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Finance or Tech: Where Should You Take Your Skills?

By Don Willmott

With top financial and technology firms hungry for computer science and IT talent, you may face some intriguing decisions about your future.

As you try to chart a prosperous career path, two overarching questions are probably percolating in your mind: What skills should I develop, and where should I use them? Since you probably have a good idea of where your personal strengths lie, the question that's most dynamic - meaning it can have a different answer every year, if not every month - is the one about where to put those strengths to work.

In June, Bloomberg News published a fascinating article that had IT professionals talking from Manhattan to Menlo Park. It chronicled how the top tier of young computer science talent is in such demand that America's most successful corporations are tripping over each other to recruit them. These young brains are in the interesting position of choosing between steering their futures toward the tech sector, as represented by Google, or the finance sector, as represented by Goldman Sachs.

It's an intriguing choice: sandals vs. suits, west coast vs. east coast, tie-dye vs. repp tie. When both of these worlds want to pull you in, how do you decide which is right for you?

Bloomberg noted that:

  • The birth rate fell nine percent through the 1990s, meaning fewer graduates will be entering the labor force after 2012.
  • The number of computer science majors has fallen 39 percent since 2001, perhaps because of the dot-com bust plus fears of outsourcing.
  • Employment in financial services rose 37 percent from 1996-2006. There are 830,000 workers in that arena.
  • The securities industry generated 19.5 percent of its net revenue from computerized trading in 2006, up from 12.6 percent in 2005.

The bottom line: Investment banks, retail banks, trading houses and hedge funds need computer science, programming and IT talent now - and will need even more of it in the future, especially if the economy shakes off the current market disturbances. As a result, all this young technical talent have more options now than they did when their focus was simply on Silicon Valley. No matter the skill set, undergrads and MBA students pick Google as the number one and Goldman Sachs as the number three places they'd want to work, according to a Universum Communications poll. (McKinsey & Co. is number two.)

So, what do you think? Tech or finance? Let's compare.

Getting In

Either way, it's tough. Although talent is in short supply, top firms aren't easing up on their standards. (Remember when Google posted complex mathematical problems on California highway billboards to attract applicants back in 2004?) At Goldman, only five percent of applicants make it through the hiring process. Those are long odds, no matter how good you are.

Skills Needed

Here's how Google describes the type of Software Engineer it's looking for:

  • BS or MS in Computer Science or equivalent (Ph.D. a plus).
  • Several years of software development experience.
  • Extensive experience programming in C++ and/or Java.
  • Enthusiasm for solving interesting problems.
  • Experience with Unix/Linux or Windows environments, C++ development, distributed systems, machine learning, information retrieval, network programming and/or developing large software systems a plus.

"Ph.D. a plus?" Whether it's tech or finance, don't expect to get very far in the recruitment process unless you have a graduate degree and a galaxy of gold stars on your resume.

The Work

Celine Fung, whose computer science and electrical engineering background has led her from a summer job at a tech firm to her current position in quantitative analysis and risk assessment at a hedge fund, makes an important point about a big difference between tech and finance positions. "When I worked in research at the tech firm, I only saw small pieces of huge projects that might involve hundreds of people. I didn't get to see the big picture, she says. "In the finance industry, it's more likely that you'll have responsibility for an entire project much more quickly." In tech, she adds, "it takes a long time to rise up the ranks to have full responsibility for a project and to get more exposure to the higher levels of understanding about the products and the market."

The Money

Given the stock option culture in which many people now work, it's hard to pin down just how well successful IT experts can do in tech vs. finance. Fung says that in finance, salaries are often augmented by potentially huge annual bonuses, which can represent a "substantial portion" of annual compensation. On the other hand, a stock-rich tech firm like Google is more likely to reward employees with options. "They can rise through the roof if things go well," says Fung, "but the annual cash bonus will be only a small fraction of the salary." Either way, it's easy to see why top-tier firms draw a crowd of applicants.

The Workplace Environment

In the dot-com days, Silicon Valley firms got lots of attention for creating free-wheeling, post-college environments. They were supposed to be so much fun, no one would ever want to leave work. Today, Google offers flexible work hours (in part because Bay-area commuting is so tough), but also provides so many on-site perks and services - free gourmet food, dry cleaning, massages, dental services - that its message is clear: Stay at the office longer. No other tech firm is as generous, but many offer similar perks in an attempt to keep workers on campus.

In the more buttoned-down world of East Coast finance, workers can expect more traditional office trappings, although they also can be augmented with services to free up employees either to achieve a work/life balance - or make more time for work.

Before you start fantasizing about in-office massages, though, concentrate on the hard part: getting in the front door. For example, one look at Goldman Sachs' recruiting page will give you a good idea of just how serious the firm is about finding the right people and the right fit. You may be smart, but if you want to join break into this league, you're going to have to be exceptional.

Don Willmott is a New York City-based journalist who focuses on Internet and technology trends.

Copyright © 2008, Dice, Inc. Re-print permission granted by Dice, Inc.

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