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Author, Andrew Wallace, Partner at Leathwaite.

Blockchain growth: understanding the talent landscape

  • Where will the talent come from?
  • How can we become a talent magnet?
  • What skills are needed and when?

Part 1: External hiring trends

The last 12 months has seen an abundance of key blockchain appointments as firms seek to gain a key foothold in this embryonic sector.

Yet companies have been split between whether to hire from in-industry and cross-industry, clearly indicating that the path to the best talent is still not fully understood.

One CTO at a notable west-coast blockchain firm explained that their strategy was typically not to hire from in-industry as candidates tended to be ‘blockchain ambassadors’ who were too accepting of the strengths and opportunities that the technology brings.

Instead, they preferred candidates who possessed a solid technical background in cryptography or distributed systems, and who would bring a “healthy scepticism of blockchain” to the culture of the business. The belief being that this would result in greater levels of questioning and testing, ultimately enabling the company to develop more robust and viable solutions.

A current dominance in developer-led hires also reflects the early lifecycle of the industry, which will surely change as the need for infrastructure functions (such as regulation) increases in line with the maturity of the market.

However, what has been clear is there is a demand for entrepreneurial and dynamic individuals who have a growth mentality – individuals who will thrive within an ever-changing environment.

Part 2: Internal moves, Talent Programmes, Accelerators and Innovation Labs

Internal moves have played a key role in generating an immediate blockchain presence within firms, as Alex Batlin’s move at UBS and Keith Pritchard’s new role at JPMorgan demonstrate.

However, it has been essential to complement internal and external hires with a range of internal development programmes, accelerators and innovation labs in order to develop a talent pipeline that meets future demand requirements.

Interestingly, the rapid pace of change in blockchain is restricting training courses from being developed due to content becoming obsolete before the course can be attended. This is why so many companies are having to pursue their own internal method of talent and skill development (the Coinsilum Tech Lab being one of the few exceptions to this rule).

Furthermore, there has been a recent trend of senior technical banking and FinTech candidates joining collaborations and consortiums to work within relationship management and leadership roles, demonstrated by Justin Amos and Adam Furgal who moved to Digital Asset Holdings and R3 respectively in 2016.

We envisage that consortiums and collaborative projects will continue to command interest over the coming years as they offer a valuable supplement to an internal team with regards to generating research and stimulating innovation.

Part 3: Attracting talent to your organisation

There were three key themes that came out of conversations surrounding how companies attract blockchain talent.

Equity was noted as a key driver, although it was acknowledged that equity can be a lottery due to the uncertainty surrounding the blockchain roadmap.

Culture is also a significant factor when deciding on which firm to join. Of note is the growing amount of M&A activity, which in turn is raising the importance of culture even further as firms often face cultural clashes when aligning with other organisations.

Finally, location was viewed as an essential selling point, with New York and London outperforming Silicon Valley to take the top spots as the global centres for blockchain, primarily as a result of the abundance of FinTech and financial institutions available.

Part 4: What skills are needed and when?

When we examined the blockchain skills that were currently in demand, we referenced these against a recent research paper by Morgan Stanley (see PDF for details).

The report suggested that 2014-2016 would focus on assessing the value of blockchain, followed by a proof of concept stage from 2016-2018, with 2017-2020 being the beginning of a shared infrastructure. It anticipated that this will translate into an increase of digital assets moving onto blockchain technology from 2021-2025.

The industry is still seeking direction and clarification on skills

The only consensus that we can draw from the last 12 months is the concentration of developer-orientated hires. However, from this point onwards the hiring patterns of individual companies differ quite considerably due to the immaturity of the market rendering it difficult to provide a ‘best in class’ approach or framework.

The speed at which companies are moving to secure their foothold in the sector is a potential cause for concern as it is restricting the time they have to fully evaluate the market or their requirements, prior to making hires.

Inability to conduct thorough assessments of the talent landscape

An outcome of making time-pressured hires is a reduced due diligence process, which can increase the risk of companies acquiring ‘enthusiastic amateurs’ who do not have the commercial credibility or expertise to deliver on projects of this nature, rather than professionals with a deep technical skillset and reputation for delivery within similar environments.

Creating flexibility through blending permanent talent with interim specialists

The rapid state of blockchain transition means that priority should be placed upon building a high degree of flexibility, agility and scalability into staffing infrastructures.

An observation with the current bias towards permanent hires is that it could restrict the speed at which organisations are able to respond to changes in the market.

Referencing the Morgan Stanley framework once more, we anticipate that while some skillsets will remain constant, such as the need for cyber-security professionals, firms will need to bolster a different array of skillsets as they enter each phase of this lifecycle.

For example, during the initial phases (2014-2018) there is a substantial requirement for deep technologists and developers – specifically, individuals who are skilled at enabling firms to work with immature technology. However, these needs will change as the business model moves into other phases of maturity.

