C-Suite Career Advice: Dillon Erb, Paperspace

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills - or a mix of both? "In a leadership position, I think it is important to have a foot in both camps."

Name: Dillon Erb

Company: Paperspace

Job Title: CEO & Co-founder

Location: Brooklyn, NY

Dillon Erb is CEO of Co-founder of Paperspace, a leading provider of AI computing in the cloud. Having spent his time developing genetic and evolutionary algorithms for tensile structures, Erb is an expert in low level optimisation problems.  Before Cofounding Paperspace, he worked within the disciplines of architecture and engineering, specifically looking at structural performance within large building structures. Today, Erb spends his time applying his background in optimisation techniques to cloud GPU pipelines.

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? The first few hires at any new venture are the most important. It's critical to find the right people to work with who are there for the right reasons and who share your vision. Those people are going to be multipliers in a way that is impossible to recreate or duplicate in any other way, which is why you have to find individuals who ‘get' what you are building and want to put in the time and work needed to help the company grow. 

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? I think too many startups today build a business with a short-term goal of being acquired or build a company for any other reason than trying to make an impact on a customer's life or workflow. I truly believe a successful business is one that focuses on the end-user, not on a quick exit strategy or other secondary consideration.

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT? Build something, don't just rely on the knowledge you've acquired. There's a lot you can read and learn about, but nothing compares to hands-on experience. 

Also, find a community and immerse yourself in it. Collaboration is a key part of growth as a developer. Some folks go the ‘lone wolf' route but that can be hard. I live by the mantra of "you don't really understand something until you can explain it well" and engaging with others can push this along. 

Did you always want to work in IT? I am a technologist at heart for sure. I didn't know what form it would take, but I was pretty sure that technology is where I would eventually land. I also had a pretty big hunch early on that I would end up starting my own company. That's been my main career projection, at least up until now.   

What was your first job in IT? I was a software programmer for a research group at the University of Michigan with responsibility for building structure simulations for architects and engineers. Working in a research context was great because I had a lot of autonomy and the ability to explore new directions. It ultimately inspired me to start Paperspace. It was very similar to working at a startup. Many of the lessons I learned there I was able to translate into starting my own business.    

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT / tech? That's it's all about the technology when it really is largely about the people and their ability to communicate and band together to solve a complex problem. Those are the people that are the most successful. 

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a C-Level? One of the best things you can do is listen closely to folks at all levels within your company. That will give you a holistic view of what's happening and enable you to problem-solve much faster. It also helps build good communication habits and rapport with your teams.

What are your career ambitions and have you reached them yet? Honestly, the company I am running now has gone further than I had initially imagined. To me, the goal is to continue to be an organisation that people love while maintaining high quality as we scale up. 

I am still working on figuring out how to scale a company from a bootstrapped startup to a well-funded business with large customers, which is a fun challenge. Lots of work ahead!

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? This is a work in progress for me. It's quite difficult to achieve a good balance at an early stage startup, as you can imagine. That said, I don't think you can overestimate the value of taking a step back from your work as time away helps give perspective and build insights that you wouldn't get otherwise.

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? Frankly, I don't think I would have done anything differently. I love what I am doing and the business couldn't be doing better by all the metrics that matter to me. That said, I jumped relatively early into starting a company. Looking back, there are some valuable lessons I would've learned had I waited a bit longer before taking the entrepreneurship route. But, all in all, no regrets. 

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? Both are valuable. The reality is you will learn more on the job than anything else. Many of the best developers I know are self-taught. A computer science degree, however, gives a very solid foundation and is a strong signal that someone has learned algorithms, the fundamentals, etc.

How important are specific certifications? Not very relevant in our work. Sample work, especially in GitHub, is a better signal of proficiency. 

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? Clear communication, especially for distributed teams. Also, a person's willingness to explore all possible resources to solve a problem. And, ultimately, what they have built, what they are learning now, and how they learn new technologies.

Excitement and passion are also key because if you're not engaged, you're not going to give it your best. 

What would put you off in a candidate? Not asking questions and lacking a sense of humility. Someone who expresses too much confidence and rigidness in their approach is a red flag. Ultimately, no product or company gets built by one person; it's a collaborative effort. And a person must be willing to acknowledge their limits and be able to embrace the contribution of others. 

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? I think most mistakes are actually made by the interviewer if they do not faithfully represent the reality of a current stack (i.e. how much refactoring is necessary for old code / technical debt vs exploratory work). Many developers are good at one and not the other, or have a strong preference for a particular way of engaging in a code base (i.e. they prefer a polished thing that needs changes vs they want to architect something entirely new). 

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills - or a mix of both? Same answer as above. I don't expect software engineers to have strong business skills, but an unwillingness to recognise the business needs of a company (which mostly boils down to "ship fast so you can get feedback from users") is a strong negative signal.