C-suite career advice: Don MacNeil, GTT Communications

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT/tech? “Many think you have to have an engineering or deep technical background – but you don’t. Like any industry, it’s really about understanding the business.”

Headshot of Don Macneil, COO at GTT Communications
GTT Communications

Name: Don MacNeil

Company: GTT Communications

Job Title: COO

Location: Virginia, USA

Don MacNeil is GTT’s chief operating officer responsible for leading GTT’s network operations, service delivery, assurance and vendor management teams, as well as GTT’s product organisation. MacNeil has a track record of delivering successful organisational change and operational improvement for national, international and global businesses. Prior to joining GTT, MacNeil was CEO at FiberLight, after having served as COO, driving its business of designing, building and optimising fiber-optic networks. He has held several executive leadership roles over his career including COO, CMO and head of customer operations for managed network provider XO Communications. MacNeil also served as CTO for EdgeConneX, a global data center solutions provider. MacNeil graduated from the United States Naval Academy, Annapolis, with a Bachelor of Science degree in naval architecture. He went on to serve 27 years in the U.S. Navy, both on active and reserve assignments, attaining the rank of captain.

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? The best career advice I’ve received over the years was, “always be ready for your next promotion.”

My starting point was in the military, where it’s in your DNA to always be going through a rotation of jobs and be prepared for the next assignment. You could be in the engine room one day and running the weapon systems the next. In the corporate world, it can be the same. When an opportunity appears, you might not feel like you’re ready, but don’t turn it down or you may regret it later on.

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? One of the worst I hear out there is “you must surround yourself with your people.”

While there is always a positive aspect to developing and building a team of trusted colleagues, relying solely on having them follow you when you move into a new organisation is not necessarily the most effective approach to assuring optimal results. In fact, teams with profiles different to you own bring great strength of experience and perspective. If your new team isn’t performing well, don’t look to replace everyone and simply step over the work that’s been done already. Instead, it’s important to recognise the team accomplishments that preceded your tenure, with the opportunity to learn from the insights and knowledge they’ve gained as incumbents. Whether you’re a leader or a team-member, make sure to spend time establishing clarity on roles and the company vision for everyone. That will be the most effective direction you can provide to get your team firing on all cylinders.

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT/tech? Maintain your curiosity and always be a student of the business and the technology. What really attracted me to this industry is that it’s constantly evolving and you have to challenge yourself to keep up with it.

Did you always want to work in IT/tech? I grew up wanting to be a doctor, probably a brain surgeon, until I realised I was afraid of blood. As a young man, I attended the U.S. Naval Academy, where I studied Naval architecture, but I never actually designed ships – I served at sea operating them. After leaving the Navy, I joined XO Communications. I joined because of the dynamic aspect, the technology, and it was all about service. I was hired, not for my telecom expertise, but rather my technical acumen and leadership skills. The moral of the story is: there are a lot of paths to get to where you want, and sometimes where you end up was never part of the dream.

What was your first job in IT/tech? My first job in telecoms was as a project manager. I really enjoyed it, and always gravitated towards the industry veterans around me who understood how the technology had evolved from basic telephony and data services to a new world dominated by the Internet. They had the ability to relate legacy to future technologies in a meaningful way.

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT/tech? Many think you have to have an engineering or deep technical background – but you don’t. Like any industry, it’s really about understanding the business.  Any business requires a grasp of knowing how to make products and services. You also need to know how to make them profitable and aligned to what customers demand.

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? Always be ready, push yourself out of your comfort zone, and always be open to change. You will never think you are ready, and if someone is asking you to take on a C-level role, it’s because they believe you can do the job. If you look at my resume, I’ve been a CMO, a CTO and now I’m a COO. Am I a marketing genius? No. But when I was in that role, I was able to re-engineer processes to improve marketing effectiveness. So, be open and ready for change, believe in yourself, and don’t be afraid of what’s new in the role.

What are your career ambitions and have you reached them yet? I probably haven’t reached them yet, but having the opportunity to achieve leadership, C-level positions in organisations has been the validation that I can do more. From here, it’s not the actual title that matters to me. The right role for me is one where I can find fulfillment in adding value to an organisation. So, from here on out, that’s the ambition for me – working in roles with people I respect and trust, where I can add value. The title is less important.

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? It’s currently busy from a work perspective, but I see calmer days ahead. I have a great team with highly effective leaders that I’m happy with and we’re working towards a good place. My work-life balance is helped by being fortunate enough to have the flexibility to work from home. I know that’s not something you can take for granted. When I was in the military, I’d sometimes be away from my family for months, and if you’re in a technical role making site visits, you don’t have a choice. As such, I really appreciate having that opportunity to work from home today. Once the current workload settles down, I also expect to recoup some time and encourage my team to do the same. I think finding work-life balance is a bit like having a savings account, you put nickels in when you can, and then there are days when you need to make a withdrawal.  

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? I talk a lot about my formative years in the Navy which provided me with a great experience. In hindsight, it also means that I made some personal life decisions that could have been different had I left the Navy earlier, like starting a family with my wife sooner than we did. So, every career path is a blend of both professional and personal choices, and we should not underestimate the importance of the personal aspects of our career decisions.  

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? I’d recommend a coding bootcamp to see if it’s something that appeals to you before making the longer-term commitment. I’m a big believer in trying things out before becoming fully committed. If you pursue a computer science degree and find that it’s not right, you risk wasting a lot of time. Looking at today’s education experience as a parent, I find that it’s much more difficult now for young people to switch educational tracks once they’ve committed to a particular area of specialisation than it was for my generation. This is why you need to try things out quickly, so you can find out what inspires your passion, whether you have the aptitude for it, and go pursue it.

How important are specific certifications? At GTT, the technical roles we’re hiring for include expertise in security, software and systems engineering. Certifications will be increasingly important for these roles. To give an example, in our industry, TDM technology is in its twilight. Anyone with certifications in this space has a great operational mindset and expertise, but as the technology is moving on, they have to pivot to new certifications to remain relevant. Immersing yourself in technology as your career means pursuing a life of continuous education to keep up. I’m a big fan of it.

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates?  Communication, work ethic, and integrity.

What would put you off a candidate? Someone who tries to present themselves as more than they are. If you’ve been screened and brought in to interview for a role, you’ve already passed muster on a pretty good filter. So, it’s important to remember that you’re there to interview for that role, not one five levels up. Demonstrate your confidence for the role you’re under consideration for. Attributes like future potential can be less tangible than your technical expertise, but they still shine through in other ways.

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? A classic mistake is not being prepared. Believe it or not, I still see people in hiring situations who don’t know much about the company they’re coming into.

Make sure to be on time. Not only does it demonstrate that you’re interested in the role, it also gives you the most amount of time with your interviewer to help you convince them to give you the job.

Ensure you send a follow up thank you note – whether you’re interested in the job or not, that’s just common courtesy and you never know what other opportunities might lie in the future that you’d want to pursue, so leaving a good impression will always stand you in good stead.

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills – or a mix of both? As you go from technician to being the leader of technicians, you’ll find yourself on a continuum. Technical skills are essential and necessary for your progression. When you start out, if you can’t be effective as a front-line technician or fix or program the router, but you’re really good at analysing business cases, you’re in the wrong job. At any level, you’ll need to have strong competencies and demonstrate skills at the technical level, but as you move up the organisational chart, business skills and acumen become increasingly important too. And as you break through to higher levels of management, having both is where you can really differentiate. Being able to communicate the details in a very cohesive and succinct way, over time, becomes an art you’ll seek to master.