This edition of GLOCAL Careers was originally published in the GLOCAL Alumni newsletter on December 10th, 2020.
The GLOCAL Careers series investigates what it takes to work in different sectors relevant to the programme. Through interviews with academics, industry professionals and GLOCAL alumni, we share first-hand insight on application processes, necessary skills and other considerations when choosing your career.
In this quarter’s fintech edition we interviewed Diego and Shreya, GLOCAL alumni who embarked on a career in the sector this year. If you’re wondering how the programme can translate to fintech, or simply how to choose your next step after graduation, then be sure to check them out!
We also spoke to Pedro, an experienced professional working for fintech start-up Penta in Berlin. He offers a fantastic analysis of the sector as a whole, as well as advice on finding your place in an exciting field designed to disrupt the world’s oldest institutions.
Interviewee: Pedro Bergmann, Product Operations Lead @ Penta
Interview by: Annie Heslinga
Before joining Penta, Pedro worked with various international banks and fintech companies.
Born in Germany and raised in Seattle and Honolulu, Pedro began his career in the wealth management department of First Hawaiian Bank, the largest bank in the state of Hawaii. He moved to Berlin in early 2018 to work for N26, a German neobank, where he took over responsibility for Payment Operations – and built up a team of 6+ analysts to lead the execution of banking processes related to SEPA and the German market. Pedro then moved to a project-oriented role with N26 and, together with the Banking Operations management team, he successfully adapted processes for the launch of N26 in the US, before joining Penta as the Product Operations Lead.
Can you tell us a little about your company and describe your role in 2-3 sentences?
I work for a Penta, a digital neobank for SMEs operating in the German market. Our mission is to offer a one-stop shop financial platform for small to medium-sized businesses. Historically, the business banking market, especially in Germany and throughout Europe, is known to be pretty legacy heavy and entrenched. It’s difficult and quite bureaucratic for businesses to open up a bank account. We’re on a mission to make that easy and to offer a core product that consists of a bank account and all the classic functionality that you would have with a business bank account. We’re building a financial platform that will allow anybody who runs a business to really focus on their business and not worry about their financials.
I currently work as the product operations lead at Penta. Product operations can mean something different from company to company, but basically what I do is I work within the product team to enable product managers to build up the platform. In a classical tech company, a product manager is usually someone who’s responsible for one area of the platform or the product. I’m not the product manager per se, in that I have my own team of developers, , but rather I work with all the different product managers to help them solve problems. I am a sort of cross functional stakeholder to outside departments and also to stakeholders external to the company. If I had to describe my job in a phrase, I would say that I am a Swiss army knife; I wear many different hats, and help teams collaborate across the company by implementing cross-functional processes. This also means that I drive bigger initiatives that don’t necessarily fit into one individual product domain.
Can you give us a general understanding of the fintech ‘ecosystem’, are fintech opportunities mainly in start-ups or are there other avenues to work in the industry?
You can look at the fintech ecosystem on different levels. On a macro global level, it’s a very big industry that is spread around the world. Then even going down to a continental level or a country level, fintech is still a very broad catch all term, referring to a range of financial business models that are trying to disrupt finance. That can take many different forms; this it’s a very big field, and there are a large number of legacy areas that are ripe for disruption. On the one hand you have companies offering bank accounts for people like you and me, if you want to have a bank account on your smartphone, you have companies trying to make it easier for merchants to accept payments. You also have other companies that are making easier for people to get loans. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
In other words, the fintech ecosystem is very big and it’s still relatively young given how big finance is and how big the old legacy players are. You’re still seeing most of the opportunities in early or mid-stage startups. There are a lot of really successful fintech companies that have been around for quite some time. Obviously, you have players like PayPal, who are not startups anymore. They’re pretty corporate companies; but I think the most exciting opportunities are still in sort of early to mid-stage startups, meaning companies that are 1-7 years of age. That’s where the most innovation is happening right now, and that’s where I would advise people to look if they’re trying to work in the FinTech sector.
