C-suite career advice: Carl D’Halluin, Datadobi

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? “From the very start of your career, think as if you’re the entrepreneur, as if it’s your money…”


Name: Carl D’Halluin

Company: Datadobi

Job Title: CTO

Location: Belgium

Carl D’Halluin has been building cloud and storage software for 20 years. He has made notable contributions on protecting and manipulating unstructured data, building highly scalable and secure storage systems, and enabling metadata-driven insights and automation. Previously, D’Halluin worked at EMC Centera, where he architected the world’s first commercial object storage system.

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? “Get an engineering degree.” I was 17 and passionate about mathematics and science. I wanted to pursue a math degree in college, perhaps a PhD. However, my father recommended me to get a degree in engineering first. I am very glad I did. For me, math is art, it is pure beauty. But I appreciate even more the same math at work in powerful software algorithms and in hi-tech products. I specialised in storage systems and cryptography, where smart math makes the difference. Think of elliptic curve cryptography, distributed systems, erasure coding, machine learning.

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? “Avoid risks. Start your career in a large established company (read: low-risk company).” I think at the beginning of your career you should work in startups. You will learn 10x faster surrounded by entrepreneurial minds. What is your downside risk? For me, none - no kids, plenty of time, plenty of eagerness to learn. And yes, instead of hanging out every night with your friends, you will start to appreciate the thrill of burning midnight oil on Red Bull together with your team and then give a successful customer demo or investor demo the next morning.

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT? Never stop learning. Never stop being hands on. Listen and inquire to obtain the full picture of whatever you’re doing. Think before you act.

Work on your presentation and communication skills. Explaining difficult topics in a simple way such that your audience gets it - I believe that is your most important skill. Use pictures, not text. Communicate in a clear and structured way.

I definitely recommend starting your career in a product company, and not immediately becoming a consultant. The pride and ownership you and your team will feel when developing your own product or service is immense. It is your baby.

Network, network, network – you will need other people at all times in your career. Never burn bridges when leaving somewhere.

Did you always want to work in IT? Not really. In the 80s just like many kids I wanted to become an astronaut. I also played games and programmed with my friends on Commodore 64 and Amiga. Moving to Window PCs in the nineties felt like going two steps backwards. Slow, ugly graphics, hard to install software, lots of crashes. I was not very fond of computers back then. However I have to admit: I had other interests at college with its extensive party life.

I eventually discovered Linux, which sort of removed my temporary aversion for computers. I got thrilled with codebreaking, spy movies. It was also clear to me here that you needed computers and math for this. Hence my love of mathematics and pursuit of engineering.

What was your first job in IT? I was an engineer in a startup building software security products. In the early 2000s internet banking took off. Security was a joke. We broke the e-banking implementations of our customers, then sold our own products and services.

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT? Boring, no interesting people, working too hard, no fun.

Engineers are a special kind of people, many of them are introverts. But they have a ton of humour, are quite opinionated and think deeply and thoroughly about things. You can learn a lot from your colleagues in engineering and they are passionate about what they do. I recommend the books of Susan Cain and you will better appreciate IT people.

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? From the very start of your career, think as if you’re the entrepreneur, as if it’s your money (even if you don’t have any money). Put yourself in the head of your customer, your manager, your CEO. Spot problems and present them to your leaders with solutions.

Act as a leader yourself. Don’t be a yes-man to your superiors. State your opinion. Learn to disagree and commit. Read the 14 management principles from Amazon.

Be enthusiastic. The power of energising others around you is enormous.

Don’t keep your ideas for yourself. Instead talk about them with as many people as you can. The feedback you get is priceless.

Identify people in your life who are worth being your coach.

Read business books, but not the managerial books, more the entrepreneurial kind. E.g. The art of the Start, Crossing the Chasm. Also understand the society around you, finance, psychology, geopolitics, history.

Get respected by your team. Not based on fear through power or politics, but by being authentic, passionate and an expert in your domain.

Understand roles & responsibilities in your company. Don’t make the mistake to bypass other people in your org, e.g. as a C-level don’t “use” a few engineers for your pet project without clear arrangements with the VP engineering.

What are your career ambitions and have you reached them yet? Still have this burning feeling to do a PhD one day maybe in math, maybe compsci. At this moment, homomorphic encryption seems a promising topic.

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? Absolutely – it sounds like a cliché, but if you love your job, it never feels like working.

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? During my career I was always based in Belgium. I studied abroad, but never pursued a job abroad. In hindsight I should have worked in other countries and cultures, especially at the onset of my career.

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? Coding bootcamp when you’re 16. Pursue CompSci degree when you’re 18.

How important are specific certifications? Not – I am typically very suspicious if people claim all kinds of certifications, but after a two-minute conversation you feel that they lack the basics. The same is true for people having great sounding job titles but not knowing what they’re talking about.

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? Passion for technology; Clear communication; I’m not necessarily looking for college degrees. Brainpower, energy and perseverance is much more important.

What would put you off a candidate? I love candidates to be outspoken but they have to know what they’re talking about. A persuasive person who doesn’t know what he’s talking about, is dangerous for your organisation.

Chaotic people who are not structured. I often jokingly express my disdain if I see people having 50 open tabs in their web browser.

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? Not being able to explain in understandable terms what they did in their previous job. This is a big warning sign – these people can never be leaders, and they are probably mediocre individual contributors who can only execute tasks that do not require a lot of cooperation.

Smart engineers being too arrogant is also a problem. Don’t hire as these people become what we call high maintenance “divas”

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills – or a mix of both? A mix is the best. To become a CTO or an engineering leader you should start your career in a technical job. After a few years you will find out how to grow as an engineer - do you want to become a so-called “I” profile which becomes a deep technical expert, or do you feel better being a “T” profile who has a broader view of the full customer value prop. A few years later those T profiles might feel better managing a group, or – as engineers jokingly say – “go to the dark side” and become a product manager, a salesperson, a CEO. In any case I’m sure you need a lot of technical experience to earn respect and do well as a leader in the Tech Industry.