Hong Kong banks trying (but often failing) to hire from Google and Alibaba

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Finance-sector experience is no longer a must-have for getting a technology job at a large bank in Hong Kong. This year, banks are increasingly trying to poach tech professionals from outside the finance sector, according to 13 senior in-house recruiters (predominately from large banks) who attended a recent roundtable discussion panel organised by eFinancialCareers in Hong Kong.

“We’re no longer just recruiting technologists from banks, because we want more diversity of thought and of background in our teams,” said a delegate from an American bank in Hong Kong. Other attendees, all of whom asked not to be named in this report, said their firms had recently poached tech professionals from sectors that have equally complex IT systems – such as healthcare and aviation.

“Employers in every industry are now hiring technologists from the same pool in Hong Kong,” said a panelist from a second US bank. “Divisions are breaking down between techies from banking and other industries. While in the recent past we wanted candidates who had already worked in finance, now our focus is more on their technical skills.”

The Google problem

Above all, though, banks in Hong Kong want to increase their hiring from actual technology firms: Alibaba, Facebook, Google, Tencent and their ilk. And this is where they admit to facing the most challenges.

“Developers at tech companies work at the heart of their business, but tech roles at banks are often still perceived as back-office,” a delegate from an Asia Pacific bank told the roundtable. “Techies look at us and think they won’t be working directly with the end user, and that doesn’t appeal to them,” added the representative from the second US bank.

Such concerns reflect the findings of a new eFinancialCareers survey, in which Google beat all the leading banks to rank as the top employer that finance sector staff in Asia would most like to work for.

The attendees, however, agreed that the negative perception of banking technology roles does not always reflect the reality of what these jobs involve. Banks need to work harder to counter the worst stereotypes, they added. “Some of our global-markets-driven jobs, for example, are cutting edge, but the belief in the market is generally that banks are too old school when it comes to tech,” said an attendee from a European bank.

Banks’ difficulties in hiring from tech companies are compounded by the growing trend of the same tech firms recruiting from them, often targeting their best young employees in Asia. And banks can’t rely on their previously favoured weapon, compensation, to attract and retain millennial techies. Several roundtable panelists said upping technology pay wasn’t effective against the likes of Google.


Why do large tech firms in Hong Kong often hold the upper hand when competing for millennial talent with banks? “Google, for example, is renowned for things like free food and office slides. While millennials do want to work hard, their workplace environment is also important,” said the representative from the first US bank. “Banks are more restrictive in our office culture, and that’s hard to change.”

Her counterpart at a third American bank added: “A young tech candidate in Hong Kong openly told me, ‘you guys just aren’t cool’ when he recently turned down a good job with us.”

Millennial tech professionals are also put off the banking sector if they don’t think they’ll enjoy the same career progression as front-office bankers do, said the delegate from the European firm. His comments chime with our survey, which found that 80% of millennials in Asia believe that opportunities for promotion are key for an ideal employer to provide.

“We need to give them a clear vision of our technology plans in Asia, and how they fit into them,” added the delegate. “At my bank, too many of the senior managers in technology in Hong Kong are expats, which adds to a perception that promotion opportunities for young locals are limited.”

Banks also face a practical challenge when hiring 20-something tech professionals. “Millennials tend to want things done quickly, but the problem is that banks are too slow in their hiring processes,” explained the attendee from the second American bank. “We’ve had cases where tech candidates have started interviewing with us first, but then tech companies have come in and recruited them while we’ve still been stuck in our hiring process,” added the panelist from the second US firm.

Image credit: georgeclerk, Getty

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