C-suite career advice: Carmen Ene, 3 Step IT

How important are specific certifications? "Certifications are one way to prove someone's preoccupation for continuous learning and improvement."

Name: Carmen Ene

Company: 3 Step IT

Job Title: CEO

Location: Helsinki, Finland

Carmen Ene is the CEO of IT Asset Management Lifecycle provider 3 Step IT. After jointly founding what became the number one IT company in Romania in 1990, Ene forged a highly successful 20-year career in international management positions for IBM and is listed as one of the TOP 50 influential people in the Leasing Industry by Lease Europe. She was hired as CEO of 3 Step IT in 2015.

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? ‘One kick in your back, 2 steps forward' - this is what my father used to say with a smile when I was coming back from school depressed after a failure. These words became very powerful and helped me through my personal and professional life. They taught me to bring myself together quickly after a fall, stand up, learn, try again and move on. ‘Persevere, never give up - he would say - and you will become so good that they can't ignore you'.

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? When I left Romania, I was full of dreams and hopes, restless to catch up on lost time. I was thirsty to accumulate experience and knowledge that was denied to us in communist times. One of my first bosses, tired of my incessant questions and annoyed with my ambitions and restlessness, told me one day: ‘You know what: I think the best thing for you is to cool down at work, care for your present job and in parallel learn the local language, find a man and get married.' I am happy I did not listen to his advice.

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT? I believe it is an industry with a tremendous future and potential that pervades today all other industries. It is a great place to build a career. My advice would be to choose the field of IT that is of most interest, and build a plan to acquire the needed skills and get the right experience. And be prepared to learn every day since this is one of the most vibrant and fast moving industries.

Did you always want to work in IT? In Romania I choose to study Cybernetics and Informatics. At that time cybernetics was a magic word, the equivalent of the ‘buzz-words' of today. It was a promise to solve problems from technical matters of control theory in hardware systems to social ones. As any young generation has, I was dreaming to change the world for the better and cybernetics seemed to be the right way.

It is not widely known that Stefan Odobleja, a Romanian scientist, is considered to be one of the pioneers of cybernetics. The Romanian Communist Party, not understanding the subject considered cybernetics to be capitalist science. Odobleja, being its main advocate, was put under surveillance and house arrest. For a ‘rebellious' youngster, this was an additional motive to study this subject in the one and lonely faculty left in Bucharest.

What was your first job in IT? I was a punch card operator - yes seems antediluvian but in the 80 and early 90s our computers still operated with punch cards. I was working part-time in the computer centre of the Ministry of Economy to support my academic studies.

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT? I think the first reaction is to imagine young hoodied geeks that speak an incomprehensible language and are genius coders. And of course boys, because with all the progress that society has made in terms of acknowledging and trying to correct gender biases, there is still a lingering misconception about boys having better mathematical and technical minds than girls.

In recent years, there has been a modern ‘gold-rush' frenzy in Silicon Valley where the new ‘heroes' are famous university dropouts who startup ‘unicorn' tech companies with the promise to disrupt and revolutionise industries. They raise billions in venture funds and get rich overnight. There is a danger that it is believed that this is the way the whole IT industry operates.

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? Communicate, communicate, communicate. The ability to have a clear view of what you want to achieve and then being able to communicate that clearly and effectively to all levels in the organisation is key to being a successful executive.

What are your career ambitions and have you reached them yet? My ambition has always been to lead successful teams who want to make a difference. That is an ambition that stays with me whatever role I am currently performing.

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? ‘How was your day?' - we ask this question every evening when the family gets together for dinner. If I can answer that I have accomplished something - both at work and for myself - and that I have enjoyed something, this was a very good day. I enjoy the work I do and when you have this, work doesn't seem like work any longer it just blends into your achievements and enjoyments of the day.

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? A quote from Shane Macgowan (I bet that's a first!) ‘I'm not singing for the future, I'm not dreaming of the past'. Obviously, I have made mistakes: one in particular was taking on a job without being given enough information about the content and mission. It proved to be highly frustrating and at times demoralising. But I learned an important lesson: when taking on a new job, ask what success will look like and what are the key measurements of a job well done. Having said that, given where I have started, I am grateful for what I have achieved. And I believe all experiences, good and bad together, shaped my professional and personal life so I would not change anything.

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? I believe they are both valid options for appropriate circumstances. A coding bootcamp for example could be an ideal start for a young person who wants to start a career in IT. It is a way of finding out in a shorter time if you really enjoy coding and help you land your first job. For higher career aspirations, I do believe an academic degree is useful, whether you start with it directly or continue after a bootcamp gave you the confidence that this is right career for you  From my observations, most big corporates appreciate academic degrees, so if one has such career goals acquiring a computer science degree might be helpful.

How important are specific certifications? I think they are important. The pace of change today is unprecedented fueled by technology and most importantly its accessibility. Nobody will be able to keep up with a job only based on what she learnt 20 years ago in school. Therefore, learning is one of the constants in this changing world. And certifications are one way to prove someone's preoccupation for continuous learning and improvement. It helps you acquire and maintain relevant skills that are valued on the workforce market

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? Curiosity is the one I prize most. It is the motor that drives us humans to strive and progress. It is the inquisitive thinking that pushes us to explore, learn and continuously improve. I look for quick learners, an ability that will be more and more important in a world where the skills you acquire today might be obsolete in 5 years. And I look for attitude. There is a saying that it is not your aptitude but your attitude that determines your altitude. Ideally, I want to hire for both aptitude and attitude, but if I have to choose, I always choose the candidate with the right attitude.

What would put you off a candidate? The wrong attitude. It is more difficult to train attitude, so when you see a negative one run away as far as you can. It can bring a lot of damage to the people around and the business overall.

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? It is amazing how many candidates even for senior positions come to interviews without making serious deep research about the company they are interviewing with. Apart from relevant skills and attitude, a company is also interested in hiring people that feel excited to join their company and the only way to show this in an interview is to come well prepared by making due diligence on the company before. The other observation I have is that many people have long narratives about their qualification and experiences but fail to give concrete measurable results they achieved in previous jobs against their targets.

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills - or a mix of both? When I started in the IT industry, companies used to have IT departments run by technical managers. They were not sitting on the boards and senior management would not interfere in their work - with the exception of granting more money for the constant investments needs - mainly because they were not qualified enough to do so meaningfully. Their role was more of a ‘mechanic' type of work, with a mission to keep the engines going.

Today, alongside the CEOs and CFOs there is a long line of commander-in-chiefs like CIO - Chief Information Office, CTO, Chief Technical Officer, CDO Chief Data Office, CDO Chief Digital Officer. The majority sit on boards and responsibilities differ slightly from company to company, but they all have one main goal: using technology to improve and grow the business. They became strategic leaders that can make a difference in innovation and the wider business. To do this successfully a mix of business and technical skills is the only recipe.