C-suite career advice: Dr. Neil Costigan, BehavioSec

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT/tech? “People think that working in the technology field is a lonely, solo job… its very much an exercise between people and how teamwork leads to successful ventures.”


Name: Dr. Neil Costigan

Company: BehavioSec

Job Title: CEO

Location: San Francisco, CA

Dr. Neil Costigan brings over 25 years of effective entrepreneurial and technical leadership in venture-backed startups and global technology corporations throughout the EU and US. Before BehavioSec, he built his career in software development, executive leadership, and entrepreneurship. As the co-founder and CTO at PKI Specialists Celo Communications (Celo) first in Stockholm then California, he advanced the technical strategy, and formed strong strategic partnerships. He also served as Vice President of R&D at Gemplus (now Gemalto), a digital security giant in Aix-en-Provence, France.

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? Many years ago, I worked for a large organisation in a rather high position that was beyond my experience and background. At that time, I got frustrated with things that just didn’t seem to go right. I was fortunate to have a colleague pass a great piece of advice to me: “Never attribute to malice what you can put down to incompetence.” People are not out to purposefully make a mistake, it’s in our human nature to make mistakes and that occasionally will happen.

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? There is a piece of feedback that everyone – regardless of industry – gets along the way: “The customer is always right.” I side with Steve Jobs on this front, where I don’t find this statement to be always true. Sometimes customers don’t know what they want or fully understand the technology, particularly when you work in the area of innovation. Rather than just agree or sharply contradict, the better path is to see this as an opportunity to share your knowledge with them. The customer feels good about learning something and is better prepared to understand what you are offering. And it can result in building a ‘trusted advisor’ relationship with them.

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT/tech? As you are trying to pick your first job fresh out of college, consider what your special skill is and choose a company whose core business is that. For instance, a large bank may be looking for a software engineer, but their core business is in fact banking, not software development. I have found that joining a modest-size company whose core business is your core competency usually plays out well for your career.

Did you always want to work in IT/tech? As a student, you always end up working a job on construction, bars, kitchens and I was not any different. Very often, my conclusion at the end of the summer in one of those construction sites was that I did not have a skill, or passion, for the field. From an early age I knew science was an area I could succeed in and following that realisation, I picked computer science as my undergraduate degree.

What was your first job in IT/tech? I managed to get a summer job in Dublin as a student, programming the mainframes for videotexts/minmitel systems – a technology that really doesn’t exist anymore. While today there are different languages and operating systems, the work, in essence, remains the same.  

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT/tech? People think that working in the technology field is a lonely, solo job. If you think about it, that’s the way movies, cartoons and our culture in general portrays security analysts, hackers, system administrators, etc. In reality, working in information technology is very much an exercise between people and how teamwork leads to successful ventures.

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? If you have an inspirational leader, boss or mentor, take advantage of it. Spend a lot of time thinking, watching and standing on the shoulder of giants and learn how they work in that level.  

What are your career ambitions and have you reached them yet? I’m a computer science guy leading a successful IT start-up, BehavioSec, for a number of years. In fact, I’ve walked this innovation journey from product ideation to mass-market twice now. But I think one can put that down to luck or being in the right place at the right time, so I certainly would like the opportunity to do it again.

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? Yes, I believe so. Although, contrary to other viewpoints, I don’t think seeing your work as just a job or a 9:00 to 5:00 function is the best approach to good work life balance. For example, while watching a movie the other night I took a phone call from work. Someone could say that is not really a nice balance, but what they may not realise is that I was watching a movie two hours prior to that call. Balance is subjective to every individual’s need.

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? I’m happy as it is. I have an interesting career path, where I obtained my undergraduate degree quite young; spent time as an industry practitioner and years later went back to academia for two additional degrees. I may say that it is worth studying harder earlier on, but I also think there is value in being older and more mature when pursuing higher-education.

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? I’m biased to say given the effort and time I put in a computer science degree, so I highly recommend that those considering a career in IT pursue a degree. There is a big difference between being trained to do something and being educated to do it. A computer science degree is fundamental and teaches you how to think about technology, while training doesn’t give you the long-term value in understanding the underlying fundamentals needed to tackle new tasks.

How important are specific certifications? I don’t really look for specific certifications from prospective employees or my team at BehavioSec. At the stage of our company, we are employing people that can write a certain certification course as opposed to taking given course. Still, there are security certifications that have merit, but I personally prefer the underlying degree(s) rather than a specific training.

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? Often, recent graduates that are attempting to enter the technology workforce look very similar to each other. One thing I look for as a differentiator is how they managed and performed in their individual projects. I also pay close attention to candidates that have traveled and worked or studied abroad as well as those who played a sport; I think there is a whole lot of character and personality that goes into those decisions that sets them apart.

What would put you off a candidate? I have a particular dislike for people that use buzzwords, especially out of context. When you don’t have substance behind what you are saying that becomes very apparent and unfortunately, I see this too often.

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? One of the most common mistakes is to show up for an interview without doing basic research.  Learning about the person interviewing you, the company and the position you are applying for is the very least a candidate should research in this day and age where tools like LinkedIn and Google are available.  

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills – or a mix of both?  Both are extremely important. However, if I had to pick one it would certainly be technical skills. Business skills are very similar to personal skills and can be picked up over time by experience, but technical skills are the whole foundation of the technology industry and therefore essential.