Strahinja Trenkic in a black suit over a white shirt, leans against a wall with hanging plants, his left hand over his right below his stomach
Strahinja Trenkic took an applied data science masters because he was held back by a limited grasp of AI © Wolfgang Stahr, for the Financial Times

After a bachelors degree in economics in his native Serbia, Strahinja Trenkic worked as a derivatives broker, helping investors to trade financial instruments that are used to hedge against exposure to different risks.

But Trenkic soon realised that to pursue a successful career in financial markets he needed to acquire digital knowledge and skills. He was also selling forex bots — automated trading systems that follow market signals to determine the best prices at which traders should buy or sell a currency pair — yet did not fully understand their complex mathematical algorithms.

“What interested me was what was under the hood and how AI makes investment decisions,” he says. “For this, coding skills are needed and a better understanding of algorithms.” He decided to enrol in 2020 on the master in applied data science at the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management, which teaches these capabilities.

Such programmes are becoming increasingly popular. Rising employer demand for digital skills has led to a significant increase in the number of students choosing a technology-related business masters degree. The 2022 Tomorrow’s Masters study by CarringtonCrisp, an education consultancy, and EFMD Global, which accredits business schools, asked 1,668 prospective students from 26 countries what they wanted to study. Four of the top seven business masters subjects are technology-related, including artificial intelligence, ecommerce and business analytics.

Demand for digital courses is being driven by an increase in job opportunities for graduates, according to Andrew Crisp, co-founder of CarringtonCrisp. “Every business is now a digital business,” he says. “The employers are crying out for people who understand these subjects and are able to lead teams which are working at the coalface.”

Trenkic, now 28, chose the Frankfurt School for his masters because of its connections to the many financial institutions nearby. He also received a scholarship. During the programme he worked part-time at the derivatives exchange Eurex in Eschborn, just outside Frankfurt.

On graduation this summer, he was hired by Eurex as a quantitative analyst, a role that involves building complex models to help provide market liquidity. The most valuable skill he learnt on the masters was Python, the programming language that he uses. “It opened up new doors for me,” says the Serb of his degree, adding that he found the job through a WhatsApp group for students and alumni.

As demand for digital skills grows, schools are not standing still: they have responded with new programmes focused on subjects such as blockchain and digital assets, product management and user-experience design.

ESMT Berlin will offer a masters in analytics and artificial intelligence from September 2023. Roland Siegers, ESMT director of early career programmes, says participants will take courses both from the computer science and business disciplines, setting them up to build bridges between technology and commercial teams in digital companies.

“We’re not graduating coders, we’re still graduating managers,” he says. “But we want to graduate managers who understand data and become translators between the engineering and computer science folks and the commercial arm of the company, to create products. Companies are desperately looking for people who can make that connection.”

Prospective students are following the jobs, says Lara Cathcart, academic director of the MSc financial technology programme at Imperial College Business School in London. The programme launched in 2018 and applications for the current admissions cycle are up 65 per cent compared with the first cycle. “Students see the growth in the fintech sector and they are attracted,” says Cathcart.

She says the programme draws on expertise from across the wider college’s faculties, including the Department of Computing. Participants gain quantitative and analytical skills, including in coding and programming, paired with knowledge of the financial sector, such as accounting and corporate finance, investments and portfolio analysis.

Cathcart says that investment banks and fintechs “don’t want students who can just code”. Recruiters “want graduates who can read a balance sheet and understand how financial markets work, and at the same time are quite technically advanced with good quantitative skills”.

It is not just the world of finance that requires digital skills. Vladimir Melnyk is academic director of the MSc in marketing and digital media at Europe’s ESCP Business School. He says the coronavirus pandemic accelerated the digital revolution in marketing, because of the shift to ecommerce, boosting employment opportunities for his graduates in digital marketing.

ESCP’s programme prepares candidates to take up strategic and operational marketing roles in a wide range of sectors from technology to luxury goods, consulting and distribution. They are equipped to harness a broad array of digital marketing tools, including analytics, which Melnyk says can play an important role in building a brand.

“Companies cannot use all of their resources to analyse all of the data all of the time,” he says. “The skill, almost the intuition, that students learn is how to critically process the data, and decide what is more important and less important to marketing.” The associate professor notes that the course is one of the most popular at ESCP. Established in 2008, the programme’s intake has ballooned from 20 students to 135 today. Admissions are highly competitive, with 12 months of professional experience strongly recommended before candidates apply.

As demand for similar programmes exceeds supply, education consultant Crisp expects more schools to create degree courses for the digital era, or risk ceding applications to competitors, including tech ventures such as Udemy that offer online video courses. “Individuals will not wait for business schools to offer these courses, they will go elsewhere,” he says.

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