Surname: Don MacNeil
Company: GTT communication
Job title: COO
Location: Virginia, United States
Don MacNeil is GTT’s Chief Operating Officer, responsible for leading GTT’s Network Operations, Service Delivery, Assurance and Vendor Management teams, as well as GTT’s product organization. MacNeil has a track record of delivering successful organizational change and operational improvements for national, international and global companies. Before joining GTT, MacNeil was CEO at FiberLight, having served as COO driving the business of designing, building and optimizing fiber optic networks. During his career he has held several leadership positions including COO, CMO and Head of Customer Operations for managed network provider XO Communications. MacNeil also served as CTO for EdgeConneX, a global provider of data center solutions. MacNeil graduated from the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis with a Bachelor of Science degree in naval architecture. He then served 27 years in the US Navy, both active duty and reserve, achieving the rank of captain.
What was the most valuable career advice you received? The best career advice I’ve received over the years has been, “Always be ready for your next promotion.”
My starting point was in the military, where it’s in your DNA to always rotate jobs and be prepared for the next deployment. You could be in engineering one day and operating weapons systems the next. In the corporate world, it can be the same. When an opportunity presents itself, you may not feel ready, but don’t turn it down or you may regret it later.
What was the worst business advice you’ve received? One of the worst things I hear out there is “You need to surround yourself with your people”.
While there is always a positive aspect to developing and building a team of trusted colleagues, simply relying on them to follow you when moving to a new organization is not necessarily the most effective approach for optimal results . In fact, teams with different profiles than you bring a lot of experience and perspective to the table. If your new team isn’t doing well, don’t try to replace everyone and just skip the work already done. Instead, it’s important to recognize the team accomplishments that preceded your tenure and have the opportunity to learn from the insights and knowledge gained as incumbents. Whether you’re a leader or a team member, spend time creating clarity about the roles and company vision for everyone. This is the most effective direction you can give to get your team firing on all guns.
What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT/Tech? Keep your curiosity and always remain a student of business and technology. What really drew me to this industry is that it’s constantly evolving and you have to challenge yourself to keep up.
Have you always wanted to work in IT/technology? I grew up wanting to be a doctor, probably a brain surgeon, until I realized I was scared of blood. As a young man I attended the US Naval Academy, where I studied naval architecture, but I never really designed ships – I served at sea to operate them. After leaving the Navy I joined XO Communications. I came for the dynamic aspect, the technology, and it was about service. I wasn’t hired for my telecoms know-how, but for my technical acumen and leadership skills. The moral of the story is: there are many paths to get where you want to go, and sometimes the destination was never part of the dream.
What was your first job in IT/technology? My first job in telecommunications was as a project manager. I really enjoyed it and have always been drawn to the industry veterans around me who understood how technology evolved from simple telephony and data services to a new world dominated by the internet. They had the ability to relate legacy assets to future technologies in a meaningful way.
What are some common misconceptions about working in IT/technology? Many think you need to have an engineering or deep technical background, but that’s not true. Like any industry, it really comes down to understanding the business. Every business requires an understanding of how to make products and services. You also need to know how to make them profitable and align them with customers’ demands.
What advice would you give to someone aspiring to a C-level position? Always be ready, step out of your comfort zone and always be open to change. You’ll never believe you’re ready, and when someone asks you to do a C-Level role, it’s because they think you can do the job. If you look at my resume I was CMO, CTO and now I’m COO. Am I a Marketing Genius? no But while in this role, I was able to redesign processes to improve marketing effectiveness. So be open and ready for change, believe in yourself and don’t be afraid of what’s new in the role.
What are your professional ambitions and have you already achieved them? I probably haven’t reached them yet, but the opportunity to reach managerial and C-level positions in organizations was confirmation that I could do more. From here on out it’s not the actual title that counts for me. The right role for me is one where I can find fulfillment in adding value to an organization. From now on that is my ambition – to work in roles with people I respect and trust where I can add value. The title is less important.
Do you have a good work-life balance in your current role? There’s a lot going on professionally at the moment, but I see calmer days ahead. I have a great team with highly effective leaders who I am happy with and we are working towards a good place. My work-life balance is helped by the fact that I’m fortunate to have the flexibility to work from home. I know that this is not a matter of course. When I was in the military, I was away from my family for months at times, and when you’re visiting in the field in a technical role, you don’t have a choice. So I really appreciate that I have the opportunity to work from home today. Once the current workload has calmed down, I also expect to catch up some time and encourage my team to do the same. I think finding that work-life balance is a bit like having a savings account, you put pennies in when you can, and then there are days when you have to withdraw money.
What, if anything, would you change about your career path? I speak a lot about my formative years in the Navy, which have given me a great experience. In hindsight, it also means that I made some personal life decisions that might have been different had I left the Navy sooner, such as starting a family with my wife before we did. So, every career path is a mix of professional and personal choices, and we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of the personal aspects of our career choices.
What would you recommend: a coding boot camp or a computer science degree? I would recommend a coding bootcamp to see if it’s something that appeals to you before committing to it longer term. I’m a strong believer in trying things before fully committing. If you aim for a computer science degree and realize it’s not right, you risk wasting a lot of time. When I consider today’s educational experience as a parent, I realize that it is much more difficult for young people today to switch educational directions once they have committed to a particular specialty than it was for my generation. That’s why it’s important to try things out quickly to find out what drives your passion, whether you have the talent for it, and to pursue it.
How important are certain certifications? The technical positions we recruit for at GTT include expertise in security, software and systems engineering. Certifications are becoming increasingly important for these roles. For example, in our industry, TDM technology is in its infancy. Anyone with certifications in this field has a great operational mindset and expertise, but as technology evolves, they need to transition to new certifications to stay relevant. Digging your career into technology means pursuing a life of continuous education to keep up. I’m a big fan of it.
What three skills or abilities do you look for in potential candidates? Communication, work ethic and integrity.
What would deter you from a candidate? Someone trying to present themselves as more than they are. If you’ve been screened and interviewed for a role, you’ve already passed a pretty good filter. So it’s important to remember that you’re there for that role, not one five levels up. Show your confidence in the role you are being considered for. Attributes like future potential may be less tangible than your technical know-how, but they still shine in other ways.
What are the most common mistakes applicants make in interviews? How can these mistakes be avoided? A classic mistake is not prepared. Believe it or not, I still see people in hiring situations who don’t know much about the company they’re coming into.
Be sure to be on time. Not only does it show that you are interested in the position, but it also gives you the most time with your interviewer to convince them to give you the position.
Be sure to send a thank you note – whether you’re interested in the job or not, that’s just common courtesy and you never know what other opportunities might come up in the future that you might want to pursue to make a good impression will always serve you well.
Do you think it’s better to have technical or commercial skills – or a mix of both? As you progress from technician to leader of technicians, you are on a continuum. Technical skills are essential and necessary for your progress. If you can’t be effective as a frontline technician to start with, or fix or program the router, but are really good at analyzing business cases, you’re in the wrong job. At each level, you must have strong competencies and demonstrate technical-level skills, but as you move up the org chart, business acumen and acumen also become more important. And as you rise to higher levels of management, having both can really set you apart. Being able to communicate the details in a very coherent and concise way will, over time, become an art that you will try to master.