Banks Find It Tough to Attract Top Tech-Industry Talent

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If Capital One can lure a highly regarded expert like Dan Makoski from Google to head up the bank's payment technology development, it stands to reason other banks would do the same.

Maybe. But it won't be easy, experts say.

Makoski left his job as a prominent Silicon Valley application designer at Google last month, stating that he had to follow the money not in what he was earning, but in where creativity will flow in the financial services industry as it relates to mobile commerce and payments.

It was a job move that made the payments industry take notice because it ran counter to the common perception about where tech talent is going.

"If you have a technical hotshot and there is an option of going to a more traditional financial services bank or to Google, that's a pretty hard sell for a financial services company," said Judy Pennington, director of human capital in the financial services industry for Deloitte Consulting LLP.

Google, Apple and other technology giants "have more cachet in the market and it feels cooler to work there because of their different culture," Pennington said.

Even within the financial services industry, there are a growing number of examples of startups such as Bitcoin companies attracting talent from large, entrenched players. One exception might be eBay's 2012 decision to put David Marcus, a startup founder, at the head of its PayPal business (which was 14 years old at the time), but even this didn't last; just two years later, Marcus is now at the much younger Facebook.

There are other examples of mainstream financial services companies taking talent from the tech industry, such as American Express hiring former Google Wallet exec Nik Sathe to be its chief technology officer in February. But despite banks' aggressive efforts to go after tech talent, these instances are not the norm.

"Unfortunately I can't think of any other individuals recently hired by banks, but instead have just been observing a change in bank mindset that they need to be more flexible and creative," said Christine Barry, research director for Boston-based Aite Group.

Some banks have said they base their branch design on Apple Stores, or their account fees on Amazon.com's shipping rates. The goal is to provide a user experience similar to what individuals experience in their personal technology, Barry said.

To get a better handle on technology trends, banks are starting to send executives to conferences that feature emerging startups, Barry added.

"For the last few years, most banks have been ignoring the threat of non-bank providers [that are] increasingly offering bank-like products, especially in the payments space," she said. "This is beginning to change."

But there are obstacles to overcome if banks want to infuse their ranks with fresh, tech-savvy talent.

Young technology experts may be leery of entering financial services because of the industry's negative image following the recession, Pennington said. "They very much want to be working for companies that are doing good things," she said.

Luring top technology talent into the financial services industry to launch a new mobile payments offerings is easier than keeping that talent at the bank over time, Pennington said.

"The retention issue is important, because they have to attract someone to the organization and make sure they are doing the kind of work they want to do, and what they are doing is recognized," Pennington added.

Because technology experts tend to work on projects that are sometimes "on the edge," the result may not always be what the bank was seeking, Pennington said. The bank and the employee must communicate ahead of time about how these situations will be handled, she added.

Still, the opportunities in banking for technology experts "are huge," Barry said. "Bank technology is ready for a paradigm shift and these developers can play a critical role in helping banks think outside of the box."

Most banking technology looks "archaic" compared to what is being offered by tech companies, she added.

"If banks want to position themselves for future success and to win the business of young people, they have to start adopting some of the practices of tech companies that encourage greater creativity."

Capital One did not respond to a request to interview Makoski or comment on his hiring.

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