C-suite career advice: Tasso Argyros, ActionIQ

"Focus on solving business problems and on the business users."

Name: Tasso Argyros

Company: ActionIQ

Job Title: Co-founder and CEO

Location: New York City, US

Tasso Argyros is the founder and CEO of ActionIQ, the leading enterprise customer data platform, solving the biggest problem marketers face: the flow and scale of data, analytics, and campaigns. Tasso is a serial entrepreneur who previously founded Aster Data, a pioneer in Big Data, which was acquired by Teradata for over $300M.

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? When I was a PhD student at Stanford, my advisor was a professor named David Cheriton. David has had a spectacular career by any measure, having been a pioneer in computer science research, a successful entrepreneur and the first angel investor in Google. Back in 2005, I was considering starting my first company but I was too early in my PhD journey to graduate quickly. I asked David if I should do both the startup and the PhD, to which he replied, "the problem with doing two things is that you have to compete with people that only do one." He was right! This advice taught me the value of focusing on business.

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? Someone once told me that culture doesn't matter. I've found the complete opposite to be true - a great culture takes care of employees and also makes everyone more productive, more transparent, and more effective. Just because it's hard to define culture, it doesn't mean that it doesn't matter.

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT? Focus on solving business problems and on the business users. These are the two things that ultimately matter for a business to be truly successful.

Did you always want to work in IT? I have - ever since my dad bought me my first Apple Macintosh in 1991.

What was your first job in IT? I was the CTO of a database startup I helped co-found, Aster Data, in 2005. In this role, I had a front row seat to the big data revolution, which has played a big role in my career since then, giving me the foundation for my current position as the CEO and co-founder of ActionIQ, an Enterprise Customer Data Platform.

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT? A common misconception about working in IT is that it's only about coding. There are some great coding jobs, but IT is also about people, getting things done, and being focused on the right business opportunities.

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? Focus on business impact - worry less about checking the boxes in the project and more about delivering strong ROI for your business.

What are your career ambitions and have you reached them yet? I've been lucky in my career to have found success and reached many of my goals early-on. By staying focused on following my passion, I've reached many of my goals and continue to set new ones to work towards.

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? I try to ensure I have a good work life balance but I do not succeed every day or even every week. My rule is that every period of intense focus on work is followed by a period where my family is the priority.

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? I've worked very hard to be where I'm at in my career. I have had incredible mentors who I've learned a tremendous amount from and who have provided me with the tools to make the best decisions for my career. I feel very lucky and successful and wouldn't change anything about the route my career path has taken.

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? I would recommend a CS degree, but understand that not everyone has the resources and time to take this route. If you're just starting and have the choice, I believe a CS degree gives a better, broader foundation, but if you're looking to try out IT or make a shift mid-career, a bootcamp can jumpstart this change.

How important are specific certifications? I believe in function over form. Certifications do not hurt, but I also do not give them too much weight. If you become truly good at something, employers are smart enough and will figure it out - certified or not.

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates?  It's difficult to narrow it to only three. I look for five main skills or abilities in prospective candidates:

  • Character with integrity that inspires trust, respect, and mindfulness
  • Strong drive and work ethic
  • Effective communication skills
  • Intelligence. Having a strong technical foundation and the ability and willingness to learn and evolve.
  • Judgment. This is a key ingredient, although hard to define, it's also hard to teach.

What would put you off a candidate? At ActionIQ, it's all about the people. I strive to hire employees whose values align with our company's values and aim to create a professional environment that consists of genuine, honest employees that have a strong work ethic and work towards our company's common goal. If there is any indication that a candidate doesn't align with these values, I'd likely reconsider hiring them.

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? Not being prepared is the biggest mistake because no matter what, the interviewer can tell. Candidates should always do their research and come prepared to an interview.

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills - or a mix of both? It's easier to add business to technical skills, rather than the other way around.