C-suite career advice: Steele Arbeeny, SNP

How important are specific certifications? "Ultimately, I believe that experience is the best certification. But in the absence of experience, certifications can certainly help..."

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SNP

Name: Dr. Steele Arbeeny

Company: SNP

Job Title: CTO

Location:Jersey City, New Jersey

Dr. Steele G. Arbeeny is CTO of SNP Group and the architect of numerous mission-critical systems across numerous industries including technology, financial services, oil and gas, healthcare, pharmaceutical and manufacturing. He is a patent holder and a member of the IEEE and ACM. Arbeeny has a PhD in computer engineering from Rutgers University.

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? Always continue educating yourself. Many people go to school and move onto securing a good job, but then the learning abruptly stops. It’s so important to be continually learning – especially when working in the technology space – because otherwise, you miss out on so much as industry rapidly evolves.

There are so many ways to brush up on what’s happening in the industry and refresh your knowledge base – from reading books and trade publications, to tuning to into podcasts, and attending courses.

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? When it comes to developing your career, you hear often hear a lot of people say, “don’t work too hard.” This advice just isn’t realistic or reflective of working in IT. While the work is certainly engaging and fulfilling, it does demand long hours, particularly as projects come down to the wire. The last 10% of a project always ends up consuming 90% of the effort, and its important not to lose sight of this. You’ll never achieve anything if you don’t work hard to push projects through to completion.

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT? Go for an advanced degree. Many people believe they can attend a programming course or a bootcamp and that this will be sufficient to securing their dream IT job. And while you may be able to secure an entry-level position with this level of training, pretty soon you’ll come to find that you can’t move up past a certain level or as quickly as you would have liked, without the technical skill that an advanced degree can provide. With the technology space continuing to become more sophisticated and complex, it’s a good idea to look beyond a bachelor’s degree to more advanced and specialised levels of education.

Did you always want to work in IT? Originally, I wanted to go into chemistry. But at the same time, I had always had an interest in computers, and saw computer science as a more practical field to focus on in terms of my studies. Going down that path felt more natural to me academically, creating a smooth transition into my professional life.

What was your first job in IT? My first job in IT was doing software development work. Nearly every business was looking for custom applications, as there wasn’t a lot of a lot off-the-shelf software you could buy at that time, especially for business applications. I was proficient in dBASE, which was very popular back then, so work was easy to find because there was a such a strong need for dBASE work. The referrals were great, which made it easy to do as a first job.

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT? A common misconception I hear about working in IT is that there are no good or interesting jobs left – that everything has been outsourced or automated. This simply isn’t true. Even for tasks that are outsourced or automated, someone still needs to manage these jobs at a higher level.

I would say that the bigger challenge is not a lack of jobs, but rather, the increasing amount of knowledge and expertise needed to secure those jobs. While there may be limited opportunities for entry-level programmers, those opportunities grow tremendously as you increase your knowledge and education.

And, if you have a novel idea or a vested passion in something, don’t be afraid to start your own company! You will never have as little responsibility in your life as you do right now. Over time, you’ll get loaded with more responsibilities that will inhibit your ability to go out on your own, whether that’s caring for a family or a home, etc. So, even if you’re still young, eating ramen noodles for dinner and sharing an apartment with three other people, your responsibility is still minimal in the grand scheme of things – use this time go out and try something bold.  

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? To be a good senior level manager, you have to know intimately what the people underneath you do and experience on a day-to-day basis. It would be really challenging to go from being the manager of a restaurant, for instance, to then managing a tech business in the same way. 

In addition to managing, organising and planning, C-level mangers must be able to provide technical leadership to the people underneath them. They must be able to speak with authority on their business’s technology solutions and provide practical value to the people they manage. And this is only possible when you’ve gone through the ranks yourself.

Satya Nadella is a great example of a leader who grew through the ranks to reach his current position as CEO of Microsoft. He initially started as a developer and was involved in writing Microsoft Azure. Now, even though he’s not on the technical frontlines, he can speak knowledgeably about the product, what it can do, and effectively guide his teams in continued innovation.

What are your career ambitions, and have you reached them yet? I would like to continue being a part of the team that leads SNP’s transformation from a services company into a software company, and through this, play a role the company’s journey toward achieving a billion-dollar valuation.

We are already on our way to becoming primarily a software company. Enterprise organisations choose us to help manage their SAP digital transformation projects because we differentiate by being fully software-driven, tapping automation to transform even the most complex SAP landscapes.

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? Striking a work-life balance can be incredibly difficult to do when working in the technology field. This space is full of individuals who are willing to do whatever it takes to innovate, reach new heights, and grow their companies, even if it means sacrificing the three 8’s – 8 hours of work, sleep and play. I consider myself one of those individuals. I take time off wherever I can get it – I love to get out and ride my bike when I can – but it’s not a top priority of mine. This was a choice I made that has brought me to where I am today.

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? There is not really anything I wish happened differently and I have honestly really enjoyed the path my career has taken.

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? I recommend obtaining a degree, and specifically an advanced degree, coupled with plenty of work experience. Coding bootcamps are great – they can certainly help with securing entry-level positions, and with a lot less effort than a getting a degree. But, without advanced specialisation, you will likely hit a ceiling where you won’t be able to contribute as much to innovation.

I find this to be true across many industries – not just in technology. Take for instance, professions in the auto industry. You could go to a vocational school if you wanted to become an auto mechanic, but if your goal is to become an automotive design engineer that creates the next generation of vehicles, that requires a different path, likely involving a degree in mechanical or automotive engineering.

How important are specific certifications? Ultimately, I believe that experience is the best certification. But in the absence of experience, certifications can certainly help, and they go hand-in-hand with education. I see certifications as something that can get you part of the way to where you want to be, but experience still comes out on top. The exception to this is in regulated areas, where certifications are a must, no matter how experienced you are. In these instances, you may also have to keep up with renewing your industry certifications every so often to keep them current.

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? One of the most important qualities I look for is the ability to think independently. I also want to work with people who are not afraid to admit what they don’t know, but show a commitment to learning. I look for candidates who are fearless – who aren’t hesitant to go out and get the business experience that they need to be successful in their role.

What would put you off a candidate? I start off every interview with the same question: “What are you working on right now?” My feeling is this – if you can’t articulate clearly to me what you’re currently focused on, that’s a red flag. It brings into question whether this candidate could effectively support a customer, work with a developer, or lead a team. It’s a question that you can’t mess up, but you’d be surprised at how many people do. 

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? The biggest and one of the most common mistakes candidates make in an interview is failing to admit if they don’t know something. I’m not expecting candidates to know everything – that’s perfectly okay – but I do want to see how far their knowledge goes. I may ask progressively harder questions until I hit the limit of their technical knowledge, but as a senior manager, I do need to understand where that limit is.

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills – or a mix of both? I believe it’s mandatory to have a mix of both. It’s not either/or. You must have both to be successful in your role, while contributing to the overall success of the company. Technical skills, like coding or engineering, can be critically important to accomplishing specific day-to-day tasks, while business skills are what enable you to collaborate effectively with colleagues, understand your customers, and lead teams to success.