From Cold War kid to tech CEO: The education of Citrix's Kirill Tatarinov

CNBC's Jon Fortt, left, seated with Citrix Systems CEO Kirill Tatarinov.

Kirill Tatarinov grew up in the former Soviet Union, the son of a government computer architect. The family didn't swallow state propaganda: His grandfather once spent ten years in a Soviet gulag.

To achieve his dreams, young Kirill would have to get out and move to the other side of the world.

Tatarinov is now the CEO of Citrix Systems, a tech company with tools that make it easier to share information and get work done from anywhere. His journey to this point — to leading a company with a $13-billion-dollar stock market valuation — includes stops in Israel and Australia, working for startups and for Microsoft.

It also included a wake-up call about what it really takes to drive a company toward success.

Genius is No Substitute for Teamwork

The Soviet educational system focused on deep skills in math and science, but spent practically no time on teamwork.

"I got my first real management, leadership job in an American company. I saw that I'm lacking the skills, and I saw this gap in my upbringing. And I realized that I urgently needed to fix it," Tatarinov recalled to Fortt Knox.

He was in a company that needed a quick transformation but didn't know how to do it. Tatarinov had been brought on board to speed the process, but he found himself unsure how to bring others along.

"After trying it for three or four months, I said, 'I need to learn something new,'" he said.

Part of the answer was an executive MBA program where all the coursework was team projects. Coming out of that experience, Tatarinov found he was able to not only devise a strategy for change, but also communicate it to the team in a way that got them to buy into it and execute.

Marketing Matters

One of the smartest groups Tatarinov had ever worked with was at a networking company in Israel, called Fibronics.

"It was amazing learning for me. I was a 26-year-old working in that engineering culture. These were all PhD-level programmers," he said. "What Fibronics built back then was without a doubt the best network management system on Earth .... They did nothing to market it. As a result, it basically died seven years later."

The underlying message here was similar to what he would later learn about working with people: Quality ideas don't count for much if you can't communicate them. Doing that inside an organization looks like teamwork. Doing it outside looks like marketing: Often success requires both.

Get Broad Knowledge

Tatarinov warned against focusing too much on subject matter expertise to the exclusion of everything else.

It's important to have technical skill, of course. But he would advise today's college students to spend years studying subjects like literature and history before diving deep into engineering.

"You really need to have the broad perspective. Because frankly, even if you go deep into one field, the breadth of knowledge and ability to grasp different disciplines and correlate them in your head is very important," Tatarinov told Fortt Knox. "It's not just about correlating math with physics – of course, they're inseparable. It's about thinking through history's lessons."

That way you'll know which lines from Shakespeare or Dostoyevsky to quote to rally your team around the new strategy.

Fortt Knox is a weekly podcast from CNBC anchor Jon Fortt. Previous episodes of the program can be found here.