C-suite career advice: Barry Mainz, Malwarebytes

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? “… continuing to evolve and learn is also a critical skill to have when aiming for a c-level position. You’re never too seasoned to continue to build your breadth and expertise.”

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Malwarebytes

Name: Barry Mainz

Company: Malwarebytes

Job Title: Chief Operations Officer

Location: Santa Clara, CA

Barry Mainz, Chief Operating Officer (COO), leads global operations, sales, marketing, analytics, and customer success for Malwarebytes. As the first-ever COO of Malwarebytes, Mainz leads customer facing go-to-market strategies, operations, and activities, accelerating growth across the company’s Consumer and Corporate businesses. During his two-year tenure with the organisation, Mainz has successfully led the company through explosive growth, scaling up global marketing, consumer and corporate customer growth, and customer success. Mainz has more than 25 years of experience in global sales, marketing, customer operations, and product development.

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? When I was in school and uncertain of where I wanted to take my career path, I received a great piece of advice from one of my professors, who encouraged me to reflect on what I enjoyed doing and what I’m good at, and then find someone to pay me for it! While true self-reflection can be challenging, my professor would often remind me, “you don’t often know what’s stamped on your own forehand.”  Little to say, she played an important role in helping me identify my strengths and interests while also teaching me the importance of being open to third-party feedback.

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? I began my career in the sales industry where I had a boss who was not the most effective manager. He often reminded me of his philosophy that it is ‘better to be feared than loved,’ which is an awful piece of advice for developing successful teams. To work in a high-profile team, mutual respect across members is essential. People are more motivated to work hard and go the extra mile when they feel respected and appreciated rather than feeling like work is something they must do out of obligation. Fear in any work environment can also create high turnover, which I experienced myself as I quit shortly thereafter.

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT/tech? First, I recommend identifying a product, technology category or solution set that really interests you. For example, if you’re interested in social media, you should target and apply for positions at social media companies. There is nothing worse than working for company when you don’t have a clear idea about how the product works or how to generate customer interest. This brings me back to what I said earlier, – to find something you’re good at or jazzed about. If you’re unsure, applying for a company that is already successful can provide you with an understanding of how a successful company works, such as skills and routines you should emulate in your career. You also might be surprised by what you can get excited about. Additionally, your weakness can be your superpower. As someone with dyslexia, I’ve uncovered new strategies for overcoming the challenges this poses at work, which has ultimately helped me become a better executive.

Did you always want to work in IT/tech? No, my first job out of college was at an ad agency that supported technology companies in Silicon Valley. Through this role, I gained a great deal of knowledge about product market fit a few decades before Silicon Valley began developing stronger branding, product awareness, and external amplification strategies.

What was your first job in IT/tech? I worked for SYNNEX (NYSE: SNX), which is the number two distributor in the world focused on selling hardware and peripherals to dealers. It was great experience because I learned how to ‘work smarter’ while managing and developing relationships with key dealers in the industry. In this sense, my job had a sales aspect where I could develop a trusted advisor relationship, which I really enjoyed. I also joined the company during an interesting time when the computer industry was in its infancy, which provided me with a deeper understanding of computers’ internal processes and components, which was valuable as I didn’t have a technical background.

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT/tech? I see four misconceptions about working in tech – the first being that it’s necessary to have a technical degree. If you look at most unsuccessful CEOs, their downfall often occurs because they can’t effectively handle change management. While they may have a technical background, it’s more important to develop ‘soft-skills’ for communication at a young age to efficiently manage teams of people. Second, this may seem obvious, but you don’t need to be a man to work in tech. I know many successful women who have built their careers in the tech industry across a variety of impressive roles.

Additionally, there is also a misconception that people working in tech need to work alone in a dark room writing code, which often, is not the case. Finally, working in technology is not like being in Rome during the Renaissance; in fact, it’s extremely difficult and only one in ten startups are successful. 

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? First, it’s important to understand that great leadership is all about the team. I can’t stress enough how important it is to fully understand what a high-performing team looks like and how to develop one. If you can point to a previous employee whom you managed and is now doing great things at other companies, that’s a great indicator of your success as a leader. Second, you don’t need to be the smartest person in the room to prove your value. This can be a big failing point for many executives, but it’s more important to do things right rather than letting ego get in the way and needing to be right. For example, it can be beneficial to hire people who are smarter than you in certain areas so your team can continue to grow and develop new skills.

