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Cybersecurity is a small world, full of familiar faces continually making the rounds, often in new guises at new companies. The headlines have become common: Former C-level executive at a well-known company strikes out on his or her own, bringing along senior leadership. With years of experience and track records of success, they start out with a hefty VC investment.
The problem with this picture is that those new teams are, inevitably, bringing the old structure to a fresh venture. It may be a new brand, but the same personalities with a 10,000-foot view are running the show. The past success of these “new execs” makes VCs feel comfortable writing start-up checks, but the result is a new company re-hiring the rank and file to actually do the work.
For instance, how would a former VP of sales for a large, established company go back to selling as a sales rep? How would a VP of engineering begin coding a product from scratch?
Cybersecurity doesn’t need the layers — it needs fresh ideas from the bottom up not only to keep up with threat actors, but to simplify the complex day-to-day experience of using legacy solutions. It starts with having leaders that are comfortable on the front lines: They’re low-level enough to review code, support escalations, configure the product and speak to users without marketing fluff. These are the future leaders who likely have innovative ideas of their own on how to solve these problems.
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By feeling the pain first-hand, an individual contributor who may lack a C-title on a resume can have the battle scars to make a fine A-level leader who cares about the customer experience and has the pragmatism and perseverance to make it happen.
Step 1: Getting the right leads
The right leadership team involves more than new faces — it needs to be the ones who have lived the challenges and want to prove they can do it better than their previous management. As individual contributors, they can go deep into customer issues without ego and aren’t afraid of getting their hands dirty.
Can the product management lead write the requirements themselves? Can the engineer lead design and defend the architecture, or do they need to hire an architect? These cannot be mid-level managers.
Each member of the team (even if in marketing or sales) must have technical and engineering chops with the ability to deploy or debug the product. They should be intimately familiar with the problem space or have an ability to research and understand it. And they need to be equally willing to share knowledge and learn from others at the technical and design level.
Leaders can be from any geographic region, but they must have the cachet and network to hire people in those regions around them. Collaboration across borders can breed innovation, but playing multiple time zones is very inefficient. By ensuring that leaders can list names of who to hire and convince them to join, the difficulty of hiring becomes easier.
You need people who are hungry for the chance to do something great.
Step 2: Building the right support for leads
As former ICs, the biggest pitfall these new leaders will face is trying to solve every problem themselves. There are two primary ways to work against this.
Priority one is to ensure that each initial core member has the relevant domain and execution expertise. This builds the center of gravity where all initial team members are speaking the same language because they have previous experience in the problem space. The execution expertise stems from whether an engineer actually developed in this language or manner before. This could be Python-based serverless cloud-native lambdas, or endpoint security agents.
Priority two is to encourage leads to hire folks that are actually more experienced than the leads themselves. It’s common to actually look at junior engineers potentially for cost concerns or the age-old optics problem of two colleagues now reporting into one another. By ignoring these, the leads should now have their first officers to lean on for taking the ownership of the various components, rather than having all of the pressure on them to micro-manage the development process.
With these in mind, the hands-on leaders gain a strong support system around them to boldly build a disruptive product.
Step 3: Fly!
The natural path for any successful company is to grow, but growth at all costs and empire building is not the wisest approach. Luckily, your leaders actually want to do the work, not just talk about it, which is why the focus should always be on the product and customers. This is why the anti-exec philosophy carries forward from engineering, to product and marketing, to sales, and beyond.
If the hiring is right, every leader in the team should be personally invested and feel responsible for making the product better. That is your growth driver.
Kunal Agarwal is founder and CEO of dope.security
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