How To Become A Banking Project Manager

Hi, if you're a project manager, one of the questions you may ask yourself is "How do I become a banking project manager?" I know of project managers who work in different domains, e.g. petrochemical, healthcare, who want to break into banking and deliver projects for banks.

In this article, I want to talk a little about banking project management ñ why it is hot, what skills are needed and tips for breaking into this market if you're interested in repositioning your project management career.

1. Why Banking Project Management Is Hot

Why is it that banking project management is so hot? If you look at the job market, you will see that a banking project manager is one of the most popular jobs in the IT industry today.

I think there are at least three reasons for this. Firstly, banking project managers earn quite a lot of money. Here in Singapore, if you compare the average salary of a banking project manager (usually a Vice President level), they can eat anything from $8000 to $15000 a month. That is quite a premium compared to the salaries of project management professionals in other industries.

Secondly, banking project management has good prospects. If you can successfully deliver a core banking project once or twice (and those of you who are familiar will know how complex those beasts are), you'll be in good stead to become a CIO at some bank later in your career.

Thirdly, banking projects are challenging. There's something exciting about rolling out trading systems, credit monitoring systems, payment systems or core banking systems. If you love a good challenge, there are few jobs which give you the same level of intensity.

2. Skills Required of A Banking Project Manager

IT projects are no longer what they used to be. Project managers these days need to demonstrate functional and industry expertise, in addition to generic project management skills.

In Singapore, there are a lot of big name banks like UBS, Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, etc. While they are willing to hire project managers, they have become very selective.

If you walk into a bank today and say you have project management experience - it's hardly enough to satisfy recruiters.

What they want to hear is that you've delivered projects in banks and are familiar with real-time gross settlements, CASA accounts, margin calls, mark to market, fixing of derivatives and so forth.

In other words, there is a huge focus on functional and industry expertise as I've explained here XXX.

So with the above in mind, I feel that a banking project manager needs to have the following skills.

  • Project management skills
  • Banking domain knowledge
  • Communication and stakeholder management

I'll explain a little about each of these.

Project management skills. These skills are generic project management skills. The ability to draw up templates, draw up plans in Microsoft project, communicate a project vision, execute, monitor and control a project.

The ability to manage project risk and install project governance into the software development life cycle. These are generic project management skills which can be picked up regardless of what industry domain you're in.

Banking domain knowledge. For a lot of project managers, banking domain knowledge is tough to obtain.

If you've worked all your professional life doing project management in healthcare, how do you break into banking project management?

Often, banking domain knowledge is only privy to those who have actually worked in banks, especially the back office where they can see exactly how a bank operates.

The other kind of folks whom I've seen are familiar with banking knowledge are consultants who specialize in a particular banking area, e.g. Basel, risk management, trading - and they typically work for software vendors or consulting houses.

Communication and stakeholder management. Ok, these are generally considered generic project management skills but they are so critical that I chose to highlight them separately.

Communication skills are the core capabilities of a project manager. I say, if you put a stellar project manager who knows all the technical approaches to project management, knows all the intricacies of banking, he or she will still fail to deliver projects if he of she lacks communication skills.

Case Study. Let me give you an example. One of my clients, a Singaporean bank engaged us to gather user requirements for a new private banking system.

There was this lady who worked in top-notch banking institutions (read Swiss private banks), knew all there was to know about banking processes and was also an aggressive and sharp project manager.

But you know what? She didn't practice good stakeholder management. She tread on everyone's toes and made decisions on her own.

Over time, she got everyone so pissed so got booted out of the PMO within 6 months of the project. So remember, communication skills are critical in project management!

3. How to Get Banking Project Manager Skills

Now that we've seen the skills a banking project manager needs to attain, how do you go about getting them? That's a common question some of my readers ask.

Here is a list of 5 tips for getting those banking PM skills:

Tap On Your Network

As head hunters would say, to find a job that you like, one of the first things you should do is to tap on your network of contacts ñ your friends, ex-colleagues, connections on LinkedIn and so forth.

I recall that when I tried to move from consulting into banking, it was tough. I tried sending my resume directly to banks, but I never got any hits. Those that did come back didn't follow up with me beyond an initial meeting.

So what did I do? I tapped on my ex-banking clients! I reached out to my phone list, email list and asked if some of the banking contacts I had knew of any positions in banks.

It just so happened that one of my clients knew a head hunter who was actively looking for a Project Manager for a Swiss private bank ñ so I signed up and got the job.

The lesson here is - reach out to your contacts and you'll have a much better chance of bagging a job that you want. And particularly in banking ñ it's a lot about who you know, not just what you know.

Start In A Related Industry

One of the things I teach some juniors of mine when they're building a career is to have a 'story' in your resume. Let me explain what I mean.

