C-suite career advice: Mikkel Svane, Zendesk

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? “Your role as a CEO will always be evolving as your company changes.”


Name: Mikkel Svane

Company: Zendesk

Job Title: Founder and CEO

Location: San Francisco, USA

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? The value of transparency. I’ve been told this by people I respect and I’ve seen the value of it first-hand. Leaders need to be real and authentic, and willing to tell it like it is. People know I hate jargon and acronyms, for example, because people use them to avoid being clear about what’s really going on. 

Even with our product, one of the earliest things that made Zendesk so different was the transparency it gave people. Both businesses and their customers knew what was going on with an issue, and that led to more trust in the relationship. 

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? Doing something just because that’s the way it’s been done before. I’ve learned Zendesk’s path to success isn’t necessarily going to look the same as other companies that have come before us. It can be tempting to always go with “business as usual” but it’s important to question assumptions and think critically about how you can play to your strengths and shake things up. Other people’s playbooks shouldn’t be yours. 

For example, as our business has worked with more enterprise companies, we’ve realised we shouldn’t try to go to the market in the same way as more traditional businesses. Traditional enterprise software is heavy and cumbersome, requiring teams of consultants taking months, if not years, to implement. What we found is this wasn’t right for the way we work or for what most of the enterprise companies we were connecting with needed, especially at the point where the idea of how we do business is being turned on its head by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

We realised that we’re much better off throwing out the rulebook, playing to our strengths and delivering something that’s truly different from everyone else. We’ve doubled down on the flexibility and agility businesses need right now and helping them adapt quickly - in a matter of hours and days, not months. 

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT? Realise that what seems boring can be  sexy. Look for problems to solve that might seem dull on the face of it but could be the source of major innovation that changes the game. When we started Zendesk, customer service was a checkbox. No one thought about how to make it better because that was a boring, overlooked part of business. Now customer experience is the biggest differentiator for a company.

Did you always want to work in IT? My dream wasn’t to work in IT but to create something that excited people – whether it was consumers, businesses or entire industries. I’ve worked for a variety of different companies and started a handful of other companies before Zendesk, including my very first startup for creating 3D Magic Eye images in the 1990s and an online forums company during the first dot-com boom. 

What was your first job in IT? I graduated from business school in the early 1990s, right when the recession hit and job opportunities were scarce. I didn’t even bother looking for employment, but went straight into what I was interested in - making things on computers. So I started a small company, based on the trend around 2D pattern images that you can see as 3D images - Magic Eye books. I did a little bit of everything - built an algorithm, turned it into a software program, and I even packaged up and shipped out disks of software in response to customer orders. 

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT? A lot of people still think about the traditional ‘IT’ stereotype - it’s for a bunch of dudes in hoodies staring at lines of code. Yes, we have coding, but IT has so much more than that too. It’s an opportunity to take creative approaches to solve all sorts of challenges for the world. We like to think that with Zendesk, we found a way to make something mundane - customer service - interesting and unique. That’s the sort of challenge you can be taking on in this industry.

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? Your role as a CEO will always be evolving as your company changes. So be ready for and open to the idea that you will have to reinvent yourself as a leader to grow alongside your company. Surround yourself with strong leaders and experts in their areas; it’s important to recognise it’s not just what you personally do, but the collective efforts of your team that makes the true difference for the company. 

What are your career ambitions and have you reached them yet? I never really set out to be a CEO. I just set out to build something different that made things easier for people and companies. Funny enough, I remember sitting with my two co-founders in the early days and we were at a turning point where one of us had to be the ‘official’ CEO for fundraising - and with my personality it just made the most sense. But I’m still always learning as a CEO and hopefully pushing myself and our company to get better. 

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? This year, COVID-19 changed everything and we had to revisit how we approached flexible work for our entire global workforce. When everyone was suddenly working from home - often while also teaching their kids or caring for family-- you had to have more empathy and really communicate. I have four kids and so I find my new work environment a bit more chaotic but also fun. This new remote world is also creating this amazing sense of connection where you see your colleagues in their natural environments with kids and pets running around and popping into video calls.  

It’s been a difficult time for so many but it also has changed the idea of the traditional workplace dramatically. It’s forced more work-life integration, and we’re all still figuring it out.

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? I’m not one to look backward much and feel extremely fortunate for the route things have taken. For me, the journey itself has been the best part of my career.

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? I appreciate the value of formal education but I’d go with coding bootcamp. One of our board members, Mike Curtis, was former VP of engineering at Airbnb and is a great example of how you can forge an unconventional but extremely successful career path without a college degree.  

How important are specific certifications? Certifications are important but not as much as the ability to solve problems and do things differently. My two co-founders and I started Zendesk in 2007 because of firsthand frustration with software at the time. In our jobs we were implementing the clunky, expensive and complicated enterprise support software that existed back then. We thought we could build something better. With Zendesk, we created a solution that improved the way organisations built relationships with their customers. That all came from our ability to spot an opportunity, take a risk and reimagine the idea of customer service with the end customer in mind. Not because we had a certification to do it.

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? We look for attitude - think about if these are the people you want to work with and you want your customers to have a relationship with. Agility is extremely important in our environment because things constantly change and strong candidates are okay with a level of constant uncertainty. Finally, curiosity is key - people shouldn’t sit around waiting for someone else to have all the answers. The best candidates want to try different things and have fresh ideas - they want to figure out what works and what moves things forward.   

What would put you off a candidate? Someone who thinks their qualifications alone enable them to walk through the door. I’m very big on character, work ethic and the ability to think differently. That’s what helps people stand out from the crowd. 

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? Along with the over-reliance on past experience, arrogance is another mistake. We use the term ‘humblident’ at Zendesk - a combination of being humble and confident. There should be a good balance of both.

Interviews aren’t just about selling yourself as a candidate. It’s a give and take. From both sides of the conversation, you have to be sure that you’ve got a good match in the opportunity, aspirations and values of the company. As a candidate, make sure you take time to think about what your values are and what you want out of a job opportunity - and spend the time to ask questions and understand if it’s the right match.

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills – or a mix of both? Definitely both. You need to know the details about how things work, but also be able to see the big picture.

And there’s a third piece to consider, which is how you relate to other people. You need empathy so you can understand different perspectives and apply those in the products you build and the team you lead.