C-suite careers advice: Barnaby Mote, 4sl

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills – or a mix of both? “Mix of both. Technology is not an end – it’s the means to an end.”


Name:Barnaby Mote

Company: 4sl

Job Title: CEO

Location: London, UK

Barnaby Mote is CEO and founder of backup and disaster recovery as a service specialist 4sl. Before founding 4sl in 2007, Mote cut his backup and disaster recovery teeth at Symantec. Prior to this he was in the finance industry, acting as a business manager and financial controller at institutions such as RBS, ABN Amro, Deutsche Bank and UBS.

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? Make sure you’re not the smartest person in the room. I’m not sure who I first heard this from, but it’s a great bit of guidance. Jim Collins, author of “Good to Great”, taps into a similar theme early on in that business masterwork – a must-read for anyone with C-suite ambitions.

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? A long time ago a friend persuaded me to join a company I wasn’t particularly interested in, for a role I discovered I wasn’t well suited to. It was early on in my career and I wasn’t thinking it through properly. Thankfully it didn’t last too long, but it was pretty disheartening. The lesson of course is that when you’re looking for a job, gaining confidence that the firm and the people you’re going to be working with are a good fit for you is vitally important. Being asked back for several interviews may seem repetitive and drawn out, but it’s a great chance to build a more complete picture.

Undoubtedly, I’ve had many other dreadful bits of advice over the years which resulted in some bad decisions – but I take full responsibility for those!

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT/tech? Two things. First, get some experience in other areas to make yourself more rounded. That doesn’t have to mean moving to a role entirely outside IT. You might instead be able to get involved in a project that spans different departments. If this gets you out of your comfort zone, that’s a good thing. Knowing your limitations is just as important as knowing your strengths. Graduate programs rotate new employees around a small number of divisions over their first few years and even if you’re not on one, they’re a good template for broadening your perspective.

Second, keep your eyes and ears open. There are lessons to be learned all around just by observing how other people operate. When you’re starting out, most of what you experience in the workplace is by definition novel and whether those around you are doing things well or making mistakes, there’s valuable stuff to be banked.

Did you always want to work in IT/tech? No, I fell into it almost by chance (see below).

What was your first job in IT/tech? A friend introduced me to an ex-Big Four partner who had his own IT consulting firm and was looking to hire a junior. My first day was onsite at one of their clients midway through an ERP rollout – learning project management on the fly from a senior consultant. You couldn’t make it up.

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT/tech? Like most people in IT, I run into more misconceptions that I could list. One good thing about technology becoming more common in the wider world is that a lot of older misconceptions have disappeared. However, it’s not perfect – the rapid pace means new misconceptions appear all the time!

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? Working for a big firm is not the same as working for a small firm. If your ambition is to be a leader in a small company, the skillset can be quite different to achieving the same thing in a large firm. You’re more likely to need a greater range of skills and experience, but equally you may not need to have the depth of experience of an equivalent leader in a large company. Bigger firms have more process and structure and it’s more difficult to be genuinely disruptive and risk-taking – things that are naturally associated with smaller organisations.

That said, there’s a great deal of commonality and the only way to acquire the necessary skills is either through hands-on experience or by learning. Learning can take many forms of course: go out of your way to find senior people willing to share their experiences and wisdom over a coffee. People are usually more than happy to talk about what they’ve done and the battle scars they’ve earned.

What are your career ambitions and have you reached them yet? A long time ago I may have had career ambitions but these days I’m just trying to make sure my family are provided for. Having kids has a tendency to focus the mind in that way! I would like to do something in a completely different field at some point.

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? Yes, it’s generally good, although running a small company always has its moments. You can let work become all-consuming but that’s not a great place in my opinion. Jack Ma would disagree with me no doubt – and he’s far more successful so perhaps he’s right!

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? I had an opportunity in the late 90s to join an investment bank working for someone I had a great deal of admiration for. She had a fearsome intellect and I felt I would learn a great deal, although inevitably it would have involved some hard yards. I’ve often wondered what might have happened if I’d taken the job.

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? Computer science degree.

How important are specific certifications? It depends. In certain technical roles they are essential to demonstrate to an employer that a standard has been achieved. But generally speaking they are only part of the picture an employer wants to build up of a candidate.

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? Initiative, attention to detail and willingness to learn.

What would put you off a candidate? Anything that signals that they aren’t that interested in learning or making things better. Nothing irritates me more than seeing opportunities for improvement lying in plain sight but getting ignored. Sometimes that’s because people are lazy, sometimes because they think ‘that’s not my job’. Neither is desirable.

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? Interviews are a fascinating case study in human psychology. For the most part candidates are desperate to show you their best side, which is entirely understandable – although of course there is the odd exception! Trying too hard or exaggerating one’s achievements can usually be picked up by an interviewer and won’t make a positive impression. Another no-no is lack of preparation in researching the company or the interviewer(s), and either asking no questions at all or asking questions which demonstrate a lack of initiative.

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills – or a mix of both? Mix of both. Technology is not an end – it’s the means to an end. Understanding and being able to convey the why will always be of value.