Let's say you want to break into project management in a bank, but you have no background and no one wants to hire you. But you do know something about insurance and in fact have project managed an insurance system implementation before.

One thing you can do is to find a job as a Project Manager of a bancassurance project in a bank. Bancassurance is a channel for selling insurance products.

An insurance company has a tie up with a retail bank and allows the bank's relationship managers to sell insurance products for a commission.

Once you break into the bancassurance side of things in a bank, you can slowly diversify to other banking projects.

Another example is in securities. Many banks here in Asia have got securities arms (e.g. OCBC bank in Singapore has OCBC Securities, DBS Bank in Singapore has Vickers Ballas brokerage).

If you have background in the capital markets (trade / securities processing), it would be simple for you to get a job in a securities firm. From there, if you want to join the bank it would be much easier than applying off the street.

Start In A Small Bank or Vendor

Sometimes, it is useful to lower your expectations in the short term for longer term gain. For example, many youngsters I talk to here in Singapore want to run projects in the 'hottest' banks like Deutsche Bank, UBS, Credit Suisse, JP Morgan and so forth.

But they have no experience in banking! Usually, they are fresh graduates who don't make it into the management associate programs of these banks, or they are from a totally different industry like healthcare or education.

One thing I suggest to them is to start in a small bank or vendor. Let me explain. Instead of beginning your project management career in JP Morgan, how about starting off in DBS Bank in Singapore? Or CIMB Bank in Malaysia?

Sure, you may have less prestige than in JP Morgan, but the experience you gain will put you in good stead for a future career move to a bigger, more international bank. Contrast that with not finding a job in a bank at all ñ and I think it makes a lot of sense.

Another option is to start in a vendor, especially if you're delivering system projects in banks. I know of ex-consultants from software companies like Temenos AG, Misys (core banking software) and Murex (trading software) who join banks as senior staff to run projects.

Consultants like these are in hot demand by banks because they have a specific skill set in a software solution that the bank runs. It's much cheaper for the bank to hire these consultants with the knowledge than engage the software vendors themselves.

When I was hunting for a project management job in a bank, this was one of the things I considered doing. I read up on the software solutions that the bank used, and considered if I might skill myself up in the solution for a couple of years before moving to the bank after that.

Educate Yourself

As always, education is a good springboard for moving into any new job. If you're a project manager used to running systems projects, you most likely have an Engineering or IT background.

Banks these days don't take in mid-level career resources who have a pure technie background.

Think about it - you're the hiring manager in a bank considering two candidates for a Project Manager role in a global system rollout.

Candidate A is an Engineering graduate who has worked in the manufacturing industry for seven years, with no banking domain expertise. He or she wants to get an Assistant Vice President level job in the bank.

Candidate B is an Engineering graduate who has worked in the manufacturing industry for seven years, with no banking domain expertise. BUT he or she has taken the time to study a banking and finance Masters degree part-time.

Who would you hire for the Assistant Vice President job? No prizes for guessing.

Case Study. Case Study. Myself, I have a Bachelor in Engineering degree. After working for seven years in the IT industry as a consultant, I felt the need to gain more financial domain knowledge, since many of my clients were banking institutions. So what did I do? I went back to school and put myself through a VERY rigorous quantitative finance degree.

I did it part-time, juggling two young kids and a wife at home. It was tough, but the journey helped me reposition myself as a banking project manager. From then on, when my clients in banks talked about 'fixing' derivatives, calls, puts, straddles and strangles, I had no problems relating to them.

Patience is Key. One last point on breaking into banking project management. Many folks I know have little patience. They have little grit to stay the course. If they try for one or two years and don't manage to make headway into banking, they give up.

Don't do that. If you're convinced you've set yourself on the right path, you should endure short term pain for long term benefits. Maybe you've just started in a banking project and you're just a developer and can't imagine yourself being able to become a project manager.

Don't give up! Give it time. Reach out to your clients and stakeholders. Add value. Ask questions. Learn and absorb knowledge ñ over time, you will become a valuable member of the team and can advance to greater heights.


I hope I've helped you understand a bit more about how to break into the banking domain as a project manager.

Having gone from a consultant background into banking (and later back into consulting), I can tell you managing projects in banks is a lot of fun. It also comes with a lot of stress.

Note that banks are quite unforgiving when it comes to projects. More and more, banking customers expect real-time transactions, and short turnaround times and are more demanding than a decade ago.

Naturally, if you're implementing a new software for a bank, expect to be placed under tremendous stress. However, the upside is that if you do succeed, you've a very strong resume and foundation for your future career.

Follow the tips I've suggested about networking, positioning your career path and educating yourself. With time, you'll find yourself ready to take on a project management post in a banking project!

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