C-suite career advice: Stan Schneider, Real-Time Innovations

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? “As a student: get a degree that combines engineering and computer science. The future will be built from smart things; people who understand how things work and how things think will be the best positioned to adapt.”

Headshot of Stan Schneider, CEO at Real-Time Innovations
Real-Time Innovations

Name: Stan Schneider

Company: Real-Time Innovations (RTI)

Job Title: CEO

Location: Sunnyvale, CA

Stan Schneider is CEO at Real-Time Innovations (RTI), the largest software framework provider for autonomous systems. Schneider served on the Steering Committee of the Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC) for six years before stepping down in 2020. At the IIC, he held roles as Vice Chair, Testbed chair, and Ecosystem Task Group chair. Schneider serves on the advisory board for IoT Solutions World Congress. Schneider is active in the Silicon Valley Alliance of CEOs. IoTOne named Stan a Top-25 IIoT Influencer in 2017 and 2018. Embedded Computing Design presented Stan the Top Embedded Innovator Award for 2015. Before RTI, Schneider managed a large Stanford robotics laboratory, led an embedded communications software team and built data acquisition systems for automotive impact testing.

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? As a student: get a degree that combines engineering and computer science. The future will be built from smart things; people who understand how things work and how things think will be the best positioned to adapt.

As an entrepreneur: grow exactly as fast as you can hire great people. There is nothing more important than surrounding yourself with excellence.

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? “Fintech is a hot market with a lot of money.” That advice led me to the ignominy of opening an office on Wall Street in 2007: the worst timing ever.  Even worse, fintech as a market didn’t play to RTI’s strength in control of “real world” systems, the customer culture didn’t match ours, and the high-speed trading market we went after wasn’t a great fit to our product. A close second: “The world needs your vision.” That is immensely arrogant, although it is academia’s mantra. A much better statement: “Seek to develop the vision the world needs.”

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT/tech? Specific: The most exciting future is in smart things that run AI outside of the cloud. This is a mega trend that combines the two biggest trends in tech: networking and AI. It will last the next 40-100 years.

General: Your education is just a start in a very dynamic world. When you see the world changing, move early, not late. That said, being too early to market is worse than too late.  If you’re too late, it’s obvious. If you’re too early, the big market is just around the corner.  The trick is to move with the market, on the early side of change.

As a technologist: you need to specialise over time. Every new CS grad wants to be a developer, but that’s because you don’t need to know anything about customers, code maintenance, debugging, testing, or product management. Every new CS grad behind you will also want to be a developer…so this isn’t a good long-term goal for most.  Choosing a specialty outside of development is a better long-term strategy.

Did you always want to work in IT/tech? Mostly.  But “IT/tech” is a big universe.  I dabbled in physics, medicine, even writing.  I could have been a lawyer.

What was your first job in IT/tech? I started my career crashing cars. At the UMich Highway Safety Research Institute, I developed automotive safety systems, performed impact testing, and built data acquisition and analysis software. I will never forget the BANG at the end of the test track. After running and analysing thousands of collisions, I still can't sit in a car and not think about what my head and soft parts might hit in a crash. It's just not possible to protect fragile people from the mayhem of a high-speed collision.

We have made immense progress since I was there: multi-stage airbags, side impact protection, anti-lock brakes, crumple zones, crushable steering columns, anti-drunk driving laws, anti-distraction campaigns. Cars are safer. But still, the carnage continues; 94% of crashes are caused by the worst safety system in the car: you. And the casualty count grows every day. Now, we have the opportunity, and the obligation, to save thousands and thousands of lives by automating driving. I can't wait.

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT/tech? Writing doesn’t matter: wrong! There may be nothing more important to your career than communicating, especially if you pursue management or leadership.

Developing something new is the most creative part of technology: this is only true while you’re clueless about real applications. The most creative part of technology is solving real world problems with technology. And doing that requires building on many existing blocks.

Sales makes more money because they “X”, where X = take more risk, spend more time away from their families, are closer to money, have more talent, etc. Sales does make more than engineering, but that’s because it’s a rare attitude to love sales. Pay is always higher where demand > supply.

Video games are fun to develop: no, video games are fun to play. The real world is far more interesting.

Tech is won by superstar geniuses. No, tech is a team sport; it’s won by super teams, and especially by super cultures of many teams.

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? Study leadership and management; you can’t learn this in school, not even in classes on leadership and management. 

Build those around you. If you make everyone around you successful, you will do great and love your career.

Understand and live your core values. Write them down.

Finally, don’t “aim for a c-level position”; that’s a poor, self-centred goal. Aim to help people discover and realise their own potential, and you will end up in a c-level position whether you aim to or not.

What are your career ambitions and have you reached them yet? My career ambition is to make everyone I meet glad they know or work with me. That ambition can never be reached. In particular, I work for everyone in my company, not vice versa. I seek to help them realise their potential.

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? Mostly. Work life balance is (mostly) a function of your ability to delegate.  Delegation is a trust relationship, so your work-life balance is a measure of your ability to earn and grant trust.

I believe in real (disconnected) vacations. I believe that balance comes from loving your work so much you don’t want to go home and your home so much you don’t want to work. These things are even codified in RTI’s policies.

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? I would not have filled out this survey. Hahahaha. Seriously, life is an adventure!  Enjoy the journey and you cannot have regrets.

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? A CS degree opens far more doors, expands your horizons, and exposes you to things you didn’t know you need to learn (like writing). 

That said, there are many talented people without degrees…they just have a harder path.

Overall, the degree is hands down more important, despite the few who manage to succeed anyway.

How important are specific certifications? Other than a degree, specific certifications are not very important unless you want a specific job. That’s probably not a path, or the best path, to a leadership role.

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates?  I like Lencioni’s “Ideal Team Player”: Hungry (driven to success), Humble (success is about others), Smart (socially adept). I also look for talent, alignment of talent to ambition, and (especially) adherence to inner principles.

What would put you off a candidate? Any misalignment in the above: lazy, arrogant, cynical or negative, unprincipled. Leaving job after job because you were “bored” or without caring for your team. Looking for pay above contribution. Hiding or sugarcoating a failure, including getting fired. And especially: bias against or disrespect for others.

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? The number one mistake: reading interview tips online and trying to be something you are not. Instead: Be honest. Be open. Seek improvement.  Look for great teams, not great status. Ask questions about how you can best contribute, not about what you get.

Seek the job (team) that wants you because of who you really are, then bring your authentic self to that job (team).

And don’t worry about being nervous. It’s the interviewer’s job to put you at ease; if you are nervous, I hold it against myself, not you.

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills – or a mix of both? When? Right out of school, technical is critical.  But seek to develop your professional skills quickly: efficiency, personal maturity, interactions, teamwork, leadership, communication.

By far the most important skill is to learn to be a learner: read, seek mentors, find a way to teach or help others.