C-suite career advice: Sebastian Klapdor, Vista

What was your first job in IT/tech? “At the age of 12, I founded a company assembling workstations and servers, selling them to small businesses, including doctors and law firms.”

Headshot of Sebastian Klapdor, EVP & Chief Data Officer at Vista
Vista

Name: Dr. Sebastian “Basti” Klapdor

Company: Cimpress/Vista

Job Title: EVP & Chief Data Officer at Vista

Location: Munich, Germany

Basti Klapdor has led digital and data transformations to help clients in many sectors build capabilities that support their strategic goals for over a decade. Klapdor joined Vista to develop a world-class data and analytics function team. Klapdor’s 300-strong team builds products to support Vista’s transformation journey to ultimately deliver jaw-dropping customer value.

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? “People hire people that share the same values.” It is so important to have an incredibly strong team ethos - as then almost every problem will solve itself. This principle has proven very true for myself, both at McKinsey and at Vista. At McKinsey, hiring people with the right values set was one of the most important aspects of the job that a partner would do. In my current role at Vista, I had the privilege to build my Data and Analytics leadership team from the ground up. Having this freedom meant I have been able to surround myself with diverse, forward thinking, incredibly talented individuals with a wide range of backgrounds and experiences - and also with a strong team ethos to collaborate successfully together.

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? “Stop using your nickname “Basti” or you will never become a Partner.” A colleague told me this when I was a junior consultant. I have been called “Basti” for as long as I can remember, and it is a part of who I am. Whilst this colleague meant well, and wanted me to be successful, I couldn’t take this advice on board. The point I am trying to make here is that, in business you should always be authentic and true to yourself - don’t let anyone try to change who you are. In the long run, this will help you become a strong leader that empowers their team to be their authentic selves too.

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT/tech? I give the same advice to everyone, no matter their role, industry, or seniority: ‘follow the people you want to work with’. Most people spend more time at work than they do with their families and friends, so being around people you want to work with is so important. Surround yourself with colleagues who create an amazing work environment, that you find inspiring and that you can learn from. Life is way too short - make sure you spend it in jobs you like, with people you like.

Did you always want to work in IT/tech? I have always had a big passion for tech, data, and analytics – it is why I chose to study these subjects. However, I also wanted to broaden my horizons after university. I decided to work for a few years in business and strategy to understand how technology and data can drive value for organisations. After doing this for 7-8 years, I went back to the technology side of business at McKinsey, helping clients to deliver tech the “new way” with cross-functional end-to-end teams that are closely linked to driving (or even better, owning) business outcomes.

What was your first job in IT/tech? At the age of 12, I founded a company assembling workstations and servers, selling them to small businesses, including doctors and law firms. With the rise of the internet, we also started building websites. Later, as I specialised further, I co-founded a company helping hospitals with the integration of radiological devices like CT/MRT scanners to digitally distribute images internally and externally. Being so hands-on was a fun and rewarding experience, I will always jump at the opportunity to get more hands-on within my current role.

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT/tech? That everything is about technology. I believe everything is about the outcome you try to achieve using technology: better customer experiences, higher sales, stronger employee satisfaction, and so on. I always encourage teams to work backwards from the outcome, ideating which solutions might be the right ones and then focus on delivering the highest value parts of the solution early on to prove the value.

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? Two things: (1) Learn how you can lead through others. I have seen many brilliant people in my career find it difficult to loosen their grip/control of projects or their team. They couldn’t seem to build a strong bench of leaders within their team, whom they trusted fully. Leaders who can master these important skills can scale their impact further and further.

(2) Learn skills for the future workplace - hybrid and remote working - as these skills will make you invaluable and give you a great head start against the competition. This includes developing your communication skills way beyond today’s norm and driving a culture in remote settings. Make sure you can communicate effectively across multiple formats and styles. This may seem trivial, but it’s an important skill to learn for the future of work.

