JPMorgan and BlackRock, Barclays and Capital One, national financial companies with thousands of metro-Philadelphia workers, were among the dozen employers who paid for the recent OpenBracket hackathon at Wilmington's Queen Theater.
The competition drew more than 100 software coders from around the U.S. who travel the hackathon trail from contest to contest, living like poker players from prize winnings. The group includes jobs-for-hire, grad students, intense hobbyists, and fully employed start-up and corporate developers who like a challenge.
But what's in it for the companies, really? A few of the hackers were looking for full-time work — two or three ended up with jobs at local banks last year, co-organizer Ben duPont told me.
But like other sponsored hackathons, OpenBracket was mostly a way of raising a flag, to help the region in general — and Wilmington in particular — get on the map as one of the new hubs for fintech, and make it a little easier to lure the best and brightest developers to jobs in this former corporate-headquarters town without a university or household-name software giant.
The sponsors, at least, were inspired by the show. "So many smart people, from the best schools. I was just blown away," said Shelton Shugar, chief information officer at Barclaycard USA, whose glass-walled offices anchor the city's suburban-style redevelopment center along the Christina River, downhill from Wilmington's old Market Street business district. "We attracted a lot of impressive folks." He cited a particular hacker — "a second-year med student, who programs as a hobby, and does these events for fun. She told me she's thinking about merging these two interests — getting patient data and deriving interesting applications. I love it."
Shugar himself is new to banks, and to the East Coast. Until January, he was vice president for cloud services at Hewlett-Packard in California. He previously headed cloud groups at eBay and Yahoo. At Barclaycard, one of several credit card operations that call Delaware home, "my job now is to apply all the leading technologies I grew used to on the West Coast, for finance." He heads a team of 100 in Wilmington, with more in India, and cooperation from teams all over Barclays' international network.
If promoters can get Wilmington banks associated with software opportunity, "the rising tide lifts all boats," Shugar added. "We tell them they don't have to have a financial-services background. We are looking for people with skills who can help us transform our area."
For Barclay's upcoming co-branded Uber payments program, "we are integrating into Uber. Customers can register our new credit card through an Uber app. So we are becoming more tightly linked into the digital ecosystem for the ordinary consumer. I think this will evolve further," making loans and payments easier for smartphone users — and put new demands on bank software makers.
Banks were early computer adopters — which has left them with large legacy systems that have proven expensive to convert to secure mobile and cloud applications. Banks have had to cope with very different usage patterns as customers move from fixed branches, to home computers, to mobile phones, Shugar says: "It's not the old predictable banking problems."
By contrast, "internet companies are built to scale [grow larger] very well. They can handle unexpected spikes in usage and they aren't tied to a trade infrastructure. So now financial services are moving that way. Financial services architecture, the underlying systems, are looking more like the internet companies."
He tells prospective hires — especially "the five-star developers who want to work with other five-star developers and with the five-star technologies" — that in his shop they'll "be in on the ground floor. It's the best phase. It's fun to get in on the start. There's a lot of energy. Folks here are framing and moving and shaking and trying to make things happen and wanting more out of the tech groups."
I reminded him how bankers complain it's gotten tougher to get young tech talent to relocate. "Hiring is a big piece of what I do, and it's a lot of work to get the talent we want," Shugar acknowledged. OpenBracket and ZipCode, Wilmington's second-career programmer-training school, which is also backed by banks and other tech employers, help locate prospects. "And we talk at local schools. We hire recruiters. We go to technical and business conferences. You have to do that extra bit."
And that's what's behind the hackathons: "We want to raise our profile. We want to bring in interesting and smart folks to drive this thing forward and transform our technology so it can be leading edge — driving it, and keeping up."