C-suite career advice: Jeff Hussey, Tempered

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? “I look for passion, storytelling and risk-taking.”

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Tempered

Name: Jeff Hussey

Company: Tempered

Job Title: CEO

Location: Seattle

Jeff Hussey has been the President and CEO of Tempered since August 2014. Hussey, the founder of F5 Networks, is an accomplished entrepreneur with a proven track record in the networking and security markets. He maintains several board positions across a variety of technology, nonprofit and philanthropic organisations and currently is the chairman of the board for Carena and chairman and co-owner of Ecofiltro and PuraVidaCreateGood. Hussey also serves on the board for Webaroo and the Seattle Symphony. He was the chairman of the board for Lockdown Networks, which was sold to McAfee in 2008.

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? “Do what you love… the money will follow.” People need to pursue industries that they’re interested in. For me, this meant pursuing finance, and I ended up getting a job working on Wall Street. I was always interested in technology when I was young, and I bought one of the early computers off the rack and got it to work. I had an interest in technology and networking, especially when I moved to a seller of financial information systems. Prior to the internet, people had to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for services that would comprise the “Wall Street financial wall.” That’s what then led me into networking. 

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? I was once told to consider working in an industry other than finance or IT, and that turned out to be an awful mistake. If you’re good at something, keep doing that because the world pays for specialists, and very few people can survive being a generalist any longer. Within the context of our culture at Tempered, I try to find the people who are the very best in their given disciplines and hire them. Then my goal is to be able to be the second best next to them.

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT/tech? Decide as early as you can whether you want to be the customer or the vendor, which comes down to one question: do you want to implement tech and policy, or do you want to innovate, create and sell technology? I would advise that you pick one or two specific areas and then become an expert in those areas. One of the challenges in IT is that a lot of people are attracted to it, but many people don’t do the work necessary to deeply understand how the technology actually works. There’s a big difference in understanding what a slew of acronyms means and understanding how the plumbing actually works.

Did you always want to work in IT/tech? No, I always loved technology, but I wanted to work in finance at first. For a long time, that was the most exciting industry in existence. Working on Wall Street is a rush. I was 23 or 24 years old, and I had a significant position and would be on the phone for 10 hours a day, sometimes with a phone on each ear, buying and selling bonds. It was exciting. Then I did it with stocks, options, futures, hedge funds, and then I finally made it to IT.

What was your first job in IT/tech? My first IT job was selling financial information systems, which combined IT and finance. My territory was everything west of Chicago and north of LA. All the systems at the time were geared towards big trading rooms where there are 200-300 people. Each room needed a fast pipe so they could get data in a timely fashion. In my territory, there were none of those trading rooms, and it was usually just a couple in each room. It was expensive to get communications to those offices with a small staff, but despite that, I had a quota to make. I did a deep dive into packet switching technology, which was a precursor to the internet, so my customers were the first in the U.S. to run on a frame network. That led to me building a frame relay carrier that connected the west coast to Hawaii and Guam and creating the first internet service provider in Honolulu.

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT/tech? The biggest misconception that people have is that any project is actually ever done. Products break all the time, and the only way to characterise a typical large corporate network environment is that they’re riddled with technical debt and subject to continuous, abrupt, large changes. Products don’t always do what vendors say they do, and no project ever ends because there are always changes.

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? To get to the C-Suite, I recommend that people master at least one IT discipline and be competent at another. In both the customer and vendor track, there are technical tracks and managerial tracks. People who aspire to the C-Suite in either track actually need to have expertise in both technical disciplines and management disciplines. Nothing is static in the technology industry, and people have the opportunity to move from customer to vendor and vice versa.

What are your career ambitions and have you reached them yet? My career goals have always been to establish two unicorn start-ups and fly my own jet. F5 was my first unicorn, and my goal is for Tempered to be my second. Since I’ve already flown a jet, I’ve got two down and one to go.

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? That’s a hard question for a startup CEO to answer. The definition of a startup is a business that has way more work than people to do it. What I have is a lot of experience managing that. For example, I can do work in my head when I appear to be doing other things. That helps with the optics of a work life balance. A startup CEO will always be working even if it doesn’t appear so, but you have to learn to manage it.

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? I would have ignored the worst piece of advice I received that I talked about earlier. I would have stayed in the things I was good at like finance and technology, but because I didn’t, I became competent at real estate development. I did learn that I’m not fond of that business and will stay out of it going forward.

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? I would recommend a Computer Science degree over a bootcamp. Coding bootcamps have their purpose, but they’re going to take about 20 weeks and you might come away with a Kindergarten level vocabulary in one language. With a Computer Science degree, you have to understand how stuff works like data structures, algorithms, and how to build software. For an IT job, you need the deeper knowledge to succeed.

How important are specific certifications? It depends on the job. Certifications are more important for people in purely technical or operational roles and are less important for commercial and managerial roles. Think about the richest guys in the technology industry: Larry Paige, Jeff Bezos, Reid Hoffman, and the list goes on. How many certifications do they have? None. But if you’re going for a CISO job, you need many certifications that give you a long, authoritative title. Alternatively, you could be the founder of Netflix or Google and be just fine without a certification.

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? I look for passion, storytelling and risk-taking. If I can tell a candidate is not passionate about what they do, I can't be passionate about paying them every other week. Passion is really important. I would argue that it’s a predictor of ultimate success in my experience. As a vendor, we innovate and do sales and marketing. We come up with a big idea, build something based on it, and then tell a compelling story to get millions to buy it.

Storytelling and the ability to communicate effectively is of paramount importance. The final trait – risk taking – can come in a lot of different forms, but many people are paralyzed by analysis paralysis. I need people who will just go try something, fail quickly and move on. That’s a much better mode of operations in a startup environment.

What would put you off a candidate? As a start-up entrepreneur, it’s frustrating to waste time interviewing candidates who clearly don’t understand the demands of a start-up and are only interested in a highly defined role and set of tasks. There’s a lot of people who spend time in their careers working in large companies and in well-defined roles, showing up at 9 and leaving at 5. They may see the job as a meal ticket, but I want someone who sees this job as a lottery ticket. They need to want more and be willing to do the work to get there.

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? The biggest mistakes I see candidates make are coming in under prepared, overstating past success and not asking enough context sensitive questions. Before coming to a job interview, candidates need to be prepared to talk about the job and the company, and they need to be humble. They also need to understand the importance of culture fit and how that can be a more important factor than experience.

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills – or a mix of both? In order to pursue the C-Suite, people need a mix of both technical and business skills.  The higher up you go in an organisation, the more your problem sets relate to people than technology. Technical acumen has to do with bits and bytes and wires, but on the business side, it’s more about people and communication. I almost never have technology or marketing problems; I have personnel problems in those areas. You have to have both technical acumen and business acumen to truly be successful.