C-suite career advice: Gareth Jones, Thomas International

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? “Create an adult-to-adult environment where people tell you what’s really going on. Otherwise you are leading in the dark.”

Headshot of Gareth Jones, Chief Product Officer at Thomas International
Thomas International

Name: Gareth Jones

Company: Thomas International

Job Title: Chief Product Officer

Location: Marlow

Gareth Jones is currently Chief Product Officer at Thomas International, the global assessment provider. Before joining Thomas in January 2022, Jones spent 4 years as CEO of Headstart.io, scaling the early talent, diversity hiring platform start up. Prior to that he spent 5 at Chemistry, the leading talent consultancy, as their CTO/CIO building out their IP into an assessment platform for their global enterprise clients. Jones has spent over 20 years in the people and technology space, either consulting, advising or working in direct commercial roles across sales, marketing, partnerships, operations and Product. He is also deeply involved in the People/Worktech start up eco system.

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? The more senior role you have, the more your team are likely to tell you what you want to hear. Create an adult-to-adult environment where people tell you what’s really going on. Otherwise you are leading in the dark.

It’s a cliché, but you can and should not aim to be the smartest person in the room, unless you genuinely are a rocket scientist. Hire people with lots of potential. If you do, it means they can pick up the work you hired them for and you can focus on being a CXO without getting dragged through the weeds. Your value as a C level exec isn’t in the doing, or being in the weeds. It’s understanding the context, deciding the direction of travel and taking the team along with you.

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? Don’t go into “computers”, it will never be a career!

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in tech? Unless you are a total geek, seek a role that allows you to understand the problem you are trying to solve vs trying to solve a problem. At a senior level and in progressive product companies, understanding the “why” is key, the “how” is secondary. Focusing too much on the tech itself will take you away from the problem you are trying to solve.

Did you always want to work in tech? No, I started out my career in Human Resources as I had a fascination around People. But as soon as a computer landed on my desk I was hooked and became obsessed with the intersection of people and technology which is where I’ve spent the lions share of my career.

What was your first job in tech? It was as a sales/implementation/product manager for a start up in the late 90’s. It was the early days of what we now call SaaS – or ASP as it was known then. I was thrown in more as a ‘subject matter expert’ as I knew the domain but I got sucked into selling, then the implementations and product development. It was very scrappy, we were winging it and the founder was a complete sociopathic megalomaniac. But it was a great baptism of fire!

What are some common misconceptions about working in tech? That the tech matters more than anything. There are a lot of great tech solutions out there looking for a problem to solve. The focus/obsession with Tech has driven the explosion of start ups, most of which fail because they never really got to the root of the problem they were trying to solve. Many still haven’t but funding keeps them alive. Tech is simply the how, but its complexity and lack of accessibility mean that it’s seen as the beginning and end. In my view, great product management discipline is as, if not more, important than great tech capability.

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? The future of leadership is being human. That’s clear from the direction of travel in the relationship between employer and employee over the 30+ years. Any aspiring leader needs to really understand human potential and to be able to objectively understand themselves. If you don’t have solid EQ then you probably won’t make a great C level exec of the future. Spend time understanding deeply what makes you tick as that will give you clues as to where your energy and effort is best applied.

What are your career ambitions and have you reached them yet? I’ve worked across and led most business functions in organisations of all sizes and I think commercial breadth makes me a better C level exec and also a much better CPO. Having already led 2 businesses as CEO I would ultimately like to do that again at some point for an even larger business where the challenges are more complex again.

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? Yes I do. It comes in peaks and troughs as it does for most people. But I’ve learnt over the years that I can’t bring my best to my team or role unless I’m “the best me”. It’s my mantra to my team. I make time to do the things that keep me mentally and physically in the right place so I’m able to tackle all the things that I need to. Having been in the world of understanding human potential for over a decade I have a clear view of who I am, what defines me and what I need to do to be in the best shape mentally.

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? I took many risks with my career journey. Beyond my second role in HR, nothing was planned. As different opportunities arrived, I took them. I had an overarching goal of aiming to be in a senior “commercial” role but I had no clear roadmap or ambition. On reflection, it’s been great so far but perhaps a bit more structure would have reduced the anxiety in places!

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? Coding boot camp. The creation of “professional” apprenticeships means you can get up and running in a career at 18 without needing to take the university route. There is nothing wrong with wanting to gain a degree, but in the last 20 years we have over rotated on the importance of a degree and pushed way too many young people down that route, with little value add to show from it. Getting hands on early can make a huge difference and with an apprenticeship you could develop your practical skills whilst getting paid for it, get to do the computer science degree at the same time AND have it paid for – no student debt.

How important are specific certifications? For specific skills they can be very important. It verifies a standard for sure, but the certification itself doesn’t guarantee quality or excellence. Where its required due to technical competence, treat them as a baseline and look for potential beyond the certificate. Remember, be human. Seek out the human inside and that will tell you more than the certificates ever can.

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? Humility, curiosity and pragmatism.

What would put you off a candidate? High ego/dominance or arrogance.

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided?

  • Not listening properly and therefore not answering the questions properly
  • Forgetting the interview is one stage in the hiring process, not the only one
  • Nor preparing for the interview. Too many candidates wing it or treat it as just another conversation

Even in a tough market, candidates should be discerning about the roles they apply for. In the digital age a job is “only a click away” and consequently candidates usually apply for more roles than they are suitable for. Finding the right job is the key so volume of interviews is meaningless. Do your homework, don’t go to interviews if you are simply tire kicking as it wastes your time and those doing the interviewing.

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills – or a mix of both? An appreciation of both is an advantage. A senior technical role in, say a B2B or B2C market should have an appreciation of business and the market in which you operate, otherwise you will struggle when trying to balance the demands of the market with your deliverables as a tech lead. As a senior business leader in a similar environment you need an appreciation of the technology in order to understand how the business solves the problems and the constraints that exist. I have never written a line of code in my life, but my exposure to both technology and commercial challenges over the years means I have a good view from both sides which helps when facing into core business challenges.