C-suite career advice: Bryan Cheung, Liferay
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C-suite career advice: Bryan Cheung, Liferay

Name: Bryan Cheung

Company: Liferay

Job Title: Co-founder and Chief Executive Officer

Location: Los Angeles, CA

As CEO, Bryan Cheung steers Liferay's strategic direction and worldwide business development efforts. Drawing on his technical experience, understanding of customer needs, and a passion for end users, Bryan leads Liferay in meeting the company's commitment to deliver focused and effective business solutions to its customers and its community.


What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? When I was a freshman at Berkeley, my cousin told me that even if I'm considering graduate school that I should major in a "craft" for my undergrad degree: computer science, electrical engineering, applied math or even design.

I never ended up going to law school or business school, but my technical background has definitely helped me in my current role leading a technology company.

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? I don't remember if it was ever given to me as advice, but when I was younger in my career, I thought I should always hire people with a lot of experience in a given field or position. But over the years I've found that a person's character and how well you work together are more important. So don't assume that "experience" makes for a better employee or partner.

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT? Good design, which is understanding a user's problem in order to solve it well, is the single most important thing for any product. This has become especially true in the last several years. Yes, the nuances are different for B2B than for consumer products, but the primacy of the principle stands. Not everyone in IT necessarily builds "products" in the strictest sense, but we're all solving problems for people, so understanding their needs is vital.

Did you always want to work in IT? No. In fact I strongly considered being a volunteer in a foreign country doing development work, and then I almost went to law school to get involved with international relations. But I realized that business is a legitimate way to add value to people's lives, by providing jobs, investing in communities and creating useful technology. 

What was your first job in IT? I took a position as a Technology Consultant with Accenture right after graduating from Berkeley with a degree in Computer Science. I met some great people there, but it was during the dotcom boom and I wanted to work at a startup, so I quickly jumped to a new company after a very brief stint there.

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT? On the theme of "designing for the user," being a technologist in 2018 means doing more than ever before to understand the business. My customers, who tend to be IT leaders, are being challenged to do less with machines - maintaining servers, installing databases - and get closer to the business. They are being called on to be the experts that can weigh in on how technology can be used to fundamentally change business models or drastically improve efficiency. They're much more active in the strategic conversations than they were before. So if people are heading into IT to bury themselves in technology, they're going to be in for a surprise.

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? True leaders lead by serving, whether it's their team members, peers or customers. They don't look out for themselves. True leaders multiply and motivate the teams that work with them, because their teams know that their leaders are working for them.

Several of the people I've promoted during my time at Liferay were quite reticent about moving "up," because they realized they were taking responsibility for an even greater number of people and careers.

In other words, aiming for the C-suite is precisely the kind of thing that disqualifies you from getting there.

What are your career ambitions and have you reached them yet? My ambitions are deeply intertwined with what we're trying to accomplish at Liferay. While I'm proud of what we've been able to achieve as a team so far, we still have a ways to go. I'd like us to get even better at building useful products for customers and to work more deeply with nonprofits on tackling a range of social issues.

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? Yes, I have good people on my team and rely on them to execute, and they do a great job.

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? I wish I had had time to fit in some formal education in design and user experience. Also, it would be nice to have more mentors to learn from, since we've had to figure out a lot on our own here at Liferay.

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? I'm not that snobby about it, but a computer science degree does help you understand the fundamentals of software design beyond any specific language or framework, so it's worthwhile to pursue if you can invest the time and money in it.

How important are specific certifications? I think certifications might help a little bit when candidates are looking for a job where the skills are commoditised (e.g., a Salesforce implementer) and you have to differentiate among hundreds of candidates. But for key software development positions, creativity and experience are important, and I tend to see people who collect certifications as risk averse and less creative.

If you're really good at your craft, it'll show through your interview and references, as long as you can get your foot in the door, which shouldn't be too hard in today's job market.

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? I'm a firm believer in hiring people you trust, get along with and who can learn their job, rather than people who have expertise but not the other qualities. When you get along with your team and don't ever need to second-guess their intentions, you save so much time and energy not having to deal with unnecessary conflict or politics. Of course there will always be differences of opinion but they're so much easier to deal with when everyone is working from the same page.

What would put you off a candidate? Values are extremely important to us at Liferay. I think that if someone came in and clearly had no interest in how they could use their skills to serve others that would be a problem. Likewise if there were indications that the candidate couldn't work effectively as part of a team, that's a red flag.

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? I don't know if this is a mistake per se, but it's surprising how hard it can be just to have a conversation with a candidate, which is usually what I'm trying to do in an interview. I like to figure out if a candidate and I can follow a train of thought and explore possibilities together. A lot of my work involves solving problems with people, and communication is foundational to that.

The other issue is when it seems like every response is an opportunity for the candidate to promote themselves. It's better for candidates to talk about how they were involved with others to accomplish a goal together. It shows a social awareness and humility that are vital to successfully working at Liferay.

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills - or a mix of both? Technologists can't get away with not mastering their technical skills. They need to be the subject matter expert who can be trusted to validate the feasibility of fulfilling a business requirement. You certainly need empathy and business analysis skills to understand what the customer is asking for, but at the end of the day you have to have credibility when you say, "yes," "no," or "only if…" to the stakeholders asking for the moon.

 

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