C-suite career advice: Bill Piwonka, Exterro

What are your career ambitions, and have you reached them yet? “I love building teams and businesses… My career ambitions were always to lead high performing teams and businesses and while I’m doing that today, I know there will be other exciting and different opportunities in the future…”

Headshot of Bill Piwonka, Chief Marketing Officer at Exterro

Name: Bill Piwonka

Company: Exterro

Job Title: Chief Marketing Officer

Location: Portland, OR

Bill Piwonka oversees all marketing functions for Exterro. His background is firmly rooted in B2B marketing operations. During the past 25+ years, Piwonka has led marketing teams and initiatives spanning strategy, product marketing, product management, demand generation, marketing communications and business development. Prior to joining Exterro, he served as the vice president of marketing at Janrain. Piwonka has also held marketing management positions at EthicsPoint (now NavexGlobal), Centennial Software, Serena Software, Intel and Oracle.

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? “When considering whether to take a job, three things are critical: 1) Does it prepare you for your next job? 2) Do you like the people? (you don’t have to be best friends, but you are going to be spending a lot of time with them) and 3) Are you set up to succeed?

This is such a helpful framework when considering taking a new job, and I’ve shared it with my children and countless others throughout my career.

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? I honestly can’t think of anything. I’m sure I’ve received some pretty bad advice, but thankfully I haven’t acted on it, or else I’d remember. But, I tend to seek lots of input when I’m trying to solve a problem or take a big risk, so inevitably the bad advice gets negated by all the good.

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT/tech? Find a hole and fill it. Here’s the thing – if you’re an intelligent, ambitious person, you’re going to want to work at companies that hire others similar to you. And, if that’s the case, you have to assume that the vast majority of your colleagues are talented and doing a good job. So how do you stand out, get noticed, and get promoted? It’s by doing what’s expected AND finding an area that isn’t being addressed and addressing it. At the end of the day, the only one responsible for your career, is you. It doesn’t matter if you have a mentor or an awesome boss. Ultimately, you have to plot your career path and work to achieve your goals.

Did you always want to work in IT/tech? Ha! No. In my university days I thought I wanted to go into International Finance. I was a quantitative economics major and studied German and Japanese. My first job was in the international finance department at Oracle, where I soon realised that I hated finance as a career, but really liked the pace of the technology market. So, I moved into technical support, which led to sales and then ultimately marketing. And thus, my entire career has been with tech companies, but that’s certainly not where I saw myself when I was 18.

What was your first job in IT/tech? I was a technical support analyst for Oracle’s international subsidiaries and clients, focused on their first generation Financials applications.

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT/tech? I don’t know – it’s all I’ve ever known, so I don’t know what perceptions there are outside of the industry

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? Own your career path. Be honest with yourself as to what skills or experiences you think you need, and then plot a path to attain them. First, I think the most difficult role to get is your first management job. Hiring managers always want experienced candidates, but until you get that first job, you don’t have it, so it’s a bit of a catch 22. So, look for opportunities where you can get that first management experience and pursue them. Then look at the ultimate role you want and what the common experiences were of the people who hold those jobs and find a way to gain those skills or experiences.

What are your career ambitions, and have you reached them yet? I love building teams and businesses. I’ve been in my current role more than 8 years (which is about double the longest tenure I’ve had at any previous employer). I’m staying because there is still so much to achieve and many milestones to hit. I haven’t been part of a leadership team that took a company public yet, and we’re on a path to do that. After we accomplish that, there will be another mountain to climb. My career ambitions were always to lead high performing teams and businesses and while I’m doing that today, I know there will be other exciting and different opportunities in the future – so I can’t say that I’ve reached them yet.

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? I do as much as possible in the constantly connected world. I’m able to take time off to recharge when I want, but it’s only when I go completely off grid (for instance my family and I did a six day raft trip in remote Idaho last summer with no cell service available) that I manage to switch off completely. That said, I’m a very early riser, so on weekends or holiday I can usually clear my email and address any urgent issues before anyone else is awake, leaving me the rest of the day to be in the moment with friends and family.

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? I can’t say that every stop along my career has been an unqualified success or that, had I known then what I do now, that I’d make the same decisions. But, without those experiences I wouldn’t be where I am today, so I don’t think I’d change anything.

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? As a marketing executive, I’ll leave that question to someone more qualified than I.

How important are specific certifications? Again, if we’re talking about coding, an executive from the technology side is better qualified to answer. But that being said, I truly believe in hiring super smart, ambitious people. You can teach intelligent people the things they need to do their job well, and they’ll perform. I’d rather have an A player without a certification than a B or B+ with one, because over time, the A player will deliver far higher dividends to you and your organisation. For example, the software my company provides is used by attorneys, cybersecurity experts, privacy professionals and law enforcement. Very few of the employees on my team came to the company with a background in these areas, and yet they are delivering incredible results for our company. Their native intelligence, openness to learning, enthusiasm, dedication and determination have enabled them to learn quickly and thrive in our environment.

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? Great communicator, innate intelligence, high emotional IQ. While each individual on my team has a specific role, no one can be successful without effective collaboration across the entire team. And our team is diverse and distributed across the world, so everyone comes with their own personality, working style and world view. I need people who can thrive in a fast-paced environment and bring out the best in one another. That isn’t possible without these traits.

What would put you off a candidate? Arrogance, poor teamwork, lack of preparation.

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? Lack of preparation. It is so easy to prepare for an interview today. Do your homework, not just on me and my company, but my competitors as well. What are they doing better than we are? What ideas do you have to help us improve? I don’t really care if your ideas are bad – you can’t know all the things we’ve tried or are doing. But if you don’t take the time to prepare for the interview for a job that’s going to pay your bills, why would I think you’ll take the time to do a good job once you have it? Plus, it’s incredibly disrespectful to me or the other interviewers. Time is precious and I don’t want to waste time with someone who isn’t prepared.

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills – or a mix of both? I could not be an effective marketer if I didn’t understand the underlying technology of the products, I’m marketing. I think a mixture of both is required.