What makes the European FinTech industry special compared to developments in other parts of the world, say North America or Asia. One thing that is special about the European fintech ecosystem is that it is doing really well in a global context. You can see this in market indicators, like funding and how European fintech companies are doing with investment. Some of the biggest investors, VC firms, are looking to Europe and investing in these companies. They have really exciting founders and entrepreneurs, especially here in Berlin, but also in London, Paris, and in Barcelona.
Another thing that makes Europe stand out is the relative diversity that you have in the different countries. You really do have local markets with different financial habits. For example, Germans are notoriously very conservative with their finances; they are very careful when it comes to investing. Germans act differently from people in Italy or Spain or France, so you have unique opportunities in each of those different markets.
There are also different regulatory environments in each of those markets to consider. This is even more so the case than in the U.S. where you have a federal set of laws that regulate finance. In Europe, you do have a federal set of laws that are set out by the ECB, but then you also have pretty diverse local regulations. That means that there are more opportunities and also more challenges in Europe because if you want to launch a product throughout Europe, you have to adapt it and localize it to all these different markets. That’s not an easy thing to do and requires hiring a diverse team of people that know how to build the product and launch it in those different markets.
I think if you’re comparing the U.S. and the European fintech ecosystem, there are some really interesting differences. On the one hand, in the U.S. it’s really hard to get a full banking license. The regulatory environment is actually more complex in some ways. If you’re a young fintech company, and you want to build some type of consumer product, you usually have to partner with a bigger player to make that possible. As opposed to Europe, where in some markets, it is easier to get a banking license. For example, Lithuania offers a pretty easy paths to banking licenses, especially for digital startups. The good thing about Europe is that once you’ve got a banking license in one country, you can usually passport it to other countries. On the regulatory side, it’s a bit easier in Europe, but localization is harder obviously because everyone speaks different languages and has different habits. At least, that is what I have observed while working at a company that was active in both Europe and the U.S.
What appeals to you about the fintech sector?
At its core, what most FinTech companies are doing is they’re trying to disrupt one of the oldest and most entrenched institutions in human history, finance. While fintech companies might offer different products and try to go about that mission in different ways, most of them are trying to make finance more transparent, accessible, and more affordable by using technology and applying it to existing ways of doing things that are inefficient or outdated. I think that’s pretty exciting, and one of the main reasons I enjoy what I do. I also think there’s still so much to innovate and to disrupt. We’re just at the beginning, especially when you look at some of the exciting work companies have started in the field of banking and payment infrastructure.
What skills and experience are useful/in demand in the fintech sector, particularly for those with non-technical backgrounds?
When focusing on non-technical backgrounds, soft skills, like communication, empathy, and being able to put yourself in the customer’s shoes are really important. Being able to understand a problem that a user might have, and then being able to communicate that effectively and apply solutions. I have a business degree and I’ve slowly drifted over to a bit more of a technical role. As someone that has come from a non-technical background, I think soft skills really helped me a lot.
I also think the personal value system that drives you to work in this field is important. Being able to raise your hand and not being afraid to ask questions and learn from people who might have a more technical background; that’s quite important. Understanding the global and the local context is also really important. Especially in Europe, understanding different cultures, different markets and how different people interact with each other can help you to make universal products.
Has a master’s degree in social and political sciences helped you in your role? How might a recruiter interpret an international master’s called ‘Global Markets, Local Creativities’ in your sector?
Especially applying it to the European market, I definitely think a curriculum focused on different hubs and different ecosystems can definitely be a big asset. Most tech startups have many different teams, teams for tech, engineering, product design, but then you also have HR, finance, sales, partnerships. Especially in non-technical roles, someone with a global background could excel. A recruiter could look favorably upon a degree like GLOCAL, especially when it comes to recruiting for those non-technical types of roles.
