves.

Consider the examples of Robinhood Markets and Wealthfront, which cut fees for brokerage and portfolio management services. Robinhood’s founders were six years out of undergrad when they founded the business to lower fees and disrupt the sector. After learning that electronic trading firms pay effectively nothing to place trades, they set up that pay structure for the general public. In 2017, Robinhood boasted 2 million users and 17% month-over-month growth to the capital markets, having raised $110 million at a $1.3 billion valuation of the company.

Dan Carroll founded Wealthfront only five years after completing his BS in finance at the University of Arizona. According to the “origin” story on Wealthfront’s website, when the global financial crisis hit, Carroll was “horrified” by how his family’s financial adviser handled the relationship during the crisis. Carroll translated his observations into Wealthfront, a low-fee online portfolio management application for the investing public. After receiving his first $3 million from angel investors, including the legendary Marc Andreessen, Carroll was joined by a partner, Andy Rachleff, who had been teaching at Stanford after an exit from venture capital firm Benchmark Capital. With Carroll and Rachleff joining forces, $100 million of assets flowed into Wealthfront in the first 13 months. Today, with $9 billion in assets under management, the firm experiences $100 million daily inflows.

Of course, new opportunities aren’t limited to the US. Fintech is expanding in markets around the world. For example, crowdfunding has had double- or even triple-digit growth rates in many markets, ranging from the UK to China. According to industry follower Crowdfund Insider, by 2015, the scope of alternative financing could be measured in per capita terms, with Italy the lowest at under $1 per capita; France, Germany, and Spain around $4; the UK at $71; and the US at $113.

 

Data science is another area in which both new participants and practitioners with some experience are making it up as they go along. Data scientists are entering financial services from math and computer science educational backgrounds, and existing workers are retooling from conventional tools and learning to use machine learning algorithms. Online schools Coursera and Udacity are growing with this demand.

 

Daniel McAuley, CFA, is one of the online schools’ biggest customers. As a manager of data sciences for Wealthfront who hires data scientists for his team, he has a decade of work experience since graduating from Arizona State University, and he finished his MBA at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in 2016. His CFA charter is one of 21 credentials listed on his LinkedIn profile, and most of the others are Coursera courses on data analytics. McAuley’s story is typical of the trend explored in the December 2017 CFA Institute Magazine article “Speaking Data Science with an Investment Accent.”

The Mid-Career Pivot

Mid-career transitions generally happen after 15–30 years. These professionals shift into fintech for a variety of reasons, such as seeking to use new technology to solve a problem they experienced in traditional finance or being pushed into the field by financial disruption.

One example of a mid-career switcher is Stephen Geyen, CFA. “I made the transition from a 15-year [role as a] sell-side equity bank analyst to leading a data science team at a mid-cap-sized credit union as VP, Business Intelligence, three years ago,” he says. “It’s been a fascinating transition.”

Daniel Pickett, CFA, demonstrates how different experiences can lead in surprising directions as a career evolves. “I left my programming job to become a bond trader,” he says. “I left my bond trading job, where I was the de-facto ‘guy who talks to IT,’ to lead the data science team at a startup. We are launching a futures contract on truckload freight prices!”

 

Fintech founders are more likely to be mid-career movers because finance, like biotech and space technology, requires a high level of technical knowledge as well as business skills. On average, startup founders take the entrepreneurial leap at about the age of 40. Research published by career scholar and entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa in 2013 showed that twice as many startup founders were older than 50 compared with those younger than 25. Fintech experts among online influencers are similarly mature.

Clare Flynn Levy is a good example. She had established a successful hedge fund, but as the research into behavioral finance advanced, she could see that she was flying blind in much of her investing. Levy could spend the time investing or thinking about how her decisions were patterned while she ran the fund. After a successful few years, she shut the fund, and her next step was to create the technology to solve her problem. Her firm, Essentia Analytics, runs analytics on behavioral data through the company’s award-winning application that analyzes investment managers’ decisions. Managers send all transactions through the application, and the previously invisible patterns can be seen and acted on.

Late-Stage Innovators

The random-walk career path is not only the vision of the young. For older investment professionals, retiring to play golf and invest one’s own portfolio is becoming less and less the norm.

Some late-career professionals are also feeling the siren call of problems to be solved. Scott MacKillop retired after a 25-year career in pension consulting. During his career, he drove the innovation for pension consultants to create and manage portfolios and investment instruments for independent financial advisers. Less than a year into his retirement, MacKillop founded First Ascent Asset Management, which has been described by headlines as applying “shock-and-awe pricing” to the field. Charging a flat fee of $500 per account regardless of size is First Ascent’s disruptive move, because, as MacKillop has been quoted saying, technology and efficient processes mean “it takes no more work to manage a $1 million portfolio than a $100 million portfolio.” Once advisers believed this too-good-to-be-true change was real, they began signing up in droves.

Plan to Adapt, Adapt to Plan

Predicting the future of careers in today’s investment world is risky because so many things are in flux. Today’s visible trends tend to shift quickly, and the implications for careers at different stages are equally difficult to foresee. So-called soft skills may become as important as “hard” investment skills and experience. For career success, investment professionals will need to see changes as opportunities, and knowing how to retool or at least apply financial knowledge and experience in new ways may be as important as conventional expertise has been until now.

About the Author

Cynthia Harrington CFA

Cynthia Harrington, CFA, is principal at Cynthia Harrington & Associates, a Los Angeles-based firm that provides executive coaching for investment professionals.