Call me brave, call me stupid, but in my 16 year banking career I’ve taken two long career breaks.
The first time I took a break was in 2001. My daughter had just been born and I thought it would be nice to bond with her. I’d planned to take three months out, I ended up being out for around 10 months.
I was a contractor, so you could argue that it made it easier for me step down, but as any contractor will know – there’s always a risk involved. I’d been a hardcore developer with Credit Suisse and although I was enjoying it, I wasn’t sure it was what I wanted long term. As well as getting to know my daughter, I spent those 10 months reassessing what I did want to do – and developing a web application which I managed to sell over a number of years subsequently.
During that first break, I figured I’d like to do something that involved management rather than just development - this would probably mean I’d need to be a permanent member of staff somewhere. I interviewed with a few banks and the most interesting offer came from Credit Suisse – they were looking for someone to start in an exciting new department called, ‘Derivatives IT.”
I accepted and began managing a team of two people. I ended up managing a team of 300.
Technology in banking has changed - now, it's all about regulation
I spent the next 14 years effectively managing Credit Suisse’s IT business through huge amounts of growth and change – much of it imposed by regulators. It was incredibly interesting: we built the technology to underpin the derivatives business pretty much from scratch and constantly adapted it to the demands of the FCA, MiFID, Dodd Frank etc.
By 2015, however, I was starting to feel like I was revisiting old territory. When I first started at Credit Suisse, the idea was to have three global derivative trade stores - one for trades, one for risk results and one for cash. In 2015, these stores were complete and adapting to regulatory requirements. The next vision was to have a store to hold all the trades in the bank. I felt at this time, I would be reliving my career path and decided to look around the bank for other roles. I couldn’t see any other roles I’d like to go into, so I decided to plan my exit and take a break
Is it scary stepping out? Well, I’ve always been a bit of a ‘squirreler,’ so that makes things easier. I never spend all the money I earn and I always take risks with that in mind. Yes, there’s always an issue of how long you’re going to take out and whether the market will accept you back again, but from my perspective that didn’t feel like too much of a problem.
I left Credit Suisse in May 2015. I’ve therefore been on my latest career break for a little over 12 months. I’ve been weighing up what I want to do, and retraining.
With time to reflect, I’ve concluded that banking has changed. Regulatory pressure has become a big issue in banking. The work done by people like me has become a lot more about what you need to do to meet regulatory requirements rather than what can be done to add value. In the past, my career was about working with the front office to see what could be done to increase their output. That came with a sense of fulfilment. Now, it’s much more about meeting the next regulatory deadline.
And you need to motivate people through periods of intense change...
At the same time, as banks get smaller, it’s become harder to get promoted. Pay is coming down, and you’re working harder. One minute you’re managing a team near to you and the next your development function has been moved to far off locations – you’re then downsizing in one place and upsizing somewhere else and you need to manage all this change and still hit deadlines without people becoming demotivated.
Managing people in finance technology has never been harder, and from what I see from the outside, there seems to be fewer really interesting opportunities; it seems to be mainly contractors and external consultants managing change programmes enforced by the regulators. I hope this changes as I really enjoyed my career in banking.
I’ve therefore spent seven months of my most recent career break retraining as a coach. I think this will make me a better manager of technologists – and not just in the traditional banking sector. After taking time out, I’ve realized that I’m also interested in other areas like start-ups and maybe even corporates.
The banking industry is always changing. Voluntarily taking time out is always a risk, but it also provides an opportunity to take stock of your career and to work out where you really want to go next. For me, it’s a strategy that’s proven invaluable and that I’d recommend to anyone.
Nicholas Foster blogs at develite.com. He was most recently director of the derivatives change management program at Credit Suisse.
Photo credit: colorful parachute by Adam Mikiciuk is licensed under CC BY 2.0.