Transitioning from Financial Services to a Tech Startup

September 3, 2015 Scott Kohlhoff

Reinventing yourself can be a scary proposition for some people. But in today's fast-moving world, it's imperative to continue educating yourself and stay informed of the latest trends affecting your world. Especially if you're looking to move into a new industry.


I always thought finance was an intriguing field and in college, much of my perception was greatly molded by the fact that investment bankers were making six-figures right out of school. Sign me up! As I ventured out into the real world, though, the allure and luster of this proposition quickly eroded due to long hours, bureaucracy, and the never-ending glass ceiling. Much of the rewards were ephemeral, and I couldn’t resist my urge to help build something I could be passionate about in the long run. Unfortunately, looking at quarterly earnings reports wasn’t on this list.


Growing up, I was always enamored with technology and my family had owned a couple of small businesses, so this may have been the catalyst that prompted my interest to join an early-stage tech startup a few years ago. Between being passionate about technology and wanting to grow a business from the ground up, much like I witnessed in my childhood, joining Narrative Science was a perfect fit.


Transitioning from financial services to technology, however, was a scary proposition. What could I contribute off the bat? Did I need to learn how to code? Was it wise to leave a firm that’s been around for over a hundred years?

If you’re interested in moving from traditional financial services to a tech startup, I hope to ease some of your qualms by sharing some helpful tips I’ve learned since I’ve made the switch:


What's the toughest thing about working at a tech startup coming from a finance background?

  • Regardless of background, I think there are lots of differences working at a tech startup, but the most intriguing one is the stark change in the day-to-day. More bluntly put, your role will not be confined to a certain set of tasks within a certain function or department. You’ll be asked to give valuable input across functions that ultimately drives a product or the company in a certain direction. Be comfortable giving your input and collaborative enough to come to a group consensus.

What's the best way to learn how to code?

  • Not all tech startups will require you to code. Chances are that a tech startup hiring a traditional financial services person knows that the non-engineering talent to be hired has no idea what GitHub is and how to fork a repo/push a commit. That being said, in my role as a product manager, I recognized quickly that understanding the programming behind our solutions would prove invaluable in order to collaborate with engineering to define and execute our product vision.

  • Luckily, there are tons of sites and “bootcamps” that are dedicated to coding education. For example, I decided to learn Python. I used CodeCademy and solidified what I learned with an online workshop called Learn Python the Hard Way. For me, the latter instilled more respect and thoughtfulness as to what goes into building even the simplest of computer programs.

  • We’ve instituted an Apprenticeship Program, which has been widely successful. This typically involves someone who just graduated from a coding bootcamp and wants to get hands-on experience of what the day-to-day is like. Once on board as full hires, these apprentices are already ahead of the game, with a solid understanding of our technology and what is expected of them.

How do I evaluate a startup that I may be interested in?

  • During your research and interviews, make sure that the company’s values and long-term vision resonate with you. Afterwards, if you feel recharged and excited, it’s probably worth your time. You will never be able to put a price tag on the experience and the new skills you’ll learn being part of creating a company, especially one that you’re passionate about.

To prepare myself for the finance world, I pursued an MBA or became a CFA charterholder. How do I prepare for a young tech company?

  • Start educating yourself about the ecosystem by regularly reading about startup topics: recent company fundings (and failures), operational issues as companies grow, or different functions that are typically found within tech startups and the respective responsibilities of each position. Through this education process, you’ll also learn what type of companies pique your interest the most while also identifying where your talents best fit within a company, no matter where it may be in its life cycle.

  • Some skills that translate well to a young tech startup are ones that you won’t necessarily gain from a formal education program, these include superior prioritization skills, abstract problem-solving skills, and cross-departmental communication and collaboration skills. Regardless of how young or mature the tech company is, these skills are extremely valuable at any stage.

What are some good books/blogs I should read to prep me for working at a tech startup?

  • A personal favorite book of mine is "How to Speak Tech." It explains the back- and front-end systems and the business logic as to why engineers would pick one over the other for a particular platform/solution in a clear, concise way. Much like learning to code, it gives you an appreciation for complex systems and the intricacies involved in the process of building them.

What is the most glaring difference in working at a startup versus a typical financial services job?

  • Hands down, the importance of cross-functional communication and interdependencies. Being able to communicate effectively with people and teams with different expertise and priorities is a critical workplace skill, especially at a startup.

Scott Kohlhoff is a Product Associate, Financial Services at Narrative Science. Connect with Scott on LinkedIn and Twitter.

If you are interested in exploring a career with Narrative Science, please view our open positions.

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