How to Land a Technology Job on Wall Street: Inside an Elite Wall Street IT Education

By Ivy Schmerken, Wall Street & Technology
31 May 2012

Despite the view that the U.S. economy is sluggish and it’s hard for new college graduates to get a job, financial services firms are hiring. In fact, top Wall Street companies are reaching out to the elite colleges in a huge way to bring in the best and brightest graduates whom they can groom to fit their cultures.

Campus recruiting at the top universities in computer science, engineering and other technology-related majors has become increasingly important for building a leading-edge capital markets firm, technology executives tell Wall Street & Technology. With the rise of social media, mobile apps and other innovative technologies, firms are looking to the colleges as a rich source of young IT talent.

When Blackstone Group, an investment and advisory firm known for its work in private equity and alternative asset management, hired William Murphy as its chief technology officer in September 2011, one of his first initiatives was to start an on-campus recruiting program. “I started a program on Day One,” says Murphy, who targets the top tech schools on the East Coast, including Carnegie Mellon, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), the University of Pennsylvania (his alma mater) and, locally, the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J.

But searching for the best technology talent is not clear-cut. “It’s not an exact science, and it’s very competitive,” acknowledges Murphy. “We’re trying to compete for the folks who are going to dot-coms and Google and Facebook and the tech start-ups.”

Finding good IT talent always is difficult, says Jeff Shoreman, COO of ConvergEx’s Eze Castle Software, maker of the Eze OMS. “Hiring and retaining talent is probably one of our biggest challenges every year.” Focusing its campus recruiting efforts in the New England region, Eze Castle hires graduates from colleges such as Bates and Bowdoin, and Brown and Yale in the Ivy League, as well as from technical schools such as Northeastern and Carnegie Mellon.

Fresh Thinking

While financial services firms continue to hire more experienced professionals, hiring newly minted graduates has its advantages, Blackstone’s Murphy notes. “Getting people out of school enables you to help grow their careers in the culture you want to build,” he says.

Steve Rubinow, CIO of FX Alliance, a leading electronic marketplace for trading foreign exchange, admits that he likes to “steal away” top people at other firms. But, he says, “I love to hire bright young people who are inquisitive and have knowledge about computer technology. They are not encumbered by the old ways of doing things. They bring in fresh ways of thinking.”

On Rubinow’s list of go-to universities are the top-rated computer science schools — the University of California at Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, MIT and the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, his alma mater. But rather than hire the bottom of the class at these top schools, Rubinow suggests, it’s also “logical” to hire the top of the class at the second-tier engineering schools. “There is a lot of competition at the MIT and Stanford levels, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with going to the other schools and looking for their best and brightest,” he argues.

Sapient Global Markets, a provider of consulting services to capital markets and commodities organizations, also is an active recruiter on college campuses. “I look at campus hiring as sort of the future in hiring good technology people,” comments Ed Ryan, Sapient director of hiring in North America, Europe and Asia Pacific. In 2011, Sapient brought on 40 graduates from among 1,000 applicants from target universities in North America and Europe. After screening out those who didn’t fit, Sapient interviewed the top tier, explains Ryan. “We hired the best people we could find and trained them up,” he says.

But to fill its hiring needs, Sapient has to cast a wider net, since, Ryan says, fewer of the top students pursue the computer science major in the wake of the dot-com bust in 2000. As a result, Sapient hires from a broader population of majors. Ryan singles out Rice University for its strong energy program. “If I could hire someone at Rice, I would hire them based on their cognitive abilities,” he explains.

Culture Over Code

Regardless of what degree they earn, or where they earn it, graduates must have certain skills to join Wall Street IT organizations. While capital markets CIOs and CTOs typically want IT candidates to know specific languages, however — Java and C++ are the most prevalent in the capital markets, says FX Alliance’s Rubinow — the so-called hard IT skills are not the only sought-after skills. Today, with the emphasis on collaboration and team and fitting into a firm’s culture, the so-called soft skills are gaining greater attention. “Good communication, operating under conflict and influence management are skills that no one will mention, but that are critical to managing a big company,” insists Rubinow, who previously was the CIO of NYSE Euronext.

