C-suite career advice: Patrick Smith, Pure Storage

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? "Focus on the roles and companies that can teach you something, and continually enhance your own skill set."

Name: Patrick Smith

Company: Pure Storage

Job Title: EMEA CTO

Location: United Kingdom

Patrick Smith is Pure Storage's EMEA CTO. As a senior technical advisor, Smith provides crucial input and leadership across engineering, product management, sales, marketing as well as presales. With a 25 year career in financial services technology, he has held roles at Credit Suisse, Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch and Nomura in London and New York. Most recently, he was responsible for core infrastructure engineering at Deutsche Bank. Smith's career began as an electronic design engineer at STC Submarine Systems, where he worked on underwater telecommunications systems.

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? There's not one specific piece of advice per se, but the importance of creating a collaborative culture is a great leadership lesson that I strive to live by. Everyone brings a unique perspective, and different skills to the table - a good leader uses this to the business's advantage to drive forward innovation.

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? To "sharpen my elbows" and conform to a certain company culture. In this particular environment, you really had to be a Type A personality to get on - and I wasn't.  My preference is collaboration and teamwork.

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT? Don't be afraid to take risks. That's a very important one, because in this industry you have to put yourself out there and not be afraid of making some big moves in your career. By doing so you either advance yourself, or you make new network connections. At the end of the day you need to take control of your own career progression.

For example, while working for a very large American investment bank I twice relocated to its HQ in the US, one time when the organisation was going through considerable change. While it was a risk, that experience gave me so many opportunities and skills that I've carried forward throughout my career. 

Did you always want to work in IT? Yes, ever since I got my first computer at the age of 13. It came as a bag of components that I had to build myself, and work out how to use. That was my first foray into computers and I was interested in IT ever since.

What was your first job in IT? I started off as an electronic design engineer, then started managing a CAD system for a large engineering company. It's for this reason that I've always been interested in the infrastructure side of the job, as it's a perfect combination of engineering and IT.  

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT? There's a misconception that IT is boring, that you do the same thing every day. This couldn't be further from my experience. Having spent the majority of my career in IT in financial services, the sheer variety of the work on a day-to-day basis is challenging and exciting. The job is all about solving problems or rising to the challenge to meet a new business requirement. Solving these problems extends far beyond the business world of course, and technology is playing a major role in a number of ways; from developing autonomous vehicles and creating smarter cities to propelling space exploration. It's exciting to be in a field that is making these developments possible. 

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? I don't think many people actually set out with the end goal of getting a C-Level position. Your career can lead you down different paths that could eventually lead to that role. If you are appreciated and acknowledged for the job you are doing and have done, then I've found that progression follows.

Your career is individual to you, there is no set path or blueprint for success. So my biggest advice would be to focus on the roles and companies that can teach you something, and continually enhance your own skill set.

What are your career ambitions and have you reached them yet? Trying to define a particular ambition is difficult, particularly when you're working in technology the idea of what's possible is constantly changing. Every day I get to see my work and that of my colleagues, making an impact on the world. Whether it's F1 team winning the Grand Prix, or the enabling of clinical teams to develop targeted cancer treatments - data is changing the world around us and I'm happy to be a part of that. This role challenges me, and I'm proud to be part of that. 

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? I do. Work-life balance is so important, and technology is making it possible. For example, people are no longer tied to their desks, with technology making it possible to work around other important life commitments - or connect with those from any location across the globe. 

On a personal level do make a point of making time for myself and my family, and during those moments I ensure I don't have my phone in front of me. It's not a sustainable way of working if you can't switch off completely. It's not about "work hard, play hard" it's "work hard, and have downtime".

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? I wouldn't change anything. The variety of roles I have had, and the different companies I have worked for has definitely determined where I am today. Everything you do plays a part in shaping your career.

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? I see companies hire a lot of engineers because of the all-important inquisitive mind-set that engineers have. That's the type of mind-set that you can't really teach - so I would say that a coding-boot camp for someone with that type of mind-set would be the best option for success.

How important are specific certifications? There are many ways to get the necessary traits to succeed in IT, without having to do a degree or gain certain certifications. The technology challenges facing business will vary and evolve therefore requiring a wide variety of skill sets, and individual perspectives. After all, innovation is always the result of looking at something differently, so a one-sized fits all route into the industry would be counter-productive. 

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? An inquiring mind - those that are constantly asking questions, both of themselves, and of the technology environment around them.

Those that don't accept the status quo - technology is such a fast-moving space so you can't afford to be stagnant

Common sense - it goes without saying, but people often overlook common sense. You could have great technical minds, but the best candidates are those that can ground themselves in reality and translate their skills into the real world

What would put you off a candidate? In IT we deal with real business problems, and real-world challenges - so I would be put off by a candidate who didn't have that human touch about them. On a personal level I like people who have a level of humility about them, and aren't boastful or brash.

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? Not being prepared, talking too much and not actively listening are the biggest mistakes a candidate can make. You're setting the tone and giving an impression of what you will be like as an employee.

IT and technology requires a customer-first mindset, so showing that you're open to listening and accepting new ideas is vital in an interview situation.

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills - or a mix of both? 100 percent you have to have both. You have to be able to join the technology world with the business world - and that goes for pretty much any industry. But for me, empathy is also a critical ingredient for a healthy symbiosis between technical and business skills. Empathy means you can read between the lines, and truly understand where your customers (and colleagues) are coming from. It's the combination of three that will set you apart as a business leader.