Why real-world experience is the key to success in tech

Much of what you need to know to become a top IT leader cannot be taught in the classroom -- which is why time on the job counts for so much.

formulas chalkboard

Head of IT Rob Threadgold: "As a CIO, are you still expected to do some of the things you learnt during your computer science degree? The answer, in most cases, is probably not."

Image: Shutterstock

Rob Threadgold, global head of IT infrastructure and operations at ICBC Standard Bank, has taken a very different route into technology leadership than some of his c-suite peers.

Rather than attend university and complete a graduate training scheme, Threadgold left school after finishing his A-levels and went straight into full-time employment. "Experience counts," he says, reflecting on his best practice advice to other IT professionals looking to take a vocational route to the top. Here, he shares his experience and lessons with ZDNet.

1. Be confident in your own abilities and your approach

Common perception suggests senior positions at big firms are only open to candidates fulfilling certain criteria. Threadgold disproves that theory, but recognises that a glass ceiling still exists. "People can get hung up on qualifications," he says. "In some organisations, you wouldn't get through the door unless you've got a degree."

Rob Threadgold

Rob Threadgold, global head of IT infrastructure and operations at ICBC Standard Bank

Threadgold believes such a closed approach is as much bad news for big businesses as it is for the candidates who miss out on opportunities. "You can be taught a great deal of important theory in a class room, yet real-world experience is worth so much more," he says.

The reality in modern business, says Threadgold, is that markets, trends, and business operations move very quickly. In an IT context, technical and competency training -- even to a second-degree standard -- can only provide so much value.

Threadgold believes that success comes down to people skills and people management. He spends the majority of his time as an IT leader brokering conversations between the technology team and the rest of the business -- and that experience cannot be taught in a classroom.

"As a CIO, are you still expected to do some of the things you learnt during your computer science degree? The answer, in most cases, is probably not. What you're actually doing on a day-to-day level is managing relationships around four key elements: budget, people, delivery, and risk," says Threadgold.

"You need to have real-world scars from having your ideas rejected by the business. And when you start winning battles, you will have the experience to understand what it takes to lead a successful IT organisation through a period of rapid change."

2. Recognise that successful leaders focus on delivery

Threadgold says that any leader is only as good as their performance. "To be successful, you have to prove you can deliver," he says. "I've been able to live off my own success. Every new opportunity I've been given in the organisation has come as a result of my achievements in other areas."

Threadgold joined ICBC Standard Bank 12 years ago in an entry-level role on the helpdesk. He quickly realised he enjoyed the buzz of the trading floor. After a long period in market data, where he helped establish the role of key feeds from firms such as Reuters and Bloomberg, Threadgold moved into the engineering side of business IT, where he first transitioned into management.

It was an opportunity he relished. "I've always made sure I get the right differentiation between managing upwards and downwards. I recognise that, as an IT leader, I am only as good as my team," says Threadgold.

"Having the right succession plan in place means you can take people along for the ride with you. It also allows you, as an IT leader, to go outside your day-to-day role and feel confident that other people will step up to the plate."

Threadgold recognises that outward-focused CIOs are only as strong as their trusted lieutenants. His approach relies on engagement, but it is a method that is still not common to all c-suite leaders, particularly CIOs.

"One of the biggest mistakes an executive can make is to think that their information is power and that retaining control will keep their role safe," says Threadgold. "I've always tried to develop the people who work for me, which reflects well on me when I'm doing other activities on behalf of the business."

3. Find a business that gives non-graduates great opportunities

Working for a delivery-focused organisation helps -- and Threadgold says that ICBC Standard Bank, as a fast-growing finance firm, is eager to give its talented people the room to develop. "If you prove your abilities, you'll be given new opportunities," he says.

After moving into management, Threadgold's senior career developed quickly. The bank was growing its international business and acquired a series of firms in emerging markets. As part of that process, he spent time working in Istanbul and Argentina, where he helped integrate systems and create a platform for growth.

Read this

Legacy tech can kill the CIO

Existing technology and maintenance can crowd out innovation and impair IT's ability to be responsive to business needs.

Read More

On his return to the UK, Threadgold ran the technology arm for the firm's build and location services. Across a two-year period, the firm moved its headquarters from near Canon Street Station in London to new purpose built offices at 20 Gresham Street in the City.

Threadgold initially managed the technology part of the process, covering areas like desktop and print, but quickly took on responsibility for building management services, including fixtures and fittings. After the office move was complete, Threadgold moved into operations and is now in charge of infrastructure globally for ICBC Standard Bank.

He is also responsible for production and runs IT outside the firm's London head office. As an aside, Threadgold is also in charge of global estate services, which encompasses properties and utilities. He reports to the global CIO, Julia Strain.

Threadgold says his experiences mean he is now eager to give job seekers the opportunity to prove and develop their capabilities. He says he is a big believer in the positive power of workplace placements, apprenticeship schemes, and summer internships.

In short, Threadgold is keen to practice what he preaches. "If I've got the choice of a good candidate with a strong degree or someone who's not gone to university, but has worked and developed their skills, then I'll probably go with the non-graduate," he says.

Threadgold also believes that wider perceptions are changing. Post-credit crunch, and in an era of escalating education fees, he believes that more executives are beginning to look beyond academic qualifications. "Companies are keen to get young people into their businesses at an early stage and see what they are capable of delivering," says Threadgold.

More essential tech and business leadership stories