C-suite career advice: Mike Potter, Qlik

What are your career ambitions and have you reached them yet? "Data literacy is a personal focus and passion. I think I will have made good use of my career by reaching a point in which we've realised the true democratisation of data"

Name: Mike Potter

Company: Qlik

Job Title: Chief Technology Officer

Location:Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Mike Potter is responsible for leading Qlik's product management and R&D efforts. Since joining Qlik in 2014, he has scaled the R&D team, playing a critical role in driving products and transforming delivery cadence from one major product release a year to multiple product lines released throughout the year. Previously, Potter worked at Cognos for thirteen years, and was one of the originators of Cognos Business Intelligence products. After IBM's acquisition of Cognos, he spent six years with the company leading global development organisations for Financial Performance Management and BI across the various Cognos product lines. Prior to joining Qlik, Mike was Senior Vice President of Engineering at CA Technologies, where he led a global development organisation within the IT Infrastructure space. Potter was an IBM Distinguished Engineer and is an accomplished inventor with multiple patents and expertise in financial analytics, financial performance management, data and business modelling, master data management, OLAP, SQL, and data access.

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? When I first considered becoming a manager, my mentor said: "Mike, everything you've accomplished has been about what you bring to the table. Once you're a leader, it's about making everyone around you successful."

There's a big difference between being proficient at a job and inspiring others to excel in theirs. It becomes a lot less about what you know, and more about how you work within a system of personalities, with soft skills becoming increasingly more important as you advance in your career.

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? No one explicitly advises this, but the worst thing I think you can do is implicitly trust others to tell you how the business is performing. It's very important to develop a keen sense of business acumen early on, so you can form an objective view of the company. If you have a more rounded understanding where the company is going, you will make better career decisions.

Early career professionals are more likely to have a blind spot to the overall vision of the company, and it's very common to focus primarily on your own job performance. Personally, I can recount times when I missed opportunities to understand where the company was headed. It's important to listen to what the company is telling you and validate that information for yourself.

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT? The best advice I can give is to make new mistakes, don't perfect the old ones. My career is defined in many ways by learning from failures - there is no shame in trying something new and failing. It can be a good thing if you fail fast, adjust accordingly and learn from your mistakes. If you take these experiences as learning opportunities, building on them versus repeating them, they will help you become a better leader.

Did you always want to work in IT? I was 12-years-old when I received my first computer. Pretty soon afterward, I narrowed my aspirations to either playing professional football or working in software. I started my career in the Canadian Forces Military, where a shoulder injury diverted me from one university program to another which allowed me to focus on computer science. These two things—my innate interest in software and life experience—helped solidify my early career direction.

What was your first job in IT? My first job was verification and acceptance testing for a large government software project. Engineers often aren't trained from that perspective and it brought me a deep understanding of how software works, especially from the user's vantage point. It's too easy for engineers to lose sight of the big picture and the problem being solved, and I think having that ability and experience set me ahead early in my career. It's important to put yourself in the chair of the user in order to build a stronger foundation.

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT? Especially in IT, phrases like ‘digital transformation' and ‘innovation' make it sound like we are constantly creating something new. The reality is that this field is very cyclical and what is "new" and exciting is many times an evolution or reincarnation.

Early in my career, I recall debating with a mentor about an approach to analytics.  In the end, he had won the debate based on his experience and understanding these cycles. Turns out he had already faced this specific problem nine times previously in his career. 

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? First and foremost, before you take on any leadership role you need to ask yourself "why?" You need to decide what your specific career goals are and thinking about this will help you achieve them. A mistake is to believe a C-Level role means getting to call the shots and increase your profile at a company. Each person must determine what he or she can bring to the table, and whether taking on a C-Level role leverages those skills and makes sense for his or her career.

Secondly, continue to take chances. Once you become a leader, you will find experience helps you fail fast and less often, but it can also create a resistance to risk. It's important to continue to appropriately push the boundaries. Lastly, I recommend not worrying about getting the promotion. I've always found if you are good at what you do and perform well, the opportunity to lead will present itself.

What are your career ambitions and have you reached them yet? Data literacy is a personal focus and passion. I think I will have made good use of my career by reaching a point in which we've realised the true democratisation of data. We need to get to a point where everyone can work within a positive data culture, allowing them to use data in their daily work, and we need to make it much more accessible so people other than specialists can work with the data at hand. Organisations like Qlik help people who aren't totally trained in data to easily interact with it to further their goals, and that drives me on a daily basis. This ties into another key, very personal goal - I want to finish my career and have those that I worked with know that I cared. 

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? Having a good work-life balance is always a struggle. I had the chance to work in Europe and was able to experience different styles of work, which helped me appreciate that having a balance makes you function better when you are at work. I see imposing overtime as a failure in management. I encourage an environment where you make the most of the work day while recognising that it is important for people to have family time and vacation because it takes a lot of discipline to manage both. We have a work hard, play hard mentality at Qlik, and try to make work fun so there are mental breaks.

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? My biggest mistakes have come from being overconfident in my abilities and that of my team. There have been various past projects where I was convinced we could achieve a certain date or capability, but I learned the hard way not to make assumptions up front. The key is to continue validating those expectations as you move forward and adjust when necessary.

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? There are really two types of software developers: technology-oriented and product-oriented. It's possible to do both but most people lean one way or the other. As you enter the field, I suggest studying computer science because it will help you understand the science of software which will serve as a better foundation.  Development languages can be learned more easily if it is based upon a strong set of software engineering principles which include algorithms, data structures, design patterns, and so forth which can be applied to any programming language. The best software developers I know will learn new programming languages, as needed, to solve a problem rather than try to solve every problem only using the programming language(s) they know.

How important are specific certifications? Certifications help you specialise, but it's important to note that an in-demand certification today might lose its value tomorrow. In a fast-paced industry like IT, the most successful people are those than can predict and adjust to new trends.

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? Technical abilities are standard for a job in IT, but also being able to remove yourself from the product and envision the end goal or user experience is important.

Collaboration is a necessity. People must understand the value of working in a team vs. working as an individual.

Mental agility helps when working with others. It's much easier to work with someone who can thoughtfully evaluate his or her own strengths and weaknesses in addition to looking for ways to improve.

What would put you off a candidate? I'd rather hire someone with a training gap who is fully invested in being a part of the team and what we do, over someone who fulfills the job requirements but lacks passion and dedication. It's easy to spot when someone is looking just to fill out a resume. Applicants that stand out are those with a drive to excel and be a part of the team initiating change.

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? I like to test a given candidate's ability to be reflective and admit his or her shortcomings. What raises a red flag is when you can tell someone is trying to sell you. Confidence coupled with humility is much more persuasive than trying to dazzle your interviewer. This happens more often than you would think, with applicants passing off a team-effort as something they accomplished on their own. There's no shame in saying you don't know how to do something, that honesty is really appreciated.

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills - or a mix of both? I was eligible for a management position early in my career when my mentor advised me to spend more time developing my technical and product skills. He said more hands-on experience would add to my credibility and shape me into a better leader. To this day, I think it's important to foster a skillset in business if you are tech-minded and vice versa. The most successful people are those who are not only proficient in their role but thrive working with various personalities.