C-suite career advice: Mark Vanni, Trūata

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT/tech? “Your career is a continuous learning process, so get comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

IDGConnect_csuitecareeradvice_suppliedart_markvannitrūata_1200x800
Trūata

Name: Mark Vanni

Company: Trūata

Job Title: Chief Operating Officer

Location: Dublin

In his role as COO, Mark Vanni leverages more than 20 years of operational experience to drive platform strategy, lead customer relationships and ensure the flawless delivery of Trūata’s privacy-enhanced data solutions and technologies. Prior to joining Trūata, Vanni led international product and technology teams and developed his operational expertise across Europe, Asia Pacific, Latin America and North America. Serving global customers and working across technology industries that include payments, data analytics, fraud and risk management, Vanni is well-versed in the dynamics of running international organisations as well as developing startups.Vanni previously founded and led the tech development as CTO of Solspark, a first-generation payment-processing technology and services, which was acquired by First Data in 2003.

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? Early in my career, I asked the managing partner of an IT consulting firm how partners know “what to do” with the business; I was curious about their decision-making process. In short, he said that there was no magic formula or specific process; they had to use sound judgement and leverage experience. The simplicity and essence of his message was “learn to trust yourself”. There is a real fear of falling into analysis paralysis when having to make big, strategic decisions, but if you apply the knowledge and experience you have to arrive at a logically sound decision then you can move forward with confidence. Of course, over the years, you refine your analytical skills and acquire greater experience so that you can take on more challenging problems or develop deeper strategies for managing and navigating different forces impacting your business, but in the end you have to trust in the decisions you make while being prepared to pivot if things don’t play out the way you intended. This advice is true for both managing your business and your career.

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? At the height of the tech bubble, in February 2000, we were just 9 months into our tech startup journey. We were in the process of seeking funding when we were advised to wait before proceeding with our next formal funding round in order to secure a better valuation. However, the tech bubble burst the following month and that ended the era where ‘easy’ money was more readily available to startups. The lesson? Ultimately, the music will always stop playing as nothing lasts forever; just make sure that you have a chair to sit in when it does.

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT/tech? Your career is a continuous learning process, so get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Whether you are acquiring new skills as a technical professional or developing your management style, you have to be willing to adapt and grow. People get asked to do jobs they aren’t ready for, or jobs that don’t align with their true passion, and that’s where struggles and failure begins. You have to recognise that different jobs require different skillsets, so approach new challenges with a growth mindset and a desire to learn. After all, companies are always seeking out those who thrive on the challenge of taking on new responsibilities.

Did you always want to work in IT/tech? From an early age, I was drawn to computers, programming and all things tech related. I dabbled in anthropology at university while continuing to develop my programming skills. I don’t think I have ever been the most technically-minded person or the most business-orientated person – I sit confidently at the intersection of the two. My passion lies in having the ability to apply technology to business challenges; it’s a rewarding space to play in and gives you a well-rounded skillset.

What was your first job in IT/tech? I came straight out of university and launched into a role as a programmer analyst – it was centred around coding and building systems.

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT/tech? There is often a general perception that technology is extremely complex and, therefore, you have to have a certain set of skills to even approach the industry. However, tech is no different from other professional paths; it is a discipline. No matter what your discipline, there are skills you learn and knowledge that you acquire and apply to real-world scenarios. Often, you’ll hear business professionals say that they “don’t understand any of it”, but technology and business are interlinked in today’s world. Rather than being intimidated by it, it is important to take the time to learn. In fact, it is incredibly useful for tech professionals to understand business and vice versa; this enables teams to understand just how interwoven disciplines are when it comes to delivering on strategic and commercial objectives.

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? In order to be well-rounded, you have to understand both business and people. At C-suite level, you still have operational and technical responsibilities; however, as a senior leader, you need to understand how different areas feed into what you do. Until more recently, people have associated C-suite capabilities with those who have pursued an MBA; while that may be useful, there are other ways of applying yourself to gain the required knowledge and experience. Ultimately, you have to have a holistic understanding and interest in the commercial components of business - not just the technical prowess in your specific area.

