C-suite career advice: Jerome Lecat, Scality

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? “I wish someone told me to trust my intuitions. I had to discover it by myself and it took a long time.”

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Scality

Name: Jerome Lecat

Company: Scality

Job Title: CEO

Location: San Francisco, CA

Jérôme Lecat is a serial entrepreneur and business angel with 20 years of internet infrastructure start-up experience. As the CEO of Scality, Lecat spent the last decade building a multi-national company into a leading provider of data management and storage software. Scality’s technology is a source for human progress — helping to power a variety of critical services including; the discovery of life-giving drugs through human genomics research, greater choice for entertainment services with fast video streaming, and access to the most compelling research with large-scale archival at top national libraries across the world.

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? Many books have been critical to my growth as a business leader; one especially has been my North Star in the past 20 years: Good to Great, from Jim Collins. The most valuable piece of advice I received was from my manager, just after I sold my first company. She told me to get a coach, stating that eventually I would become the limit to the growth of the organisation. Since then, I have almost continuously had a business coach, and the years I didn’t were not my greatest years!

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? I almost failed a company because of this so called “advice” from a “well intentioned” person. I was told I would not be capable of managing a key aspect of the business and that I should hire someone to do it. I did, which was the right thing to do. But assuming that I was incapable myself, I did not manage or control the person adequately. 

Trust yourself and have a coach to challenge your thinking is what I would recommend to any CEO today.

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT/tech? You are entering a fascinating field that is reshaping every aspect of human life. This is amazing. This world is moving very fast, but human psychology is actually evolving rather slowly, at the pace of generations. Stay aware and do not succumb to fads would be my recommendation.

Did you always want to work in IT/tech? I got my first computer, actually a TI57 programmable calculator, as a present for my 13th birthday. It was amazing what you could do with 49 steps of programming. Most readers today probably can’t even relate. 49 steps? Yes, 49 instructions, that’s the longest program you could write. And you could do a lot! A few months later I learned BASIC and assembly language on a TRS80. I was hooked. I have been in IT ever since!

What was your first job in IT/tech? I was a data scientist before the word existed, developing automatic stock picking model in the late eighties. I have always been fascinated by the power of the human brain, and even more by the fact that you could program a system to exhibit some sophisticated human behaviour. My first AI was a very simple TicTacToe, when I was 14. I remember my own astonishment when the computer did a move that I had not programmed and beat me. Tic Tac Toe is a very simple game with finite solutions. 

I then studied Cognitive Science, a pluridisciplinary approach to the notion of intelligence. It was extraordinary. In 1994, I was in the U.S. to deliver a program I had developed and saw the rise of the commercial internet. I saw this would revolutionise communications, and potentially take down borders. I went back to France, my home country, to start one of the very first Internet Service Providers. Since then, I build the infrastructures that are the basis of our everyday digital life.

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT/tech? The biggest misconception is that it is not about people! Especially as a CEO, my job is mostly about communicating to people.

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? My current advice is to stay calm and focused through crises. The world is upside down right now.  As business leaders, it’s more important than ever that we stay focused. When you’re the head of a business and the world is falling apart around you, it’s extremely difficult to tune out the noise and make sense of the advice bombarding you. But the truth is, you must.  

When the pressure is on, it’s essential that you purposefully detach and spend time in solitude. Take some time and ask yourself the hard questions: Is your business still meaningful to the world? Is what you created still viable? If so, do not waiver. Find a way forward. There is always a path, even if you must be the one to forge it.

What are your career ambitions, and have you reached them yet? At some point of my career, I had reached my ambitions. I took a year off, to do everything I desired to do. I was curious to know what desire would come next. And I went back to business, back to starting another company. A bigger one, with more impact. My dad is 96 years old and still works every day, I think that I follow in his footsteps.

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? “Work hard, play hard, eat well and amaze the customer.” It’s the phrase that appears on our company’s branded coffee mugs and it’s a mantra I take seriously. The eat well should not be taken literally, it really means enjoy life.  

Since starting the business, I’ve always placed a high value on living life in balance. To me, the best strategy to promote the importance of this idea is to lead by example. If I’m not modeling sustainable healthy behaviors, I’m making it hard for others to do so. This includes taking vacations and making it visible as well as acceptable.  

We’ve learned that the culprit for employee concerns is not generally what we think of as an “unhealthy lifestyle”—it’s the all-too-familiar realities of life and family that often get in the way, such as lack of sleep, financial concerns, and providing unpaid care to family members or relatives.  

While we can’t solve for all of these concerns, we believe that the most important step we can take is to encourage healthy work/life balance. Without physical separation between work and the rest of life, the real danger for our employees is that they won’t stop working, increasing the odds of costly and health-compromising burnout. Against this always-on backdrop, teams must know that they can – and should – disengage for their physical and mental health.

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? I wish someone told me to trust my intuitions. I had to discover it by myself and it took a long time. Intuitions are not irrational thinking, I am not suggesting take the first idea which comes to mind, but rather, to listen to the irrational insight that complements thorough, rational thinking.

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? Both. You don’t know how to code from a computer science degree, but you don’t understand what you code and its impact without a bit of theory. Coding is actually a small part of the job. Understanding the impact of what you create and making sure the quality is there is the hard part.

How important are specific certifications? At Scality, we don’t care about certification. We care about the learning process. We are looking for people who always want to learn, who are always ready to question, including questioning themselves.

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? Trust, listening and empathy. We all know what we need to do, the hardest part is the discipline required to do every piece of it. Creating trust takes time and courage. Listening and empathy require shifting the focus from ourselves to another human, which is easier to do once we feel whole and cared for by others.  

The future of business requires a shift in thinking. In school, I learned that every employee is replaceable, and that the organisation should never change to fit the individual. That approach could not be further away from my own personal philosophy.   

I believe that each individual is completely and wonderfully unique. At Scality, we welcome and honor each person's uniqueness. We want our employees to feel comfortable revealing and operating as their true selves. When someone joins the team, that individual comes with skills — some you hired them for and some you have no idea even exist. By cultivating an environment where people feel free to share the many dimensions of themselves, you can unearth those hidden gems. The business can and should adapt to leverage the precious gems in each and every individual.

What would put you off a candidate? Cognitive dissonance: if what I feel about the candidate is different from what the candidate tells me.

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? Sometimes, selling themselves too much. Be authentic. If you don’t get the job while being authentic, this was not the right job for you.

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills – or a mix of both?  It does not matter. What matters for a C-suite role is to have mastered leadership skills, the ones described in Good to Great by Jim Collins are a good start.