C-suite career advice: René Seifert, The DataFlow Group

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? “Follow your passion.”

The DataFlow Group

Name: René Seifert

Company: The DataFlow Group

Job Title: Chief Digital Officer

Location: Dubai

René Seifert is a serial entrepreneur and co-head of TrueProfile.io - the industry-leader in document verification. Powered by the DataFlow Group, TrueProfile.io provides these services in a modern environment via the adoption of blockchain. Prior to this, Seifert was the co-founder and co-CEO of Venturate AG, a crowdfunding platform allowing regular people to invest side-by-side with experienced business angels. The company was successfully sold in 2015 to FinLab AG, a publicly listed company in Frankfurt, Germany. Seifert also ran Level 360, an investment & incubation firm in Bangalore, India where he had been living between 2003 and 2013.

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? The best advice I have received has to be, “if you are the smartest person in the room then you are in the wrong room.”

The opposite of that is complacency which precludes you from challenging any preconceived notions and prohibits you from growth. This applies to all sorts of situations like team meetings, C-level meetings or even the boardroom. There should be people who know something else or an area much better than you do and you should always try to expose yourself to that in order to challenge your current understanding.

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? “Follow your passion.”

Of course, you shouldn't be doing something for your whole life that you hate, that would be a waste of your lifetime. But at the same time, you should, at least by your mid-twenties, have an idea of how your passion can translate to something that can sustain your life. I am very liberty loving - pick your ambition level, not everyone needs to be a CEO, a superstar or a millionaire. If you’re living in your modest apartment and you’re happily sustaining yourself financially then it’s all fine. But don’t be that person who just ‘followed their passion’ in their mid-thirties and realises it didn’t get them anywhere near being self-sustained and then holds “society” accountable for it. So, use your passion in a positive way to drive yourself towards a place that at some point to put daily bread on the table by yourself.

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT/tech? Get your hands dirty as early as possible. This can be either via an internship in a corporation or by joining a start-up, whatever is better for you and your own goals and timeframes.

Let’s hope that at some point, start-up events will be back as this is the perfect place to engage with start-up founders. Such founders are bootstrapped with resources, so if you have something valuable to contribute then they welcome you with open arms. It’s important to try to get exposed to real life working environments as much as possible.

Secondly, there are plenty of interesting online courses. Have a look at what’s available that interests you, train yourself and learn something on your own. There are courses for everything on various levels, from learning Python programming to Data Science and they are really beautifully built so that you can learn the basics and then build towards something more complex. Interestingly, the structure of the training gets you to solve ‘micro-tasks’ that help build your own confidence, making you aim higher each time and also demonstrates certain skills to the market - whether that’s a corporation or a start-up - to show that you are able to get things done.

Maybe, also interestingly, when we talk about IT we should also consider not just typical, heavy tech or IT-focused roles but also what some of our team at TrueProfile.io do which is within the realm of product management. This is also where some of my background comes from which is equally important and should be encompassed into the discussion around careers in IT or tech. For those who want to consider this avenue, you need to think about what problem you’re trying to solve in the market and how can you solve that in a way that people enjoy and will like using what we have created. So, once you are there, this can open up a number of careers within IT and technology including product management, UX, UI and design.

Did you always want to work in IT/tech? I’d say I am the most unlikely candidate to have ended up here. I started my career in journalism as a radio presenter in my early twenties, then I finished my university degree in Business in Germany. One thing led to another and the crossover of media content and business led me into marketing for a radio station. It was there that I was exposed to the internet at the end of the nineties where this radio station, Bayern 3, was one of the pioneers at that time to really use media to embrace radio marketing in combination with the internet. My first IT touchpoint really happened when I started considering the tech component associated with the internet, though on a more basic level.

What was your first job in IT/tech? The next leap forward started when I joined Lycos Europe at the beginning of the year 2000, which was the start of the dot-com era. As a Director of Entertainment for Europe I was definitely exposed to more product-related and technical questions to achieve the things that we wanted to do. The rest was self-taught in my own startups, from e-commerce publishing to Venturate, a crowdfunding company which really caused a substantial leap in my own self-taught learning, as well as hands-on learning at the DataFlow Group / TrueProfile.io.

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT/tech? There are these memes on social media which I am sure we have all seen. They have ‘What my family think I do, what my friends think I do and then what I actually do’.  If we try to frame it a bit around that, people seem to think that working in IT or technology means having your hands in the codebase all day debugging or in a team meeting talking in highly incomprehensible tech lingo.

The nature of the role is in fact much more diverse and strategic. For example, how can I articulate what we are going to do in terms of the product, how do I create an infrastructure for this, who are the people I need and what capabilities do they need to have to execute what we are trying to do. Then we need to start thinking about team structures and how these can scale as the business grows.

