C-suite career advice: Kelly Ahuja, Versa Networks

What are your career ambitions, and have you reached them yet? “My ambition has always been to be in a fast-paced industry, to help solve problems and bring solutions to tie to those problems.”

Versa Networks

Name: Kelly Ahuja

Company: Versa Networks

Job Title: CEO

Location: San Jose, California

Currently CEO of Versa Networks, Kelly Ahuja is a seasoned industry veteran with more than 20 years of experience in networking and telecommunications. He currently serves on the board of directors for two start-ups in Silicon Valley. Ahuja spent 18 years at Cisco rooted in the design and deployment of telecommunications networks. His last role at Cisco was SVP of Service Provider Business, Products and Solutions at Cisco where he was responsible for developing and managing the service provider segment strategy and portfolio. Ahuja held several other senior executive roles at Cisco, including SVP and GM of the Mobility Business Group, Chief Architect for the Service Provider business, and SVP and GM of the Service Provider Routing Technology Group.

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? The best and most valuable piece of advice I’ve received is the need to have a strong work ethic, and this is something that can be broken down into a number of elements. The first is work hard – meaning do what it takes to do the job, roll up your sleeves and get stuck in. The second is don’t have an ego – humility is what wins trust amongst your team, customers, and partners, be open minded, listen to others, trying to prove yourself and go it alone won’t get you very far. The third is to focus on results – drive the top line, bottom line to help the business; at the end of the day that’s what matters. These were all things that were instilled in me early on in my career, even when I was doing internships and summer jobs before entering the workforce fulltime.

From the very beginning I was always told that to succeed you need to make sure you’ve accomplished a lot, that you’re committed and that whatever you’re doing, you’re doing it right and with integrity.

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? To me the focus should be less on the advice you receive and more on who you look to for advice and what their motivations are.

I have always followed a philosophy of implicit trust. When I talk to people, I can tell the difference between those who have the same goal or same intent in a situation for my career, and those who do not. If you choose the wrong person to get advice from, they’re not going to give you sound advice, no matter what the issue is. If you choose someone who you trust and who looks after your best interests, they will give you the right advice.

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT/tech? When I’m looking to hire someone, I look for three core qualities.

The first is ability. When going for a new job or career path it’s vital you make sure you either have the right abilities for what you are going to do or, if you don’t have the right skills, you know that the company you’re applying to can help you to build the skills you’re missing.

The second is aptitude. Don’t take things at face value, you have to have instinct so you can anticipate what is around the corner. You need to have aptitude to deal with uncertainty and complexity and not shy away from it.

The third and final point is attitude. Having a can-do attitude and a willingness to get stuck into any job is how you’ll learn and excel.

I would also advise not to outsource your career to someone else. Meaning you should always be curious and have a plan to move forwards. Staying in one area for too long can work out well, it did for me, but then getting out of that area can be very difficult. Early on in your career you want to make sure you try different things and experience different environments so that you have an understanding of working in different workplaces and cultures and adapting to working with different kinds of people.

Did you always want to work in IT/tech? Yes. I knew at the age of 10 that I wanted to be an engineer. The reason is a more personal story, but my father passed away when I was 10. We were a middle-class family; my father was part of the police force in India. One thing we didn’t have a lot of in those days (the 70s) was telephones so when my father had an accident, there was no way of letting us know that it had happened until a while after it did. From that moment onwards I knew that I was going to be an engineer and I was going to be in communications.

What was your first job in IT/tech? I was an engineer, working for a company in Canada. It was a very hands-on job from the start, I basically got given a load of equipment and had to work out how it functioned. It’s safe to say, I learned a lot very quickly.

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT/tech? Many people think you have to be a software person, a developer or designer to have a good career in tech. But there is a lot more to technology than just the development side. Technology is developed for solving a problem and that problem can result in a big and profitable business. You need to understand technology to be able to then tie it to solving those problems and building a business, but you don’t have to be the one designing it.

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? To me, a C-Level position is a leadership position. A leadership position is not about what you do or who you know, but how you do it.

Whether you’re already a leader, or working towards a leadership role, you’ve got to act as if a camera is always on. As a leader, people are aways watching you and it’s not something that only happens when you get to C-Level, it happens well before. If you’re aiming for one of those positions, be it CEO, CTO, CMO or any other, the way to get there is to start to show up and think like a leader now. To make an impact in one of those roles, you’ve got to think bigger and beyond your current function, taking into account how what you do impacts the entire business.  

You’ve also got to think even more broadly, not just at what your company is doing, but make sure you explore the wider industry, network, and align with everyone including your colleagues, your competitors, partners and industry pundits. To be a respected leader, you have to be well read and well thought of, and in order to do that you need to broaden your horizon.

