You want to rise to the top in banking technology – what’s the best way to start and shape your career?
There’s the traditional route (an IT-focused graduate training programme followed by promotions within tech teams) and there’s the more diverse path taken by Michael Dargan, Standard Chartered’s Singapore-based CIO of corporate and institutional banking.
Dargan’s first job after graduating from the University of Oxford in 1999 wasn’t in technology and it wasn’t even in banking – he joined consultancy Oliver Wyman.
“I went there because I knew I wanted to focus on financial services and in contrast to the other consulting firms, it specialises in the finance sector,” explains Dargan, who eventually moved to Singapore with Wyman as head of corporate and institutional banking for Asia Pacific.
He adds: “Working in consulting gives you a good grounding in financial services because all your clients are in the sector, while in investment banking they can be from a variety of industries.”
Ultimately, however, Dargan’s time consulting for banks made him want to work for one. In 2005 he moved to Merrill Lynch to head up its new corporate strategy team in Asia Pacific.
Into investment banking
“As a consultant you’re purely an advisor, you make recommendations – I wanted to be a practitioner, I wanted to be doing it. It was an exciting job – Merrill was making acquisitions in Asia: buying a bank in India, doing deals in China and a joint venture in Japan,” says Dargan.
His job expanded further when he was put in charge of all the bank’s markets outside the US. “But in 2008, boom turned to bust and I was suddenly working on divestments. I remember being in an office with my boss in New York during a business trip when we found out the gravity of the situation.”
Dargan had to stay in New York for several months in the midst of the financial crisis to help with the Asian aspects of the Bank of America/Merrill Lynch merger. “It was a very difficult time with a lot of all-nighters. There were daily calls with the Fed and integration calls with Bank of America seven days a week. I was dealing with people from legal, operations – all over the bank.”
But he has no regrets about toughing it out. “Looking back from a personal perspective, while it was the hardest experience of my career, it was among the best because it prepared me well for any challenges I faced later.”
In 2009 Dargan made his next move – to Standard Chartered as head of strategy for global markets.
“I’d been in Asia for about seven years and wanted to stay in the region. The markets there continued to out-perform and it made sense to be at an Asia-focused bank which was picking up good people from the likes of Lehman and Merrill. That still holds true today – our global business is centred in Asia. I sit on the same floor in Singapore as the global heads of financial markets, corporate finance and transaction banking.”
Four years after joining Stan Chart Dargan made the massive career change that took him into tech – he became CIO of the firm’s financial markets business.
Technology comes calling
“I could have continued into other business roles. But I thought about how I could make the most amount of difference to the bank – and I decided that was in a leadership role in technology and operations. I wanted people to come together to make things better for our clients. At the end of the day, banking is technology.”
Joining the tech team after a career in investment banking strategy was a “huge move” which came with a “steep learning curve”, says Dargan. “Some of my direct reports had been working in tech for 25 years and here was me talking about creating ‘unique digital experiences’ for our clients.”
Dargan took up his current CIO job in the corporate and institutional bank in October last year and is now tasked with hiring 430 new IT staff for that division, including 300 in Singapore.
Despite having made several successful career changes himself, Dargan says techies should think twice before joining a fintech start-up.
“I can see the career appeal of working for one and building a cool app, but there’s a big risk involved in that move. Additionally, the technology investment and resources available at banks dwarf that of start-ups. Standard Chartered has an overall IT budget of about $1.5bn over three years, and the top-20 banks globally invest more than $40bn a year.”
Meanwhile, Dargan says Stan Chart can also learn lessons from the start-ups. “Can we be as agile as a start-up? Yes and no. We can’t be completely the same, but we can hire the same sort of people and we can take new approaches. We’ve set up an agile space to mimic the start-up environment and we intend to hire for it as soon as possible.”
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