Also, of increasing importance, is how to implement data security into the DNA or the organisation. In addition, what we’ve experienced by working via a methodological development, is how do we improve the way we are operating in an agile environment in terms of SCRUM and uplift our processes as the organisation grows. Then there are things like our annual budget, planning and ongoing controlling of the budget.

But still, regardless, I try to be involved in a hands-on way in the development of our product which is really my genesis and where I can continue to contribute.

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? First, know something about everything and take a generalist approach. Second, maintain a curiosity in terms of what is happening in the world around you: market, trends, needs, but also technological changes which might drive or change the way you are doing things and present new opportunities.

Third, in general you should enjoy engaging with people and it really feeds into being able to hire people who are much better than you are, enable them and then get out of their way and let them do their job. Lastly, you should be willing - and this is something that I personally had to learn - you have to spend time on inward-looking activities such as planning, budget, controlling, alignment. This is something you should really be aware of and willing to do.

What are your career ambitions and have you reached them yet? I would say that I take little pride in being ‘C-Level’, but I take great pride in being part of a smart team which has built something meaningful that the world needs, like TrueProfile.io

In case there’s a life for me after the DataFlow Group, describing matters on a lighter note, my current inclination would be less towards another C-Level role or even CEO as it requires a disproportionate amount of focus for inward looking activities. I would rather join a start-up, maybe found it from scratch or join one in the early or growth stage where I can be more hands-on in a specific role.

Apart from that, I am relatively happy how things in my life have evolved to be able to invest my money across various asset classes from stock, FinTech to crypto and again learn a lot from their inherent dynamics.

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? Overall, the answer is yes. It’s important to realise that after the organisation reaches a certain size, the marginal impact of every hour that you put in declines, so you need to focus more on the things that truly have an impact on the organisation as a whole instead of spending hour after hour and burning the midnight oil. I remember those times well at the start of DataFlowPlus and TrueProfile.io.

You should be more focused on building a sustainable organisation that is able to drive and execute on the mission. Having said that, there are always phases such as the budget or end of year, an incident that has an escalation where the balance tilts more towards work than life.

But you should be aware of this and not make an environment which is a steady state of emergency. Especially in a senior or C-level role, you can end up wasting yourself to the point that you actually become ineffective in what you should actually be doing.

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? This question really got me thinking. If I could turn back the wheel of time I would study something rather more focused in the field of hard science. For example, computer science, physics, engineering, maths - from my grades and my inclination I would have had the capability to do so.

A business degree like mine is rather fruitless unless you want to work in an administrative role in a corporation or the government. I’d have rather studied science as a foundation and then have gone out into the world to get my hands dirty by applying my knowledge. Also, possibly a sign of the times, but when I started to study in 1992 the start- up concept wasn’t a thing at the time. So, this perhaps shaped my decision to study Business which was seen as mainstream and a subject that got you somewhere. I was also quite certain, being responsible for myself financially at that time, that this would get me to a point where I’d be able to sustain myself.

Overall, I am very happy with what I am doing and how I got here really by weird unconventional movements. But if I could change anything I would have gone more into hard science for the reasons I mentioned previously. If you are a trained physicist then understanding the principle of a balance sheet takes a matter of a day and then if you want to immerse yourself then again, then do a course in balance sheets and accounting and you’ll get the hang of it in a matter of weeks. So, I would rather start in the hard sciences that provide a framework for what is possible like the realm of physics, like Elon Musk who is a brilliant physicist who, although he never completed his degree, he understands what he can build in terms of rockets, batteries, electric cars because he understands the boundary conditions from the law of physics. I think that’s the exciting part, that science drives the possibilities for building something and business is then the last layer that you can pick up relatively easily.

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? Whatever floats your boat! The point is don’t just aim at credentialism, aim at solving problems and train your brain to solve harder problems. Let your GitHub repository speak for itself, or your contribution in a hackathon or a startup. Any area where you can demonstrate a track record that shows you are capable and willing to work and get some experience. Of course, not everyone is self-taught and not everyone is Mark Zuckerberg. It’s definitely advisable to immerse yourself in some kind of organised curriculum to learn the fundamentals. But whether you need to do a computer science degree which might take four years or a bootcamp is really a personal decision based on what you’re inclined to do and where your aspirations lie. But in either scenario, focus on getting your hands dirty and doing something with what you learn.

How important are specific certifications? It’s always good to learn new things and doing this via a curriculum that someone with advanced knowledge has structured and built, makes sense to acquire this knowledge and skills in an organised manner. But again, don’t fall into this signalling trap that comes with certification where you start with one then do more and more certifications just for the sake of certification. Again, try to apply these newfound skills to something that is practical and useful.

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? I’ll make it short - Skill, ambition and potential.

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