The road to success: Tech leaders tell all

To get to the top of the org chart, you'll need more than basic dev skills. Today's head honchos offer their wisdom on getting ahead

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Swimming with sharks

As you move up the ladder, you may wonder if you’re adequately prepared to deal with increasingly challenging office politics. Understanding how different people operate -- what they’re looking for and how to relate to them -- as you manage down and up is a skill that can be learned.

Joan Wrabetz, CTO, Qualijoan

“Seeing the world from a nonengineering perspective was instrumental for me in learning how to be a manager and leader.” -- Joan Wrabetz, CTO, Quali

“I’ve never been a very good politician, so I’ve had to really pay close attention to office dynamics and in particular, to other leaders who were much better than me at managing them,” says Axway’s Banks. “You can develop these skills by deliberately putting yourself in tough situations and asking to work on the hairiest projects. Throughout my career, I’ve decided to be fearless in my professional choices, and it’s always paid off even when it was extremely challenging and highly political -- whether it was taking over a stalled product line earlier in my career, building my first sales team at a fledgling cloud startup, or re-energizing dinosaur brands at large Fortune 500 companies. I’d advise anyone to try the path less traveled. They’ll often find a boot camp on office politics.”

Richard Rabins, CEO and founder of Alpha Software, offers a stark analogy for those who engage in power plays in the corporate world.

Richard Rabins, CEO and founder, Alpha Software

“Remind your colleagues that if too much attention is paid to the internal conflicts, it can weaken the company and put jobs in jeopardy. ... Someone who shows this skill and keeps the team focused on the end goal has true managerial skills.” -- Richard Rabins, CEO and founder, Alpha Software

“Office politics is internal warfare, and market competition is external warfare. Stay focused on the mission of the department/business,” Rabins says. “Remind your colleagues that if too much attention is paid to the internal conflicts, it can weaken the company and put jobs in jeopardy. Remember who the real competition is. Someone who shows this skill and keeps the team focused on the end goal has true managerial skills.”

Remaining emotionally detached can also help navigate dangerous office territory.

“I recommend focusing on the right things: facts and data,” says Danielle Curcio, vice president of engineering for Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems. “I’ve also learned not to take things personally. Most of the time, we are all working toward the same goal -- but trying to get there in different ways.”

Danielle Curcio, vice president of engineering, Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems

“I’ve also learned not to take things personally. Most of the time, we are all working toward the same goal -- but trying to get there in different ways.” -- Danielle Curcio, vice president of engineering, Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems

New tech leaders are often unprepared for the level of politics they’ll deal with, and they’re frequently blindsided when they take charge, says DomainTools’ Roberts. But these dynamics are simply another aspect of the company that requires attention.

“Chances are the other people engaging in office politics are better at playing games and you will lose if you take that approach,” Roberts says. “Don't initially try to address it through an ‘up the chain and back down the chain’ approach. That's playing the game -- talking about others behind their back. Engage, try to understand why they're taking the approach they’re taking, try to establish a direct relationship so that the next time the person can come talk to you directly rather than working through political channels.”

Nick Clark, CTO, DoubleDutch

“Having clear cultural qualities that you screen for in the hiring process -- respectfulness, accountability, a team player -- help to mitigate the onset of politics.” -- Nick Clark, CTO, DoubleDutch

Transparency and accountability -- your employees’ and your own -- are key, says DoubleDutch CTO Nick Clark. “Aside from that, having clear cultural qualities that you screen for in the hiring process -- respectfulness, accountability, a team player -- help to mitigate the onset of politics.”

How to align business and technology

If you’re driven to lead people and share your vision, what’s the best way to make sure your ideas are, in fact, the building blocks of a successful business?

“This one is hard,” says Rackspace CTO John Engates. “Sometimes technical folks don’t have any business background. My suggestion is to work for a small company for a while -- maybe a startup. You learn a lot by having to do it all. Working in a big company doesn’t always expose you to every facet of the business.”

John Engates, CTO, Rackspace

“My suggestion is to work for a small company for a while -- maybe a startup. You learn a lot by having to do it all.” -- John Engates, CTO, Rackspace 

The key to success is leveraging your education and experience, according to Tendü Yoğurtçu of Syncsort, who worked her way up from software engineer to VP of engineering before taking her current role as general manager of big data last year.

“I had formal education in computer engineering, a master’s degree with a focus on business, and a Ph.D. in computer science,” she says. “I use learning from my master’s degree almost on a daily basis because all decisions require cost-benefit analysis, cost of opportunity considerations, and understanding the impact of decisions on the business outcome. My Ph.D. also helped me to develop skills for driving long-term strategies. Your team, your customers, your partners are the most critical players -- people, people, and people. These skills have become more and more important as I stepped up into leadership roles.”

Tendü Yoğurtçu, general manager of big data, Syncsort

“Your team, your customers, your partners are the most critical players -- people, people, and people. These skills have become more and more important as I stepped up into leadership roles.” -- Tendü Yoğurtçu, general manager of big data, Syncsort

And our last piece of advice comes an executive who learned from pioneering Silicon Valley engineers.

“I had the very good fortune to work in the lab creating a new technology and participate in the journey from getting our first dollar of revenue to leading a $20B global business,” says HP’s Nigro. “Along the way, I sought out new assignments and experiences in different areas and countries. If I had to pick two things that helped me the most, they would be the experience of seeing what it takes to create and scale a business, and having a natural curiosity about what it takes to create a great business.”

What does that take?

“While I love technology and what it can do,” Nigro says, “it’s important to note that the measure of success of a business is the profit generated. Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard considered profit the No. 1 corporate objective since this ultimately measures the value of your contribution and is the enabler for everything else you would like to achieve as a business.”

That’s leadership advice you can take to the bank.

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