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C-suite career advice: Patrick Peterson, Agari

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received?
It’s all about the product. In my previous role as VP, Technology at IronPort, I learned from my CEO Scott Weiss that if the product works, the customer is happy. You may be able to build a business with the right team, marketing opportunity, and capital of course, but ultimately, if the product doesn’t work, you must get it to work, or you are doomed. It is simply impossible to make up for a bad product with better marketing, a bigger team or great sales people.

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received?
When I founded Agari many people said to me, “Are you crazy? Don’t found another security startup! Mobile and social are the future.” I’m glad I didn’t take the naysayers advice, as it’s obviously not proven true!

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in the tech industry?
When starting out in tech, you’ve got to have a job where you can develop and improve the foundations your technical abilities – but that’s still a relatively basic requirement. Always keep an eye out for opportunities with larger learning and growing potential. Broaden your horizons by gaining exposure to customers, to executives and to departments other than your own. Only then can you start figuring out the significance of different technologies and what makes truly high-impact technology.

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position?
The ‘Peter Principle’ – the idea people are promoted into jobs with duties they cannot fulfil – is strongly at work for C-level positions. The gap between running a team and having the executive leadership of running a department is far greater than most young leaders imagine. With this in mind, my advice would be to find the right mentor. Get a perspective of the world through their eyes and leverage them to develop C-level skills.

Step 1 to getting a mentor:  Ask. There is a famous story about Steve Jobs cold-calling Bill Hewlett (then CEO of Hewlett-Packard) looking for a job. You should be comfortable asking senior people whom you respect what advice they would have on developing your career. Ask a lot of questions – for example, if they can be your advisor, how they got to where they are, what they see in you, how you can help, how you demonstrate strong leadership skills and what you are lacking.

Step 2 is remembering that the mentor relationship is a two way street. Ask senior folks who could be a mentor, how you can help them. Beyond the day-to-day deliverables, find out how you can help them be successful.

Are you particularly proud of any career advice that you’ve given or the career route/development of anyone you’ve mentored?
Sometimes you need to stop and examine the skills of those right in front of you, and I’m proud that I have put the time and effort into cultivating people’s potential to the fullest.

The administrative assistant who took a leadership role in customer support and five years later is a CEO. The QA contractor who took on an acting director role, excels and five years later becomes the VP of engineering at one of the hottest companies in the Valley. These are people that I have had the privilege of being a part in advising them in their decidedly non-linear road to great success. This to me is the #1 reason to join a start-up – the opportunity to watch unlimited potential being unlocked from the least likely places.