DNA of a CIO

Interview with Prayson Pate, CTO Ensemble at ADVA Optical Networking

Have you always aspired to become a senior leader in technology?

Prayson Pate | Hays DNA of a CIOFrom early in my career, I knew I wanted to be in a leadership role. I first became a manager in 1992, and then moved up the ranks to VP of engineering in 2000 when I co-founded Overture Networks. In July 2010 I started positioning myself to be CTO at Overture. I first got this position in January 2012. I was moved aside later that fall when our leadership changed. I made it back to CTO at the end of 2013.

Was technology always your career path?
Yes. I studied EE and CS and knew I wanted to pursue a career in building communications products.

ADVA Ensemble | Hays DNA of a CIOHave you ever second-guessed your career path?
Not overall. There were some difficult times along the way, but I never seriously thought about changing.

What’s your favorite part of your job?
I love getting to talk with sharp people. They could be with our customers, our partners, industry analysts and reporters, and even our competitors. I also love the opportunity to travel and see a lot of the world. I just renewed my Global Entry, and one of the questions was about the countries you have visited in the last 5 years. I looked back and determined that I had been to 20 countries in that time. I am fortunate to have that opportunity.

What is the biggest obstacle you’ve faced along your career path?
At Overture, we did a merger that nearly wrecked the company, and which did lead to a leadership change. Navigating that was very difficult.

How did you overcome this?
Perseverance. There was a period when I alternated between being afraid of being fired on any given day and hoping that I would be fired that day. In either case, I was determined to continue moving forward until I got through it – or got cut.

What technical skills are integral to the role?
It is essential to understand the major technology trends and how they relate to your customers’ direction and problems, as well as to your own products and services. You then have to be able to distil that technology and complexity down to simple value propositions.

What soft skills/characteristics are integral to the role?
Networking, writing, public speaking and presenting. These are difficult for many people in this field, including me. I had to work to develop my skills in these areas.

How important is it to be exposed to all areas of the business?
It is essential. Understanding of, and relationships with, product management, sales, and operations is required to being able to communicate the value of your company to customers and partners. In particular, I emphasize the relationship with the sales team. I would also tell the development team that “not everyone has a commission, but everyone is in sales.”

What is the one thing you have to have to be a CTO in your opinion? (i.e. education, personality trait, skill etc)
The ability and desire to continuously learn and grow. Learning is a lifelong process.

Has networking played a role in you achieving your career objectives?
Yes. I believe networking is essential and through it, I’ve been able to reach out to contacts to make introductions, provide industry info, and set up meetings.

In your opinion, how important is social media for networking/helping one achieve their career goals?

Social media is a great way to help drive thought leadership. You still have to formulate a clear message, but social media can help ensure that people hear what you have to say.

Is there anything you would have differently looking back at your career path?
Not really. There are individual mistakes along the way that would have been nice to avoid, but I learned from those and grew.

Compared to 5 or 10 years ago, how would you say your role has evolved?
I am in a completely different role than I was 5 years ago. At that time, I was running a large engineering team and was internally focused. Now, I don’t have a team and spend my time looking at technology, meeting with customers and partners, and driving thought leadership through speaking and writing.

What advice would you give to the next generation of professionals aspiring to become a technology leader?
Before you can be a leader, you need to understand the nuts and bolts of your industry. I spend a lot of time looking forward and explaining things at a high level, but those activities are underpinned by a low-level knowledge of how the telco industry works. Some people want to skip over the grunt work. That may be possible, but it’s rare.

As a technology leader, what keeps you up at night? (what’s your biggest concern?)
We are working in a new area of technology that is very competitive. We do have great products set, but even so, the entire team and I spend a lot of time working towards winning customers and deals.

What are you doing to keep growing your career?

Learning about new technology and trends, mostly by reading. I have dipped my toe into online courses to deepen my understanding of particular areas of technology, and plan to expand that.