I think there’s often heavy bias in the way that many startups hire, usually depending on the background of the founders. In some of these companies, unfortunately, you see that their hiring pipeline is heavily male dominated with investment banking or consultant backgrounds. At the end of the day, these companies don’t tend to innovate, and end up producing the same products that other companies do. One of the most inspiring things that I’ve seen working in fintech is people that came from left field or people that started as an intern and moved up to senior role within a short amount of time. That’s the type of professional opportunity that only a startup can give you.
When I recruit people, I’m always looking for someone with a bit of a different background, that doesn’t necessarily fit into that classical mold. I think we need more people with varied backgrounds, not just classical finance and business backgrounds, and I think the GLOCAL programme could definitely cater to that.
What is your advice for GLOCALs who would like to kick start their career in the fintech sector?
If you want to work in fintech, it’s important to do your research. Learn the markets, try to pinpoint your motivations, where you want to work, and why you want to work there. Then try to find a company that also fits your values and your value system. Look for an opportunity in that company to do an internship or jump in at an entry level position to test the waters. I would always advise someone to start at an early-stage company. Even if it means lower pay and there’s more risk of the company going under, I think it’s such a valuable experience. At an early-stage company, you can start anywhere, and you can end up anywhere. You’re given the opportunity to do things because the reality is that all early- stage companies are under-resourced. You have a chance to prove yourself, and really expand your skills.
Technical skills also never hurt. Nowadays there are so many courses free or quite affordable online that teach key skills, like SQL, and how databases work, or basic coding and data analytics, or even Excel. These are basic, foundational skills that you can learn on your own time. These skills will always help catch the eye of a recruiter looking at your CV.
Interviewee: Shreya roy choudhury, associate product manager at cermati.com, glocal alumni (2017-2019)
Interview by: Christina Kopanou
Can you tell us a little about your company and describe your role in 2-3 sentences?
Cermanti.com is a fintech financial aggregator start up – it offers it’s customers the possibility to compare financial products, insurance, credit cards and facilitates application of these products.
As an Associate Product Manager, my main responsibilities are:
- To handle the existing products and develop new according to business requirement
- Design products with the engineering team Monitor the product after it has been launched
- To give us a general understanding of the fintech ‘ecosystem’, are fintech opportunities mainly in start-ups or are there other avenues?
Based on observation, I believe there are also fintech opportunities both in venture capital firms and more mature corporations.
What makes the European FinTech industry special compare to developments in other parts of the world, say North America or Asia?
In Indonesia the fintech landscape is based on imitating products, developing similar products to competitors. I believe Europe is more niche, more specific and the business model focuses on product differentiation. In Asia the focus is on cost cutting. Of course, there are many regional variations with Hong Kong being ahead of the game.
What appeals to you in the fintech sector?
I was mostly drawn to product manager role rather than the fintech sector. The product manager role is dynamic and interdisciplinary role which includes business development, marketing. I would argue that it is a bridge that connects everything and drive change in the organisation.
Due to my business management background fintech was a natural sector choice for me. I also wanted to better understand how it can be used as an economic development tool.
What skills and experience are useful/in demand in the fintech sector, particularly for those with a non-technical background?
I would say the most important skill is to have ownership-be able to make decisions and drive things. Then, problem solving, framework thinking and communications skills are all very important. Glocal was really helpful in terms of developing communication skills, critical thinking and cultural exposure.
In terms of experience entrepreneurial roles (small start up, or owning a company), research roles, consulting would be helpful.
Can a masters degree in social and political sciences have helped you in your role? How might a recruiter interpret an international master’s called ‘Global Markets, Local Creativities’ in your sector?
It’s very country specific. Glocal’s interdisciplinary nature was appreciated in Asia. It’s not so much because of the knowledge but more about the soft skills your learn.
What is your advice for GLOCALs who would like to kick start their career in the fintech sector?
Learn a query language (ex, SQL), brush up on presentation skills, learn adobe photoshop and data visualisation tools.
