C-suite career advice: Chris Caren, Turnitin

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? "Always be learning + seeking and open to brutally honest feedback."

Name: Chris Caren

Company: Turnitin

Job Title: CEO

Location: Oakland, California

Chris Caren joined Turnitin in 2009 as Chief Executive Officer. Caren led the transition of Turnitin from a company focused on plagiarism prevention to one that provides solutions that promote academic integrity, streamline grading and feedback, and improve outcomes across educational levels and content areas. He previously worked for Microsoft Corporation as GM of Microsoft Business Solutions. Although his career has focused on software businesses, he comes from a family of scientists and educators.

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? To find the intersection of what you enjoy and what you are uniquely good at, which requires both experimentation and honest self-assessment of your talents.

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? To play it safe and be risk-averse in your career. Every one of the most successful people that I've met have said that they wish they had taken more risks in their career.

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT? Regardless of what team you are on, gain a hands-on understanding of your company's products and why customers choose to "hire you" … the core problem they are trying to solve. Also, develop a deep understanding of your company's competitors and industry. The IT industry is rapidly evolving, and it's important to maintain awareness of that evolution beyond the company where you work.

Did you always want to work in IT? Yes, I was an engineer in college, where I studied engineering and computer science. Post undergrad, I was in IT consulting for six years. Then I attended business school, I have been involved in software businesses since. Software is truly reinventing every industry, including education where I've been focused for the past 10 years.

What was your first job in IT? For the first three years after undergrad, I was a software developer at the consulting firm Accenture. For the next four years, I managed teams of software developers there. Getting management experience early in my career was incredibly important in my future success as a business leader.

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT? To design software properly for scale, for usability, and of high quality takes much more effort and time than people think.

Another misconception is to underestimate the importance of product management. Deeply understanding your customer and the value you are delivering to them, which is the responsibility of product management, is equally as important as engineering.

Finally, there is an underappreciation for the value of data and information. Although big data storage has been an industry buzzword for the past several years, extracting value from it will a big theme for the next decade.

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? Always be learning + seeking and open to brutally honest feedback. Think two steps ahead in your career, in regard to skills building and the roles you seek out. Try hard to work at well-run companies with positive cultures and operational excellence. Seek out great mentors and identify role models that you can observe and learn from in their job. Most of my "mentoring" through the years was actually watching people who had great skills and trying to emulate those practices myself.

What are your career ambitions and have you reached them yet? I continually redefine my ambitions. At this point in my career, I'm interested in impacting as many lives as possible through our company's software: both teachers and students. We're already the largest commercial education technology platform in the world, but I want to keep broadening our impact. The reward of building a great business and a great culture is hard to step away from. While I may have achieved the goals that I set for myself ten years ago, I keep raising those ambitions. From this point forward it's all about impact and legacy.

Do you have a good work-life balance in your current role? The phrase work-life integration resonates with me more. I feel good about how much time I spend focusing on work each week and focusing on family. I do wish I had more time to focus on friends and personal interests. One thing that has helped me be successful is playing offense on where my time goes. I am deliberate about time focused on work, time focused on family, and time focused on me. That intentionality has played a key role in my success and not having regrets.

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? Firstly, over the past 15 years, I've become much better at recognising in-the-moment when I am not focused on the right things to maximise my effectiveness. I wish I had developed this ability much sooner - that's probably my greatest wish.

Secondly, I also worked at many companies where politics and an inward-focused culture was dominant. I wish I had spent more time in my career up until now at companies that were more customer-centric and less political.

Which would you recommend: A coding boot camp or a computer science degree? I would recommend a computer science degree. I think a coding boot camp is a great thing to do if you have limited or no CS experience from school, but being a high-impact developer requires years of training. From the perspective of ROI, even just one month in a bachelor's or master's of CS degree program is more valuable that one month in a boot camp.

How important are specific certifications? Staying current in your knowledge of technical languages, development environments, and frameworks is super important, getting official certifications is less so in my opinion. The "weight" of certificates and micro-credentials could very well increase over time, but today its more about real knowledge and work experience that can be ascertained in an interview process.

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? I look for authenticity, curiosity, and raw analytical horsepower. I also favour hiring the general athlete over the specialist.

What would put you off a candidate? Ego, a fixed mindset, and disingenuousness. Candidates should be themselves rather than trying to be the person they think you want them to be. 

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? The most common mistakes candidates make are (1) being overly confident--there is a fine line between confidence and an attitude or entitlement --and (2) not doing their homework about the company and the people you're going to meet with in advance. To avoid these mistakes, come prepared with genuine questions and be able to authentically answer why the company and role is the right one for you.

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills - or a mix of both? I think it's better to have a mix of both technical and business skills. For a developer, having business knowledge allows them to be much more effective in what they work on. For someone on the business side of the house, having technical knowledge makes them better understand the products and the market. You don't need an equal distribution of these skills, but you want to have an awareness of both sides.