C-suite career advice: Alesia Braga, SmartRecruiters

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? “Reaching a C-level point in your career will require you to bring your core expertise, whatever it is, and align it to business.”

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SmartRecruiters

Name: Alesia Braga

Company: SmartRecruiters

Job Title: Chief Technology Officer

Location: Berlin, Germany

Alesia Braga is CTO (Chief Technology Officer) at SmartRecruiters, leading Engineering and Product teams. Braga is an accomplished results-oriented technical leader with over 15 years of experience and a proven record of accomplishment for building and leading world-class software development, maximising profitability through the delivery of exceptional product quality and service, prudent management of people, technology, and processes. Prior to her time at SmartRecruiters, Braga worked in a variety of roles across software, programme management and Engineering at Google, Quandoo and SugarCRM.

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? The most valuable piece of career advice I’ve received was during the transition from managing a team of 40 people to my first director role managing a large organisation with multiple teams. At the time, my mentor and manager told me that you don’t wait for someone to tell you what to do. You develop the plan, why it’s essential, what you want to execute, and just do it.  

It was this conversation that changed my perspective on advancing to the next level of leadership. As that was my first director-level role, I found it particularly helpful as it was the first time, I had been given permission to drive strategy at this level. No one knows what’s inside your head, and you can’t expect your manager or your supervisor to tell you the answer or what to do all the time. At this level, you are the one that must identify the problem, produce a solution, and suggest a plan of action to achieve and deliver results working with your team to do it.  

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received?  Most of the bad advice I’ve been given throughout my career was down to missing the context of what I wanted to do. There were times where I’d been told by managers to move to the next stage of my career, I needed to perfect a certain area as an engineer or achieve a specific objective or milestone first. But I didn’t follow that. Often, I found that stepping into the next stage of my career required completely different skills than I was being told I needed. Fortunately, I didn’t follow the advice of perfecting this or that before going after my goals and instead found my own confidence in my abilities and the end result got me to where I am today. 

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT? One of the most important things about IT and the tech space is not getting comfortable thinking you know everything. There are significant changes, developments, and updates every year in our industry, and with the pandemic, change is accelerating even faster. To be in an innovative sector, you need to have a creative mindset. Those who want to have a career in the industry must have a student mentality to learn and improve constantly. Not only is it critical to invest in learning the fundamentals and understand how the pieces connect so you can apply this learning to practice, but the tech field is all about what is next. It’s not just about learning a framework or one tool but continually working to understand the integrations of how that next of technology fits into existing tech and how it all unites. Otherwise, your career will be short-lived. 

Did you always want to work in IT? I had phases of wanting to be a doctor and then a lawyer and then an astronaut at an early age, but I started coding at six. I loved working with computers, and as I grew older, I knew I wanted to study math and computer science. When I was 12 years old, I decided that I wanted to go to Belarusian State University. At 18, I ended up getting my master’s in applied mathematics and computer science, so yes, you could say from about 12 I knew I wanted to be in IT. 

What was your first job in IT? My first job in IT was in sales for a software company. After two months, I realised I had no passion for this job and became de-motivated in my position. My primary responsibility within this role was cold calling doing a job no one else wanted to do. However, the company soon realised I had experience coding, and I was moved into a software engineer position. Working as a software engineer was incredible. I loved it and stayed with the company for years, working my way up to a Senior Engineer managing projects and developing and delivering these amazing solutions for customers. 

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT? There's some truth to this, so I'm not sure if it's entirely a misconception, but IT and tech, in general, is a male-dominated industry. That's not to say there aren't some incredible women within the industry, and I work with many of them! But we have a long way to go when it comes to diversity and inclusion. One of the more uncommon misconceptions is the required skills needed to succeed – especially as you move up in your career.  

There is a common misconception within our industry that IT roles focus on solutions and coding and don't need to engage with people. However, to reach beyond a software engineer, you need to understand whom you are building these solutions for and why. Being able to challenge clients requires effective communication skills and an understanding of business. Sometimes you even must question their requirements and have the knowledge and expertise to know how to optimise the outcomes based on their needs. It's tough to move up if you don't understand the why behind the solutions you are building and the audience it's for. 

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? Reaching a C-level point in your career will require you to bring your core expertise, whatever it is, and align it to business. Understanding the why behind the solutions, how it maps to wider business objectives, what team will achieve those results, and how they all relate is your responsibility. 

The team is of particular importance at C-level. It’s a skill to master, or you will struggle. It’s imperative to be a real partner with your peers to drive success for your organisation. The other component is managing your team because you represent all of them, so how do you build their structure? Are they all aligned to what they feel is the best role for them? Are they motivated? Are they committed to the vision and the company? Do they know why and what they are working towards? And is your team being managed with respect, authenticity, and empowerment? It takes an expert to orchestrate this complexity effectively and is necessary for anyone wishing to reach C-level.  