What’s more, you’ve got to be humble. Understand that you’re not entitled to get a C-Level role, you’ve got to earn it. And you don’t just have to earn it once, you have to earn it every day.

What are your career ambitions, and have you reached them yet? My ambition has always been to be in a fast-paced industry, to help solve problems and bring solutions to tie to those problems. I started my career as a systems engineer, so my job was to understand the customer problem and look at what I had in my toolkit to solve that problem, and I still think that way in my role today. Whether it’s a technology problem or a business problem, or anything else, you have to find the best solution.

My ambition has always been to have an impact in the industry and build a legacy.

When I worked at Cisco, my hero was John Chambers. He was someone I felt had built a legacy in the industry. My first ambition was to build a legacy at Cisco, not in terms of the function I ran or what position I was in, but what impact I had internally within Cisco, the impact I had with customers, and what impact I had on the business. That was my career ambition, and I didn’t leave Cisco until I’d reached that pinnacle.

When I moved to join Versa, my ambition became about taking something from an early stage and turning it into something meaningful.

Have I reached my career ambitions yet? I’ll never be satisfied but I know I’ll have to get to a point where I can say I think I’ve done enough, or I’m happy with what I’ve done. I’m very pleased with what I’ve done so far and where I’ve gotten. Am I ready to walk away yet? Not quite.

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? I talk about three things in life, one is career/work, one is family, and the other includes other hobbies/activities outside of the family. I believe that out of the three you can add balance to two, but something always has to give.

Do I work too much? Absolutely! However, I do have some non-negotiables to help me to achieve balance, one of the most important being that I ensure I sit down with my wife for dinner every evening.

The boundary between work and life is always very grey so it’s hard to achieve “good work/life balance”. If you think you do, in my view, you must be compromising somewhere.

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? I was very fortunate to stay in a company like Cisco for 18 years and to be given the opportunity to grow and try new things. One thing I would have liked to change would perhaps have been to move from one domain to the other more frequently – I feel I was in both networking and the service provider market for too long. While not a bad thing, in hindsight I would’ve preferred to try a few different things at the right time that would have given me exposure to different things.

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? I’d say either. Coding bootcamps help people understand what it takes to code, and that’s perfectly fine if that’s the goal. Equally, a computer science degree has its merits too. However, if the aim is to end up in a C-Level role, to me leadership is so much more than which program you took or which school you went to. I didn’t go to an Ivy League school or college; I went to a good school that taught me well but it’s what I took away from it and what I applied from what I learnt that counted and set me on my career path.

When companies are hiring, they will perhaps put more value on a computer science degree than a coding bootcamp, but at the end of the day it’s not about the certificate you have, it’s about what you can do and what you can achieve.

How important are specific certifications? Certifications are definitely important depending on the role you are going into. If you’re going into networking, having different certifications is going to increase your value, adding to your resume, and making you more marketable. The more certifications you have, for example, if you have both security and networking certifications, the more value you’ll have that you can capitalise on.

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates?  I’ve already talked about this a bit with abilities, aptitude and attitude – to me, attitude is the most important one. If you have a can-do attitude, you’ll go far.

In terms of abilities, you’re not always going to get the perfect candidate but if you’re someone who is inquisitive and curious to learn then the skills will come. Ability is not just what you know but what you can learn and how you can apply it.

I will also always look for people who have tried different things and have been successful in those. You can teach a candidate infinite skills; but you can’t teach someone to have the right attitude.

What would put you off a candidate? Bad attitude or being entitled.

When a candidate talks too much about “I” I tend to lose interest. I’m more interested in what you contributed to make something happen, rather than what you did on your own.

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? Not being prepared. If someone is going to interview you, they’ve done their homework, looked at your resume, and scrolled through your LinkedIn. It doesn’t look good if you haven’t done the same thing. It’s so important to get to know who you’re going to be talking to. Don’t be transactional, try to get to know the person for who they are. This doesn’t mean being too personal, but you need to engage and be sincere, smile, show your facial expressions etc.

Another common mistake is that most people won’t ask enough questions. To combat this, make sure you prepare a list of questions beforehand, and equally make sure those questions are relevant to the person you are speaking to. For example, if someone asked me a technical question, I’d be able to answer it, but really, I’d be looking for someone to ask me a business or strategy question, something that relates to my role.

Finally, often people think an interview is a one-way process, but it should absolutely be a two-way conversation.

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills – or a mix of both?  You always need a mix of both.

Technology is a means to an end. Most companies use technology to build a business. You can have just technical skills, but you may limit yourself to the roles you’re in. To be able to grow in the company and expand your horizon, having a combination of technical and business skills is very important.