Similarly, continuing to evolve and learn is also a critical skill to have when aiming for a c-level position. You’re never too seasoned to continue to build your breadth and expertise. That’s one of the reasons why Malwarebytes transitioned to an agile work environment with an open seating floorplan, to encourage collaboration across our team members. Last, keep your eye on the prize. Done is better than perfect, and it’s important to keep strategic priorities moving forward rather than spending too many cycles perfecting the plan. To this point, it’s important to be an ambidextrous leader who can be strategic, tactical, and empathetic to identify the right priorities while being able to adapt quickly to changing situations.

What are your career ambitions and have you reached them yet? I’ve reached some of them, but not all of them. There are always new opportunities to grow and broaden your horizons – whether you’re focused on evolving your current company or pursuing a new position at another. Personally, I’m excited to continue driving new growth opportunities for Malwarebytes.

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? In the U.S., I don’t believe we have an effective approach to work life balance compared to other work cultures across the globe. Continually working doesn’t always make you a better worker. For me personally, I’ve struggled to balance completing tasks with taking personal time to relax and simply reflect. However, as I’ve progressed further in my career, one practice that has helped me do a better job of managing my work life balance is evaluating my priorities and goals at the end of the year. By setting internal contracts and expectations with myself around my future goals, I can better identify and prioritise important tasks going forward. I also find it’s sometimes helpful to take meetings while taking a walk, particularly while we’ve been working from home.

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? I would have joined Network Appliance before it went public. The person who ended up accepting the job I was originally offered reaped the benefits of an IPO. That said, I have no regrets about my career, every position has given me valuable lessons and while I might not have been able to predict my exact career path, I’m thrilled with where it’s taken me.

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? In my career, some of the best coders where people who didn’t have a degree. Really talented coders can surpass college level curriculum if they have the skill for it. The way I see it is college provides an opportunity for people to develop the soft skills they need to collaborate and work well with others. Overall, it’s important to consider your strengths and weaknesses to identify the right opportunities to help fill in the gaps.

How important are specific certifications? It depends on your career route and own personal goals. If you plan to move up through the technical ranks, pursuing and attaining technical certifications can be important. Business-related higher education opportunities can also be extremely advantageous in helping to fill in the gaps where you lack background knowledge or experience. For example, I didn’t have a finance background, so I attained a finance certification from Columbia University which proved to be beneficial throughout my career. I also pursued an executive MBA when I was at Intel. Advanced education can change the game in your thinking process and skill sets.

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? While skillsets I look for in candidates can vary by role, I generally look for people who have both the appropriate experience for the position they are applying for, as well as strong soft skills and personal characteristics that align with or add to our culture. Additionally, it’s important for candidates to be enthusiastic about the job - enthusiasm is contagious but so is crankiness. I also look for people who have a proven track record for success, especially in imperfect conditions. While it’s normal to have a few bumps along the way, I like to understand how candidates overcame challenges and how they consistently delivered successful results in their previous roles. Finally, I appreciate when candidates can provide a thoughtful answer to the question ‘why?’

What would put you off a candidate? Someone who didn’t do their homework. I’ve had applicants who continually mispronounced my name or demonstrated poor listening skills during an interview, which indicates how they might perform within the team. For senior roles, I like to take candidates out to lunch or dinners to observe how they treat the food servers. This can provide a real sense of the candidate’s character and how they might manage or treat others at the company.

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? It’s important to come prepared to the interview. Most mistakes that I’ve experienced when interviewing candidates often are simple etiquette practices such as tardiness, ineffective communication during the scheduling process, failing to research the interviewer prior to the interview, to name a few. To prevent these mistakes, it’s important to learn what the company does while having a list of questions to ask the interviewer.

Additionally, I’m also interested in how candidates respond when asked to describe themselves. In preparation for interviews, role-playing with people you trust can help you better prepare for handling these questions. I also like for candidates to come prepared with questions for their interviewers, an interview goes both ways and we want to ensure that they are also asking us the questions that will help them decide if the company is right for them.

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills – or a mix of both? There’s success on both sides but it’s important to have the self-awareness to assess your blind spots. If you can initially identify what you are good at and what you need to polish up, you can always pursue additional education opportunities in the future to close the gaps. For both paths, having strong interpersonal skills is critical for leading successful teams. People often underestimate the impact of emotional IQ but having the lack of change management and constructive confrontation skills can be cause enough to be fired. Working in tech isn’t easy so having a good attitude and ability to motivate others is important. In fact, I would hire a candidate with strong interpersonal skills over someone with only technical and business skills because those can be learned later.