What are your career ambitions and have you reached them yet? This might be an unpopular opinion, but I am not the type of person that ever had a 5-year or a 10-year plan. I don’t think I’ll ever ‘reach my ambitions’ because they are continuous. As soon as I reach a goal, I work toward the next one, constantly improving, growing, and learning to become a more well-rounded individual. In terms of my career goal specifically, I’d like to someday move into a CEO role, where I will be responsible for leading and running an entire organisation. 

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? In this strange time with the ongoing pandemic and everyone working remotely, many people struggle to strike a work/life balance. Over the past year, I have learnt to be very cautious and strict about when I work and when I don’t. I also think it’s vital to take time off when you need to and give yourself permission to take a break and be present in the moment. At top leadership levels, this can be difficult to do.

I can’t say I am perfect, but overall, I think I’ve got a good balance of making time for the job and making time to relax and see family. Fortunately, I work for a company that respects and values mental health and allowing employees the flexibility to take time off when needed.  

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? If I were to change one thing, it would be taking more risks. I struggled with imposter syndrome a lot throughout my career and often let other people's advice get into my head, making me doubt my abilities. If I were to go back, I'd take more risks, ignore people's comments, and not be afraid to fail. I've learnt that failure is key to continual learning. If I fail, I fail and learn something that will help with my development going forward, but fear kept me from making this leap at the start of my career. 

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? To be honest, I wouldn't recommend either of these. From my experience, everyone learns in different ways. What might work for some people, such as watching a video example, or working individually, might not work for others who prefer to learn from a group environment. Each person learns differently, and we need to be better at accommodating the different types of learning styles. There are some great courses online that help individuals who prefer to work alone at their own pace. But to get hired often, people will take the traditional route and get a university degree or do a coding camp or even both. But having these qualifications alone doesn't necessarily mean the individual will produce a higher quality of work. The quality of the work depends on the individual's drive to continuously learning and push themselves.  

How important are specific certifications? When I am looking to hire individuals, specific certifications aren’t all that important. But they may be helpful in enhancing a candidate’s profile in standing out. Especially in a role they may not have complete confidence that they are ready for. In these cases, specific certifications are a quick way of gaining trust and validation when a candidate may not have the most experience yet.

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? While skills and qualities depend on the role, I always look for candidates with clear communication. When someone can respond to my question by asking clarifying questions to prove they understood me, whilst building on the question to include their point of view – in a concise way – I am always impressed. They don't lose my attention. In any management role, clear communication is imperative, especially in running a team, so this, for me, is number one. 

Another skill is problem-solving. If it's a technology role, and I ask someone how they would solve a problem, and they can talk about a solution, and how it could go wrong and be adapted based on external factors or discuss how it can be improved moving forward – that would be significant. It shows a deep understanding of problem-solving and innovative thinking. 

A more specific skill I appreciate in interviews is honesty. I am a direct and open person. I appreciate it when someone gives frank feedback and skips all the trouble of going back and forth about what they mean. Identifying this type of personality in someone else is always refreshing as it shows me, we will get along well, and I can work with them. That type of culture fit is essential, as I also know I can trust them. 

What would put you off a candidate? Going back to honesty, it’s easy to catch people lying in an interview, and it’s the number one thing that would ultimately put me off a potential employee. If I ask a straightforward question and they say yes, but then you dig a bit deeper into the details, and they flounder with the facts and can’t prove it –it’s a waste of time for us both. It would’ve been better for them to have said, “I haven’t ever done that, but I think I’d approach it like this and do that,” displaying their problem-solving skills and willingness to learn versus deceit. This is a much humbler approach and impresses me much more than a lie. 

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? This goes back to my earlier point about clear communication. Often in interviews, candidates start talking about things without context and assume I know what they are referring to. It might be a great example, but it’s a lost opportunity if they don’t explain it correctly or tie it back to why it’s important. Also, asking questions is so important. When people ask clarifying questions, it shows me they really understand the problem outlined and are critically thinking about how to solve it. 

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills – or a mix of both? As I mentioned earlier, while technical skills are excellent at the beginning of your career, if you aspire to reach the C-level someday, having a more comprehensive skill set is necessary. Suppose you don’t work to learn those skills and understand them. In that case, you’ll hit a certain level of your career and remain there, which maybe you’ll be happy with and that’s okay too – for those who want more, the best advice I can give is to work on those communication skills and knowledge of business, and you’ll go far.