C-suite career advice: Mark Lippett, XMOS

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT? "Your career should be a constant journey of learning and development..."

Name: Mark Lippett

Company: XMOS

Job Title: CEO

Location: Bristol, UK

Before being named CEO of XMOS in July 2016, Mark Lippett was its Chief Operating Officer, playing a key role in the strategic shift from premium audio to embedded voice interface solutions, bringing a major growth opportunity to the business. During his 12-year tenure at XMOS, Lippett also held the post of Vice President Engineering, responsible for the company's worldwide silicon, applications and software development activities. Prior to joining XMOS, he was Chief Technology Officer for Ignios, responsible for developing silicon and software solutions to manage compute and memory resources on multiprocessors.

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? Trust your people. As an entrepreneur, you have some specific skills and attributes that drive you and make you successful - but building a great team means hiring people with complementary skills, not just more of the same!

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? I've worked around inspiring leaders in this industry and received a lot of advice - all of it valued an none of it bad. Even now, I'm lucky enough to benefit from the experience and insights of a top-flight board. 

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT? Your career should be a constant journey of learning and development, so if you find yourself in a role where you are not learning anything new, move on. It's important to stay challenged and invest time in improving your skillset. Secondly, it's important to collaborate obsessively with the talented people around you.

Did you always want to work in IT? Yes

What was your first job in tech? I was sponsored by Philipps through my undergrad engineering degree, which led to a job designing military radars in the early 90s. I had a tremendous introduction to electronic engineering in a commercial context that has echoed throughout my career, including here at XMOS, where I started life as an engineer.

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT? A lot of roles can often be thought of as siloed and machine-based with little interaction between employees. The opposite is true for XMOS. When you're working on ground-breaking technology such as we are - the evolution of voice and the future of Edge AI - collaboration propels innovation. Intelligent people working together on interesting projects can get global attention. It's not as hard as it might seem if you have the commitment and passion to back it up.

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? There is no classical route. I went the engineering route, which many don't think is possible or advisable, but it's a perfectly valid route to take, especially for many of the emerging areas of technology. It's important to know the business from the ground up so that you can make strategic decisions.

Commercial awareness is something you need to learn, which means rolling up your sleeves and tackling sales and marketing. It's one thing to believe in what you're doing, excel at it and create revolutionary products; but it's another entirely to persuade others as to why they should buy into it.

A really fulfilling part of my role is mentoring the next generation of engineers. Often you find the most talented people aren't aware of their potential or the influence they could have.  Don't underestimate yourself and collaborate effectively with those around you to learn as much as you can.

What are your career ambitions and have you reached them yet? A huge milestone was growing XMOS, a small UK business with a global prosumer audio reach, into a voice partner of Amazon Voice Service. We observed that some of our customers were using our tech to create multiple microphone systems. That made us curious because it took us outside of the relatively small prosumer market and into the much bigger consumer electronics market.

Then Amazon launched Echo - that was our opportunity to move into the voice-interface market and I jumped on a plane to start a relationship with the team at Amazon. Voice has been a focus ever since, although we maintain a strong commitment to our original USB and hi-res audio customers.

There is, of course, much more work to be done. I want to continue along this trajectory and continue to grow the company's success.

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? I have a work-life balance - some weeks better than others. Generally speaking, it's okay, although my wife and children might say otherwise. As a CEO, finding a good work-life balance can be challenging. But it's very important to me that XMOS employees experience a good balance, as this is a key part of motivation and job satisfaction. Not least so that the team knows they are valued and appreciated.

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? I wouldn't change a thing. Of course, there have been bumps along the road, but I've stayed on a constant learning curve. That's what I'd say to anyone reading this - your currency is your talent, and you owe it to yourself to make the right moves and spend time wisely. 

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? A computer science degree can certainly help, but it doesn't exclude you. If you're a hands-on type, then take the coding bootcamp, but I don't think one precludes the other.

How important are specific certifications? Certifications are a "nice to have" - but it certainly wouldn't go against a creative thinker who can contribute to problem solving in another way. The solutions we're developing means we think in terms of people-literate technology, not always technology-driven people.

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? I look for attributes in talent, behaviour and experience. Talent and experience can be developed, but it's very tricky to change behaviour. Increasingly for our line of business employees need to possess a natural curiosity, creativity and problem-solving skills. Many of tomorrow's roles don't exist today, so creativity and adaptability are key.

What would put you off a candidate? A lone ranger who couldn't operate as part of a team.

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? In the broadest sense, a lack of preparation or enthusiasm sets off the alarm bells.

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills - or a mix of both? Ideally, it's better to have a mixture of both, and surround yourself with people you trust who have useful expertise that can fill the gaps. Starting your own company is a fast track to both! There is no prescribed mix or timeline.