C-suite career advice: Neha Narkhede, Confluent

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? "The biggest change in taking a C-level position is going from running teams to running an entire business function."

Name: Neha Narkhede

Company: Confluent

Job Title: Co-founder and Chief Technology Officer

Location: San Francisco

Neha Narkhede is co-founder and CTO at Confluent, provider of a streaming platform based on open source Apache Kafka. Prior to founding Confluent, Narkhede led streams infrastructure at LinkedIn, where she was responsible for LinkedIn's streaming infrastructure built on top of Apache Kafka and Apache Samza. She is one of the initial authors of Apache Kafka and a committer and PMC member on the project.

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? Several things come to mind as being valuable lessons as I reflect on my career so far - finding a team and company with the right culture fit, remaining tenacious and fearless when making big decisions, embracing change, and being results-oriented are a few of them. But what's really worked for me is to consistently focus on solving the biggest pain points faced by the business, rather than the most interesting problems. Specifically, in your first 6 months in a new role or job, focus on resolving a series of pain points without worrying about how interesting the project at hand is. This builds trust and opens up many doors for one to grow in their role.

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? In general, I don't believe in business advice that tells you that you need to be good at specific things. Everyone is different. My advice is to be authentic and be yourself - it is easier and takes less energy than trying to be something you are not. Don't talk just to be talking, don't grandstand, don't assume certain traits or styles that you may not have would work better. Instead, focus on making your style work for you, develop a trusted group of colleagues who can give you constructive and unbiased feedback, and use that to refine and grow.

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT? The most important thing is to be good at your job - full stop. So, if you've found a job in technology that you love and are naturally suited to be good at, then work hard and be diligent. If it's a good fit, you will have solid contributions to make. Some audiences and workplaces won't be a fit and that's ok and not your problem. Know your worth and fail fast. When I have been in situations where I have felt discounted or marginalised, my mantra has been, "prove them wrong." The best way to prove them wrong is to be amazing at your job.

Did you always want to work in IT? From a very young age, my parents recognised the importance of learning how to use a computer and purchased one for me at just 8 years old. So it was almost always destined that I would end up working in technology. I loved that technology allows you to test your creative ideas, solve problems without much of an investment beyond a computer and internet. And the impact of your work is immense. I think that's what drew me to pursuing a career in technology

What was your first job in IT? I started my career at Oracle. It was a great learning experience for me. While I was there, I worked on a project where I had an idea of how the team should approach a problem but we followed the direction of the senior architect. I ended up having to prove my perspective and idea through a prototype over a weekend. The experience was difficult but I hung in there and eventually validated my program, and in fact, the code exists today and sits in an Oracle database. Through this experience, I realised that working at a big, hierarchical company wasn't the best fit for me. I noticed startups that were growing rapidly and I was more passionate about, and I could help make a bigger impact there, along with contributing back to the open source community.

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT? As more visibility comes to jobs in technology, especially in the bay area, (through shows like Silicon Valley) I think people can often get the perception that the job is overly glamorous. Folks will hear about the perks like free food, and not realise it's often tied to expectations of working long hours or being on-call and spending a lot of time in the office. The perks are great, but it's definitely not a 9-5 kind of a job. The other thing people tend to miss is the rate of change in technology. You constantly need to learn new skills, keep up with latest developments in the industry. The impact of keeping up with the change can be immense, but it isn't for everyone.

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? The biggest change in taking a C-level position is going from running teams to running an entire business function. And though that might look like a minor shift, it really isn't. As a C-level executive, you are there to make a small number of really impactful decisions for the business. That requires you to delegate the details carefully, and also have enough context to make those decisions. It also becomes really critical to hire and lead senior management talent, that is really a key test for the first 6 months on the job for any new C-level executive. And last but not the least, business functions are rarely independent, every function needs to collaborate with other functions in some way. A C-level executive must be able to collaborate with other functions effectively to drive the business forward.

What are your career ambitions and have you reached them yet? Since I was a little girl, I've always dreamed of creating something of my own, running a company. And since my childhood days, I had plenty of encouragement from my parents to pursue my ambitions, starting something of my own. As co-founder and CTO of a growing technology company in Silicon Valley, I am creating and leading a company every day, despite the odds of working in a completely male-dominated field as an immigrant. I'll always have ambitions beyond my day-to-day, but I'm incredibly lucky to have found a job that I love and that I'm good at.

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? As a CTO and cofounder, it is really less about work-life balance and more about work-life harmony. There are days that need my attention for hours and over the weekends, and I love doing that for my own company. And on other days, there is plenty of flexibility as well. I get to go workout several times a week. I get to spend quality time with family and friends, as well as, pursue my hobby of traveling with my husband and going scuba diving around various beautiful places around the world. I just try to align those travels with my work-related travels and that works out just fine! That's what I mean by work-life harmony.

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? Of course, in every career hindsight is 20-20 and we all wonder about the what-ifs of the past. That said, I don't like to focus on past mistakes unless I can channel that study into how I can improve things for the future. The big decisions I've made - moving to California after school, leaving Oracle for LinkedIn, and founding my own company - I wouldn't change any of that for the world.

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? In general, a computer science degree is more helpful in getting you in the door at companies for the interview (especially early in your career), since it's more tried and true and people know what to expect. That said, I think more and more companies are learning to evaluate based on experience and contributions.

How important are specific certifications? Again, more important than any specific certification is what you did with it. It's more inspiring to see how people have used their expertise and skills than it is to know that they mastered them in a classroom environment. Having side projects, contributions to open source, evangelism through conference talks and blog posts, are all immensely more valuable.

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? When looking for prospective candidates, we look for smart, humble and empathetic people, as that aligns with our company values. We also look beyond the interview and look for signals of past performance and values from references. We have trained our hiring managers to pay a lot of attention to reference checks to vet people because it's really important for us to know if a person works well with a team, their communication skills and what their past team has to say about their abilities as a coworker. And those signals are harder to glean from an onsite interview.

What would put you off a candidate? The inability to hear, absorb and act on feedback. "One team" is one of our company values at Confluent. Everything we do involves working as one team. I also think that people with a growth mindset end up being more valuable colleagues. So if a candidate is unable to hear and respond to feedback in an interview, that's a red flag for me.

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? We think the traditional interviews - like "whiteboard interviews" - are actually pretty lousy. That doesn't give you a good idea of how a person will be day-to-day, or whether they can get stuff done. Was that mistake just a bad day in an interview, or is someone always like that? We employ take-home assignments and take into account a variety of factors, not just mistakes that might be made in an interview. Of course, there are some non-negotiable mistakes - if a candidate arrives very late, if they display low energy or lack of interest, if they haven't read about our technology or company or don't come with any questions - those are pretty clear mistakes that can be avoided.

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills - or a mix of both? A mix of both will serve you well, but the most important thing to have is a "growth mindset": accepting that you don't have a fixed skillset. You can evolve your skills and learn on the fly. I try to use that to counter the imposter syndrome, you know, which is like, "Oh, this might've all been a stroke of luck." I think: "No one really has all the right answers. I haven't had the chance to dive into it yet, but when I do, I will do what it takes."