C-suite career advice: Oliver Tavakoli, Vectra

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT? "That it doesn't allow for creativity."

Name: Oliver Tavakoli

Company: Vectra

Job Title: Chief Technology Officer

Location: United States

Oliver Tavakoli is chief technology officer at Vectra. Prior to joining Vectra, Tavakoli spent more than seven years at Juniper as chief technical officer for the security business. He joined Juniper as a result of its acquisition of Funk Software, where he was CTO and better known as developer #1 for Steel-Belted Radius. Prior to joining Funk Software, he co-founded Trilogy Inc. and prior to that, he did stints at Novell, Fluent Machines and IBM.

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? If someone explains something to you and you still don't understand it, ask for another explanation. Corollary: never pretend you know something which you don't. You can head off any number of potential disasters by following these two simple principles.

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? That it's enough to find a problem that lots of people encounter and solve it. Just because you can solve a problem doesn't mean people will pay you for the solution or that it's a sustainable business.

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT? Figure out what job makes you happy on a day-to-day basis and acquire the necessary skills to get it. Your ideal job will change over time, but never put perceived job status ahead of what makes you happy.

Did you always want to work in IT? Yes - from the time I was 12 and saw my uncle studying computer science in university, I knew that I wanted to work with computers.

What was your first job in IT? Working for IBM in the IT group that developed software for and operated IBM's internal network called VNET.

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT? That it doesn't allow for creativity. Some of the best IT professionals are incredibly creative and view problems from a pretty unique perspective.

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? Invest as much in your people skills as in the core competency required for your job. Career progression comes as a result of demonstrated competence plus your ability to build successful teams and work with your peers to drive your company's strategy.

What are your career ambitions and have you reached them yet? I reached my ideal job title (CTO) relatively early in my career. Since then, I've worked on perfecting what I believe that role should entail. Like any pursuit of perfection, it is a never-ending journey.

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? The balance is good. I always read lots of books - with none of them on technical subjects or leadership. As with everyone, there are some periods where I push harder than would be sustainable in the long run, but I balance that out with reasonable frequent time off with friends and family to recharge.

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? I would have spent more time with customers and end users earlier in my career. The failure to do so allowed me to build overly complex products that delighted a small number of engaged end users and bewildered the rest of my target customers. Know your end users and develop some empathy for them - and invest in user experience (UX) to express that empathy in your product designs. 

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? Unfair comparison - one takes a few weeks, the other 4 years. If you are considering this choice just as you complete high school, a comp sci degree makes the most sense - you will get a solid grounding in core concepts that pay dividends for years. But if you've bounced around a bit and worked in some technical jobs and feel the need to re-tool in a specific area, coding bootcamps can be incredibly valuable.

How important are specific certifications? Not terribly. A certification or two is OK, particularly if they are meaningful ones that require substantial work and passing rigorous tests. A particular warning sign for me is someone with too many certifications and a need to mention them all in their CV - it makes me wonder how they find time for productive work.

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? Ability to understand stuff, ability to explain stuff and ability to empathise with users of the stuff you build.

What would put you off a candidate? Complaining about how their prior employers haven't appreciated their brilliance. If you've been at 3 successive employers for 2 years or less and you left each of them because you felt unappreciated, the common thread is you. Be factual about why you left without throwing your prior employer under the bus.

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? Appearing to "run out the clock". I ask a simple question and get an expansive 15-minute answer where 2 minutes would have sufficed. Remember that you have a limited time to convince someone to hire you. Use that time judiciously. Take in verbal and non-verbal cues from the interviewer.

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills - or a mix of both? A mix of both. You need technical competence to be credible with your technical counterparts - and you have to map technical issues to business priorities in order to truly impact the business.