Leveraging innovation when your tech career is stuck

Innovator John Calian shares what he learned during his career in leadership roles across different companies.

Unlocking tech talent stories

April 6, 2022

Innovating is hard. But it’s also fun, creative, and the vessel behind all this *gestures vaguely all around*.

At our Future.Works Lisbon Tech Conference 2021, the amazing speaker John Calian shared the valuable lessons he learned while being in innovative and leadership roles throughout his 20 year-old career. 

His talk is a true hymn of resilience and curiosity. If you’re considering a career/job switch, we’re sure that this content will resonate with you even more.

You’re allowed to change your journey

John has what could be considered an unorthodox career path. 

How does a person who gets a degree in US History and Political Science, end up as Head of Research and Development for Deutsche Telekom? How does this sort of trajectory happen?

The gist of it is a lot of risk-taking, following your curiosity and networking. You need to have in mind that everything you do will teach you something, that nothing is lost.

He passed through customer support, sales, startups, got an MBA in Technology Management, founded his own company and is now VP of Blockchain of Deutsche Telekom.

From his rich journey we can retrieve a few lessons:

Lesson 1: Take calls from your customers, it’s the best way to learn. It’s not always easy nor pleasant, but definitely a valuable source of information.

Lesson 2: Talk yourself into the jobs you’re interested in. For anyone thinking about switching careers, we decided to highlight this quote which sums up perfectly the mindset you need to have: “I just volunteered and went and did it”, as John puts it. It’s normal to be scared and to make mistakes, but we can and should learn from them. 

Lesson 3: Celebrate those times when you feel really good about yourself because they come few and far between. 

Lesson 4: Build a network. This takes time and effort, so get acquainted with calling people on a regular basis and meeting them to talk business. This is where you’re going to find the best opportunities for your career that you won’t find anywhere online. You have to go out and chase those opportunities, so take time to really build your network and curate it. 

Lesson 5: Broaden your skills. By the time John was leading his own company, in which he had to create its own processes, he started to consider himself a generalist – very good at a wide range of things, which is beneficial for product management type of roles. 

Lesson 6: Think about incentives. Everybody has an incentive to do their work, and the more you understand people’s incentives, the easier you’ll make it for yourself to make business with them or work side by side.

What is culture?

Whether you’re running a company, a team or building a new product, there are 3 fundamental starting places: purpose (the reason why you’re doing this and the most important aspect); vision (where do you want to be?) and mission (the “how”, what are we doing/solving?)

However, practically speaking, culture is made of other things too.

If you are an innovator working for a big company, whenever you have an idea that you want to try out, most of the processes already in place will create some sort of roadblock, which kills innovation.

And part of a big company’s culture is process, and part of the process is getting budgets, and getting budgets has a lot to do with politics. You need to figure out the system you’re in and how you can be successful there.

To do this he came up with 3 simple words:

  • Disruptive (come up with ideas to be innovative);
  • Make (things happen);
  • Connection 

The third point is where we’re focusing. 

Either in a startup or a big company, connecting to your customers is the most important thing.

You have to get everybody to buy into what you’re doing – for example, John would make connections with people in every business unit in Deutsche Telekom so that when he needed to get his ideas pushed, they already knew what he wanted.

You can even get some of these people to partner with you and help with your innovative ideas, so also think about who you can partner with!

But at some point, you’ll make mistakes.

Embrace the mistake culture

As an innovator, a big part of your job is making mistakes. Innovating is trying several different new things and failing at a bunch of them – it’s paramount to normalise mistakes, especially as a leader.

Don’t be afraid to acknowledge that you failed, take the opportunity to set an example and show people that it’s ok to mess up  – that’s how we learn! 

In fact, roughly only 10% of startups “make it” (meaning, become profitable). The other 90%, 9 out of 10, fail. Success has a road of mistakes behind it.

Team work

We don’t get along with everyone the same. Sometimes when we don’t click with someone work-wise, we’re just not understanding what their incentive really is.

The more we understand that, the better we’ll find common ground. It’s also important to make time to actually get to know our team mates and humanise each other. 

It is all about execution

If you’re not executing, you won’t be successful. Executing is about getting things done – so whatever processes you come up with, they need to be efficient, get things done and be profitable.

In conclusion

Starting your career in a different field than the one you’re interested in isn’t a death note. You can always make a choice and build something different than you originally had planned and, well, innovate in your own life!

Give your curiosity a chance – follow your instinct, and you can also follow this link and watch the whole talk with the attention it deserves.

The UK’s tech flagship event, London Tech Week, will be back on 13-17 June with 60+ in-person and virtual events welcoming 20,000+ global government and corporate leaders, inspirational founders, senior investors and tech rising stars.

Together, they will debate the vital role of technology in society, the latest tech breakthroughs and what the future holds for a vibrant community of bold and bright entrepreneurs. Find out more here! 👈

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