C-suite career advice: Nick Earle, Eseye

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? "A work-life balance is a myth - they are not two different things anymore."

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What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? The person who secures the promotion isn't necessarily just the best fit for the job, but the person who is also perceived to be the most likely to be successful in the future. This is a critical difference. People make decisions with their heads and hearts. And how you communicate with seniors, juniors and external partners will set you apart from the rest of the pack.

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? I have received this piece of advice almost every time I have taken a new position or been promoted; ‘there are no issues within the department, we just wanted a replacement manager. It will be an easy transition'.

This is never true, so don't believe it. If there weren't any issues, then the change wouldn't have been made.

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT? First, get a degree. Don't believe the stories from Silicon Valley that would have you believe you can quit school, or your degree, and become a success in the tech industry. It does happen but statistically it is very rare.

Secondly, don't think it has to be a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) degree. Yes of course they are useful but 70% of all jobs in tech are held by people without a STEM degree. It's the discipline of getting a degree in the first place (2:1 or above) separates you from those who don't. It shows commitment to learning something new, the ability to see things through and academic intelligence that can be honed and moulded.

Did you always want to work in IT? Yes. I remember at the age of 15 my school was gifted an old mainframe, which probably had the same amount of power as a modern-day Fitbit. I spent hours programming (paper tape!) and was fascinated by technology.  Shortly after, I began a course in computing and science - I loved the problem-solving aspect of the course. It's fair to say I've always been a bit of a tech and maths geek.

What was your first job in IT? I graduated from the University of Liverpool and began my first job as a programmer. I was told on day one that I needed training in Cobol (a computer programming language) but because the university curriculum hadn't covered it, I didn't know how to do that. So, I only lasted 30 minutes before they decided to send me away on a Cobol training course! Not exactly a great start to a Corporate career and I think that's a record I still hold to this day. It illustrated the gulf between academic theory and business practice. I completed the training and managed to keep my job there… and worked with the university to help grow and develop the Computing department. I must have done something right as 20 years later the university awarded me with an honorary doctorate.

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT? Many people think IT is all about coding, and study for that, but the truth is that coding accounts for just 5% of jobs within IT. Not everybody is going to become tech founder of a company and build the next great app.

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? The first step is to talk to people who are already in those positions, to find out what it actually entails. It's not always as glamorous as it seems. The truth is the higher in rank you go, the more problems you are asked to juggle and resolve. C-suites execs spend their lives solving problems for their team, being a coach and mentor to them and lobbying internally It's often called politics and some people thrive and others don'. If you're the type that does and this is what you want to do, then go for it. It's great fun but be prepared to put the hard hours in!

What are your career ambitions and have you reached them yet? My ambition is to help drive disruption, and I'm always looking to work on the next big thing. Disruptive technologies are my passion, and the good thing about the IT industry is there is always something disruptive to focus on. I suppose because of this, my ambition is continuous.

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? A work-life balance is a myth - they are not two different things anymore. The trick is to find a way to blend work and life and achieve your goals in both.

Because of technology we can work pretty much wherever we are. Skype, video calls, emails, mobile phones, flexible working initiatives, remote working and others all mean that work can be done anytime, anywhere. Responses are now instant, and the wheels just keep turning. Having said that having a very patient partner helps!

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? Nothing, because quite a lot of the different routes I've taken haven't been by design. There have been many surprise turns along the way, all of which have brought me to where I am now. But it is also about being prepared to take a risk when others wouldn't. For example, I left a job running Enterprise Marketing globally for HP in Silicon Valley with a $2.3bn budget to a start up in the UK at less than a quarter of the salary. Five months later the dot com crash meant the job vaporised along with stock options. We had two girls in private school and a big mortgage so I needed a job quick. I joined another start up and from there went into Cisco where I ended up running an $11bn business. You can't plan for that - you just have to go with your gut, learn, take on advice and adapt. 

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? It depends what you want to get out of your career, but ultimately, I believe it's important to obtain any type of degree as the priority. This gives you the key to open the job door, and from there your career could take you anywhere. A business degree can be as useful as a technical degree, even if you want to go into a more technical role. 

My advice to any parent whose child is pursuing a career in IT is to not steer them towards coding exclusively - yes let them learn it but also make sure they study subjects like business, finance and mathematics. Otherwise you are literally hard coding them into a very narrow range of IT opportunities.

How important are specific certifications? For specialist jobs and careers, of course they are. But in my company our best performer spent 10 years as a Navy Seal. He learned more about meeting and exceeding objectives behind enemy lines in three war zones than he would ever have done behind a desk.

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? When I'm interviewing candidates, I look for communication skills, research skills and inquisitiveness. I like to see a candidate demonstrate great communication skills when talking to me - this skill is so important in the workplace - and show that they have researched the role, and the company thoroughly before they interviewed. Asking me questions, around the company's business model etc, also proves to me that they're a good candidate. You'd be amazed how many candidates go blank when I ask them to describe what Eseye does, rather than talk about themselves.

What would put you off a candidate? If a candidate is asking about benefits, salary and holidays then that puts me off straight away - it demonstrates that for them, this is just a job. I want people who share the same enthusiasm for technology and disruption that I have, and who have a passion for the career they're working in. I'm not interested in someone who just wants a pay-cheque.

Also, and this is specific to the start-up world, I don't want candidates who have spent all their lives in a corporate and ‘have always wanted to try a start-up'. Nothing prepares you for the shock of transitioning between the big company and the small one and unless they really understand that they will have do everything themselves and take a pay cut then they probably won't succeed.

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? The most common, and basic, mistake candidates make is not thoroughly researching the company they supposedly want to work for. I would say that candidates make this mistake in at least four out of every five interviews that I attend. Yes, they can give an overview on the company from what they found on the ‘about section' of our website, but that's about it. 

The web has a depth of company information, from analyst reports to press articles, so there really is no excuse for not doing the research and then ask some probing questions to demonstrate their understanding.

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills - or a mix of both? A mix is the most ideal. Technical skills, business sense and communication skills are all key requirements to reach your ambitions.

A person could be a technical whizz, but most of the time that will only take them so far. There's a lot of very talented engineers still in individual contributor roles out there. It's crucial to have business sense to know how to grow and expand the product/business, and communication skills come into this too - if a person can't speak the language of their prospective customers or convince their peers to follow their big idea, they won't develop valuable working relationships or build credibility.  And that means they get stuck on the lower rungs of the Corporate ladder.

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