Interviewee: Diego Mendez, EXternal dispute resolutions at revolut, glocal alumni (2017-2019)
Interview by: Robin Lee
I remember in one of the lectures in Göttingen, Prof. Froese asked the class that if we had to choose between working in an American, German or Russian company, which one would we go for – and why?
About a third of the class stated they would go for an American company. Some said it was because they wanted to move the US and others said that because American companies generally paid better. The rest of the class said they would prefer to work for a German company, either because they felt comfortable with the way German companies operate or because of the benefits they offered.
When he asked about working for a Russian company, I was the only one who raised a hand. I explained that applying for an American company was too competitive for my work experience, and that I stood little chance of working for a German company as I don’t speak the language. I reasoned that for the job at the Russian company there would be much less competition. I would probably get the position and I could even negotiate the salary.
It was then I realized that I needed to be strategic in my choices. For example, after graduation I thought it might serve me well to quickly find an entry level position and work my way up from there. Another consideration was that to stay in Europe I would need sponsorship, which many companies are wary of providing due to the costs and paperwork involved. As it turned out, Revolut Krakow ticked both of these boxes and I soon found myself beginning a career in FinTech.
At Revolut I have met many people from different backgrounds and come to realise that the nature of your degree matters less than your experience in the professional world. I had often wondered how heads of departments get to where they are, jumping to different companies while holding to on to their titles. I found that it isn’t a single factor, but a combination of experience, skillsets, and in some cases degrees that account for successfully climbing the ladder. No one really tells us this when we’re studying, and we only figure it out once we’re in the field. Once that idea had settled in my mind, I couldn’t help but question whether I had made the right choice, as my degree and experience had little to do with my new job.
The truth is, the rightness or wrongness of the choice mattered very little, unless I wanted to change career path (which I did not as I felt I genuinely fit the company). I saw that I was already there and had to work my way up with whatever I had, finding out how to get what I didn’t have along the way. The first and most difficult step had already been taken, and it was time to decide which direction I would take next.
As time passed and I got to know the company, I also understood that the things that I liked even before going to university had changed very little. I still liked to write, I was still sociable, and I still liked math. Most importantly, I also realized along the way that there were many things I did not know I liked, such as the regulatory framework that allows financial institutions to operate, or a fascination with financial crime in digital banking. With this in mind, I decided to remain on this path while keeping an eye out for other things that I might enjoy. I volunteered to work on projects within different departments of the company, some I really enjoyed, and some I did not. When I did not like to work in a specific area, I saw this as an opportunity to learn about myself and what I did not want to do in the future.
In my interview for my latest position at Revolut, I was asked what my career prospects were. I mentioned a couple of paths within specific departments but was very honest to my interviewer and told him that most of the time we find what we do want by trying, and that what we do not want rarely changes. I am more focused on staying away from what I did not want, rather than focusing all my energy on getting something I thought I wanted. We will not always get what we want, and that once we do, there is a chance we may not like it as much as we thought we would. I told him that as a child I wanted to be an Electrician and work with wires, but now I was applying for a position in External Disputes for a FinTech. Things had changed in 20 years, but not because I was someone else, but because I knew myself better.
At this point, you may be wondering where GLOCAL fits in. In my case, aside from grasping the way the EU operates, my studies did not provide specific knowledge needed for the job. However, in terms of teamwork in a multi-cultural environment, “hunger” to constantly tackle loose ends, proactiveness to “get it done” and resilience to not give up even in the most adverse circumstances, it sure made a difference. The GLOCAL experience was a bundle of acquired abilities and knowledge, and it was ultimately those very soft skills that ended up becoming key to my everyday work.
To finish my story, I was offered the new position and am currently quite happy here. It had never crossed my mind that I would be working in this field, but I discovered I liked it along the way. In my opinion, humbleness, accepting new challenges and keeping an open mind are key to finding a job where we feel comfortable and genuinely satisfied. Moreover, we may not always get the job we want straight away, but if we’re patient, we can build towards it.