C-suite career advice: Barry Morris, Undo

C-suite career advice: Barry Morris, Undo

Name: Barry Morris

Company: Undo

Job Title: CEO

Location: Cambridge, UK

With over 25 years' experience working in enterprise software and database systems, Barry is a prodigious company builder, scaling start-ups and publicly held companies alike. He was CEO of distributed service-oriented architecture (SOA) specialists IONA Technologies between 2000 and 2003, and built the company up to $180m in revenues and a $2bn valuation. A serial entrepreneur, Barry founded NuoDB in 2008 and most recently served as its Executive Chairman. Barry has now been appointed as CEO to lead Undo's high-growth phase.

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? "Focus on people". The usual advice is about doing something that interests you, developing your skills, and working hard. What is less obvious is that in the context of a real team going after real world challenges everything is about people, whether colleagues, customers, your team, or your supervisor.  Find your own way of working with people and make it a high priority.

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? "Pursue Job Security". It's a total waste of time, because even if it existed for your parents, it is simply not out there today. What does exist is career security - and you are more than halfway there if you are in IT. Do something valuable and get really good at it. That's the formula. The rest will take care of itself.

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT? "Think globally, act locally". Be a rock star in your own narrow area but always do so in perspective of the larger context. The best programmers, system administrators, DBAs, project managers and CIOs are really good at what they do, but they always ensure that why it matters in the bigger picture drives their priorities.

Did you always want to work in IT? No. The other stuff I have done didn't really pay the bills. I've been involved in renewable energy, in theatre, in education and in international aid organisations. And my preferred career leaving school was music, jazz in particular. But in the end, we have to decide what we do professionally and what we do purely for the love of it.

What was your first job in IT? As a software engineer, writing systems to monitor nuclear reactors and predict future failure of cooling components. Like every graduate I was unaware that anything is impossible - the system was deployed within about three months of me starting the work. I have no idea how I did that, although the answer certainly includes a lot of credit to my mentors and the culture of the organisation in which I found myself.

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT? Three come to mind:

  1. It's only for technical people - nerds, geeks and intimidating rationalists
  2. It's not creative - no space for soft skills
  3. It is separate from business - increasingly it is core to every business

The truth is that whether we like it or not, IT is everywhere, and everything is touched by IT. Software is eating the world. IT success involves every skill set and is increasingly being driven by creative folks (not "dry" technical skills) who have the capacity to be the most important influencer in the boardroom.

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? Four things:

  1. Always focus on the big picture - don't be fantastic at things that don't matter
  2. Study bold decision-makers - they create the most value
  3. Expect more of yourself than others do - exceeding corporate goals is free if you are targeting/delivering more for your own reasons
  4. Work hard on things that matter - of the employee population very few know what really matters, fewer know what could be done about it, and a small number actually decide to fix it.

What are your career ambitions, and have you reached them yet? My career ambition is to spend as much time as possible on things I care about. I like important technologies. I like good people. I like effective teamwork. I like restlessly innovative minds. I like excellence. The things I care about seem to have led me into starting, building and scaling what I consider to be important software companies. I am pretty happy with that.

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? For me, the challenge is about quality time vs wasted time, not professional time vs personal time or something of that nature. There is no meaningful balance between exercise and health - one is a component of the other. Equally work/life balance does not make sense to me. Work is an essential positive component to life, not something to be traded off in some sort of zero-sum game. I want to be there for my family and enable them to be there for me. Mostly that is about using moments effectively.  Would I like more time for family? Of course. 

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? "No regrets", as a rough translation of Edith Piaf. Life is too short. It's easy to say that I wish I had never fallen off a bicycle, but realistically, falling off was part of learning to ride. Most of my potential regrets are part of the cost of reaching for a goal. The best way to have no failures is to have no ambitions, but you're trading minor regrets for major regrets. That would not be my choice.

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? A taxi driver in San Francisco recently asked me how he could get into building websites as a career. I recommended a coding bootcamp. And I hope he did well on that route. On the other hand, my 14-year-old son has become interested in a career as a software engineer in a major software company. In turn, I recommended him to do a computer science degree from the best university he can find. The choice is contextual - define the big-picture goal and the next step becomes more obvious.

How important are specific certifications? For certain roles specific certifications are a useful shorthand for areas of interest and basic competence.  But hiring managers are often looking for excellence in critical skill sets, and certifications seldom do much to evidence excellence. I would not recommend too much investment in certification unless the candidate is very sure that the specific job requires it.

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? We look for character, natural ability and learned skill sets, in that order. Candidates and recruiters tend to focus on skill sets and experience, but we're not interested in those if the candidate lacks character or innate talent for the work. Obviously, the skillsets we do look for will vary by role, but we always look for a track record of measurable success. It's not about responsibilities and titles, but about what actual results you personally delivered. Having said all of that, if I had to name three things that I look for in every candidate they would be: energy, integrity and mental agility.

What would put you off a candidate? The opposite of what I look for: laziness, dishonesty or lack of sharpness.

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? Not preparing, not listening, and not addressing the actual question. I recommend to people that they role-play interviews with friends and family. 

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills - or a mix of both? Pick the company, not the job title or the compensation package. There is a lot to learn, and you really want to learn it from good examples. You will spend a lot of time at work, and you really want to spend it with good people. Your fortunes will rise and fall with the company, so you really want to align yourself with a successful organisation.


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