C-suite career advice: John Owen, Mastek UK Limited

What would put you off a candidate? "Candidates that have inconsistencies between the narrative of what they are talking about and their achievements."

Name: John Owen

Company: Mastek UK Limited

Job Title: Group CEO

Location: Reading, UK

John Owen joined Mastek as its Group CEO in November 2016. Owen has played senior sales and marketing roles in growth organisations like Serco, HP and Nortel over the last 25 years. In his last job at Serco, he was the Sales and Marketing Director for UK and Europe, where his responsibilities included handling the UK Government — Serco's largest customer. Owen brings his expertise in business development and his track record in delivering growth, especially in the UK government market, to the company. 

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? To take on the projects and challenges that no one else wanted to do. I'd suggest that most people are risk averse and want to conform and do what the conventional business demands i.e. go with the flow, but I'd argue that you learn faster if you accept challenges upfront and adopt the unconventional. Companies will always need people that fix and change things for the better and that takes an element of bravery, self-belief and experience. Therefore, it's important to learn early while the risks and consequences aren't that severe.

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? In a blue-chip company, the tendency is that internal politics will be important to career progression. I was once strongly advised to prioritise an internal meeting with a visiting Exec from HQ over an external customer meeting which would result in business. I could never figure that one out however, I'm sure there are plenty of people who will disagree with me.

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT? The scale and complexity can sometimes be overwhelming when you first start out however, it is so important that you embrace and enjoy the change and commit to continuous improvement - we are in the pursuit of excellence not perfection. The IT industry reinvents itself every year which presents exciting opportunities - if you accept the challenge. However, if you like the status quo, this industry is probably not for you.

Did you always want to work in IT? Honestly, not specifically as I don't have the strongest technical background. Coding was always beyond my capabilities at University - although I tried on an old DEC VAX! I have however, always wanted to work with people and to build and run something that I could be proud of. When you play team sports you quickly realise it's the sum of the parts that delivers the outcome and that's probably why I have always needed and respected having a strong technical team around me.

What was your first job in IT? I started my career at Racal-Milgo, a great English electronics company that was probably one of the first to specialise in data communications - they also created Vodafone. The company trained me in how data networks were designed, built and maintained. A company with great integrity and values.

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT? When I started in the mid-80s, being an engineer wasn't seen as a cool job - thankfully it is now. The UK has always had great talent but now more than ever, we must develop this talent onshore as IT is no longer a back-office function, instead it is now an integral part of any business. IT is moving towards a similar status of where financial acumen is today, if you don't understand it, it will be very difficult to run any type of business.

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? I think it is essential for anyone aiming for a c-level position to have a core competency. General management skills must be built around a core competency be it finance, sales, marketing, IT, HR or operations. Today, I think there are too many C-suite executives, that if you strip away their company status, they are left exposed. Starting your own business certainly brings home where you add value and where you don't.

What are your career ambitions, and have you reached them yet? A little cliched but I enjoy each day that I work. I am fortunate enough that I can choose what I like and Mastek is a really good fit for me, probably the best job I have ever done. I no longer measure progress through titles or financial aspirations but through the impact I have on people's lives. I have always been keen to build transferrable skills and my goal is to remain employable as we go through the 4th Industrial Revolution and not be replaced by an algorithm.

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? Yes, I always try to maintain a flexible work life balance. I view life as 3-legged stool - Individual well-being, family well-being and professional well-being. We invest a huge amount of personal time and energy into our professional life, but it cannot be to the long-term detriment of the other two.  

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? Nothing. I've enjoyed success and I've also experienced failure. You learn more valuable lessons in difficult times than at any other time and remember; markets are cyclical, you're never as good as you believe you are and conversely, you're not always responsible for the problems that arise.

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? It's not an either or, we need strong, transferrable skills that can be applied to achieve strong business and technical outcomes. If you were in your 20's, a coding bootcamp would be ideal as programming is one of the most in-demand careers you can find these days and bootcamps can be one of the easiest ways to break into a programming career. However, neither a bootcamp or a degree are a guarantee to build a career in the industry - a strong work ethic is important, irrespective of your entry point.

How important are specific certifications? I think they are very important, as it's about brand confidence. We are all looking for validation points. For anyone looking to get ahead in the tech industry, gaining a recognised qualification can be key when it comes to securing a role, as certifications are a mark of expected quality in any market, thereafter it's down to performance.

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates?  At Mastek we recruit around the three criteria of our value system:

Heart (60%) which is about values as they tend to be hard-wired and difficult to change

Head (30%) which is your intellect and attitude to learning

Hands (10%) which is about your experience

What would put you off a candidate? Candidates that have inconsistencies between the narrative of what they are talking about and their achievements. If they're talking about leadership but have never led anyone, it immediately raises a red flag. Today, when everyone leaves a digital footprint it's important that the professional person is the same as the private person. When under pressure, which personality would come through.

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? Again, there seems to be a lot of inconsistencies between people's CVs, job profiles and social media profiles. I think it's important that candidates are transparent about their previous roles and experiences and inflating your expertise is a quick way to alienate your interviewer. If you don't know the answer to a question, it's better to be up front about it.

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills - or a mix of both? I think it's important to have an appreciation of both skills. It's alright being a smart engineer, but if you can't communicate how the technology is going to work, it can be very frustrating and hinder adoption. Likewise, it's also important to respect the technical teams input and perspective. Diverse teams tend to win in the long run and the ability to be authentic and bridge both camps is the real key to success.