C-suite careers advice: Stephen Manley, Druva

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a C-Level position? “Take a public speaking class...”


Name: Stephen Manley

Company: Druva

Job Title: Chief Technologist

Location: San Jose, California

Stephen Manley delivers solutions to help customers extract the full potential of their data. In leading development of data management capabilities for startups and serving as the CTO of the Data Protection Group at Dell EMC, Manley found his passion in partnering with customers to solve data protection challenges for today’s enterprise and evolve modern data storage. He also spent time at NetApp as a senior technical director of data protection.

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? Find the job that no one wants and do it. When I started working, this was the one piece of advice my older brother shared, so I took it pretty seriously. It led me to a career that I love, so brothers do know best. 

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? Rather than being a ‘Jack of all trades’, I was told to be a master of one. I recall being told to become an expert in one thing and focus all my energy on it, so my career could advance.

This is advice that I would not give to anyone. The world is constantly changing, so you can end up an expert in something that is no longer relevant. Technology moves so quickly that it’s incredibly important to always diversify your skill set.   

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT? Try to get some customer exposure. You don’t have to have direct sales interaction, but it’s important to understand your customer’s needs - how they think and how they feel - to serve them well. In our industry, customer empathy is in short supply. In my first development job, we didn’t have customer support for my area, so I directly handled the customers’ problems. I learnt pretty quickly how to balance my desire to deliver new features with the customers’ desires that the product “just work.” 

Did you always want to work in IT? We don’t all grow up knowing exactly what we want to be when we get older. In fact, like many young people, I wanted to work in the limelight. My dream job was to be a gameshow host, but there’s not exactly a lot of job opportunities there.

In college I considered a role that would be focused on looking after our environment, as I’m passionate about sustainability, but it turns out my skills were in programming, and that led down an IT-based career path. 

What was your first job in IT? When I first left school, I was hired by Network Appliance (now known as NetApp) to build backup into their system. Whilst I didn’t really know what backup was, or what I was signing up for, it turns out I loved the job, and I knew then that this was exactly the type of role I wanted to do. It really did provide the foundations in shaping the future of my career path. 

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT? The biggest misconception is that the person who writes the most code is the most productive. The people who reduce the lines of code and can simplify the product really are the most valuable, yet we rarely recognise them. 

The second myth is that the most important innovations are the big leaps forward. For me, this fails to recognise the reality of progress. It is often the smaller, incremental innovations that build into something meaningful for the end user. 

Finally, people think working in IT is all about being the best at coding or whatever technical skill set a role might require. Soft skills matter in engineering. Our ability to communicate and collaborate with colleagues and customers is more important than designing products in search of problems.

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a C-Level position? Take a public speaking class. Before you even secure yourself a seat at the table, you need to be able to raise your profile within the company and being heard is often key in a corporate setting. You don’t want to be seeking a promotion, only to hear your boss’s boss say ‘I don’t even know who that is’. It is important to be able to speak, both internally and externally.

Second, build a broad set of skills. Do what you can to take time out in the field. Allow yourself the time to get experience within the industry. Work in customer-facing roles. Work in technical roles. Try to broaden your skill set, so that you can really get inside how a business operates. 

What are your career ambitions, and have you reached them yet? My ambition is to “solve” data protection, so that customers’ data is there for them when they need it. While the industry has evolved in the last twenty years, the technology, the market, and the customers are ready for a revolution. Whilst I am happy within my role; there is always more we can achieve.

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? When I left school, someone once said to me that ‘you can be successful, and still have loads of time left to do what you enjoy doing’. This statement has always stuck with me because I’m fortunate because my job is what I enjoy doing. 

When It comes to work-life balance, set up a system where you take time for yourself, your family and your hobbies. It’s important to focus on your physical and mental well-being. It is very easy to sit down at your desk for 12 hours a day, but honestly, taking the time to look after yourself will always make you a better engineer. Make your own decisions, however, because if you follow somebody else’s approach, you’ll find yourself unhappy.

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? Nothing. Each step has been fundamental to how I got here, and it has been a thrilling journey. 

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? It depends on your aspirations. If you want to end up in a C-level position, then you need the degree. Not only do organisations still look at degrees, but a computer science degree will develop breadth - algorithms, math, statistics, etc. However, if you want to become an engineer and focus purely on developing products, then a bootcamp is a great alternative that lets you follow your passion.

How important are specific certifications? A certification is more of a ‘nice to have’. They can matter if someone is hiring for a specific current expertise. But I am always cautious of certifications. They run out of date, and ultimately, most of us are looking at an individual’s skill set, experience and approach to problem solving, rather than a list of certificates they may have collected over the years. 

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? I look for creative thinkers, structured thinking and the ability to clearly communicate your thoughts process.  

To put this into context, my go-to interview question is to pull up a system that is not performing properly and ask the interviewee to help me fix it. This is a great way to see how someone thinks. I am not looking for the person who can fix the problem the quickest. Instead, I am looking for someone who can communicate with me what they’re doing and why, and I can watch them go through a series of different processes to see how their brain works. 

What would put you off a candidate? Someone who is dismissive of others based on their skills, gender or ethnicity. For Druva to be successful as a business and service our customers in the best way that we can, we need to build an organisation full of diverse team players - people who are willing to support, train up and collaborate with the colleagues around them. 

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? The biggest mistake is showcasing a closed mind. I can often find myself sitting in silence for five minutes in an interview with a candidate whilst they try to think of the perfect answer. Perfection is not everything and in fact, it’s not always about getting the right answer. It is about working through it together, hearing how they approach something, and being confident enough to showcase thinking and ideation. I would advise all candidates to try and relax, be themselves and treat every interview as a discussion, rather than as a test. After all, if the interviewer doesn’t respect your unique thinking process during the interviewer, they definitely won’t value it when you work for them.

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills – or a mix of both? Both. Someone with purely technical expertise can often lack customer empathy, whilst someone with just business acumen can often be unrealistic in terms of what can be built. Most businesses are looking for a business and technical solution to every problem. For example, can we offer a discount on the service whilst we try to fix the problem technically. The two go hand in hand.