C-suite career advice: Ulf Persson, ABBYY

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? “Generally, I think so. As CEO, working longer hours comes with the job description, but the onus is on you to find and uphold the balance.”


Name: Ulf Persson

Company: ABBYY

Job Title: CEO

Location: London

Ulf Persson is the CEO of Digital Intelligence company ABBYY and is responsible for its overall strategic direction and business development. Persson and his team at ABBYY have been helping to solve customer challenges by empowering businesses with technology which enables them to reimagine the way they work to make more intelligent decisions. Prior to taking the role of CEO, Persson was a member of the Board of Directors of ABBYY Group since 2002, also serving as Chairman. Persson has been involved with a number of technology and service companies in executive and non-executive positions over the past 20 years, including Mint Capital, AIG-Brunswick Millennium Fund and Axel Johnson.

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? Follow your heart and your instinct. It may be obvious, but it’s true that we are more likely to thrive in our career if we enjoy what we do.

It’s also important that you have trust in yourself and your abilities, while never forgetting the importance of constantly learning and developing. Every time I have had the opportunity to take my career in a new direction, I have always taken the plunge, no matter how nervous or hesitant I might have felt. When it comes to delving into something new, it’s important to remember that you can always rectify a mistake, but not taking an opportunity is much harder to correct.

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? When I have faced obstacles in my career, there have always been people who have told me “give it time”. I think this is wrong. In challenging moments, it’s important to trust your own instincts, and to deal with the problem head on. We should treat every challenge as an opportunity to learn – even if it causes short term pain.

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT/tech? Soak in as much information as possible when you start your career in technology. It’s important you’re learning from teams that are good at what they do and can show you the ropes. As you get to grips with the basics, test your limits and push yourself out of your comfort zone – how else can you truly develop your skillset?!

Regardless of your role in the company, trying to get inside the head of the customer is crucial. Working hard to understand the problem you are part of solving, and seeing it from their perspective, is very valuable from Day 1.

Communication is everything when you start your career, and even if that is in IT, you should strive to continuously improve your communications skills. These will be the building blocks of your success. It’s true that not everyone will be a great communicator but being able to clearly convey a message or viewpoint will help elevate anyone’s career.

Did you always want to work in IT/tech? While I haven’t always wanted to work in IT and technology, I have always been fascinated by the opportunities offered by good use of technology, and I believe there’s never been a better time to be a part of the industry.

In an ever-changing landscape, technology provides the means of making the impossible, possible. It’s not only about improving processes and behaviours; technology can also ensure whole industries, enterprises and individuals are reaping rewards and seeing continued improvements.

This pursuit of impact and improvement through technology is an area that greatly motivates me at ABBYY, and it helps to provide a stimulating work environment for professional and personal growth for our staff.

What was your first job in IT/tech? My first interaction with IT and technology was working as an investor and in board level positions. With ABBYY I went from being a board member to chairman to CEO. While this was certainly an odd route, it helped me have a different perspective which I think has been useful in driving change and development.

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT/tech? It’s often believed that technology is the solution in itself – it isn’t. The solution lies in how technology is applied to a problem. This means you don’t always need the most complex or most expensive technology to solve your business challenges – you need the right solution. All too often, the focus is on the product or the underlying technology itself.

Technology is always only part of a solution – the rest is how technology is delivered, maintained, supported and secured. When all of these elements are combined, businesses have the best tools in their arsenal. People are crucial in the success of technology.

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? Trust your ability. If you are in a C-level position, it’s because you’ve proved yourself and earned it. But that doesn’t mean you stop growing – there is ample opportunity to learn from those around you.

Embrace a strategic mindset and set clear goals for yourself, your teams and the wider business. This often means you’ll be taking risks, but that’s not something to be afraid of. Use this as an opportunity to learn how to operate with imperfect information and become a better leader because of it.

Remember that results will always trump effort, and ensure your team understands this. Ultimately, communicating more than you think you need to will always serve any leader well – communication never goes amiss.

What are your career ambitions and have you reached them yet? My ambition and focus is on working towards and putting the steps in place to make ABBYY a world-leader in document-centric intelligent automation. Are we there yet? No, but we have a good understanding of what we need to do and how to get there. While on the journey, the goals will inevitably develop and change so the journey actually never ends”

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? Generally, I think so. As CEO, working longer hours comes with the job description, but the onus is on you to find and uphold the balance. We are living in an increasingly hyper-connected world which means everyone is always “on” – a remote and distributed workforce certainly makes it harder to switch off too.

Success is a marathon, not a sprint. Taking breaks, practicing a healthy work-life balance and spending time with your family and friends (and on your own) will make you a better leader, not the opposite.

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? Ha! Hindsight is 20/20. I definitely don’t regret anything, but I would have focused on executive work earlier if I could have.

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? There’s no right or wrong answer, it’s whatever suits you best – there is no one path to reaching your goals.

This question touches on a topic beyond computer science or bootcamps, it’s about choice. One key differentiator of a developed society is the privilege of choice. No matter which path in life you decide to walk down, you will always have the opportunity to change path midway, walk back the way you came from, or make your own path. This is a privilege to be conscious of – many, even most, don’t have that privilege. The same logic and awareness of choice can be applied in your entry into IT and technology.

How important are specific certifications? Certifications are important as proof of your skills and the time you’ve put into studying, but they don’t show the bigger picture of your ability.”

A certification may get you an interview, but it won’t help you keep the job. You have to demonstrate your skills and prove that you’re valuable and not defined by a piece of paper. There are important traits in a workplace that can only be demonstrated on the job – the ability to work in a team, management skills, motivation and willingness to learn, to name just a few.

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates?  It changes from role to role, but I’d say the three key abilities that I look for would be: the requisite skills to perform the job while being willing to learn and grow professionally and personally; a high level of ambition and passion from newcomers – you want them to come in and improve the team; and a strong personality that gels well with the team and company culture.

What would put you off a candidate? I’m definitely after someone who is willing and passionate to learn and grow. If someone’s attitude is “I know it all” or “me instead of the team” I would rather pass. The combination of confidence and humility is what sets candidates apart.

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? It sounds simple but being prepared and confident while showing genuine interest in the company and the role is key – it’s easy to tell who has done their research!

I find that the best interviews are often the ones where I am answering as many questions as the candidate is – the inquisitive nature from the get-go is a positive insight into how they will be in the workplace.

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills – or a mix of both? It definitely depends on your role but in general a mix of both with the weighting depending on your position in the company. Crucially, your weakness needs to be strengthened by your team, and you need to feel assured that you can succeed with their advice and know-how. Having a balance, as with so much in life, is the recipe to success.