C-suite career advice: Jonathan Christensen, Symphony

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT? "Find your passion and deliver something extraordinary early."

Name: Jonathan Christensen

Company: Symphony

Job Title: Chief Experience Officer

Location: San Francisco

Jonathan Christensen is passionate about internet communications. Since the beginning of the category he has built and lead teams on industry leading projects in consumer and enterprise product with Microsoft, Skype, Wire and most recently Symphony. Christensen is a successful entrepreneur, having co-founded and sold Camino Networks to eBay in 2006 in addition to his service on numerous advisory and board positions.

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? "Do what you love." The best predictors of success are engagement and satisfaction - if you feel yourself going through the motions in a job then it's definitely time for a change.

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? "Play it safe." There was a time in my career when I was frustrated with my job and found myself at a dead end. Despite all the friendly advice coming from friends and family to "hold tight", I quit my job and went into full time soul searching mode. Within a month I had a solid idea of what I wanted to do, and another month later I was doing it. The job I started did not exist until I convinced the company that they needed to do it, and that I was the right person to lead the effort.

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT? Find your passion and deliver something extraordinary early. Find ways to make your code, project, product stand out. There are always ways to make your assignment shine. Define the baseline/minimum requirements, then ask yourself what would "amazing" look like.

Did you always want to work in IT? Absolutely not. I had no idea what I was going to do when I was in school. In fact I was kind of in crisis before I started tinkering with computers and databases. I bought a top of the line Dell with school loans and savings when I started graduate school. It opened the door to a whole new world for me.

What was your first job in IT? My first job in IT was before the World Wide Web. The company I worked at did not have IT so I started giving people computers, teaching them, networking the office, introducing email, and automating manual paper processes with a relational database. It was not my "day job" and I had no formal training.

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT? It depends on the perspective. "Outsiders" sometimes think IT is an impenetrable world of highly specialised engineers and "magic". Careers in IT are accessible to anyone with passion and affinity, it doesn't necessarily mean that you have to have formal training. Many of the best developers I have worked with never studied computer science.

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? To stay humble and connected to the tech. If you don't love change, you will get passed by. In short it all comes back to passion for the technology.

What are your career ambitions and have you reached them yet? I believe we can make communication and collaboration better for everyone. I want to play a part of making people productive and happy at work, and at home. The potential of the Internet to connect us is breath-taking. We are at the very beginning of this journey, so while those ambitions have not been realised yet - it's great to play a part.

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? It depends who you ask, but overall I feel like I have been able to share my work and travel with my family and keep a reasonable balance.

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? From time to time I have wondered what would be different if I had studied computer science or a related discipline. There have been times when people who don't know me, or have not worked with me, have questioned my engineering or product credibility. Then I ask myself if a computer science or related degree would have made me a better manager, leader, mentor? I have no regrets.

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? There are many paths and it would be wrong to single out one. Having passion for the role is more important. The way companies now hire is changing. For example, I've been rejected for roles because I did not study computer science at Stanford. Those companies with that hiring philosophy still exist, but less and less. Internships are perhaps the most powerful way to immerse and learn the practical skills involved in delivering products. If you have no experience but you have passion for tech, get an internship and keep your ears and eyes wide open.

How important are specific certifications? As someone who has hired hundreds of engineers and product specialists, I personally don't care about certifications or degrees. Show me your passion, what you have delivered, what you want to deliver.

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? 

  1. The ability and resilience to develop and ship great products in the face of ambiguity and constrained resources.
  2. Clear demonstration of effective team work and iterative cross-department collaboration.
  3. Permanent curiosity. Nobody has a perfect track record, but what sets apart the successful is the ability to be reflective, learn from mistakes, evolve, and move forward.

What would put you off a candidate? Arrogance and "lone wolf" behaviours. I've worked with many talented people who are "once in a lifetime talents", but if they can't work in a team then their skills will never scale. Those individuals are amazing if they can work on isolated deliverables - but the trouble starts when it's time to scale the product / project and include others. I value a candidate who understands the importance of customer empathy. In the technology industry there is no space to develop products based on your own personal experiences and problems; it should be all about the customer.

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided?

  1. Rambling answers: If I ask an open ended question in an interview, this is NOT an invitation to meander. I'm expecting the candidate to frame the problem and get to the specifics.
  2. Lack of curiosity: I typically ask candidates what their motivation is, and what gets them out of bed in the morning. I'm looking for evidence of real passion and excitement.
  3. Too much focus on money as opposed to mission: Making money is of course very important, but the ongoing sustainable win only comes from having a clear mission and purpose in the work that you do.

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills - or a mix of both? You definitely need to have a mixture of both. Relating technology solutions to customer problems is how you achieve market fit; the perspective needed to do that requires both skills. The more detached from the customer problem you are, the less likely you are to solve it.