C-suite career advice: Ben Schrauwen, Oqton

C-suite career advice: Ben Schrauwen, Oqton

Name: Ben Schrauwen

Company: Oqton

Job Title: CTO and co-founder

Location: San Francisco, CA

As the CTO and co-founder of Oqton, Ben Schrauwen leads the team's development of an AI-powered factory operating system. Prior to founding Oqton, Ben was senior director of additive, composites, and smart factory at Autodesk. He was responsible for the development of products including Netfabb, Pan Computing, and TruNest, as well the Spark 3D printing platform. Ben came to Autodesk through the acquisition of his company circuits.io. He holds a Master in Computer Science and Engineering, a PhD in Machine Learning, and was a research professor in Machine Learning and Robotics at Belgium's Gent University.

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? The most valuable piece of advice I've received was also one of the most challenging to act on - Pay attention to your soft skills. I had dedicated a few decades of my life to extremely technical work, but then someone advised that to succeed in my career long term I would need to develop skills like communication and collaboration more fully; relying on tech skills alone wouldn't be enough. In hindsight the advice to put a greater emphasis on intangible skills, has been very helpful.

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? The worst advice I've received was the notion that if you want to progress in your career and get to the next level you should wait around until a position opens. In an academic career that means biding your time until you become a professor, and for a business career it often comes in the form of people stating that your promotion is "right around the corner." All too often, right around the corner becomes months and then years. If you're ready to work at the next level, don't hold back just because of bureaucratic structure.

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT? When starting a career in technology, it's important to get to a point where you have strong technical instincts and are able to intuitively think about complexity and infrastructure. Technology should not just be a skill you develop, but an instinct. In order to develop this intuition, you have to do hands-on technical tasks. After you've worked to develop this intuition, my advice would then be to broaden your soft skills and improve your interpersonal relationships. All of these aspects are critical to succeeding in your career down the road.

Did you always want to work in IT? I knew I wanted to work in technology at a young age. I started writing code at age seven and focused on writing code every day in my teens. Because I started so early, it was always pretty obvious that I wanted to pursue technology. However, I didn't always think I'd end up in the corporate world. I started my career in academia, but later found that there are limited opportunities for growth once you've reached the professorial level. I also started to realise I wanted to make the move to corporate because, in academia, you're always the last one standing in the lab. Everyone else cycles through, so there's limited potential for building long-term relationships. You can build much longer relationships in the corporate world.

What was your first job in IT? My first job was about as boring as most people's first jobs. I was hired to hook up a database connection to an old server in a hospital. It was highly technical, tedious and took forever.

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT? There's a common misconception that a career in technology is all about technology. In reality, you're always building things with other people so it's important to be more than a super smart technologist. In addition, many people believe that if you're an older developer and not interested in the management track, it becomes prohibitively difficult to compete with younger developers. This isn't necessarily true. Years of development experience means that you've built up intuition that young people don't have yet. Your skillset becomes valuable even if you're not in a management position.

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? Building out the depth of your technical skill set is of course essential and should be the foundational knowledge that supports your other skills. However, c-level positions require you to manage many other people, which means that you should have strong command over how you communicate and fully understand how your personal style of communication affects those around you. Building relationships is also key. To reach the c-level, you need to have strong allies inside and outside of your company.

What are your career ambitions and have you reached them yet? My ambition has always been to keep learning. I will not be happy when I wake up one day and feel like I know everything. There's always more out there to learn, so it's impossible to know everything, but I aim to never feel like I do. Because my goal is ongoing, I haven't reached it, but working in business has shown me that there's so much more I can learn outside the world of academia.

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? Though our company is working in all time zones, which can make work life balance challenging, we've engineered many of our communications to foster this balance. We've built processes that allow people to perform asynchronous communication which means we don't all have to be online at the same time. Work life balance really comes down to manager policies. If people are in firefighting mode all the time, they're much more likely to make a poor decision, so we're committed to making sure our team has time away from their projects.

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? The one thing I would change about my career path would be to leave academia sooner. Though my academic career helped me develop many skills, looking back, I plateaued in academia a few years before I left. I think it would have accelerated my development to make the transition to the business world sooner.

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? If you're going to choose one or the other, a computer science degree is more beneficial. A bootcamp teaches a skill, while a computer science degree gives you more time to try out different ideas and develop intuition. However, a computer science degree without proper practical experience isn't worthwhile either.

How important are specific certifications? For certain industries, like compliance or security, certifications are important, but for most they really aren't. Often certifications just act as a replacement for actual practical experience. They give people a way to "buy" an experience when they don't have the underlying core skills and intuition, so these certifications don't add that much value.

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? I look for people who are self-motivated. You can see this motivation when people show passion about anything, even something unrelated like stamp collecting. Passion is a good indicator of intrinsic motivation. I also look for thinkers that can quickly analyze many aspects of a problem rather than just following their first hunch. Finally, I look for people who work well in teams. The "lone superhero" that thinks he's the smartest person on the team isn't that valuable. I'd rather have people who are less skilled but collaborate well because these people will be amplified by those around them.

What would put you off a candidate? When it's clear someone is looking for any job, hopping between jobs, or is only looking at salary. It's an immediate turn-off.  All of these things make it clear that a candidate doesn't believe in the company and is probably only coming aboard because our company offered more than others.

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? Everyone interviews differently, but across the board, candidates are often too passive. An interview is for both sides to evaluate the other, so candidates should actively try to figure out whether they want to work at the company they're interviewing with. Interviews should be more of a conversation rather than the interviewer just firing off questions.

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills - or a mix of both? This depends on what position a candidate is applying for. The higher up in an organisation you get, the more important it is to have a mix of both. When hiring a developer, for example, we look more for technical skills than we would for a product manager. We want both types of positions to have a technical background but wouldn't want business-focused employees to depend solely on technical experience.



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