C-suite career advice: Atticus Tysen, Intuit
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C-suite career advice: Atticus Tysen, Intuit

Name: Atticus Tysen

Company: Intuit

Job Title: SVP & Chief Information Officer

Location: Mountain View, CA

Atticus Tysen is an Intuit senior vice president and chief information officer, responsible for the technology supporting the company's global human resources, finance, marketing and sales and support organisations. Before being promoted to his current role in 2013, Tysen was vice president of product development for Intuit's Financial Management Solutions group, leading product development efforts for the company's Small Business group. Since joining Intuit in 2002, he has also served as director of new technology and led the company's patent program, building a process to protect the company's intellectual property. 


What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? Be passionate about what you are doing and if you're not feeling passionate, go and do something else. I have another important piece career advice for people managers, and that is when you realise someone's not working out in a role, do your best to help them transition to something they'll truly succeed in. Don't let them stay in a role they won't succeed in for too long.

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? The worst piece of advice about my career was one that I gave to myself. When I initially transitioned from being an individual contributor to a people manager, I wasn't ready. I naively thought, as many do, that a manager position would be my logical next step, but the role was more complicated than what I was ready for. I thought I would be the person who decided what everyone would do and everyone would do just that. But of course, that's not how it works in reality - you have competing politics, visions and strategies. And oftentimes, people on the team have better ideas than you do.

Eventually I grew into being someone who really likes managing, leading and developing talent. Now I find myself getting energy from being a leader and I continually try to be better at it. But when I first did it, it was for the wrong reason, and well before I was ready to be a good leader. Making this jump is a really pivotal point in a person's career and not everybody should, or has, to make it.

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT? The biggest piece of advice is first and foremost to understand business because IT exists in order to produce business outcomes through technology. You need to understand what the desired business outcomes are, how business people operate and then how technology can deliver meaning results. On top of everything, at your core, be a great technologist.

Did you always want to work in IT? No, I've been in engineering, operations and product management roles during my career, and have partnered with IT often. The function was an easy scapegoat for a number of issues. Rather than echoing the complaints, I decided to do something about it by joining the team. It was only after I became part of IT that I discovered the tough job of balancing and running all of the existing systems, while you are trying to build out a new future. It's a difficult trade off to accomplish and it's hard to appreciate until you really get in and understand it from the inside.

Originally, I had wanted to be a physician. I always had an interest in cardiology and the heart stemming from being a lifelong distance runner. Once in college, I changed majors to get a degree in computer science. I had always loved computers and realised that I wanted to build products. Eventually I ended up working for many years at companies like Apple, Octel and now Intuit where I was able to just that.

What was your first job in IT? My first job specifically in IT was as VP of Engineering at Intuit, working for the CIO and running business applications. My first technical job was as a software engineer at Apple Computer in 1987.

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT? The most common misconception, and I thought this myself before making the jump into IT, is that IT is a slow moving organisation that is old-fashioned in its thinking and approach, and is quick to say no without first understanding the business outcomes driving the ask.

When you work in IT, you have two main responsibilities. The first is to operate all existing technology that the company and its customers depend on to provide a flawless experience. The other is to build out new technology that the company needs going forward. As an IT professional, you can always see how all of this operates and a lot of times you respond with a list of things that could potentially go wrong with a new idea. As a result, people get the misconception that IT folks are naysayers and react negatively to new ideas. In reality, we sometimes come across that way because we can see the breadth of what can potentially go wrong. However, it's important that we set that aside for a moment to truly understand new ideas from the business and ensure we've really heard what the business needs before we put it in the context of the existing technology.

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? Whether in marketing, sales, IT or finance, try to perform roles in other departments so you gain a broader understanding of how a business works. Don't just come up through one profession. Once you are in the C-suite, you really are accountable for running the whole company - regardless of what title you actually have. So you need to have a well rounded background.

What are your career ambitions and have you reached them yet? My ambitions have always been to apply technology to help people achieve better outcomes - and I'm still doing just that. I want Intuit to have a world class IT department where IT professionals are growing their careers and all Intuit employees feel like they have the technology they need to get their jobs done and flawlessly serve our customers.

Do you have a good work life balance in your current role? Absolutely, I think it's critical that demonstrating work/life balance starts at the top. If you don't lead by example and demonstrate your own balance to your employees, your results will be sub-optimal. You may have good short term outcomes, but you won't have a team who stay in their jobs over time and who build up a deeper understanding of what you're trying to do as a company. Personally, I achieve this in a few ways.

