C-Suite Career Advice: Rick Farnell, Protegrity

What tips would you give to someone aspiring to a C-level position? “Leadership requires practice – you don’t go from being an individual contributor to the C-suite overnight.”


Name: Rick Farnell

Company: Protegrity

Job Title: President and CEO

Location: Salt Lake City, Utah

Rick Farnell is the President and CEO of Protegrity, bringing a successful track record as an entrepreneur, executive, and operator of multiple global technology companies. At the helm of Protegrity, Farnell is spearheading the company’s efforts to scale its industry-leading data-security solutions into the future as companies rapidly invest in data innovation. Before joining Protegrity, Farnell founded Rapid Formation, which helps incubate, fund, and scale startups in the AI market. Farnell spent over 20 years in a variety of executive management positions in sales, business development, alliances, and consulting for companies such as C-Bridge Internet Solutions and Sun Microsystems.

What was the most valuable piece of advice that you received during your career? “Don't blink.” At my first job in tech, my boss told me, “When you’re asked a question, always look at the person, hear them, and then respond with an insightful question if you need clarification. Then answer with confidence. Sometimes you won’t know the answer to what they ask and that’s okay, but don’t let it fluster you.” He also told me to be aware of what my body language, facial expression, and tone of voice are communicating. 

Bottom line, don’t let difficult questions rattle you. 

What was the worst career advice you have received? To compete with my peers. At the time, I was in a very competitive environment. However, looking back, I realise the key is not only to stand out, but also to remember that you are all on the same team and working toward the same goal. If you want to advance in your career, you always want to think about your peers in a positive light: how can you help them and how can they help you? You shouldn’t ever look at your coworkers as competitors that you have to “beat.” Remember: A rising tide lifts all boats.  

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT or tech? For someone starting their career in a more technical role, my advice is to find someone they respect and to emulate that person. Ideally, find a colleague who has previously worked in your position and has since been promoted. Learn how this person goes about their job. What questions do they ask in technical meetings? What is their note taking style? How do they structure their day? All of this can set you up for equal success in a technical position.  

For those starting in a business role at a tech company, I recommend learning the company’s “marketecture,” which depicts the architecture of the company’s product and services from a marketing or sales perspective. You need to not only understand your company’s technology, but also how it fits into the broader market landscape. 

Did you always want to work in IT/tech? When I graduated college, I started out in finance – working at a bank – and doing personal training at a health club. It was during my time doing personal training that I was fortunate enough to meet a number of technical professionals who graduated from MIT, Harvard and worked in technology startups in the Cambridge area including the president of Cambridge Technology Group (CTG), Professor John Donovan. Eventually, CTG invited me to come and work for them. At the time, I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but it turns out that technology became my passion.  

What was your first job in IT/tech? Cambridge Technology Group, where I started out in a research and education role. At CTG, we hosted seminars for executives on how technology and business were intertwined and how their companies could take advantage of the latest innovations in the market. I was tasked with researching and compiling background information on each executive that was attending a CTG event. Prior to the event, attendees would fax over information sheets with their business questions and I would use these questionnaires, plus additional research, to identify trends and then create a binder for Professor Donovan, which briefed him on each executive and allowed him to prepare for conversations and personalise presentations. I did that for about three months before Professor Donovan witnessed my interactions with our executive clients and promoted me to a sales role.  

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT/tech? The most common misconception is that you have to be technical. Everyone assumes that you need to be a programmer or have programmed in the past, but 60% or more of successful people in the tech industry are not programmers. That said, you do need to understand how all of the componentry works and be able to talk about the tech landscape, but you don’t need to be a programmer.  

What tips would you give to someone aspiring to a C-level position? Leadership requires practice – you don’t go from being an individual contributor to the C-suite overnight. You also can’t just read a book about it – it’s specific to each individual. As you progress in your career and enter into positions with increasing oversight, you should try out different leadership techniques to see what works best for you. Ultimately, it’s about developing your own leadership style. While you can get great ideas from other leaders and from good leadership books, your style has to be authentic.  

