Make It Matter: Career Advice for Emerging Software Executives

From relying on mentors to evolving hiring practices, here are some insights for a tech world where demand — and aspirations — are higher than ever.

According to research from CompTIA, open job postings for tech and IT surpassed 316,000 in December 2021 alone, representing a 53% year-over-year increase. The need to fill executive-level positions is particularly high, leading to accelerated career trajectories that leave many emerging software executives feeling overwhelmed and underprepared.

Software and IT roles hold massive opportunities to push boundaries and create change — the very potential that drew me to a tech career. I always wanted to create code that provides meaningful solutions, and as CEO and co-founder at Appfire, I’m fortunate to helm a company that does just that. But I certainly didn’t get here alone.

Attaining an executive role in the software industry requires you to lean on the expertise and mentorship of others. My experience has taught me that fellow software professionals, colleagues and mentors are crucial to our growth — especially in a high-stress and high-demand marketplace.

My top 3 tips for up-and-coming software executives

Early in my tech career, Ken Olsen, former CEO of Digital Equipment Corporation, told me, “If you ever have an opportunity to make a great business and scale it worldwide, make sure it matters.” I found this so impactful that I made it a core tenet of our values at Appfire — “make it, and make it matter.” For me, making it matter means helping people solve modern problems with thoughtful solutions. This mission has guided me throughout my tech career, from entry-level coding positions to the founding of Appfire in 2005. 

In the spirit of “make it matter,” here are my top three pieces of advice for emerging software executives, gleaned from several decades in the tech industry and 17 years as CEO at Appfire.

  1. Find mentors who’ve been there. Most often, excelling in a C-suite position requires understanding that C-suite roles don’t entail a lot of day-to-day operational work, but instead revolve around strategic thinking that shapes the business’s mission, vision and direction. Because C-suite positions demand more abstract thinking than other job roles, they can be a big adjustment for tech professionals who are used to hands-on work. This is where finding trusted and experienced mentors is crucial. Mentors who work at the C-suite level, especially those in a similar field, can offer much-needed perspective as you seek to understand executive leadership responsibilities. Asking is the first and hardest step in the quest to find mentors, but it’s well worth it — I still consult with my mentors today, and I make better decisions when I consider their advice.
  2. Hire for the now. The Great Resignation has evolved hiring standards, and embracing these new standards is key to attracting and retaining top tech talent. In 2022, C-suite executives must prioritize hands-on experience and character as the two biggest determinants of a candidate’s potential — and ask the right questions to select for them during the interview process. The strongest candidates demonstrate a combination of technical and business skills, and may not have the university degree that has historically been the hiring standard. Coding boot camps and volunteerism, for example, may provide just as much education as university-level achievements — if not more. And when it comes to discerning character, give candidates an opportunity to demonstrate honesty and vulnerability during the hiring process. I like to ask candidates, “Can you describe a hard decision you’ve had to make?” Listening is key here. I often find that candidates who discuss decisions surrounding family, friendships or causes they care about are more genuine than candidates who go straight to discussing career-related dilemmas. And if you’re ever unsure about a candidate, rely on your colleagues and senior leadership team before making a final judgment.
  3. Set inward and outward expectations. Although C-suite positions don’t involve the daily logistical work common in other tech positions, they’re still highly demanding of your time and attention. It’s not uncommon for new or upcoming software executives to struggle with achieving a healthy work-life balance, but your happiness and work performance can quickly erode if boundaries are not put in place to protect them. For me, this comes down to setting expectations inwardly and outwardly — i.e., expectations for myself and expectations for how I interact with others. At home, this means frequent communication with my family about my ever-evolving work schedule and limiting my technology use to certain areas of the house. At work, this means setting boundaries with my team about availability and taking advantage of do-not-disturb features on my devices when needed. Additionally, my mentors have been particularly helpful in encouraging me to develop “litmus tests” to determine when my work-life balance is off. For example, every year I determine how many days I am willing to travel for work, and I check in on this number periodically to see if I’m getting close to exceeding it. If I am, that’s a good indicator my work-life balance is in jeopardy and it’s time to make some adjustments.

Growth is a communal effort

No career is built alone. We all depend on the advice, perspective and kindness of other professionals in our industry to achieve our goals — and this couldn’t be more true than for software professionals pursuing executive leadership positions.

The demand for tech jobs is high right now, and so is the demand for professionals eager to embrace the evolved roles and responsibilities of executive-level standards in 2022. As you work hard to “make it matter,” remember to invest time in your professional relationships — this may lead to a much-needed hand, a new perspective or a piece of advice that transforms your career.

Randall Ward

Randall Ward is CEO and co-founder of Appfire.

Randall Ward is CEO and co-founder of Appfire.