Noboru Takahashi broke into the banking sector as a teenager – but he didn’t get an internship; he landed a full-time job.
It was 1991 and the American firm Chemical Bank (now J.P. Morgan Chase) was looking for a night-shift data-centre operator in Takahashi’s hometown, Tokyo.
“I was offered an interview and talked to my high school teachers about it. But they hadn’t heard of Chemical Bank – it wasn’t big in Japan – and said it was a risky move,” says Takahashi, who’s now CTO at Singapore fintech firm M-DAQ.
“I wore my school uniform to the interview and on the way there a policeman stopped me and asked what I was doing away from class,” he adds.
Takahashi landed the position and was initially given the unglamorous tasks of batch processing and printing and distributing reports. “But I got my hands dirty and enjoyed the role. I was constantly speaking to developers and seeing them fix issues.”
The job also got him thinking about how to make IT processes easier. “I learnt that even in an area where you’re expected to follow standard procedures, you can always find opportunities for improvement,” he says.
When Takahashi was just 20, he was asked to start programming for the FX team. “It was difficult at first. I had learnt the COBOL programming language at school but the bank used RPG.”
And by 1999, he was seconded into a project team in New York that was assessing which parts of FX trading could be put online.
“At the end of the project I was helping with technology strategy. I’d always enjoyed programming, but previously I didn’t know how my coding was contributing to the business.”
On the back of this success, Takahashi (who had by then also completed a degree in business management) was offered a managerial role in e-commerce sales at J.P. Morgan.
But this immediately created a career dilemma which Takahashi says is common for technologists as they become more senior in the banking sector.
“I was a VP and if I wanted greater success at the bank I needed a higher title. But managers in technology in banks are typically hands-off – I wanted to be hands-on and keep doing programming myself,” he says.
Takahashi then turned down a role working with ex-J.P. Morgan colleague Richard Koh at Standard Chartered. “No matter which bank you’re at, you’ll experience the same problem: if you take a better title and better pay, you end up in a hands-off position.”
By 2010, however, Koh had quit Stan Chart to set up Singapore-based M-DAQ, a multi-currency conversion platform for cross-border transactions. And Takahashi left J.P. Morgan after 19 years to join him.
“Back then the term ‘fintech’ wasn’t really commonly used, but I could see the power of technology to transform the finance sector and I knew how consumers were suffering from the current system of currency conversions,” explains Takahashi.
“What we’re doing here isn’t something you could do in one bank, even if you were the CEO. I enjoyed my time in banking, but when the CEO made a big announcement, I wasn’t usually affected. There was no direct link between what he was saying and what I was doing in my job,” says Takahashi.
At a bank, technologists are segmented from the business and their impact is limited as a result, he says. “But at a fintech firm, you’re actually helping to run the company.”
Takahashi says the initial years at M-DAQ were “challenging”. “But we’re now doing well – we’ve raised US$100m in funding and we’re building our client base. I’m also doing something more fun, and not having to play politics at a big bank.”