First, I try to only read emails once a day so not to be distracted. My staff know to text me if something needs my immediate attention.

Second, if I need to contact someone off-hours, I try to wait and only contact them during their set business hours wherever they are in the world as Intuit is a global organisation. If I absolutely have to contact after hours, I always start my call by asking their permission to take the call - because they may be trying to put their kids to bed, or having dinner with someone - those things really are important.

Third, I'm someone who has goals and ambitions outside of work - such as getting my private pilot certificate. These are goals that take time to accomplish, and I recognise that my staff have similar outside passions and goals as well.

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? There's nothing I would want to change. On my career path, I've always enjoyed what I am doing at that moment to the fullest. I make sure I'm passionate about the opportunity in front of me and live in the now. When I no longer feel like I am growing or that I have accomplished what I want to in the role, I usually start looking for what's next. The route doesn't have to be linear or even very logical. Instead, I focus on what is going to help me grow and gets me out of my comfort zone. Every time I've taken a new role in my career, I usually feel like I'm in over my head for the first year and I continually look for jobs that make me feel that way.

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? I think both have an important role to play in training the technologists of the future. A computer science degree can create a rich foundation and understanding of why certain technologies, languages and approaches work or don't, as well as an appreciation for what has come before. A coding bootcamp is going to get people going faster and learning through experimentation. Both can lead to great outcomes and both are needed.

How important are specific certifications? In some areas such as networking and machine architecture, certifications are critical because it demonstrates that the individual has mastered a body of knowledge in that specific area. It's also important to remember that it's less about the certificate and more about the work that's been put in and knowledge acquired to get the certification.

Certification might be helpful in general areas like program management, but it's more important to me to see what somebody is able to do on the job. Some of those certifications don't always translate to success inside of a company.

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? One of the first things I look for is a learning mindset - somebody who has a thirst for new knowledge and wants the challenge of learning new things. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck talks about two different mindsets: "learn-it-all" and "know-it-all." And individuals with the "learn-it-all" mindset will always do better. Second, I look for candidates who are compassionate. It doesn't mean that they don't have high standards, but that they're a compassionate human being who has the interest of others in mind as they're coaching and growing teams. The third quality is "grit," which is "sticking with things over the very long term until you've mastered them" as defined in Angela Duckworth's book by the same title. It's important that people work through failure to find success, and find that to be challenging and interesting instead of daunting.

At Intuit, we have a process called Assess 4 Awesome (A4A) where we have a full day interview to get to know candidates. They're asked to do a craft demonstration of their area, and then answer a structured set of questions. Some examples of the craft demonstration projects are for our HR business partner candidate, we pose a problem around how a particular team isn't working well with another team and ask the candidate to talk though how they will help those teams understand their various roles and work together better; for an engineering candidate, we will give an actual coding assignment; and for a design candidate, we ask that they present their design portfolio and walk us through a design problem.

What would put you off a candidate? If everything was about them as opposed to what they empower others to do, and if their stories were all about their greatness instead of what they enable others to achieve.

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? One of the most common mistakes is speaking in generalities and not having enough specific examples and stories from their career. And the way to avoid that is to include facts, figures and details in your storytelling.

Another common mistake is when candidates try to guess what the interviewer wants and what the team is looking for, and they try to become that ideal candidate. The danger though, is that you might succeed in convincing them you are the perfect match, but it turns out to be the wrong role for you after you start. It's really important as a candidate to be clear about who you are and be true to yourself, and to make sure the person interviewing you is doing the same about the role and what they're looking for. If you treat the interview almost as a problem to be solved and you try to understand it from both the side of a candidate and the interviewer, you will get to a better outcome.

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills - or a mix of both? It is absolutely a mix of both. As an IT professional, you have to have a strong grounding in technology and always update your technical knowledge to be current and leading edge in your technical thinking. At the same time, you have to be a business professional because at the end of the day, the reason you bring technology into a company is so the company can be better advantaged at what it is trying to do in the world. In most cases, the CIO or the IT leader is the one person in the room who is at the intersections of technology and business. It is important that they speak in the language of the customer and translate technology speak into business talk for their customers. The goal should never be to show the room how smart you are, but it should be to make the room smarter.

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