What are your career ambitions, and have you reached them yet? My ambition has always been to build something meaningful, and drive impact and value. In my current role as the Chief Data Officer at Vista, a $1.5bn tech player, I am responsible for all the analytics and ML use cases. I have a direct impact on this business, helping to build a great platform that provides its customers with meaningful items. From here, in terms of personal ‘goals’, I can see myself going deeper into tech or moving into CEO roles.

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? I am married and have two kids, so work life balance has always been very important to me. I have always protected my Thursday and Friday evenings, as well as my weekends. Within my current role at Vista, my work-life harmony has become even stronger. Ever since Vista transitioned to Remote First back in August 2020, Vista parent company Cimpress has continued to develop our remote approach. One key aspect of Cimpress’ Remote First approach is the empowerment of team members to take control of their work-life harmony from C-suite level like myself, all the way to those starting their career at Vista/Cimpress.

Remote First helped me to do two really important things, much more regularly. I have been able to start running again. Now, I run at least twice a week, around 20kms each time and am feeling fitter than ever before! I can now join my family for dinner every day and spend quality time with my kids before putting them to bed! This has been THE biggest change for me, and I never want to lose this freedom and its benefits.

Cimpress/Vista is implementing new policies continuously to enhance work-life harmony further as Remote First becomes the norm. Just because you work hard and want to succeed doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice the important things in your life, something I have come to understand in the past two years.

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? So far, I am happy about how things have gone in my career. One career goal I have been thinking about again recently, was to be self-employed but I was lacking the “great idea” to found a startup. So, if you have one, please let me know! I am always excited to join in a different capacity now, as a board member or angel investor!

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? This really depends on what you want to achieve. If you want to work in deep tech, learn the theories and concepts behind things then go for the computer science degree. If you would like to work on business-related topics with strong hands-on-keyboard skills, go for the bootcamp. In the end, I’d opt for both!

How important are specific certifications? For myself at Vista, not at all. I look for practitioners who have solved problems we have faced before or are currently facing. Demonstrating your problem-solving skills, previous experiences, and a passion for exciting challenges is more important than specific certifications.

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? The most important thing is to understand the business’ customers or the business problem the company is trying to solve. Then identify the right tech, data, and organisational solution for it. I often call this the “translator skill”. Speaking both worlds, business and tech/math is super powerful.

As mentioned earlier, communication is a key skill - and not just the standard written and verbal communication that appears on every application. It’s really important to demonstrate how you can tailor your communication to an asynchronous documentation culture, one where you may communicate using various methods depending on who you are communicating with.

And finally, mastering flexibility. Whilst Remote First and asynchronous communication allows you great flexibility and can vastly improve your work-life harmony, it can sometimes be easy to let flexibility rule you. Plan your time efficiently by setting aside slots in your calendar for deep-focus activities or to take on tasks. This also includes using your time to make the most of Remote First. At Cimpress/Vista we want our team members to enjoy the flexibility and benefits of a remote approach, but to truly maximise this you must rule the flexibility. Doing the food shopping, taking your children to school, and enjoying a family meal are some of the ways to make the most of this flexibility, but it’s important to make sure it is a benefit, not a burden leading to making you feel more stressed about work, or panic that you won’t be able to meet your deadlines. Show me that you can master your own time, and you’ll be moved higher up on the list!

What would put you off a candidate? Candidates that don’t listen, and don’t attempt to understand the deeper context of the problem to solve. Cookie-cutter and pre-written answers/statements are blindingly obvious and reveal to me that you might not be the strongest candidate.

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? Candidates often make the same mistakes mentioned above in interviews - not just written applications. Candidates often don’t listen to your questions properly, and uncover the route of the problem, whilst some avoid engaging in joint problem solving. I am not interested in pre-crafted stories. I want to find out the candidate's approach to solving ambiguous problems, and their previous problem-solving experiences. If you can demonstrate this concisely and clearly, then you certainly grab my attention.

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills – or a mix of both? I strongly believe it is better to have a mix of both. Even in highly technical roles like architecture, you need to understand the context and business strategy to design the right solution. With the rise of cross-functional, end-2-end teams, having both skills has become more important than ever!