C-suite career advice: Derek Thompson, Dell Boomi

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT? "My advice is don't rush. Do an outstanding job within your current role and use that as your foundation..."

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What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? I was a co-founder and CEO of a data management services company in 1998 at the age of 28 and the best piece of advice I received from an ex-CEO and company owner was ‘choose your business partners carefully'.

While he gave this advice to me in the context of a co-founder/CEO, the underlying meaning stands true in any company or role. The people you work with are critically important. For you to succeed and enjoy the journey, you must like and respect the people you work with.

Choose carefully!

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? Nothing major stands out, but there are many examples which revolve around allowing myself to be convinced of something, when my instincts are telling me different. Almost always, not following my gut has led to problems and even a reversal of the decision.

If you find yourself in this situation, get deep into the detail and, if you remain unconvinced, follow your instincts.

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT? The pressure on young people today is enormous and is far beyond that which I experienced starting out. Everyone is under pressure to get ahead, climb the ladder and be seen to do so. And they rush to advance.

My advice is don't rush. Do an outstanding job within your current role and use that as your foundation and platform for your next opportunity. Not only will your prospects of advancement be better and based on a deserved reputation for excellence, but you will feel more fulfilled and confident as you progress.

Did you always want to work in IT? IT wasn't the first place I looked. I am from a military family and I originally applied to join the Royal Air Force. I was in the selection process and, as a backstop, applied for a few other roles, including one in software development.

Before I completed the RAF process, I was offered a job as a programmer. My father, who knew I was fascinated by technology, saw how interested I was in the role and was incredibly supportive. His advice was simple, the RAF is 70 years old (and that was in 1987!), it will still be there in a couple of years if IT doesn't work out.

At the time, it was the lowest paid job offer I received, but I never looked back.

What was your first job in IT? My first job was as a programmer for an engineering group which had its own IT company. It was a time of major bespoke application development - open systems were new and I was exposed to the old and the new including everything from Cobol, RPG, C and then on to 4GLs. An excellent induction as I could see the real business application of what we were developing across the group.

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT? There are many misconceptions about working in IT. Firstly, people think of IT as the hardware, tech geek profession. It is so much more than that and an industry of immense creativity, with some of the brightest minds in business. I don't know of an industry with so many diverse roles and career opportunities. I would encourage everyone embarking on their work journey to look seriously at the technology sector.

Secondly, the misnomer that technical roles are less suited to women. The world has changed beyond recognition in the last 30 years and we still don't have enough young women in technical roles within our profession. I think this is an issue in engineering disciplines generally and society needs to do more from the very early school years. That said, the industry is rapidly changing for the better and none are better than Dell for driving that. As a father of three girls and husband to a senior businesswoman, we're doing our bit in the Thompson household!

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? I would say, take time to really assess if this is the right step for you. To do that effectively, you need to be very self-aware - personality profiling and coaching will really help. I didn't prioritise this when I found myself as a young CEO and it was a bumpy ride. Having experienced the value of truly independent, thoughtful advice, I wholly recommend it and encourage my leaders to take the personal development training and coaching on offer.

Secondly, find a mentor who is not in your chain of command (a common mistake). To really get value from these conversations you need to be open, transparent and be prepared to listen to what can sometimes be difficult advice.

Be authentic. Look at the most admired leaders in the world and they all have it. You believe what they say because they constantly deliver on it. And don't be afraid to acknowledge the failures. We all fail, it's how we learn and sharing the positives that come from that experience is extraordinarily useful.

Critically assess your style. Everyone will look closely at how you behave and often reflect it back. Are you calm, well considered, positive, passionate, tenacious? Do you reflect the things you expect from your teams? We all deliver this in different ways, so remaining true to your style is also important.

Always build for succession as you progress. Recruit great lieutenants who want your job. Don't always recruit in your likeness - you need diverse opinions and abilities.

Keep your eye for detail. It's easy to lose it as your responsibilities increase, but it's critical to stay connected to every aspect of the business and your team.

What are your career ambitions and have you reached them yet? My career ambitions have changed over the years. When I was younger, the drive to get to the c-level was strong, and I recall consciously tempering my outward facing ambition. By achieving that goal at a relatively young age, I was able to relax and reflect on what my core motivators really are.

I'm a problem solver and builder at heart. Ask me to build something new, fix something that's broken or scale something embryonic in a sector that has the potential to have a significant business impact and you will have my attention.

My current role at Dell Boomi is a great example. We are a high growth software as a service (SaaS) business inside one of the world's greatest technology companies. I love the balance that it brings as it's rare in our industry. So many companies stifle innovation, Dell Technologies does the reverse and gives its strategic businesses room to develop and grow, but with the ability to leverage the extensive resources of the group.

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? There is a modern philosophy that work life harmony is a better way to look at this, and I tend to agree. The workplace has changed beyond recognition during my career and technology has played a major part in that.

Your time is never 100% work, or 100% home life. A simple example would be the frequency at which you receive a personal message/WhatsApp when you're deeply entrenched at work and it takes you away momentarily (hopefully putting a smile on your face) and vice versa. I am comfortable dipping in and out of both, but you have to be disciplined to ensure it doesn't reach a level of distraction. There are definitely times of required focus when I am 100% on work or family.

Being happy at both work and home will get the best from me in business, so harmony is essential, and Dell Boomi is great at recognising and encouraging that. Although, that was probably a long-winded way of saying, yes!

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? I'm not sure I'd change much. Like everyone, I've made a couple of poor career decisions, but they ultimately led me to where I am and that is something I wouldn't change. You need to make mistakes to help you understand what you really want and appreciate it when you have it - and I've made my fair share.

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? Well, I wanted to get into work and went straight into programming, so I may be biased. Both have their place and I love the fact that you can succeed in the IT industry by taking either route.

If my children were to ask me this question, my default answer would be to take the degree course. However, if a great tech firm offered an apprenticeship then it's important to choose what best suits their personalities.

How important are specific certifications? Industry certifications are extremely important in technical roles. You wouldn't trust your finances to an un-qualified accountant, so why would you treat your most critical business asset (data) differently?

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? I always focus on core attributes ahead of anything else especially, determination, passion, integrity, positivity and self-motivation. Are they open? Are they likeable? Can they contribute to and motivate a team?

On top of all of this, candidates need to have a healthy curiosity - we are a fast-moving industry and always in a state of transformation. And they need know how to have some fun!

What would put you off a candidate? Arrogance, a lack of preparedness and a lack of authenticity. I also want to see real enthusiasm for the role and the company - if that's missing it's a turn off.

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? One of the mistakes I see a lot are candidates trying to be something they're not. While it's important to project the best version of yourself at interview, stay authentic. Most interview cycles are rigorous and it is hard to maintain a façade throughout.

It also continues to baffle me how often senior candidates are ill prepared. Your CV gets you to the table, it does not get you the job. Make sure you've done your research on the interviewer, the role, the company, the proposition, the market and competitive landscape.

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills - or a mix of both? Absolutely, both is preferable. You may start your career in one discipline, but I would encourage everyone to have a healthy interest in the other.

Imagine the software engineer who really understands the business use-case to which their product applies. Or a salesperson who is comfortable in the board room and with technical teams, helping customers connect the business needs with what technology can deliver. It's powerful when the two combine.

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