C-suite career advice: Neil Robertson, Compleat Software

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT? "Be prepared to never stop learning. IT evolves at breakneck speed..."

Name: Neil Robertson

Company: Compleat Software

Job Title: Executive Chairman

Location: London, UK

Neil Robertson is the Executive Chairman of Compleat Software, having previously held the role of CEO at Compleat since April 2008. A 40+ year veteran of the financial software industry, Robertson has a long track record of building and growing finance application businesses and bringing new disruptive technologies and applications to market.


What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? A wise man once said to me, "If you have stopped learning and stopped growing, then either settle quietly into the lifestyle you have achieved or move on." It's very easy to become comfortable whereby you reach a point in your career that you can work, go through the process, and leave. The advice actually came from a sales director at Olivetti, a computer manufacturer, back in 1980. He was talking about opportunity, and at the end of the conversation his recommendation for me was that I actually left Olivetti and started a business, which I did. His point was that if you're not learning anything and not growing, are you satisfied by that? Do you want to achieve more? If you do, then you need to think about what you're going to do to achieve that.

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? "Set your sights low to avoid disappointment." The advice came from a career guidance officer at school and, based on my 'academic prowess', that was literally the advice that he gave me. His full quote was, "You know this isn't really going to work out well so if you keep your sights as low as possible then you probably won't be disappointed". The key thing about it is: don't listen to your career guidance officer!

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT? Be prepared to never stop learning. IT evolves at breakneck speed - just look back over the last 40 plus years, from the very basics of accountancy computers coming onto the marketplace to the advent of the PC and everything that's followed. What amazes me is how incredibly fast everything takes place. It's important to not only learning the essential skills, but also the ability to look at what is changing around you and the implications that have had on what you can achieve and what becomes possible. I don't think there's ever been a time in my career where the speed at which opportunities are opening has ever been as abundant as they are now. In some respects, it becomes challenging because you need to tell yourself that you can focus on some, but you can't do all.

Did you always want to work in IT? I'd never really considered going into IT. In fact, when growing up, I'm not even sure the term ‘IT' even existed! Tech certainly wasn't advanced - in 1974, it was nearly a week's salary if to buy a calculator. I think for most of us an opportunity came along, you went to the interviews, you got job and that job tends to start to write the roadmap of the rest of your career and you get into it purely by coincidence. I certainly had no idea of programming, so it was purely the opportunistic seeing of an advert that led me into my career path.

What was your first job in IT? I was an Accounting Computer Salesman at Olivetti back in 1979. I did actually have an out and out ambition when I left school to become a pilot. I joined the cadets and got an RAF scholarship and I learnt to fly an aeroplane before I actually had my driving licence.

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT? That people skills are less important than in other roles. It's just not true. IT covers the spectrum of every conceivable aspect of work these days. You have to be confident to not only work within the realm of IT but also in marketing, sales, implementation, support, development, quality assurance and so on. It's always been said that IT people sit in the corner with headphones on tapping away at a keyboard in glorious isolation. That certainly does happen, but having them understand what the end result was going to be and why it was going to be, that's all about communication. The better the company can communicate, then invariably the better applications will be.

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? I'd say organisational skills are critical. You meet people whom you go into a room, sit down, have a long conversation with and they don't take any notes about the points and the actions. What's the probability that they've got the brain the size of Bill Gates? Self-discipline of your own organisational skills, understanding what it is you need to do and determining the priorities of what you're going to do to maximise your own efficiency. If you can do that with yourself then everything becomes possible. If you can't organise yourself then there is very little hope of you being successful in trying to organise others.

What are your career ambitions and have you reached them yet? My main ambition is to make a difference for the people I work with and the customers we serve. Have I reached that ambition yet? No - you can only get better as perfection is un-achievable, and there is always something you can improve on. With Compleat, the technologies that we have that enable us to deliver functionality gives us the opportunity to re-write the way that organisations deal with their purchasing.

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? No, but that (and a very understanding wife and family) has always been the case. Start Up's and life balance are not happy bedfellows. The temptation is that there is always far more to do than you have time to do during any working week, so you do stuff over the weekend because it's nice and quiet then. I'm not very good at that balance, but I think on the other side of it, when you're in a company that grows very rapidly, stuff just comes at you. My recommendation to other people is - get the balance right.

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? One of my favourite sayings in life is 'you can't have an adventure if you know the outcome'.  You can't keep going back and second guessing yourself with regards to would it have been better or worse if you had done things differently because you have no idea of what the other adventure would've been. I suppose the benchmark with regards to looking back is given what you knew at the time you made the decision; would you still make the same decision? If the answer to that is yes, then the only learning you get out of the thing that you didn't know about is to be more diligent next time round so you learn from the experience.

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? Both have their place. A Bootcamp is a fantastic place to start work, usually at a much younger age than post grads and without the Uni debt. We hire a lot of young people and invest in them, but sometimes bringing in specific post grad talent also has its place, so we do that too. There are huge opportunities to individuals' whichever route they may take. For those that do have the qualifications and the academic prowess then obviously, getting those qualifications will open doors to them, possibly earlier than the bootcamp route. If you've got ambitions, then take the jump no matter which path.

How important are specific certifications? Certifications help to quantify an individual's skill sets, but they need to be relatively current, given the speed technology changes. Qualifications in America? Absolutely priceless. Recruiting in America, people focus on getting formal certifications for specific skill sets because they recognise the value of them. Qualifications in the UK? Less so in terms of their perceived value in recruitment. However, if you're talking about a highly technical role then having certifications in relevant and associated skill sets is going to be pretty much a must have. If somebody can demonstrate competency through certifications that they have that skill set, then they will definitely have an advantage over those people that don't have them.

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? It really depends on the role, but in all cases:

1. Reliability - both in attendance and performance. Always take a reference. People can tell good stories about themselves, so a reference can be very helpful to throw a different light on the individual.

2. Good team player - both contributing to and learning from their interactions internally. A team player is somebody that participates, contributes and understands the big picture with regards to what's trying to be achieved and then helps to deliver on that, that always helps.

3. Good communication skills and ability to take / execute notes - the ability to articulate and contribute to whatever discussion is taking place is very important, always take notes and execute on them.

What would put you off a candidate? High volume of short employment with multiple companies - however valid their reason for continually moving, they are more than likely to do it again.

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? If the candidate hasn't done their homework. It becomes clear pretty quickly that they don't know about your business, that they don't know what you do. In this day and age where everything you ever want to know about anybody is online, turning up to an interview and asking them for information that is readily available from your website, not detailed technical stuff but just simply the basics and they don't know the answer, that doesn't do them any good.

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills - or a mix of both? For application coding, definitely both - you need to understand the business issue the application is trying to address, then use your technical skills to make the solution elegant and practical to use. It's having the technical prowess to find the optimum way of achieving the goal as well as the communication skills and relationships with other members of the company to take those ideas and expand upon them. The ability to have insight across the technical and business divide is not essential in every role by any degree but even if you're technical you've got to have some idea of the value that you're trying to deliver to the consumer.

Related: