Now, however, the fields are very much mainstream—and business schools say that more financiers than ever need to study a crypto curriculum.
Masters in finance programs are scrambling to roll out that syllabus, as job opportunities in the field grow at a rapid rate, placing a premium on those who can leverage financial technology to improve operational performance, or offer new products and services.
Last year, the number of job adverts on LinkedIn for blockchain jobs trebled, with the highest salaries above $250,000. Banks, money managers and all manner of companies are investing in the distributed ledger technology that powers cryptocurrencies.
“Having a strong engineering or computing background is a real advantage. However, feedback from our corporate sponsors and advisory council shows us that the industry also needs good project managers to oversee expansion in the fintech arena,” says economics professor James Sefton at Imperial College Business School in London. “These managers need to understand the technology but do not necessarily have to be A-grade coders.”
From blockchains to initial coin offerings (ICOs), finance students are interested applying crypto concepts to different finance roles. “We see a very strong interest in fintech, machine learning and blockchain,” says Jens Martin, director of the Master in International Finance at Amsterdam Business School in the Netherlands.
“This is why we feel that there is a strong need to offer new courses or a whole masters.” Amsterdam runs several crypto courses, including the Executive Master in Finance and Technology, which focuses on the application of fintech to finance.
The growing hype around cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin, whose price has swung wildly in recent months, has increased interest. Bitcoin’s price peaked at around $20,000 last Christmas but has tumbled to about $7,000 today. “The allure of quick profits has created immense interest,” says James at Imperial.
“However, it is the blockchain technology, and its most recent innovation that enables real-time transaction verification, that has created the most academic and commercial interest.” Exciting applications include online registries for shared goods and smart contracts, such as Uber taxi agreements without a centralized clearer.
Imperial offers a number of fintech-related electives on its finance masters courses. These include an elective in big data which looks at machine learning algorithms applied to finance, and an elective in algorithmic trading. “These electives are extremely popular,” James says.
James believes the crypto curriculum should be multidisciplinary: “At Imperial we have lecturers from the university computing department, as well as practitioners to augment the expertise in our finance department at the business school,” he says.
“We believe we can give students the strong theoretical background they need in computing, finance and mathematics and an understanding of where the industry is going, through engagement with current researchers in the field, outside speakers and lecturers,” he adds. “This will mean that our students will graduate with the skills to adapt to the demands of this dynamic and disruptive industry.”
Also important is getting the perspective of industry practitioners. Amsterdam Business School works with closely with the local startup scene, such as the Holland Fintech industry network. The school also has its own incubator, which houses several blockchain and fintech startups. “We work with the incubator in our Fintech Venture class to give students an insight on how to start a fintech business,” Jens confirms.
However, it is difficult is to find good lecturers in the cryptocurrency field, says Jens: “It is a rather new area, and not much research has been devoted to it yet, as not much data is available.”