C-suite career advice: Martin Taylor, Content Guru

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? “Thoroughness, flexibility and a real love of tech.”

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Content Guru

Name: Martin Taylor

Company: Content Guru

Job Title: Co-Founder and Deputy CEO

Location: Bracknell, Berks, UK

Martin Taylor is Co-Founder and Deputy CEO of Content Guru, the leading cloud communications provider. He is responsible for strategic market development and the company’s public sector practice. He helped launch Redwood Technologies in 1993 with his brother, Sean, developing new overseas territories – particularly emerging markets – and adapting Redwood’s powerful and unique core technology for new sectors.

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? Take your career risks at a young age, when you don’t yet have too many responsibilities or commitments. If it doesn’t work out, you can always get another job.

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? Write a complete business plan before you get started. It was while I was at university – I went up to North London to see the vendor of some business planning software, spent a load of money and then took weeks learning how to operate the software. I never did finish that business plan, and the idea went stale along the way.

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT/tech? Work for a company that will let you get hands-on as quickly as possible, which is not necessarily the employer with the most recognisable name or the biggest reputation. Nothing sharpens you up like knowing your code is about to be used by a real customer. Also, look for as much responsibility as you can handle at every opportunity. We learn through exposure.

Did you always want to work in IT/tech? I grew up around computers and started writing games in BASIC when I was ten years old, so technology was always going to be my destination. However, I did have a period of wanting to be a fighter pilot and then a banker, before settling down aged 22.

What was your first job in IT/tech? Redwood Technologies, just a few months out of university. Initially I was responsible for the tech support of some American communications software we were reselling at the time. The software looked great but wasn’t very reliable, so I was always in demand to keep our customers’ systems running. At the same time I had a sideline importing specialised industrial computer components from Taiwan. This involved driving a Ford Transit van to Germany every few weeks to collect hardware, then building up and testing the completed machines and supporting them as well. Everything was much more informal back in the nineties.

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT/tech? About ten years ago, IT suddenly became a lot cooler. This has gone a long way towards banishing the old image of the nerd with thick glasses and a pocket protector on the front of his short-sleeved shirt. There is, however, still the lingering perception that IT is a male preserve. On the contrary, we are seeing significant numbers of young women entering IT straight from university, and I expect this to ramp up further as more and more girls opt for STEM subjects at school.

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a C-level position? There are many sorts of C-level position, some reached through completely different routes, such as Chartered Accountancy. To be a true tech demi-god you ideally want to start with a tech background of some sort. This is necessary in order to be taken seriously by your own colleagues, as much as to understand what makes a tech business tick. The c-suite is not always made up of the most able coders, by any means. It is about cultivating a wider perspective in business, markets and current affairs. It also pays to know your way around financial reports, so it is worth learning about this side of things, even though it is intrinsically boring and ‘REMF’.

What are your career ambitions and have you reached them yet? I once planned to retire at 30, which obviously didn’t happen. I have had various further goals, most of which have been achieved. Most of my current ambitions are around business scale and market positioning. No doubt, if those work out, I will think up some more objectives. One thing I have learnt is that the horizon expands as you climb higher.

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? I didn’t have any kind of work life balance for the first fifteen years of my career, or even worry about it. Recent years were all about growing the business, though I managed to carve out more time for holidays, if not day-to-day fitness. The coronavirus lockdown provided an important pause for reflection, and I now aim to incorporate more time at home as part of my work schedule. It is quite clear to me that everybody wants this, and so the same type of arrangement will be available to all colleagues.

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? There have been one or two dead-end developments along the way, but I have got all the big calls right, such as moving to the cloud early, so it would be churlish to complain.

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? Computer science degree every time, and from the very best university you can manage to get into. That’s really where you learn to think properly. That said, Steve Jobs wasn’t a coder and none of Zuckerberg, Gates or Ellison even finished their degrees.

How important are specific certifications? Certifications are like fashions – they come and go – so I wouldn’t set too much store by them. We take some notice of them when reviewing CVs, but on the job it quickly becomes obvious whether or not you know how to do something.

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? Thoroughness, flexibility and a real love of tech.

What would put you off a candidate? A complete lack of the external perspective is particularly limiting – it is vital to have empathy for why it’s necessary to do things. I don’t like miserable people, either – they drag everybody else down. I call them ‘mood hoovers’ and I avoid them at all costs.

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? The ideal candidate needs to be confident in their abilities but it is important this doesn’t tip into boasting. Also, if you have to correct the person you are interviewing, do it carefully and with tact. Don’t come over as too demanding – nobody wants a diva in their team – but instead look as if you really want the job and think the business is absolutely the finest one on the planet, and really the only one on your list. You have always wanted to work in that particular sector, because it is the future of humanity.

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills – or a mix of both? The answer has to be both, though there is plenty of room for tech only – if the person is good enough at it.