C-suite career advice: Stina Ehrensvard, Yubico

How important are specific certifications? "Certifications can be a plus but should never be a requirement."

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What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? After high school, when I was trying to figure out the direction of my life and career, I met a wise woman who advised me to do what made me truly happy and would also have a positive impact on others. Several years later, I co-founded Yubico with my husband Jakob, also deciding to take on the position of CEO. I knew that this was the job that was right for me. I had not managed people before, we had no investors, customers or brand, and many people around us rated our odds of succeeding low. But, we had the first working prototype of our YubiKey invention and I was excited about the journey ahead and our mission of making the internet safer for all.

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? In the early years of building Yubico, someone told me to not show weakness or apologise. I am glad I never followed this advice as I have not yet seen it work for building long-term trusted relationships.

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT? The same advice I got from the wise woman. And to also learn how to communicate and collaborate well with other people. Be clear with what you want and what is important to you, but always try to communicate in a kind and respectful way. Most successful people in any industry are also great at winning friends.

Did you always want to work in IT? When I was a child, I was very focused on the wellbeing of the environment and wildlife and wanted to rescue all the world's wild animals that were trapped in cages. I also loved to draw, build and create things together with my friends. Many years later, I went to college to study industrial product design and I was also a big fan of the internet. Today, I am fortunate to have a job combining my creative skills with my passion for the internet, that also allows me to have extra money to donate to environmental and wildlife animal projects.

What was your first job in IT? After college and before Yubico, my husband Jakob and I founded a company developing the world's first intelligent pharmaceutical paperboard packaging for compliance monitoring. It was not a big success, and eventually the IP rights were sold and the business closed, but it was a great IT start-up education for both of us. I led all the design and marketing, but the company was never more than a dozen people.

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT? The IT and cybersecurity industry are known for being primarily male-dominated fields. This often leads to misconceptions that women in these industries may have more challenges in the workplace. While that may be true in some scenarios, some of the most amazing, fun and caring men I have ever met have been in this industry — including my husband Jakob!

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? The people in my team who were not hired into the c-suite, but earned this position, are doers. They are less focused on their own opinions and positions and more about meeting the needs of other co-workers and the company as a whole. After proving their skill and expertise, their ability to solve problems, collaborate well across teams and get things done, they became the go-to-person for and beyond their specific area

What are your career ambitions and have you reached them yet? I am happy with the job and position I created for myself, but as innovation and leadership is a constant process, I still have a lot to learn.

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? As the CEO of a company and a mother of three children, I had the rare and highly valuable benefit of choosing my own work hours and location. I was also fortunate to start my career and companies in Sweden, offering great and very affordable childcare and where it is commonly accepted that my husband and I would share equal responsibility for our home and children.

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? I would not want to change the path, but if there is one skill I wished I had learned earlier and still can improve, it would be my communications skills. Someone once said that the biggest mistake in communication is the perception that it has happened. And it is very true; just because something is clear and obvious in our own heads does not mean it is always clear to others.

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? A college degree may give you more career options at larger, traditional companies, but the bootcamp may be the place you meet some cool individuals that will invite you to join their scrappy, high-flying start up. At Yubico, we never require a college degree. If we did, my husband, myself, and many of our best engineers would not qualify.

How important are specific certifications? Certifications can be a plus but should never be a requirement. When Yubico recruits new people, we look at the quality of their past work and speak to the references that can prove it. We also give candidates a challenge to solve as part of the interview process to help determine what the person actually knows.

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? We seek people who are curious and eager to learn, who are friendly and solution-oriented team players, and have resilience in completing difficult tasks and overcoming challenges. 

What would put you off a candidate? Someone who shows a clearly negative or arrogant attitude or blames others for their past failures. Many of us have had a few bumps in our career and life, so it is better to take responsibility and be respectful of past employers. Be mindful of what you have learned in the past, including mistakes.

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided?

  • To derail from the question asked into a different topic.
  • To not have researched the company and prepared intelligent questions to ask.
  • Poor verbal, written and/or body language.
  • Making it more about what the company can do for the candidate and less about what the candidate can do for the company.

First, decide if you really want the job or not. Your interest and attitude will make a difference. Then prepare yourself as if you were going for your drivers license or an important school test. Go online and read or watch as much as you can to find out about the company and how to be successful in a job interview.

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills - or a mix of both? There are very successful people with one set of skills, but if the final ambition is growth to an executive or other leadership position, it is likely this will require a mix of both. It is particularly beneficial if these are also combined with great people skills.

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