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Me & My Career: Ensuring smooth money flow as plumber of financial world

6 min read

Using financial technology, or fintech, to disrupt traditional models may seem “cool”, but Mastercard executive Joseph Tom believes it is as much about solving seemingly mundane problems.

Fintech, he notes, has begun to improve access to remittance services for migrant workers, who otherwise could spend up to 10 per cent of their savings on transfer fees and poor exchange rates.

“It might not look all glamorous compared to global investing, cryptocurrencies and roboadvisory, but a lot of the value of fintech lies in solving these unsexy problems in traditional banking such as financial inclusion and access to credit,” says Mr Tom, a director of business development at Mastercard.

“A senior executive told me fintech professionals often consider themselves the plumbers of the financial world, fixing the pipes and infrastructure that lead to more efficient flow of payments, investments, remittances and so on.”

Mr Tom, who has spent 11 years in banking, fintech start-ups and venture capital investing, hit a roadblock en route to his current “dream job” after being retrenched last April amid the pandemic.

The MBA-holder faced multiple disappointments in his job search, often reaching the last stage of interviews just to be “ghosted” by firms that stopped responding.

Mr Tom, 34, eventually approached Workforce Singapore. A coach at one of the statutory board’s career matching providers, Ingeus, sent him job opportunities and helped him prepare for interviews and salary negotiation.

The free programme also included use of a shared working space at the Lifelong Learning Institute, a professional headshot and business cards.

He secured his current role within a month, at a higher pay than his previous job, and started work last December.

“I am keen to pay this forward in whatever way possible, such as volunteering to mentor young job seekers and hiring talent through this programme in future,” he says.

Q: What do you do at work?

A: I work with our country teams to improve access to digital payments in the Asia-Pacific region. We find ways to achieve faster and cheaper payments, efficient accounting, improved fraud detection and better reach for our clients.

I spend a lot of time talking to clients and prospective clients, to understand their pain points and how we can build scalable solutions. I also talk to product teams to give them customer insights and coach and learn from team mates.

Q: How much do you earn?

A: A director at Mastercard in Singapore earns $120,000 to $250,000 annually, according to career site Glassdoor. We also get generous performance-based bonuses and stock grants annually.

Q: Why did you pursue this career?

A: Fintech marries my engineering education and financial aptitude. It was my business finance professor at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) who recognised this aptitude and I am deeply indebted to her and other mentors throughout my career.

I started as a graduate trainee at JP Morgan in Singapore. Starting in traditional banking helped me understand how financial products work, how money moves and what it means to price a particular financial instrument.

While living in New York, I invested in and consulted for start-ups in fintech and enterprise SaaS (software as a service). This experience drove my decision to work in a start-up when I returned to Asia, so I joined Xendit, a payments start-up. One of my tasks was to build a lending business from the ground up for Indonesian SMEs – another exciting challenge.

Q: What is your educational background and how have you upgraded your skills along the way?

A: I have a bachelor’s degree from NTU in electrical and electronic engineering with a minor in entrepreneurship, as well as an MBA from Columbia University.

I have constantly tried to upgrade my language, technical and professional abilities, such as through attending the Business Mandarin programme at the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry. I also attend free online courses from top universities, and recently completed a venture capital bootcamp.

Q: What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced so far in your career? How did you overcome them?

A: Graduating into overheating economies followed by recessions, in 2008 and 2019. I also lost my job in the early part of the pandemic.

There are things that are outside our control, we just have to make the best of the situation. For me, it meant spending extra time with my loved ones and volunteering.

Speaking more broadly about the fintech industry, it is important to listen to the market and understand where the demand is and where it overlaps with your skills.

Chasing the hype will very often lead to high burn rate to achieve growth amid competition.

Q: What are the best and worst parts of the job?

A: The best part is the people – it is a collegial environment where people help one another, and pay it forward. I always accept coffee chats and Zoom meetings from founders, fintech aspirants and investors to bounce off ideas, provide mentorship and explore collaboration opportunities. Several of these have translated into successful fund raising, meaningful introductions to one another’s networks, and friendships.

My employer also has a great benefits package, and our human resource department plans additional discretionary holidays adjacent to long weekends.

Fintech is a highly competitive industry. Whether you are in an early stage start-up or in a corporate fintech, you are competing for investor backing or management support. There is high pressure to execute and it is natural to have long hours often.

Q: What are your tips for people who want careers in this field?

A: Discover what areas of fintech you’re passionate about and build your skills, network and experience in these verticals.

Fintech extends from early stage start-ups to large corporates and banks. Find your niche in terms of the stage of the company. Early-stage start-ups are high risk, high reward.

Talk to investors. They place great candidates in their portfolio companies. Also, follow fund-raising news as start-ups that recently raised funds are looking to hire.

Network through events like Singapore FinTech Festival and Singapore Tech Forum, and through the Tech65 Slack discussion channel.

Don’t stop when you find a new job. Continue to pay it forward to others. Be kind to everyone.

More about fintech jobs ​​ ​

The industry
Financial technology firms, or fintechs, span a wide variety of products and services, including payments and remittances, lending and credit, personal finance, insurance technology, blockchain and regulatory technology.

A report by the Singapore FinTech Association (SFA) and consulting firm Oliver Wyman last year stated that the number of fintechs in Singapore grew from fewer than 100 in 2015, to more than 1,000 last year.

The number of fintech employees had also grown from about 1,100 in 2015 to more than 10,000 last year, the report said.

Available jobs
Here are some examples of fintech jobs posted on job portals and the offered monthly salaries:

• Software engineer (one year of experience): $3,800 to $7,500

• Data scientist (four years of experience): $5,000 to $10,000

• Applications security engineer (two years of experience): $4,000 to $8,000

• Chief commercial officer: $14,500 to $18,750

• Innovation manager: $5,000

• Quantitative financial engineer: $5,000 to $8,000

How to join the sector

Here are some tips from Mr Chia Hock Lai, president of SFA and co-chairman of the Blockchain Association Singapore:

• Attend the FinTech Foundation Programme, a 21/2-day course for entry-level executives and officers in banking and finance.

• Apply for the new Chartered FinTech Professional qualification. Registration opens next month.

• Take full-time training courses under the SGUnited Skills programme, such as in blockchain, financial analytics and data science.

• Join the new Singapore FinTech Youth Chapter for attachment opportunities and overseas immersion trips.

• Join the SFA mailing list and take part in events to network.

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