C-suite career advice: Sean Chou, Catalytic

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? "It’s important to take calculated risks and to own up to failure."


Name: Sean Chou

Company: Catalytic

Job Title: Co-Founder and CEO

Location: Chicago, Illinois

As the co-founder and CEO of Catalytic, Sean Chou leads the charge on product design and company strategy, and builds relationships with customers, channels and investors. As a lifelong technologist and true SaaS pioneer, he loves turning complex business problems into simple solutions. Previously, as the CTO of Fieldglass, Chou helped shape the company from inception in 1999 to a successful sale to SAP in 2014.

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? In college, I was a pre-med psychology major getting ready to take the MCAT to apply for medical school. My mentor, Paul Magelli, told me two things that quite literally changed the course of my life. First was that I needed to do what I was passionate about and not just what I thought others wanted me to do. Second, that I could do much more than I thought I was capable of.

Beyond the very early career trajectory, an incredibly valuable piece of career advice (that I hope to one day fully embrace) is to learn the power of no. As someone who likes a lot of challenges and whose mind loves to wander over multiple problems, I find that “no” reduces the noise in my mind, creating greater clarity and sense of purpose. It creates focus and mission, which is essential to accelerating successful outcomes.

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? The list of bad advice is so large that coming up with the worst is a challenge! There really is an endless stream of contradicting, uninformed and trite advice. I think among the worst pieces of advice I’ve consistently received and have heard commonly given are any variant of “playing it safe” or “go along to get along.” I can’t say that would be bad advice for everyone, but for me, it definitely is not good advice. I think it’s in my nature to go against the grain.

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT/tech? First and foremost, commit yourself to a lifelong journey of learning and reinventing yourself. It’s a field with dramatic changes that happen quickly, and it’s easy to become irrelevant. There is no room to rest on laurels in IT. Second, just because you love IT doesn’t mean you won’t have to deal with people. You don’t need to become an extrovert or a great speaker, but you will not get far without people skills and teamwork. Thirdly, and related to the second, is to invest in improving your writing skills. Whether it’s email, documentation, or an article, being able to communicate clearly is important in any field today.

Did you always want to work in IT/tech? No, I have a degree in psychology, and was unaware of the different paths within IT. It wasn’t until I got obsessed with the internet and early web that I got into IT.

What was your first job in IT/tech? My first IT job was to build out the first website for the University of Illinois’ MBA program in 1996. I was learning as I was doing; and fortunately for me, the whole world was just learning about the web at the time.

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT/tech? There are two common misconceptions that I come across. The first is that IT is solely tech support. There is definitely an important role in IT for tech support, but I’ve actually never been involved in any sort of support capacity. The other is that IT is for “math people” or that it isn’t for “creative people.” I think there’s a common misconception that IT is formulaic or linear. Or that there is always a “right answer.” My experience has been nearly the opposite in that, while a mathematical background is helpful, a creative approach to problem solving is critical.

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? It’s important to take calculated risks and to own up to failure. Elevating others will help you more than elevating yourself, especially in the long run. It’s equally important to be teachable as it is to have good mentors. Be deep in something and broad in most. Possessing deep expertise in a technical subject (for me, this is programming) creates a lot of credibility in a senior technology leader.

What are your career ambitions and have you reached them yet? I have the nebulous ambition of making an impact. While I could say I have made an impact, I would also immediately say that I would love to make a much larger impact.

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? On a typical day, I do. But there are definitely periods where it gets out of balance. Fortunately, I have an understanding family. However, when I first began my career, I routinely led the legendy startup “death marches.” In retrospect, I’m not sure how much it actually mattered to work that hard vs. just working smarter. I have to believe it made a difference, although probably not as much as I felt it did at the time. Apologies to my former team.

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? My career has gone way better than anything my younger self could have imagined. I am extremely grateful for the route it’s taken and, out of sheer fear of the butterfly effect, wouldn’t change a thing. Every setback, hardship and challenge had its purpose.

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? Mostly, I would recommend getting hands-on with code and creating anything all the way through. I see a lot of partially completed projects, and while I may be impressed with some specific aspect, it’s important to have enough discipline to get things all the way across the finish line - even when it comes to academic or hobby projects. That said, there are roles that I think benefit from a formal CS degree. And coding bootcamps are a great way to switch careers, creating a forcing mechanism to learn and immerse yourself in coding while surrounded by people who will guide and help you.

How important are specific certifications? Certifications vary tremendously, and while they can catch my attention initially, I’d still want to verify actual proficiency. Nothing beats experience or the ability to point to specific projects.

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? I really appreciate analytical thinking, clear communications, passion for their craft, and empathy for their colleagues.

What would put you off a candidate? Candidates that have a superiority complex (most often due to their college degree and/or former workplace), candidates that are more focused on amenities than their role, and candidates that show strong signs of being attention grabbers.

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? I think this varies a lot by interviewer, so I’ll speak for myself about what I think are common mistakes. Overinflating roles and accomplishments are common, as well as just trying too hard to impress. I really want to get to know the person I’m interviewing, and their experiences are an indicator of their interests, work ethic, and intellectual horsepower. If I sense overinflation, it destroys a candidate’s credibility in my eyes. I think a lot of people also treat an interview like a test to pass rather than an opportunity to mutually gauge fit. It's important for you as the candidate to make sure you’ll actually like the job and company!

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills – or a mix of both? I think the answer is obvious. Always best to have a mix. In my career trajectory, I gained technical skills before I gained business skills. But before, and while, I was working on my technical skills, I was also immersed in psychology learning about people.