Startup NYC: Citi Lays Off 11K Finance Employees, Thinkful Tries To Get Them Hired In Tech

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Citigroup took a big hit yesterday, as its new CEO Michael Corbat announced the company’s intention to lay off 11,000 employees and “pull back in emerging markets” in an effort to cut costs amidst challenging times for big banks. According to Bloomberg, this represents a 4.2 percent reduction of Citi’s total workforce and hits hardest in trading, investment banking, and transaction services groups, which alone will shed nearly 2,000 jobs. Consumer banking, at large, will cut over 6,200.

While these are unhappy days for those 11K employees, a young, New York-based company wants to help them level-up and turn a crappy situation into an opportunity by starting a new career in the tech industry. Thinkful, a career-focused online school, posted a new landing page that offered a bold entreaty to ex-Citi employees:

Dear Citi Tech Talent, finance sucks. Opportunity awaits … Your new CEO just fired you and shareholders are happy about it. Wouldn’t you rather be a profit-center? Over 200 startups hiring in New York alone.

Thinkful, for those unfamiliar, is an online school that aims to help people learn new skills to find a new career. The startup is beginning with a curricular focus around tech thanks to the increasing demand for engineering and technical talent, but the need for retraining by using online education is much broader than Python or Ruby — and that’s the market Thinkful co-founder Darrell Silver says that the company wants to attack.

The school provides curricula to help users structure their learning and one-on-one mentorship from experts at the companies you want to go work for, starting with front-end web development. Over the 12-week, part-time course, users can brush up on particular languages or learn new ones while building websites and learning how to prototype ideas.

As to its campaign, while it’s easy to see this as a brilliantly calculated marketing move — as playing PR off of bad news to try to pick up some potential leads — the startup deserves props for providing an opportunity for the recently-laid off to improve their position in the world and for offering them the ability to take its class for free. Thinkful’s class normally comes with a $500 price tag.

The “finance sucks” sentiment may smack as abrasive or arrogant coming from Silicon Valley, but it’s one that many are familiar with, especially in Startup Land — NYC or California. If it’s true that investors are turning away from consumer to enterprise, it seems that there’s no better candidate for working at a startup in a space that’s notoriously hard to sell than one who’s been in enterprise banking for the last few years.

It also seems that there are a lot of IT workers at banks in what might be seen as boring jobs (compared to the world of pirates) that would love to abandon their posts to work with sexier technologies at an up-and-coming startup. It’s important to be careful on this note, however, considering the danger inherent in glorifying startups and entrepreneurship. Being a pirate may seem like fun (swashbuckling, right guys?) but it also sucks and there are enough wannabe entrepreneurs hawking features-not-companies in Silicon Valley right now to last a century.

Even still, for ex-financial professionals (especially those in tech), there is undoubtedly an appeal to actually building something. Sure, banking software might present some appetizing challenges for motivated engineers, and there’s far more financial stability in an enterprise finance job, but potentially working with the slick interfaces of Square or Simple is likely a bigger draw at the end of the day.

For many, that financial stability is what keeps them from making the leap. More than a few young people come out of college with student loan debt, and the best and brightest from top schools have traditionally always sought jobs in finance. But Wall Street and the financial industry as a whole have changed. There’s not as much stability or easy money.

Talking to Josh Constine about this very topic, we both found that we knew quite a few of the same type of twenty-something person, who moved to New York to take a job in finance, hoping to be successful and maybe even pay off those student loans. But, increasingly, that same demographic is realizing, “Hey, I love video games. Why don’t I go work for a gaming startup and help build a company?” Again, not safe to generalize, but I’d say that many of those people end up happier as a result.

What’s more, for Thinkful co-founder Darrell Silver (who formerly worked in the financial sector),
finance has (in spite of the stereotypes) a high-quality talent pool — people who are well-trained and highly skilled, who work in a complex, no-downtime industry defined by the “least error-tolerant customers and regulators” out there.

Thinkful, like any startup, is looking for talent. Banks, hedge funds and others use a lot of “fancy tech” and big data, and there’s a lot of talent that’s been locked up in these jobs over the long-term, Silver said in a conversation on Hacker News. Informed by his own case, he thinks there are a number of people that may come out of banking with quantitative and engineering skills but know little of the companies and opportunities out there, especially in technology. Nor do they know how to evaluate employers or what tools are in growing demand.

So, in focusing on helping technical talent acquire new skills and brush up on old ones, that’s where Thinkful wants to differentiate itself from the other learn-to-code platforms out there, like Codecademy, Treehouse, Dev Bootcamp and LearnStreet, for example. The startup wants to target those people that are already employable and are proficient in the basics of programming — that just want to take a refresher course before deciding what to do next.

Silver says that Thinkful wants to reduce the risk inherent in hiring by seeding them with people they know will enjoy learning new subjects and can do so quickly (and cheaply). And, in turn, help motivated people find opportunities that they’re actually interested in pursuing and making a career. In this way, Thinkful is more of a paid alternative to the Udacities and Courseras of the world, like Lynda.com except that it focuses on one-to-one instruction.

Of course, while personal instruction and one-to-one mentorship sound great in theory, it’s tough to scale. Though if Thinkful can succeed in attracting ex-Citi employees who they can then put into startup jobs at comparable salaries, the mission will have been worth it (and the co-founders tell us they’ve already received a handful of applications from ex-Citi employees). After all, scaling problems are the best kind of problem to have. It should be interesting to see to what degree Thinkful is able to beef up its courses and how much (and for how long) it will focus on CS education before going broad. It can be a tough balance to strike.

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