What are your career ambitions and have you reached them yet? I wouldn’t say I’ve reached my ultimate career goals, because I instead like to think about continual improvement. So many of the most famous and successful leaders in the world are still working. Why? Because there’s always more you can do. Once you get to a certain level of leadership, you develop a new mental framework that allows you to see the entire business matrix – and that’s when it starts to get fun. I’ve learned a lot throughout my career and haven’t come close to where I want to go. There is much more I want to do and many more people I want to help in their careers. When I do retire, I want to be able to look back and see a large number of successful leaders that I used to work with and helped mentor along the way. 

Do you have a good work/life balance in your current role? In my current role at Protegrity, yes, I have a great work/life balance. In previous roles, no. My current work/life balance comes from experience. When I started Think Big Analytics in August of 2010, the company experienced rocketship growth and required my full attention, around the clock. That’s when I really lost sight of balance in my life. I was living in London and running a global organisation – and basically not sleeping. About three years after Think Big’s acquisition by Teradata, I took time off to do some soul searching and decide what I wanted to do next. I contemplated starting a new company or joining an established organisation and helping it grow. I committed to myself and to my family that the next time around, I would have balance, which is ultimately what led me to Protegrity.  

One of my methods for maintaining a proper work/life balance is having a separate work phone and personal phone. I don’t do anything work related on my personal phone and when I am off work, I place my work phone on airplane mode. It’s my way of shifting my mindset from work to personal life. 

At Protegrity, we’ve instituted a “Flexible Fridays” program to encourage our employees to prioritise a healthy work/life balance. As part of the program, Protegrity employees are able to enjoy a three-day weekend every other week, giving them more time to spend with their friends and families and focus on their own mental wellness.  

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken?  When it comes to my career path, I wouldn't change a thing. That’s because every experience was an important part of my personal and career development. Looking back, I had the opportunity to interface with corporate executives running global businesses at a relatively young age when I was part of CTG. I then entered into the software business and then into consulting. Each company offered me such varied and unique experiences – from launching a startup to being part of acquisitions with Sun Microsystems and Teradata. I’ve had a great balance of consulting and product experience that has helped shape me into who I am today.  

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? I think both are helpful, but not completely necessary to have a career in tech. If I were to pick one for someone young in their career, I would recommend a coding bootcamp, because it gives the attendee hands-on experience in building applications and software, which is invaluable. A computer science degree gives you more of an understanding at the architectural level, which you can always add in, but if you are just starting out, take a coding bootcamp first. 

How important are specific certifications?  It depends – if the certification is highly recognised in the industry and relevant to your specific job and career path, then it’s an important way to build credibility and show you are proud of and committed to what you are doing. If you are getting the certification for the sake of having it, then it might not be worth the time and effort (and expense). 

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? The three skills I look for are: 1) Problem solving – I want people to be able to think on their feet and come up with solutions, not just identify issues; 2) A sense of coachability and humility – it’s important to receive feedback with an open mind, which shows a willingness and eagerness to learn and grow; 3) A positive attitude – individuals with a positive attitude can make up for any skills deficiencies early on. You can train and build skills – you can’t train a positive attitude.  

What would put you off a candidate? Someone who purported to “know everything” about the role they are interviewing for. I don’t recommend coming into an interview with a know-it-all attitude. There’s always room for growth and improvement. 

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided?  Hands down, the most common mistake is not doing your homework. Throughout my career, I was shocked by some candidates’ lack of preparation and research. You should know something about the person interviewing you; be familiar with the company, what they do, and what they sell; and read their recent press releases. With LinkedIn and Twitter, there is no excuse to come into an interview without context about the company you are interviewing with and the person who is interviewing you. 

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills – or a mix of both?  In my view, it’s more important to have technical skills – you can always learn business skills along the way. When you look at executives who started out in technical roles and made it to the C-suite, you’ll notice they are still technical, but they have considerably more business leadership experience now. It’s a natural progression – the majority of leaders become less and less technical and more and more business-oriented. Those just starting out in their careers should focus on technical skills and ground themselves there, then add in business skills as their career and responsibilities evolve.