C-Suite Career Advice: Hywel Carver, Skiller Whale

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? “Mentorship is key. Find those that are already in the roles you want and who inspire you, and look for their support.”

Headshot of Hywel Carver, CEO and Co-Founder at Skiller Whale
Skiller Whale

Name: Hywel Carver

Company: Skiller Whale

Job Title: CEO and Co-Founder

Location: London

Hywel Carver has over a decade of experience as a Founder Chief Technology Officer (CTO), consulting CTO and CTO Coach. He is the co-Founder and CEO of Skiller Whale, a Venture Capital backed company disrupting how technology teams learn, inspired by Carver’s experience as an undergraduate at Cambridge University. With a strong technical science background and over 30 years of coding under his belt, Carver is an author of several books teaching coding and mathematical thinking, as well as the host of a podcast for tech leaders. Carver is a regular keynote speaker for CTO Craft and Lead Dev events, and a course leader on tech leadership for the latter.

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? My parents told me that you can achieve anything if you put your mind to it.

This is broadly true, but not every opportunity is available to everyone. However, drive and effort make up for a lot, and this is advice that I’ve held on to throughout my career.

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? Broadly any advice that is framed as absolute. “This is the best way, this is the right way and the wrong way” - that is wildly incorrect.

Everything is contextual, and it’s important to remember that in business.

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT/tech? Try to find something that you really enjoy, and are good at. If you truly enjoy the work you do, and can take to it naturally, it’s easier to upskill, and take the next steps in building a long, happy career.

Did you always want to work in IT/tech? No! It felt too obvious for a while, and I tried out other jobs. I taught myself to write code at the age of 9, and websites at 14. When it came to university and careers, I was unsure of what I would like my career to be, and for a long time wanted to be a professional musician.

I then did a PhD programme to work out where my next steps were, and tried out various paths such as academia and even saxophone teaching. Once I was made aware of the software startup scene, my choice was made easy by a love of startup work.

The PhD ended up not being for me, and I’ve worked in startups and scale-ups since, culminating in building Skiller Whale with my co-founders.

What was your first job in IT/tech? I did a summer internship, building database analysis software whilst I was at university. Recently I was at the LeadDev conference in Berlin, and I met someone who was retiring the project I had worked on in this internship over 15 years ago, which was a nice, full-circle moment!

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT/tech? From the outside, it can seem a non-stop thrill ride - all about the perks of a free lunch or infinite holidays.

Those perks exist, but it’s to support some truly hard work and graft that goes into building the technology.

It’s worth knowing this, and why the perks have to exist to balance this out.

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? Mentorship is key. Find those that are already in the roles you want and who inspire you, and look for their support.

There are ways of exercising the same skills at C-Level in more junior roles, exhibiting leadership and management skills, and taking a genuine interest in the commercial outcomes of your work. If you can find a mentor to help guide and nurture these skills, they can help you progress in your career.

The right mentor is someone you respect, and would like to emulate in your career. Finding a mentor can be through forming a bond on LinkedIn, or maximising the existing mentorship networks that exist in your workplace.

What are your career ambitions and have you reached them yet? Yes! I’m very happy in what I do, and can imagine myself doing similar work until I retire. I like starting, growing, and reinventing the businesses I work on.

For Skiller Whale, we still have lots more fast growth ahead, so I want to keep leading and growing the company as fast as we can manage.

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? Yes, this is forced upon me by having two children, and I have no regrets about that.

I’m glad and grateful to have a good worklife balance. There’s a saying that rings true, that “no one lies on their deathbed wishing they had spent more time in the office”. For me, working strictly in work hours doesn’t mean I achieve less, but that I can really focus, and can spend valuable time out of work with my children.

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? I can think of missteps, but I can still tie good learnings to these experiences and they have led to positive things.

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? It depends on your goal. Again, context is everything. They each have benefits - computer science degrees teach you more about the theory, and coding bootcamps give you practical experience for the workplace, helping you break into the sector.

It’s important to identify what your ambitions are, and apply the right learning to the role you want to work in.

At Skiller Whale, we work with both people who have computer science degrees, and those who’ve been through coding bootcamps. As a general rule, those with a coding bootcamp background need more support, but a bootcamp is three months as opposed to a three year degree, and our deep coaching is tailored to support the experience and outcomes needed by our students - whatever their background.

How important are specific certifications? I’ve never given any value to those on any CV that I’ve reviewed, or know of any I have that have been very helpful to me.

Certifications are not the same as having skills, and the Skiller Whale approach is about growing your skills, transforming what tech teams are capable of, and supporting our learners to be better at their job.

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? I highly value those who know what their strengths are, and where they need to improve.

A sense of autonomy and being happy working independently but being proactive when you need support is really important to me.

And I look for people who are motivated by outcomes. Some developers see code as a form of art - I don’t. It exists for its functional value, to be valuable to your users.

What would put you off a candidate? Poor listening skills. I look for candidates who are eager to learn new things, and integrate what they hear into what they already know - responding and growing from it. If a candidate is speaking but not truly responding to what they’ve heard, I think they’ll be difficult to work with.

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? Overconfidence, and a feeling of needing to project an air of perfection. If someone says something with a great sense of confidence that proves to be incorrect, it’s hard to imagine them in a trusted, team setting.

Understanding if the role is the right fit for them: Candidates who come thinking purely about putting their best foot forward, and fail to consider the wider fit of the role, whether they would fit cohesively in the team, and if the company is right for them and their values, could find themselves very unhappy in the role.

Interviews are a two-way discovery, and making sure it also feels right for the candidate is vital.

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills – or a mix of both? It depends what job you’re in, but people go far with either! I can’t imagine working in Skiller Whale, or being a CTO without a bit of both. If your aim is to be a CTO, I think I’d have to pick business skills, although there’s no harm in understanding the tech that your employees and team are working with.