C-suite career advice: Jeff Abbott, Ivanti

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? “There isn’t one path that everyone should take, but you should look at what you want your career to look like… There are skills you learn through all types of education; you just need to figure out which option will set you up to achieve your goals.”

Headshot of Jeff Abbott, CEO at Ivanti

Name: Jeff Abbott

Company: Ivanti

Job Title: CEO

Location: Georgia, USA

As CEO of Ivanti, Jeff Abbott oversees all aspects of the company’s growth strategy and direction. Before becoming CEO of Ivanti in October 2021, Abbott was Ivanti’s President since January 2020. Abbott has over 25 years of experience working for enterprise software and services companies, including Accenture, Oracle, and Infor. Abbott holds degrees from the University of Tennessee and Georgia State University. He sits on the National Alumni Board at the University of Tennessee and has previously held board positions with the Georgia Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and the Posse’ Foundation.

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? Every person, no matter what stage they are in their career, needs to form a trusted group of advisors – people you can count on to tell you the truth. It shouldn’t be large, just 2-3 people in your inner circle who will provide honest guidance. For me my inner circle is my father and a trusted colleague from my days at Infor. I was given this advice early on in my career and I’m so glad I followed it.  

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? ‘Never admit when you are wrong.’ I’ve found this advice in both my personal and professional life to cause more harm than any other piece of advice I’ve ever heard. I believe in leading transparently and that includes owning up when something goes wrong. This also has the side benefit of allowing others to experiment in their respective areas and not be afraid of failure, but instead learn from their mistakes and makes our organisation more willing to take calculated risks to achieve our goals.  

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT/tech? Challenge yourself. Be willing to take on entirely new projects and roles – and reinvent yourself on an ongoing basis. The Tech industry moves incredibly fast and those that thrive in constantly evolving roles and environments enjoy long prosperous careers.   

Did you always want to work in IT/tech? Per my point above – I evolved into tech in the late 90’s.  I was always intrigued by tech and the possibilities of what technology innovation can do for individuals and for organisations. I started out in logistics and spent a number of years in strategy consulting before making my way into the software technology industry with Oracle and Infor, before coming to Ivanti.  

What was your first job in IT/tech? After getting an MBA, I went to work for Oracle in Sales. I knew this thing called ERP was going to take off, and I wanted to be a part of it. I started in the field and worked my way up into sales leadership. After nearly 10 years at Oracle – the opportunity at Infor provided me a chance to gain a wide variety of functional leadership in a software company including – global sales, marketing, channels, alliances, product management, education, enablement, and so on. That wide variety of leadership experience put me in a position to lead Ivanti as CEO with a very wide basis of experience.

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT/tech? That you must live in Silicon Valley for a successful tech career. I live in Georgia, leading a company headquartered in Utah, with offices all over the world. The really great thing about the Everywhere Workplace is that people and organisations can thrive anywhere. 

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? Actively seek a wide variety of functional responsibilities. And find the challenges no one else wants.

Find a mentor. Mentors are important because of their experience, but also the guidance they can give on developing relationships and working on the soft skills needed to be a successful leader.  

Aim to lead with a level of honesty and clarity. You should be doing the right thing even when nobody is looking.

Become outcome focused- put the companies needs at the centre of your focus and identify what it needs to thrive- C-suite level prioritise and care about outcomes

What are your career ambitions, and have you reached them yet? I feel fortunate for the career that I have had to this point. There is still a lot more I want to accomplish. One of my near-term goals is to build a winning culture at Ivanti. Creating an environment where the individual is highly respected and the mission and core values are demonstrated at every level, making Ivanti an even better place to work. There is a war on talent and it is critical to treat every individual as a gem and help them to thrive in the new Everywhere Workplace. People want to work for companies that are making a difference. It is through diverse and inclusive hiring, decision-making, and commitment to our employees and partners that we will continue to build and deliver world-class solutions for our customers that ultimately enable the Everywhere Workplace. Through this we will demonstrate that our company is delivering global value and not just profits. If I’m successful – our people will work with the confidence that they are in a great place to grow their careers. 

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? I have the work-life balance that I feel is necessary to be successful in my role. I focus on ways to stay connected to my kids in college, texting and facetiming with them regularly and making sure they know I’m thinking about them. I think it’s important to carve out time for the things that matter most both professionally and personally. I also have had to realise that I can’t do everything at once, prioritising and focusing on what is most important has helped me keep a work-life balance that works for me. My wife Jacqueline is my mentor in this area!

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? I would not change anything – because you never know how the alternatives will turn out. That is not to say there have been some lessons learned along the way – there definitely have! They have contributed to the place where I am today.

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? I’ve seen great candidates come out of both a coding bootcamp and a computer science degree. There isn’t one path that everyone should take, but you should look at what you want your career to look like, an easy way to determine this is to look at what kind of experience people have in the roles you aspire to. There are skills you learn through all types of education; you just need to figure out which option will set you up to achieve your goals. Bottom-line – for those willing to work hard and drive their careers intentionally – there are no limits.

How important are specific certifications? For IT professionals, certifications show a desire to continue to learn. This is important in an industry that is changing rapidly. As we saw in the pandemic IT teams served as a backbone for many organisations, helping to keep businesses open and employees or customers connected. From remote working, to the implementation of digital transformation initiatives, to dealing with the ever-growing threat landscape, there is a continuing reliance on IT teams within companies. The best certifications depend on what role you want in IT/tech and what will expand your skillset in the right way. Every organisation needs people who are deeply knowledgeable in specialties, particularly for IT teams. 

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates?  Do they have a plan – do they have goals – do they know where they want to be in five years.

Are they curious – are they a learner – wanting to take on things they don’t know and learn them.

Do they have a powerful/positive attitude – one that others would be attracted to and enjoy working with. All things being equal – I will take attitude over experience every day of the week.

What would put you off a candidate? If they thought they knew everything. We have very strong values at Ivanti… and someone who was not open to others’ ideas, willing to lock arms with other team members to create a better outcome, would not make it very far at Ivanti.

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? Lack of preparation and lack of intention. Be versed on the company and the individual to whom you are speaking. Have a specific set of intentions for the discussion – such as: I want to convey my experience, fit, and excitement for this role. I can tell within 5 minutes if someone is truly engaged/interested/credentialed for the role.

Tactically speaking – in our new world where so many interviews are conducted virtually it can be easy to be distracted by other notifications coming through. I recommend shutting down all applications except the one being used for the interview. This makes sure that your bandwidth is strong for the call and also has the benefit of keeping you free from distractions.  

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills – or a mix of both? It really depends on your role and what you want to do in your career. We interact with technology so much in our lives that everyone needs to have a basic understanding of technology and cyber hygiene. It’s also important to have a basic understanding of business principles to understand why some decisions need to be made – no matter what your role is in the organisation. With that said, every organisation needs to have people who are specialised, no one person can do it all. That is why I focus on recognising the contributions of every individual, no matter what their role at Ivanti.