C-suite career advice: Rohit Khanna, Smarsh

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? "First off: believe in a cause, have meaningful relationships and be authentic – do not fake it!"

c suite career advice rohit khanna smarsh

Name: Rohit Khanna

Company: Smarsh

Job Title: Chief Customer Officer

Location: San Francisco, USA

Rohit Khanna serves as Chief Customer Officer for Smarsh, leading the Professional Services, Center of Excellence, Training, Global Technical Support, Data Management and Outcome Management (renewal) teams. Khanna has a demonstrated track record of running global customer success, support, and services at scale for cloud software providers, working with customers ranging from small businesses all the way to Fortune 500 customers.

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? ‘Make sure to stay connected to revenue side of the business. Top line growth and successful customers drive the posture of any company’. So, whatever skills I develop, I want to make sure that they will help the business generate more revenue by developing additional products in additional markets for successful outcomes for my customers - that, in the end will increase the value of the company. This is the advice that I’ve made sure to follow throughout my career, because staying connected to the front-end of the of the business has served me well and allowed me to grow.

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? I work in the high-tech industry, and when I was at the beginning of my career, one of my team leaders told me that I wouldn’t have to continue being technical when I transitioned into management. Now, having been in management for several years, I think this is the worst advice for an executive in the technology world, because if you don’t have technical skills, you won’t be viable in the industry you are working in. Because of this, it is important that even management continues to build on their technical skills, especially if you are in the high-tech industry.

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT? My advice for anyone that wants to have a career as a technology executive would be to always sharpen your technical skills to stay viable. Because if you’re able to mix those management and technical skills, you will have a successful career path specifically in the high-tech world.

Did you always want to work in IT? I always knew that I wanted to work in technology, except for a short period of doubt when I was 18 years old and I thought I might want to become a medical doctor.

I had applied for medical school and was accepted, but at the last moment I decided that I wanted to go into a technology career, because I have always had a very analytical mind and love to solve complex problems. I even use my technical background in my main hobby – modern architecture – where Frank Lloyd Wright is my main influence.

What was your first job in technology? My first job in technology was as a developer in the early ‘90s for a company called Premenos in California. The internet had just come out, or it was coming out, and we were on the forefront of creating technology to send and receive electronic data over the internet that was encrypted securely – which I was able to do as a software engineer. 

What are some common misconceptions about working in technology? I’m sure there are many, but top of mind for me is that many people feel that it’s possible to understand everything about technology. In this industry, today’s knowledge is going to be obsolete tomorrow. Every single day technology is changing, so what you know today will be obsolete tomorrow.

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? First off: believe in a cause, have meaningful relationships and be authentic – do not fake it! I would also say that it’s very important to be consistent, and to go back to the best advice I’ve ever received, make sure to stay close to your customers as well as the revenue.

What are your career ambitions, and have you reached them yet? My ambitions are always continuing to grow with the different stages of life that I’m in, as all humans need to grow. As somebody said, “if you are not growing, you are dying”. Have I reached all my career ambitions? No – I’m sure there’s a lot more to achieve and a lot of room to grow, as well as a lot more to learn. I will always continue learning. This is one of the reasons that I keep working.

So, the short answer is no, I haven’t reached my career ambitions yet. But am I content with where I am? Absolutely.

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? Work-life balance does not exist in technology – only work-life harmony exists (I stole that from Jeff Bezos and Satya Nadella as I agree with them on this topic). I would advise everyone to somehow harmonise their life and work so that no part of your life feels like it is taking over more than the other.

But in my current position at Smarsh, I do feel that I have good work-life harmony – absolutely. However, I think that it’s not about the company you work for, it’s more about the individual creating their own harmony, because a company will not create your harmony for you. There are a lot of people I’ve heard throughout my career blaming their employer for their work-life balance or harmony, but I believe that this harmony really must come down to the individual creating it for themselves.

So, the answer is yes, I do have good work-life harmony, but I have learned in my career how to put that in place for myself and I have a lot to thank my family (especially my wife) for.

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? I wouldn’t change anything about my career path. As a Chief Customer Officer, I am doing exactly what I wanted to do, and this is exactly what my career has been all about. My career path has allowed me to do exactly what my earlier advice was about – to be closer to the customer and closer to the revenue.

And I love what I do, which is meet global customers all around the world. Yesterday I was in Paris meeting customers, today I’m in London, next week I’ll be in New York, Portland, and San Francisco. So, I’ve been very fortunate to have a career where I can meet many of our large customers all around the world, and this has also given me the opportunity to associate myself with various cultures and various people from all places and all walks of life.

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? Neither. What I would recommend is to create a passion for something. You don’t need a degree to create that passion and you don’t need a bootcamp to have that passion. And that knowledge is not just going to a 4-year or 6-year college or doing a week or two weeks at a bootcamp. That knowledge comes from continuous improvement because you’re passionate about what you’re doing.

How important are specific certifications? I don’t believe specific certifications are important. Again, passion comes from within, and it comes from having something that you want to really do. There is enough knowledge out there to get you where you want to go if that’s what you want. You don’t need a specific certification to get there.

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? Personally, it’s about: attitude and energy; passion and purpose - the answer to the question, ‘why do you want the work?’. Then its experience. The reason that I list attitude and energy first is that you may have a passion or a purpose, but if you have a victim mentality, you will never be able to reach your goals and/or purpose.

A positive attitude, which drives the energy and passion is very critical. If somebody shows up at work and is lacking that fire, or if somebody’s eyes are not wide open, and they are not grateful for the opportunities they have, they will never be able to be successful wherever they go. For me, it’s very important that I see that spark in their eyes and see that energy and attitude: that whatever it is I will love it and I will get stuff done, because I’m passionate.

What would put you off a candidate? A candidate that would put me off is one that has low energy, a negative attitude and is not being true to themselves or not being authentic.

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen is when a candidate is trying too hard to be somebody they’re not. By going back to the three qualities that I listed previously – by having the right attitude and having energy, having the passion and being true to themselves, you can avoid making the mistake I’ve seen most when interviewing candidates.

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills – or a mix of both? I think you really need to have a mix of both technical and business skills, especially in the high-tech world. Because if you have one without the other, no matter whether that’s on the business or technical side, it becomes dangerous for your business strategy, because you don’t have the adequate skills to understand how to run your business. You need technical skills to make sure you understand the product you are trying to monetise, and you need business skills to understand how to monetise the product that you’ve built and bring a purpose to your technology.