C-suite career advice: Ivan Novikov, Wallarm

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? "Neither. Study physics. Physics explains how the universe works."

Name: Ivan Novikov

Company: Wallarm

Job Title: CEO

Location: San Francisco

Ivan Novikov is CEO of Wallarm, a provider of AI-powered application security. He is also a white hat security professional with over 12 years of experience in security services and products, as well as an inventor of memcached injection and SSRF exploit class. Novikov is a recipient of bounty awards from Google, Facebook, and others, and has recently been a speaker at HITB, Blackhat, and other industry events.

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? The most useful advice I ever got was to leave KPMG and start my own company. I am very happy I've followed it. Since so much of our time is spent working, I think it's important to do what makes you happy and leaves you feeling fulfilled.

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? The worst advice I received was to pivot the company to focus on product and then shift gears to focus on consultancy.

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in tech? Identify the aspects of tech that most fascinates you and sparks curiosity, and really immerse yourself in it. It's also important to keep a pulse on the industry as a whole in order to identify trends, monitor how tech is evolving and how this impacts the overall ecosystem. 

Did you always want to work in tech? When I was 15, I knew I wanted to work with computers. In fact, my parents sold their garage to buy me my first computer for $300 and I've been fascinated with tech ever since. If you think about it, technology is deeply ingrained in our society, from cybersecurity, payments, social and communication services. Whatever you do, you're likely involved with tech in one way or another.

What was your first job in tech/IT? My first IT job was writing reviews on gadgets for a consumer electronics magazine. I was 14 at that point. My first programming job was working in Java and then as a team lead.

What are some common misconceptions about working in tech/IT? One common misconception about working in IT is that we spend most of our time sitting behind a computer typing up code. In fact, the majority of our time is spent thinking about how to solve problems, and only then typing code, preferably smaller amounts of more elegant code. If we are talking about cybersecurity, DevOps or another branch of IT, the key issues remain the same. To do it right you have to analyse, architect, consider risks, and only then implement.

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? Be yourself, be interesting, be exciting. Be knowledgeable and proactive in your recommendations for the business. Be the kind of dynamic leader that people want to follow. Finally, lead by example and this will help you advance in your career and be seen as a valuable asset to the company.

What are your career ambitions and have you reached them yet? I never thought about my career in terms of a position or a salary. I think more generally about larger goals. For example, I've had a goal of using AI in cybersecurity, which I've achieved through our products at Wallarm. My next goal is to develop a unified security solution that implements intrusion detection, real-time API protection and log analytics. This is my ambition now and I am working on making it happen.

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? My work is central in my life. I have a perfect balance because I don't differentiate between work and life. They are one and the same for me.

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? I wouldn't change anything. I don't believe in the butterfly theory that a small change in one place could lead to a completely different course of events. What you are is based on a long series of choices you've made along the way.

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? Neither. Study physics. Physics explains how the universe works. It's 5000 years old and computer science is only 50 years old. With physics you have the right foundation to go anywhere, including computer science.

How important are specific certifications? I have no certifications myself and manage to be pretty successful without them. Certifications are more important in the corporate world, but not as much for startups.

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? It depends on what position they are applying for. Mainly, the person needs to be self-sufficient, self-motivated and happy with themself. Secondly, they have to have the internal fire and energy. I don't want to work with somebody who is tired of life. Lastly, they really need to want to do what the job requires. Even if they don't know how to do something, as long as they are interested in the project and eager to learn, something can be worked out.

What would put you off about a job candidate? Lack of energy and proactivity is the biggest turn off. It's very important to me that a candidate is passionate about the role and interested in working towards the same goals as the company.

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? The biggest mistake is when a candidate is late or doesn't show up for the interview. This shows a lack of discipline, lack of respect for the team and lack of motivation. Another common mistake is coming off uncertain, as well as attempting to circumvent questions or hiding the fact that they don't know the answer. Lastly, it's problematic when candidates talk a lot about their own background without explaining why the project is interesting to them or how they would go about contributing to it.

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills - or a mix of both? Again, physics is your friend here. You need to know how to think, understand how things work and how they fit together, and that's what physics teaches us. You also need to be able to communicate well. That said, having a mix of both (with a greater focus on business) is beneficial.