C-suite career advice: Ian Stevenson, Cyan

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT/tech? “I think a lot of people see IT as being about computers, but it’s not. Computers aren’t interesting unless they achieve something in the real world, for real people.”


Name: Ian Stevenson

Company: Cyan

Job Title: CEO and co-founder

Location: Edinburgh

Ian Stevenson leads Cyan with 20 years’ experience of putting new technology into the hands of the users who need it. His breadth and depth of knowledge has led to the key role he played in setting up the Online Safety Tech Industry Association (OSTIA), which he is the Chair of. It is a growing association, with a mission to drive conversation in policy. Additionally, Ian is a Chartered Engineer, Saltire Fellow and Member of the Institute of Directors.

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? Whether you think you can, or whether you think you can’t, you’re probably right. I think it’s a great observation on how our own mindset influences what we can achieve. There have been several times in my career that finding the confidence to believe that I can succeed has been the hardest part. Once I’ve managed that, things fall into place much more easily.

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? I don’t think I’ve ever been given anything I’d count as unequivocally bad advice – but I’ve been given a lot of advice that doesn’t reflect the context I’m working in at a particular time, and I find that very frustrating. Whether you’re starting your career, a new job, or growing a business, you get offered lots of well-intentioned advice. An important skill to pick up quickly is learning to sift through that advice to identify the nuggets of gold which are relevant to you.

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT/tech? I’ve mentored a few young professionals over the years, and I find a lot of them get very focused on what they are doing each day rather than on their transferrable skills, and so limit their own opportunities without meaning to.

Look around at lots of different employers and roles and think about how you might fit into them, even if you’re not currently looking for a job. This will help you to really understand the different options open to you. If there are opportunities you like the look of but don’t have the right skills or qualifications for, you can then think about developing them well in advance of needing them.

Did you always want to work in IT/tech? Yes, I have loved electronics, amateur radio and computers since I was about 12. I always knew that I wanted to work in technology, and I’ve spent most of my career at the boundary of electronics and software in one way or another. 

What was your first job in IT/tech? I had a summer job at a company that did marine surveys – mostly checking oil and gas pipelines for movement or damage.  I was supposed to spend the summer measuring points off hand drawn charts with a scale ruler and entering the corresponding co-ordinates into spreadsheets. It was pretty boring, so I figured out a way to re-program a Hewlett Packard plotter so that I could simply line up each data point in a sight using the joystick, hit enter, and it would record the co-ordinates for me. I finished the stack of charts supposed to last me the summer in 2 weeks and I got to spend the rest of the summer running navigation and data collection systems on  survey boats instead, which was much more of an adventure. I ended up writing a lot of software to replace painful manual tasks like calibration or data correction, great fun.

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT/tech? I think a lot of people see IT as being about computers, but it’s not. Computers aren’t interesting unless they achieve something in the real world, for real people. In the early of days Cyan each time our software helped put a child abuser behind bars, my cofounder drew a stick man behind bars on a post-it note and added it to the wall. It helps remind everyone, including the most technical, that we may use computers, but the purpose of our work isn’t technology for its own sake. It’s putting paedophiles in jail. I’m proud to say we had to stop that custom because the post it notes were taking up too much space and we were losing count. But, the best days in the office are still when we hear about a case that we’ve helped police with.

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? I think there’s a hidden change of rules that happens when you get to the top of your function in an organisation by representing it at c-level. On the way up, people are looking at your capacity to get things done and your potential. When it comes to c-level positions I think a lot more of the selection process is about managing risk and guaranteeing leadership.  No-one hires a department head in the hope that they will “grow into the role” and there usually won’t be a mentor within the company to help you settle in. 

I think you need to be able to demonstrate that you have the full set of skills needed (or can acquire them quickly), and that you know how to put in place a strategy for your function and lead your team to deliver it. Being prepared for interviews with examples is important, as is being able to demonstrate a commitment to the role through training and attending events.

