July 12, 2010

Jon Beyman, managing director of operations and technology for the global institutional client group at Citi, has a long track record of driving technology and financial innovation. Before joining Citi in 2008, he was CIO at Credit Suisse, and prior to that he was the long-time CIO at Lehman Brothers, so he has a pretty good perspective on the state of innovation in the U.S. financial services industry. Beyman discusses with Greg MacSweeney, editor-in-chief of Bank Systems & Technology sibling brand Wall Street & Technology, financial firms' search for technology talent and the dangers of the United States falling behind other regions in the race to lead global technology development.

What is the state of technology development in financial services? Are you concerned with the pace and rate of innovation?

BEYMAN: I am most concerned with providing technology solutions that help drive the revenue generation, risk management, efficiency and productivity of the businesses that we support. The technology that I provide needs to be closely aligned with business goals and needs to be aimed at business goals.

A large part of the innovation equation is finding technology talent. Some experts say it is hard to find enough technology talent here in the United States. Are domestic firms having trouble finding qualified technologists?

It is an interesting question. The answer is "no" here at Citi. Honestly, because of the nature of these businesses that we are in and in particular, the trading businesses, it attracts smart people because it pays very well. But to meet my goals, I need great technologists, and I need these technologists to have a lot of domain expertise -- they need financial services knowledge.

For a long time, people have said that the best and brightest technologists have been going to Wall Street in search of wealth rather than pursuing engineering or software development, fields in which their compensation would be lower. Given the struggles and bad publicity the financial industry has experienced in the past two years, will the best and brightest software developers and quants turn away from Wall Street?

I suspect it is too soon to tell. There are always people who are going to make as much money as they can. Wall Street doesn't have the star attraction it had a few years ago, and a lot of what has gone wrong in the economy is being laid at the feet of Wall Street firms.

Certainly there are people who will refuse to work on Wall Street and will work in other industries for less money. But there are also people who are designing systems and technology who say, "I'm just working on technology; I'm not hurting the economy."

If there is a sustained period of time when there is no compensation difference between financial services and a software developer in another industry, then it might become an issue. But that is not the case right now. Financial firms still pay more for technology talent, and I am in a war for talent with other firms. [For more on IT salary and compensation trends in banking and the capital markets, see this month's Special Report for the results of the exclusive InformationWeek Analytics 2010 IT Salary Survey, page 28.]

Do you think the current state of education in the United States is preparing enough software developers/engineers/technologists to sustain technology innovation in the U.S.?

We don't exist in isolation. There are an awful lot of technologists who work in the U.S. and they were not native born. The question is if the combination of people wanting to come to the country and the U.S. graduation rates are enough to sustain the level of innovation domestically. There is a certain level of technology job that can be done anywhere in the world.

My broad answer is, we will always be able to find talented people -- as long as there is no societal restriction on the people getting into this country. But if there was no access to external talent available, I don't think the U.S. schools are training enough qualified people.

What are some of the dangers if the U.S. falls behind in terms of financial innovation?

The only way that would happen would be if there were no way to attract talent to the places where the financial markets are located. But the jobs we are talking about in financial services need to be in certain areas -- where the innovative companies are and where the innovative work is being done. Right now, that is happening in the U.S.

India is not a deep financial liquidity pool, though there is a lot of technology there. The advantage the U.S. has is that it is still the biggest and largest and deepest financial market in the world. As a practical matter, you need to be here both for the business and for certain types of technology development if you are a financial firm. I don't see China or another country becoming a large financial center anytime soon. It could be that other markets grow faster because of regulatory constraints on trading activity or IPOs. But the regulators around the world have learned that the different liquidity centers need to adopt similar rules.

China does not have a deep and liquid capital market. Capitalism works on rewards, and stock markets grow up around where capital providers can build returns on capital. The fear that the financial markets have is not that we are going to lose all business to China. I have not ever heard that expressed. There is a lot of development in China, but there is a lot of Chinese financial investment here in the U.S. because the U.S. has the liquid market.

What are the dangers if the U.S. falls behind in terms of technology innovation?

Technology has been a source of jobs and growth. To the extent that the technology companies are not providing jobs here in the U.S., the threat to the economy is real. You could be talking about removing a large portion of the middle class of the American economy.

This is where you start talking about the role of government in the way it can incent behavior by creating attractive development environments. The schools are here. The role of government is to incent behavior through tax incentives [for] job creation. Look at what goes on in, say, Northern Ireland and in Ireland. The government in Ireland provided incentives to bring development jobs. That was probably at the expense of London. London probably did not provide the same incentives and lost jobs. If it is cheaper for me to develop in Ireland and I get the same results, it's rational to do that.

What should the U.S. government's role be in supporting technology innovation and the financial services industry?

Shutting the door on talented people and not allowing them to come to the U.S., that strikes me as very shortsighted. Not supporting industries that can create jobs for people is shortsighted. Incenting small companies that are innovative to hire and create technology is important.

The Silicon Valley guys will tell you it is bad to have restrictions on visas. The people want to come here. They want to develop new products.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Greg MacSweeney is editorial director of InformationWeek Financial Services, whose brands include Wall Street & Technology, Bank Systems & Technology, Advanced Trading, and Insurance & Technology.