We anticipate that independent interim consultants and gap management solutions will play an essential role in enabling firms to transition effectively through these stages, as interims offer a consultative approach and SME knowledge as part of the proof of concept stage and beyond.

The flexible nature of interims also means that they can deliver a particular programme or set of deliverables before moving on, providing the organisations with the flexibility they crave.

Anticipating several future pathways

If blockchain follows a similar route to the FinTech model, then considerations surrounding M&A activity, risk, regulation and general infrastructure requirements will all begin to play an increasing part in the make-up of these companies and should be part of strategy conversations surrounding human capital requirements.

In summary, blockchain is set to play a crucial role in the future make-up of the financial services industry and the companies that find the way to identify, secure and retain the right blend of permanent and temporary talent, at the appropriate stage of their lifecycle, will undoubtedly become the key drivers of this industry.

Key global blockchain people moves and appointments:

  • Thomas Chippas, former CEO of Citadel Technology, joined Axoni as COO to help build the firm which recently separated from TradeBlock.
  • Paud O’Keeffe joined BNP Paribas Securities Services as Head of Innovation based in Dublin. Paud joins from Citi where he was Head of R&D.
  • Chris Church joined Digital Asset Holdings as Chief Business Development Officer. Chris joins from SWIFT where he was CEO, Americas & Global Head of Securities.
  • Cristóbal Conde former SunGard President and CEO, joined as a non-executive board member for Digital Asset Holdings.
  • Edward Neman joined Digital Asset Holdings from Goldman Sachs as the Deputy Chief Security Officer based in New York.
  • Gordon Weir joined Digital Asset Holdings as Head of Development, from Bank of America, where he had been the Head of Operations IT Agile Development.
  • Justin Amos joined Digital Asset Holdings from NICE Actimize as Head of APAC.
  • Nitin Gaur moved internally within IBM from his role as CTO, IBM Mobile Payments and IBM Bluemix to Director, IBM Blockchain Labs.
  • Jason Nabi joined Itbit from Société Générale as Head of EMEA.
  • Keith Pritchard moved internally at JPMorgan from capital markets technology to blockchain.
  • Bill Cline moved from capital markets consulting to be national lead for financial services innovation at KPMG.
  • Jeremy Drane moved internally with PwC in 2015 to U.S. Blockchain and Smart Contracts Leader from his previous role as Upper Midwest Sales and Marketing Leader.
  • Patrick Spens joined PwC from the FCA in February 2016 as part of its blockchain advisory team.
  • Adam Furgal joined R3 from Barclays where he was Chief Agilist for Personal and Corporate Banking.
  • James Carlyle joined R3 as Chief Engineer from Barclays where he was Chief Engineer for Personal and Corporate Banking Architecture.
  • Richard Brown joined R3 as Chief Technology Officer, based in London. Richard joins from IBS where he was Executive Architect, Banking and Financial Markets.
  • Marcus Treacher joined Ripple as Head of Strategic Accounts from HSBC where he was Global Head of Payments Innovation.
  • Mustafa Al Bassam joined Secure Trading as a Security Advisor on the company’s technology and services.
  • Sir David Walker, former Barclays Chairman and City veteran, was announced as Chairman of Setl.
  • Dr Akash Singh, IBM’s former Chief Researcher, joined as Skry’s CTO and Dr Masoud Nikravesh joined as Chief Data Scientist. This was post Coinalytics announcing its rebranding as Skry.
  • Juan Llanos joined Skry as EVP of Business Development.
  • Anju Patwardhan was appointed Standard Chartered’s first Group Chief Innovation Officer to shape the bank’s strategic innovation agenda globally. Anju moved internally from her previous role as Group Head of Risk Innovation.
  • Hu Liang moved internally within State Street to run the Emerging Technologies Centre which has a particular focus on the research and development of blockchain enabled solutions. Prior to this Hu was Senior Managing Director, Head of State Street Global Exchange Asia Pacific.
  • Anthony Di Iorio joined the Toronto Stock Exchange as Chief Digital Officer. Anthony joined from Decentral Consulting Services where he was CEO.
  • Alex Batlin moved internally with UBS from Global Head of CTO Research Services to Head of FinTech Innovation Lab (Level 39) and Crypto 2.0 Pathfinder Programme Lead.
  • Simon Taylor, a member of the Barclay’s blockchain team, leaves Barclays to become co-founder of FinTech consultancy 11:FS. Simon joins David Brear, Jason Bates and Chris Skinner.

How can Leathwaite assist?

With a global network of offices that are constantly communicating with the blockchain market and wider community, Leathwaite is perfectly placed to advise clients on the future demand for talent.  Leathwaite has conducted a number of talent mapping exercises for organisations within the blockchain arena to identify talent pools and engage with the right individuals to lead and engage in this space.

For a discussion on how the talent landscape is changing within this sector, please call Andrew Wallace in our London office on +44 207 151 5151 or Simon Mayo in our New York office on +1 646 461 9100.