C-suite career advice: Mark Vivian, Claremont

What are the skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? “Most important though is aptitude. Have they got the ability to develop, and have they got the growth mindset that will allow them to develop…”

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Claremont

Name: Mark Vivian

Company: Claremont

Job Title: CEO

Location: Guildford, UK

Mark Vivian has worked in the IT sector for over 30 years and has spent the majority of that time working with Oracle software. During this time, he has worked for Oracle, an end user, two start-ups that grew to successful acquisition, and has been at the helm of Claremont for the last 10 years.

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? I’m not sure if it was a specific piece of career advice, but joining Oracle was the best move I ever made. Not only did it provide me with a great environment to further my skills and experience, but the enduring thing has been the network of like-minded individuals that I established during my tenure.

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? Again, not a specific piece of advice, but there have been various points in different businesses where portfolio diversification has been suggested or attempted, not always successfully. With careful planning and investment, it can be successful, but I would suggest that the first priority be to “stick to the knitting”; do what you do best and aim to do it better than anyone else.

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT/tech? Don’t be afraid of anything. Sometimes in life you hold yourself back from speaking up when you have a strong opinion about something, enrolling on that study programme, taking that new job opportunity when it presents itself. Don’t. Imagine yourself in the future being successful in that new role, for example, and borrow the confidence from your future self to take that leap of faith today.

Did you always want to work in IT/tech? I had an interest in computers, both hardware and software, from my early teens. I built my own computers (starting with a kit-form ZX81, but moving onto more exotic things), and wrote computer games in machine code. I authored articles about programming, some of which were published in national magazines.

I owe a lot to a philanthropist named Mike St John, who had created and sponsored a computer department at Longfield school, which I attended. Back then, the concept of an IT department in a school was still quite a novelty, and I remember that the school and Mike were featured in “Reader’s Digest” and on “Nationwide” as a result. That investment ultimately facilitated my career path. It meant that there was an option to undertake Computer Science “O”, “A” and “S” Levels, which was really quite rare at the time. I then went on to study Computer Science at Manchester University.

What was your first job in IT/tech? After I left university, I joined Software Sciences on their graduate programme and worked as a programmer. One of the first projects I worked was as a result of the “Big Bang”; the computerisation of the London Stock Exchange in 1986. In conjunction with a consortium of investment banks, Software Sciences had developed a front-office trading system called COLT. Over time, further banks adopted the product, and at one point 85% of trades on the LSE went through COLT. I was part of the team that supported the system. 

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT/tech? Going back a few years, if you said you worked in IT, it was assumed you knew how to fix any PC! On a more serious note, it’s probably also assumed that IT is full of “techies”. It isn’t. The adoption of IT solutions requires a broad church of skills that includes programme management, business analysis, change management, learning and development, etc.

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? Get yourself one or more mentors, people who have been there, seen it and done it before. This is true both whilst you are aspiring to be in a c-level role, and also once you’ve reached it, as it can be a lonely place running a business. Having someone impartial who you can bounce things off is often invaluable.

What are your career ambitions, and have you reached them yet? Along with IT, I also had an interest in business from an early age. I remember spending hours and hours playing a company management exercise simulation game as a teenager rather than the “shoot ‘em up” type games that many of my peers were playing, and was fascinated by how businesses were run. “Troubleshooter” with John-Harvey Jones being one of my favourite TV programmes and I knew that I always wanted to run a company.

In that sense, I have achieved my ambition, bringing together my key interests of IT and business in my role as CEO at Claremont. There is always more to learn though, and I’m fascinated by the international market, and keen to experience growing new business in different geographies.

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? I’ve probably attained a much better work/life balance in the last year since the first lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic! Being a CEO is a demanding, sometimes stressful role, and it’s important to try to strike as much of a balance as possible.

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? I’ve been working in IT industry for over 30 years now and have had a breadth of experiences. After Software Sciences, I then worked in the IT Department at a firm of chartered surveyors. Having got into Oracle software, I decided that I wanted to work for Oracle. I got a job there as a technical consultant (at my second attempt) and worked my way up through technical lead and project management roles during my 5 years there.

I then left to join a start-up founded by a few Oracle senior managers, including Steve Anderson and Mark Robinson, called Fulcrum Solutions, which was eventually acquired some years later by Whitman Hart. I then followed Steve, Mark and others to another start-up, Edenbrook, which also was acquired a decade later by Hitachi Consulting. I then went on to join Claremont, initially as Operations Director and after 18 months took over as CEO. I have been lucky to have mentors such as Steve and Mark, who have taught me much over the years, and in fact Steve is a non-Exec at Claremont today.

The one thing that I would change in that journey, is to embrace the opportunity to travel more with work and have the experience of living and working abroad on a more permanent basis. Those opportunities have been there, but for personal and family reasons, I was not been able to take them at the time.

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? These two things are completely different. Whilst I think that a coding bootcamp will give you the fundamentals of how to write software, a degree obviously covers a broader range of topics and in more depth. There’s obviously a corresponding correlation in cost too!

How important are specific certifications? I have a degree in Computer Science from The University of Manchester and don’t have any Oracle specific certifications. Depending where you are in your career though, I do think that gaining relevant qualifications will help your personal development and enable you to develop your career.

What are the skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? As an IT services business, a lot of the time, we’re obviously looking for people who have strong technical experience and skills. But we also look for candidates with the right personal attributes to fit into our culture, e.g. strong communicators, team players, those with a “can-do” attitude. Most important though is aptitude. Have they got the ability to develop, and have they got the growth mindset that will allow them to develop? You can support someone in gaining experience to take on new roles, but you can’t change their ability.

What would put you off a candidate? Someone who is displaying low energy and therefore doesn’t seem interested in the job or the company. Also, it would put me off if a prospective employee hadn't made the effort to dress appropriately or brush their hair for the interview. Even though a majority of interviews and hiring is going on through video calls, it isn't an excuse to be unprofessional. Appearing polished in front of a potential employer is always preferable. It tells me they care about first impressions and know how to present themselves well.

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? Not doing some basic research about the company and the role, and therefore out some thought into what they would bring as an employee. Understanding how as an individual you can slot into a collective is crucial to being a member of any team. Being ill prepared to convey what value you can bring to the team is always a red flag for us.

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills – or a mix of both? A mixture. My early interest in IT and business have been a great foundation for my career.