Several Wall Street CIOs downplayed the importance of knowing a specific computer language, contending that the students with the right aptitude can learn on the job. “The No. 1 thing we’re looking for is the ability to learn and the ability to work hard,” relates Blackstone’s Murphy, who says he places more of an emphasis on team skills and aptitude, and less focus on, “Can they write 20 lines of code?” But, obviously, Murphy adds, candidates need to be able to do both.

And while a lot of people focus too much on a candidate’s G.P.A., Murphy says he uses grades as a proxy for “Are they willing to work hard?” and not necessarily if they have the skills they need to work today. “We try to focus on people with a lot of raw ability and train them as we need to. It’s less important that graduates have to know a specific algorithm than that they are someone you would want to sit next to eight hours a day,” he relates.

“Basic computer science and other engineering-like problem-solving skills are the most important,” Murphy continues. “The more hard coding skills and experience they have, the better. But the specific languages are not important.”

Finally, Murphy says, he looks for people who can collaborate and who don’t have a sense of entitlement. “People should be humble, and understand they have a lot to learn,” he says. “Those are the real diamonds.”

Sapient’s Ryan notes that while Java and Microsoft .NET are “hot” languages, anyone with a visualization background and familiarity with apps and interfaces is a potential hire. Sapient even hired an English major “whose aptitude to learn and people skills are fantastic,” Ryan says.

Collaborative skills are huge if a hire is going to be working in team dynamics, adds Ryan, who looks at whether new graduates can function in a team environment, can give feedback and how comfortable they are around people. “The days of the standard technology person who locked himself in a room and pumped out code for 24 hours is going away,” he says.

When it comes to hiring developers, Eze Castle typically looks for computer science and computer engineering graduates, but the software company will hire history and English majors, as well. “What we’re really hiring is people who have the right aptitude to learn the technology,” explains the company’s Shoreman.

Borrowing a page from Google and other Silicon Valley companies, Eze Castle tests candidates’ aptitude by asking them case-type questions and logic questions to gauge how they troubleshoot and solve problems. “To us, that’s a key skill you need,” Shoreman insists. “Can you think on your feet?”

Reaching to Fill the IT Talent Pipeline

While the hiring process at Wall Street firms is extremely selective, recruiting the creme of the crop from the best schools has become so competitive that some firms have taken matters into their own hands, introducing their own training and development programs. In 2003, Eze set up a Leadership Development Program to meet the firm’s technology hiring needs and staff the company’s major teams, including business consultants who work on implementations and service clients.

Prior to introducing the program, the software company struggled to find graduates who had both technical and industry knowledge, explains COO Shoreman. The Leadership Development Program, he says, teaches recent hires the specific software and technology skills they need at the company.

The program typically lasts one to three years. Many graduates work with Eze’s consulting teams, which perform implementations, upgrades, troubleshooting and customization for clients at investment management firms and hedge funds. Last year, Shoreman says, Eze Castle hired 50 individuals into the program.

To woo top IT recruits, some firms fly them to exotic locales for training. Sapient Global Markets flies its new college hires to its Global Markets Institute in India, where they live together for 12 weeks. According to the firm’s Ryan, the program emphasizes technology, project management and general advisory consulting, and then blending that altogether into what the firm calls “survivor skills.”

To hone their skills further, they are given a project to work on as a team. “They see the bigger picture,” and they see how dynamic it is working in capital markets consulting, Ryan says. And the opportunity to spend three months overseas, sit next to someone who is from Germany, Boston, the U.K. and Singapore, for example, is exciting for students who are internationally minded, he adds.

To fill the IT pipeline, firms also are diversifying their recruiting efforts geographically. For example, Eze Castle, whose main development center is in Boston, set up a near-shore development center in Alpharetta, Ga., near Georgia Tech and other computer engineering schools. “One of the drivers for doing that is that it’s hard to recruit developers in Boston and the Northeast,” explains the firm’s Shoreman.

But it’s also a plus in attracting candidates from other regions, he adds. “We have people who are applying to work in Atlanta from around the country.”

As firms see more demand out of the general economy, Sapient’s Ryan says, hiring is going to pick up, and campus recruiting for technology talent will heat up for the fall. So while the media is abuzz with stories of graduates languishing in unemployment, the top students are starting to get multiple offers in the capital markets. In fact, to beat the competition, Ryan reveals, Sapient meets with graduating seniors in October and ideally makes them offers before Christmas.