I think the two things which secured my first CTO role were describing a plan of the first few months, how I would get to know the organisation, it’s tech, and put a strategy in place for development. This demonstrated my skills and expertise for the role. Secondly, I identified some weaknesses I had in governance, but outlined my plans to take a course at the Institute of Directors to develop my own skills.

What are your career ambitions and have you reached them yet? The last time I really took time out to reflect on my career was 10 years ago – I was at Babson College in Boston, working with a leadership coach, as part of the Saltire Fellowship program.  I worked on understanding where I wanted to be in 10 years (or sooner!) and that’s pretty much where I am – running an exciting, growing tech startup. Right now, it’s hard to separate my personal goals from that of the business so I don’t have a specific plan, but, 10 years from now, I know I still want to be involved in one or more startups bringing new tech to customers that need it. 

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? I have a growing business to run, a wife with her own successful business, and a growing 6-year-old at home.  Even though I’m the CEO I work a 4½ day a week at Cyan so I can spend time with my son, and I seldom work weekends. I’m usually home for bedtime stories 4 nights out of 5 if I’m not travelling. 

If I am very busy, or I have lots of travel in a small space of time, the routine will understandably slip a little. Sometimes there simply isn’t time to do everything I want, but I think I do OK, all things considered.

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? I think all my experiences contribute to who I am, and I value who I am, so I wouldn’t change anything. There have been some uncomfortable times in my career, but I still learned from those experiences and I value that knowledge. Sometimes failing teaches the most important lessons.

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? It depends what you’re trying to achieve, and what is accessible to you.

I did a computer science degree back in the nineties and I still use that education regularly. It’s a foundation of first principles on which to build. However, it’s a big commitment and there are lots of jobs in technology that simply don’t require that depth. I know people who have done computer science degrees and don’t use them - the practical skills they use day-to-day were acquired in the workplace. Equally, I know people who have been on a coding course, started work in the sector, and quickly realised they wanted to have a deeper understanding to work on more complex systems so went back to university.

How important are specific certifications? I’ve never had any industry certifications and I’ve never felt that was a barrier for me. On the other hand, I’ve also worked with a lot of Cisco and Microsoft certified engineers who built successful careers around those certifications. I think the trick is to look at where you want to be in 3, 5, or 10 years and work out whether certifications are a good way of getting there. If certifications help you achieve your goals, then I would say that they are important.

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? The skills depend a lot on the role I’m recruiting for, but there are three capabilities that I believe make people effective that I always look for. 

The first is problem solving. The ability to understand a situation or problem and figure out how to make it better. Solving problems is seldom an isolated activity, which means that being able to communicate with others to understand the problem and communicate a solution is also important, that’s the second skill I look for. Finally, there’s a level of determination that’s needed to see jobs through from start to end.

The relative importance of problem solving, communication and determination is role specific, as is the level of ability required in each area, but when I think about colleagues I’ve enjoyed working with over the years, these are characteristics I see in all of them.

What would put you off a candidate? I’m always looking for people who are going to be enthusiastic about what the job I’m interviewing for has to offer them, so I’m looking for that same sense of enthusiasm when they talk at interview. At Cyan that means we’re looking for people who want to make the internet a safer place – if that’s not a motivator for them, then they aren’t going to be a good fit.

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? The one I’ve seen the most is people trying too hard, usually based on misconceptions about what their interviewers might want to see. I’m usually hiring people I will spend a lot of time with over the next few years, so I want to know who they are. If all I get from someone at interview is some sort of caricature of the perfect employee, I’m unlikely to be excited about working with them.

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills – or a mix of both? If you focus entirely on technical or business skills you’ll have a higher level of expertise in a specialised area. Whilst it’s important to play to your strengths and develop your expertise in a specific area (I need people on my team with deeper expertise in certain areas than me), there are advantages of building a broad range of skills which includes both business and technical skills.

If you want to run a department, get a c-level job, or run your own business this is critical.

I love being a person who joins up the technical and business worlds, and I use both my computer science and business school education all the time – running Cyan is challenging and exciting, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.