What are your career ambitions and have you reached them yet? As a COO and reporting directly to the CEO, the next logical next step in the career trajectory is to look to the role above. However, you have to have a real passion to be a CEO; you become the one person who is accountable for building out the team, the company culture, and you are managing both the internal and external stakeholders. It’s a multi-dimensional role that offers an intriguing level of challenge, but you have to ask whether that is truly something that would drive you.

I have been fortunate to have a fairly diverse career to-date, and I have learned that lateral moves can be equally as rewarding - if not more rewarding - than moving up the metaphorical ladder. My career ambitions have always been driven by my curiosity and desire to learn; it is stagnation that stifles growth. At Trūata, we are building and scaling, so the challenges that come with that make it highly motivating and rewarding.

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? With technology having become an extension of ourselves, I think that the lines have been blurred for most people and, of course, COVID hasn’t helped the situation! Also, when you are passionate about what you do and invested in it, you are always thinking about it to some extent, so you do have to look for ways to disconnect or to build artificial barriers. Work life balance is incredibly important, but it is also paradoxical – you tend to do your best thinking when you have the time not to think about it; your subconscious continues to work while you are trying to free your mind. I consciously make time to switch-off and reset because you bounce back with re-energised purpose, which is important when working in a startup as it is a high-energy but high-reward environment. The pace of change over the last 20 years has accelerated the speed at which organisations move, so ensure you make the time to disconnect.

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? I don’t think there is anything that I would change in particular. Early on, I identified my strengths and weaknesses, then played to those strengths while actively seeking to improve the weaknesses. I started out doing what I enjoyed by immersing myself in tech and then steered my learning towards my areas of passion. I’m not one for regrets because I have found that I have sought-out and taken advantage of opportunities when I have felt I have been at an inflection point in my career – and those shifts have typically come when I have felt that I am no longer learning. It’s that continuous self-development that keeps you growing and progressing.

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? I would have to say a Computer Science degree for anyone starting out in their career, and the reason for that is because you are immediately conveying that you have the foundational knowledge in a relevant discipline. You want a strong foundation in logic, math, architecture, programming etc., and this degree demonstrates that you have a basic mastery of these foundational skills and the desire to see it through. But it doesn’t have to be computer science; data science and data analytics offer that same broad base to build upon.

When it comes to business, technology is just the tool for efficiency and ease of building solutions to problems, programming languages and tools covered by bootcamps will change over time. A solid foundation in technology from a degree will allow you to adapt over time to the changing technology landscape.

How important are specific certifications? At the start of your career, your certifications serve as your passport into industry experience. How do you prove to someone that you know what you are doing? You get certified. You prove that you have taken the time to invest in yourself and have developed that level of proficiency and discipline. And from there, you gain your experience and build a track record for yourself. The further you move along in your career, the less weight that is given to specific certifications.

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates?  Communication. It has to be very clear that the candidate will have the ability to communicate effectively with me; I also need to know that I will be able to communicate with them.

Critical thinking. Prospective candidates need to show that they can logically work through a problem. Even without knowledge of industry or tech, there has to be an innate ability to approach a problem and work though it with a level of assertiveness, logic and organisation.

The skillset. However, the ability to communicate and solve a problem comes before the skills – if they can do the first two then they can acquire additional skills.

What would put you off a candidate? The inverse of the above! Those who don’t appear to think critically or logically and those who do not project that they have the communication skills to navigate the role and the team around them.

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? One rookie mistake is not doing the research on the company in advance of the interview. If I ask a candidate what Trūata does and they can’t tell me, it implies that they just see it as a job and haven’t take the time to learn; this is often indicative of their approach to work. We need people who are invested, who have a passion not only for what we do but also for further developing themselves.

Another common mistake is talking far too much. It’s important to answer questions directly and as succinctly as possible. Convey your technical know-how and provide an anecdote that demonstrates your ability to apply your knowledge. This is a far better approach than regurgitating your resume or relaying stats that don’t link directly to who you are or what you contributed in your role.

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills – or a mix of both?  Definitely a mix of both. Early on in a career, a technologist will often be bias towards building their tech skills, but when you look at your potential career progression, you will need a balance if you want to grow into leadership roles. Seek out opportunities to gain knowledge on the business side of things; you will have the ability to do both if you have a hunger to learn. Even if you decide you want to stay in a specific tech role, understanding the business context will always be important and serve you to better apply the technologies that you develop.