When you spy a bag of shishito peppers at a community farmers market, you can pay from your smartphone — no cash, no cashier and no till. Need to apply for a loan? You can bypass the brick-and-mortar bank and loan officer and get an answer online in minutes from sites like RocketMortgage.com. With payment apps like ParkMobile, you don’t even have to drop quarters in a parking meter anymore.
This wave of innovations disrupting the financial services sector goes by a name: fintech. Combining the words “financial” and “technology,” fintech comprises the websites, apps and digital products that make conducting transactions more convenient, safer and cheaper for consumers.
Fintech simplifies processes for companies, too. Consider auto insurance companies that use black boxes to track customers’ driving habits and reward safe practices with lower rates. Traditional banking, lending and insurance institutions are embracing the fintech wave to keep clients happy.
More than 120 fintech companies are headquartered in Georgia. Atlanta-based firms handle 70 percent of the credit, debit and prepaid card sales in the nation, hence the city’s nickname, “Transaction Alley.” When a couple in Anytown, Ohio, uses a mobile app to pay their babysitter, chances are an Atlanta company closes the deal in seconds by conducting the security checks and communications that enable the money to clear.
Not surprisingly, more than 40,000 Georgians have already built careers in this field. As companies seek to recruit more fintech-savvy staff, the state is struggling to produce enough talent to meet the exploding demand. Estimates suggest more than 5,000 new fintech positions will hit the job market by 2020. To sustain its status as a global fintech hub, the Georgia must not only provide employment but also prepare the workforce.
In most fields, a seasoned candidate with experience will trump a 22-year-old who’s eager to get his or her feet wet — but not necessarily in fintech.
“We have hired brand new college grads who seemed better suited for us than people with two to five years of experience,” says Amy Zimmerman, head of people operations at Kabbage, an Atlanta-based lender that provides funding to small businesses through an automated platform. “They might have acquired bad habits, or their qualities weren’t as strong or their skills weren’t as sharp as a newer grad.”
James Hart, senior director of people operations at Cardlytics, a purchase intelligence platform, tends to recruit a mix of rookies and veterans.
“The entry-level positions typically come from the Atlanta area,” Hart says. “But we have a good mix of mid-level candidates coming from both inside and outside the region.”
Zimmerman has worked in Atlanta’s tech sphere for the past two decades. Because tech companies keep setting up shop in the city in droves, Kabbage has to compete for cream-of-the-crop talent.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” Zimmerman says. “It’s good for the city. It’s bad because the market is tighter, and there are more attractive options for candidates than there were even a couple years ago.”
Hart has encountered the same issue. The most appealing candidates receive multiple offers. A typical hiring package comprises competitive pay, a 401(k), equity in the company and flexible work arrangements. Cardlytics goes beyond that.
“We have an engaging culture that embraces a ‘GSD’ attitude. That’s short for ‘Get Sh*t Done,’” Hart says. “It creates a certain energy level you can feel as you walk throughout our office and emphasizes that we work hard to play hard.”
However, a hip vibe only goes so far in Atlanta, where there are more opportunities than candidates.
THE CAPITAL OF FINTECH
To address the state’s talent deficit, the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia (USG) introduced the Georgia FinTech Academy this past September. Operating out of the Robinson College of Business, the academy will also offer virtual fintech courses through all 26 USG institutions.
Working alongside Mark Lytle, USG’s former vice chancellor for economic development, academy co-founders Art Recesso, chief innovation officer at USG’s eCampus, and Jim Senn, a professor emeritus at Robinson, conducted more than 50 interviews with fintech executives and talent managers. Their input helped determine how the academy could best redress the business sector’s growing pains.
“‘Relentless competition’ defines the fight for talent at all ranks, including top leadership positions,” Senn says. “This is why developing ‘fintech-ready’ professionals is our number one priority at the Georgia FinTech Academy.”
Academy leaders have developed the Fintech Knowledge Core, a trio of classes that complement areas of study like software development, cybersecurity and computer science. The first class, Fundamentals of Fintech, debuted this past fall at Georgia State. The other two, Financial Technologies and Fintech & Commercial Banking, will be introduced in January. Columbus State University will introduce the core in the spring, while Georgia Tech, the University of Georgia, Kennesaw State University and Augusta University are slated to follow by fall 2019. The academy expects to release its most successful classes in digital format across all USG institutions by next fall as well.
Providing cutting-edge classes is only one piece of the puzzle. The most precocious new hires bring gumption and practicality to the table as well — hallmarks of a Georgia State education.
For example, Adonis Ayeva, a junior finance major at Robinson, has pursued as many extracurricular fintech opportunities as he can find. He hasn’t just taken five electives on the topic. He also participates in Georgia State’s Quantitative Trading Club, where members meet weekly to share foreign exchange market strategies. Earlier this semester, he traveled to Silicon Valley with Robinson’s Panthers in the Valley program as well.
While on that four-day Silicon Valley excursion, Ayeva visited tech companies like Airbnb, Facebook and Niantic Labs and attended critical networking sessions. He even invited a machine learning engineer from the online commerce company Stripe to attend a Panthers in the Valley reception in San Francisco — and the professional accepted. Ayeva has put a lot of effort into advancing his foray into fintech because the profession is so new and a lot of activities are not widely advertised.
“You have to take the initiative and do research on your own,” says Ayeva.
Ayeva possesses the ambitious personality that hiring managers at ultramodern startups look for in applicants. Case in point: He recently signed up for a class to learn the Python programming language, an essential tool for professionals interested in machine learning.
In a nod to Germany’s apprenticeship model, the Georgia FinTech Academy is prioritizing matching students with experts at partner firms. During these immersive assignments, students will gain the skills and acumen needed to vie for a position either within that company or with other outfits in the industry. Georgia State will pilot the academy’s apprenticeship program in spring 2019.
“Candidates who complete an internship in college always hit the ground running at a faster pace,” says Hart, the Cardlytics talent scout. “And in an actual work environment, they are gaining exposure to the newest technology out there.”
“Apprenticeships lasting several semesters provide on-the-job learning and experience. They are an on-ramp to a fintech career,” Senn says. “Companies generally go all out to retain successful apprentices, and apprentice retention rates often exceed 90 percent.”
Atlanta has earned its reputation as an international fintech hotspot. In addition to “Transaction Alley,” some call it the “Silicon Valley of the South.” According to the Metro Atlanta Chamber, Georgia fintech firms “drive more than $30 billion in annual revenues … and processed $5 trillion in Atlanta in 2015 alone” — and the mark they make on the sector will continue to grow.
Fintech entrepreneurs keep flocking to the area, likely for its affordability and diversity, two qualities that attract millennials to trendy startups. Atlanta dominates fintech when it comes to pioneering firms and desirable jobs. Because of initiatives like the Georgia FinTech Academy at the Robinson College of Business, Atlanta has top-tier talent
Illustrations by Matt McCullin
Photo by Steven Thackston