C-suite career advice: Jeff Hudson, Venafi

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT/tech? “Be extraordinarily curious about how everything works – both technically and from a business perspective.”

Headshot of Jeff Hudson, CEO at Venafi

Name: Jeff Hudson

Company: Venafi

Job Title: CEO

Location: US

Jeff Hudson is the CEO of Venafi, and a seasoned leader with over 25 years of leadership and management experience in information technology and security management. He has spent a significant portion of his career developing and delivering leading-edge technology solutions for financial services and other Fortune-ranked organisations and government agencies. Prior to Venafi, he was the CEO of Vhayu Technologies Corp., CEO and cofounder of MS2, and CEO of Visioneer.

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? As a kid, I was riding a horse and I fell. I was laying on the ground, aching and crying, and this cowboy picked me up. He told me, it’s not about how many times you fall off, it’s how many times you get back up that matters. And that has always really stuck with me, especially when I’m faced with difficult decisions or challenges. When you fail, you’ve got to keep going, never give up – sometimes you’ll get thrown off, but you’ve got to dust yourself off and get back at it.

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? It was more of a question – ‘what will people think?’. We often care too much about other people’s approval – whether in our personal lives or at work. Sometimes, you’ve got to stick to your own instincts and act and make decisions on what you believe is the right thing to do, regardless of the doubters. This isn’t to say don’t listen or seek advice, but if you get that gut feeling, then it’s often the right thing to do.

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT/tech? Be extraordinarily curious about how everything works – both technically and from a business perspective. To become a good leader, having a meticulous curiosity will get you further than having a desire for immediate riches. Having a feel and general understanding of what goes on in every part of an organisation is really important. You don’t need to be an expert in everything but you need to have enough understanding to know what good should look like and what questions you need to ask. It’s a rare skill to have but it plays an important role in setting a shared vision and mission for everyone in the business.

Did you always want to work in IT/tech? I always knew. When I was a child, I was drawn to electrons. I was totally fascinated with the idea that two battery wires only had to touch and they could make light and heat. From that moment, as a young child, I was hooked on technology – the fascination was immediate. I wanted to know how things worked. From then onwards, I’ve always been in technology – and have remained constantly curious.

What was your first job in IT/tech? Well, I guess my first job was when I was a kid. I built an incredibly dangerous home automation system for my childhood home. It opened and closed curtains, and even turned on the lights in the house. I was eight years old and had rewired everything in the family home. My friend then asked me to set it up for him too. The entire system was approximately 110 volts and my mother was certain that the house would burn down because of it!

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT/tech? That it’s only about the tech – but it is about people too. It’s about the processes that they use and the technology that gets injected into that. We’re still very much in a world where people come first, and tech is created to match their needs and wants. So that’s what it’s all about – the people coming first and how innovation will affect them directly.

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? Get experience in every discipline and domain in a company. Be optimistic for doing new and different things. Try getting experience and knowledge from every sector whether that be marketing, finance, HR and sales, support, and facilities – learn a bit about everything you can. The world is full of specialists – everything drives to greater specialism. Yet being a generalist is incredibly powerful. It’s not about being a Swiss army knife – but rather knowing what parts of the knife are best used for!

What are your career ambitions, and have you reached them yet? My ambition is to make sure machine and people can peacefully co-exist to improve the human condition. We’re on a mission at Venafi – which is arguably one of the most important the world has today – to make this happen.

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? When you’re the CEO of a fast-growing, innovative, and pioneering company, it’s like raising a child. It’s a full-time job. The balance is heavily skewed towards the success of the company, but for me, that’s balance. Work life balance always depends on the individual, and what is balanced for me could be totally unbalanced for others.

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? Not a thing. I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason, and if I didn’t take this path then I wouldn’t be where I am, professionally today. I have no regrets for that reason. Do I look back and cringe at some of my decisions? Yes! But if I hadn’t had that cringe moment, I wouldn’t have got to where I am – or learned from the mistakes I’ve made.

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? Both. At a young age you should want to learn to code and understand the logic behind coding. A computer science degree gives a strong donation of how all tech works. It’s largely theoretical, whereas boot camp is practical - both are needed to create the foundation for a successful career. But I do think that continuing education and learning throughout your career is critical. Growth means change, and learning is change. So learning is growing. Stop learning and you’re dying. And that’s true for entire career – especially execs as they need to lead by example.

How important are specific certifications? The most important certification is a drivers license. It might sound strange on the offset, but understanding how to navigate where you are, and where you want to go, being situationally aware, identifying potential hazards, and having the ability to pivot accordingly – these are all key skills for business leaders. But ultimately, certifications don’t necessarily matter until someone is put to the test in a real situation. It’s often more important to learn by doing.

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? Energy – because it’s contagious and it’s good to have everyone infected with it. Secondly, curiosity – because you’ll always be keen to learn and understand how certain sectors can affect the business overall. Lastly, the ability to write. If you can write you can demonstrate that you can think clearly and critically and express themselves. Far too often, candidates answer a short question with a lengthy answer. That isn’t desirable in a prospect. Instead, I’m looking for that candidate that can communicate succinctly to get a point across. After all, in a busy environment like the one that comes from working in tech, there’s not a lot of time but it’s important everything is communicated clear, concisely, and without confusion.

What would put you off a candidate? Someone who is not present in an interview. By that I mean someone who is showing that they’re easily distracted. For instance, someone who is looking at their mobile phone, and generally not focused on the conversation or the here and now.

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? Having a lack of curiosity and talking too much. If someone is talking relentlessly, it’s not a conversation. That’s a big mistake to make. A candidate should respond to a short and specific question in a concise way – if they answer with too much of an explanation, it reflects a lack of symmetry and cognitive process between the question and answer.

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills – or a mix of both? It depends on what a person wants to do in their career. If they want to be able to design programs then technical, but if they want to be at another level of management, then technical and all other skills. It’s never been technical or business skills, but rather technical and non-technical in tech – business is just a subset of that.