C-suite career advice: Rob Coupland, Pulsant

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? “Back yourself to try things, because that is when you’ll learn most.”

Headshot of Rob Coupland, CEO at Pulsant

Name: Rob Coupland

Company: Pulsant

Job Title: CEO

Location: Maidenhead

Rob Coupland has three decades of experience across the telecommunications, data centres and cloud managed services markets. He joined Pulsant in 2019 but began his career with Cable & Wireless, taking up a range of positions. He spent 10 years at Telecity Group in a variety of roles, including Chief Operating Officer (COO) and Managing Director. As COO, Coupland led the company’s data centre expansion programme and significantly grew the business. Prior to joining Pulsant, Coupland was managing director EMEA of Digital Realty, a data centre and colocation business headquartered in San Francisco, USA.

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? When I became a Managing Director, a colleague told me to seek out the people in my business who would tell me what was really going on rather than what they thought I wanted to hear. I’ve always acted on that advice and at Pulsant I am lucky to have people who are candid about what they see.

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? No single piece of advice has been worse than any other. What is important is what you do with it. You should balance what others tell you with your own understanding and instincts.

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT/tech? You need ambition, but you don’t get success without overcoming fear of failure. You must recognise when things aren’t working and move on. There aren’t many things you can fail at that you can’t ultimately put right.

Don’t expect everything to work perfectly all the time. Within the IT and tech sector, perhaps the greatest thing I learned early on, is the need to get comfortable with that.

Did you always want to work in IT/tech? While at school I wanted to be a Royal Air Force engineer. I then applied for engineering at university and was accepted. Having been an RAF cadet at school, I was also accepted for officer training. But ultimately, I decided to go into another form of engineering and technology.

What was your first job in IT/tech? I started as an engineering graduate trainee with Cable & Wireless and branched out into more commercial roles, which is where I became conversant with data centres and managed security services. It was a great place to start a career and I learned a lot.

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT/tech? Probably the biggest misconception is that IT and tech are just for geeks and nerds. They are not. For many of the most successful people it is about their character and their interpersonal skills as much as their technical ability. Purely technical ability is rarely sufficient on its own – it needs to be rounded out with commercial and personal skills.

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? Get as much relevant experience as possible and be prepared to take risks and move off the safest path. Back yourself to try things, because that is when you’ll learn most. And don’t occupy the position for its own sake – remember it is about what you can achieve. You should be ambitious but don’t become impatient. Take time to learn what you need to.

What are your career ambitions and have you reached them yet? I’ve lived through the birth of the internet, and then the explosion of data – two big cycles. We are on the cusp of something similar now with edge computing, and I have big ambitions for us as a business because there is huge potential from this next phase of the technology cycle.

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? I’ve learned to try and leave stress behind at the office. Time to step back is important and often the way forward emerges when you are focused on something else, such as bringing your children up and sharing time with family. I took up cycling around a few years ago and find it’s a great way to get some exercise and disconnect for a while in the fresh air.  

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? Fortunately, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed what I’ve done over the years so I’m pretty sure I made the right choices about my career. I wouldn’t go back and change anything. I would love to be able to sing, but it’s something best reserved for when I’m alone in the car.

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? I was a secret hobbyist coder as a teenager, so it’s got to be the coding bootcamp

How important are specific certifications? Depends on your role. Certifications may be less vital in more managerial positions. Having the right certifications is really important in technical roles for keeping you up-to-date, and it demonstrates your credentials. It also says a lot about your drive and self-discipline.

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? Ability to communicate is certainly a requirement in any technical areas where you have to convey your message to the uninitiated. Inquisitiveness is also needed, as is problem-solving and the ability to think on your feet.

What would put you off a candidate? Someone who doesn’t know why they want this particular job, and hasn’t thought through what they want to be part of and how what they bring will fit in.

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? Some of the best and most compelling interviews are where people are happy to talk about what they know and what didn’t go so well and what they learned from it. In my career the best lessons have often come from when things didn’t quite go as planned. People should not fear that discussing such experiences is showing weakness.

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills – or a mix of both? From my perspective you need both. You can be the most technically competent person in the world and not understand the commercial drivers or the impact on your client. Having all the commercial chat without the technical knowledge behind it is no good either. You need a mix of the two.