I had the privilege of hearing Nir Zuk, the founder of Palo Alto Networks, speak at an event in the Asia-Pacific region (APAC) when the company was still a startup. When I heard him talk about wanting to change the world, create disruption, and do something different from what the industry had traditionally been doing. It was very motivating and inspiring!
In my brief conversation with Nir, he laid out his vision for the company, which had at that time a negligible presence in APAC. A few months later, when someone from Palo Alto Networks reached out to me for an opportunity in marketing, I remembered his inspiring talk and vision to disrupt the cybersecurity market.
But I did have a couple of concerns: Was this another exciting startup story that would fail to prove itself in the market? Would the vision of the founders get translated to action? Was the senior management serious about the company’s worldwide expansion plan, and how soon would that be achievable?
I had several meetings with the leadership team to understand the goals and the plans. By then, I was impressed by what I learned and observed about the company’s products, vision, and culture. And so I bit the bullet and came on board.
A Safer Tomorrow
I have two daughters, and I constantly think about their future. Working for Palo Alto Networks is rewarding in that respect. First, this is such an inclusive and diverse company that I feel reassured about the future we are building for young girls like my daughters. It’s really important to me to work for a company that believes anyone should be able to participate and be respected and empowered in the workplace.
We live in a world where everything is automated. When my daughters are ready to enter the workforce, their entire lives will be digital, and I want them to be safe. Today, they’re still young enough that they can jump into things without thinking about security. They just assume they are safe. I have to constantly remind them of what I do and how we can’t take our safety for granted. I’m proud to be working for a company that is working to ensure a safer tomorrow for them.
I really enjoy the work I do. I look forward to starting work each day — it’s about doing your part to make a change. I want my daughters to see that it’s important to work hard and challenge yourself, but also that it should be meaningful and fun. I’ve never had the Monday morning blues since joining this organization. Every Monday, I wake up ready to get started. I want them to see that that’s possible for them as well.
A Day in the Life
As Vice President of Marketing, my work encompasses so many different activities. It’s about getting the Palo Alto Networks brand and demandout into the market, and that means more than marketing in the traditional sense — it’s also about education. It’s our job to help people understand the need for security in the digital age and how we can help with that need. That education extends to working with our partners, those who are selling or making systems that utilize our cybersecurity products, to help them understand how our products work and why they’re important.
It’s also our job to ensure that customers are fully utilizing our products. We are not a company that wants to sell you something and then disappear. We are consciously working every day to make sure customers see the value in our products, get the maximum functionality out of those products, and trust us enough to continue using them.
Another part of my work is being involved with training programs for new hires, and I talk to them about our philosophy, our workplace culture, and our marketing efforts. It helps me to be connected to almost everybody who comes on board, and that’s fun. I’m so happy to be in a position to help Palo Alto Networks grow and to help people’s careers grow as well.
Since I started here six years ago, Palo Alto Networks has experienced impressive growth. When I look at how far we’ve come from when I started — when we had just a handful of employees and very little brand recognition — to where we are today, I’m really proud. When I first came on board, there were only three of us on the Marketing team, and in my time we’ve grown to where themarketing team in the theatre is over 30.
As a company, we are a dominant player in the market, and because of that and the fact that the entire Palo Alto Networks team is passionate and energized about what we do, we are constantly meeting people who know about us and want to work with us, and that is great.
No Job Is Too Small
Although we’ve grown by leaps and bounds, the company culture hasn’t changed. Sometimes when a startup grows, cultures get diluted and new leadership will cause that initial startup spirit to erode. But even as we’ve gone through a leadership change, those good aspects have remained. It makes me feel confident about my choice to work here.
This is not a company where you follow a narrow, prescribed job description and work in a silo. Instead, everyone rolls up their sleeves and does what’s needed. No job is too small. I love that approach. I come from a culture where you get the job done first and then decide who gets the credit, so for me, that really resonated.
In this organization, people are empowered to try new things. We aren’t punished for making mistakes, and we aren’t limited to our specific roles. It’s not a place where corporate leaders create new policies or procedures without input and say, “You can only do it this way.”
Instead, we have fantastic synergy where we all know our mission, and we are encouraged to follow those “Eureka!” moments and go make new ideas happen in order to accomplish that mission. It’s not about the job title. You wear the Palo Alto Networks team hat first. That’s the priority. Then comes your department, and after that comes your particular role. Titles aren’t as important as doing whatever needs to get done.
Obviously, there are company guidelines and a strategy to follow, but within that, we are empowered to do what’s right for the customer and the business, first and foremost. Because of this approach, we’re all a really strong team, and we have so much respect for and trust in each other. There’s such a strong culture of camaraderie, respect, and integrity. People are always making the effort to work harder, be better, do more.
“Inclusion and diversity” have become buzzwords in the corporate world, but it doesn’t always mean those companies walk the walk. Palo Alto Networks takes action and makes it part of the culture. That’s why the word “inclusion” is one of our company values. In practice, this means that no matter who you are, how young or experienced you are, or even how new you are to the company, we all play an important part of the work being done. We all can make an impact. And everyone within the organization holds themselves accountable.
And we’re all committed to continuous learning. The industry and the market are constantly evolving, so the way you might have done something five years ago to be successful may not bring you success tomorrow. You can’t be content with the status quo. The onus is on each person, as an employee, to stay educated and ensure you have the tools and knowledge you need. I tell my team, “Your career and your destiny are in your hands.” You can’t blame others if you aren’t where you’d like to be. You have to take the ownership — ask for what you need, find solutions to problems, learn what you need to know, and carve out your own role.
Ryan Olson, Vice President, Threat Intelligence (Unit 42), R&D
When I was a kid watching Star Trek, I used to imagine that someday in the future, life would be like that: People walking around with small computers, instant communication devices, on their chests that would give them access to any information they needed. I think a lot of us did. We’d fantasize about having devices that could obey our every command and, at any time, we could just ask them to give us any information we wanted. But in those episodes, there were few moments in which security threats arose — where the communication channels those devices used to retrieve that information were threatened. No one ever asked about the system’s firewall. We just took for granted that it was all secure. That might not have made exciting TV back then, but none of us would want to be on the Enterprise under a cyber attack.
My colleagues and I who work in Threat Intelligence for Palo Alto Networks are often thinking about the technology of the future, and we still get excited imagining all that’s possible. But it’s our job to understand that as we move closer to that space-age future of our imaginations, we also become more vulnerable to cyber threats. We are constantly working to anticipate the threats to come, understand how they operate, and share what we know with the cybersecurity community in order to make the digital world safer.
My Journey to Threat Intelligence
I wouldn’t say I was predestined to work in cybersecurity. I had been interested in technology and planned to begin a career in programming while I was in college. But in 2003, the National Security Administration established the National Centers of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense to address the (correctly) anticipated shortfall of cybersecurity professionals that could present a serious global threat. Each of the designated schools offered a scholarship for service (SFS) program: If you agreed to work for the government for two years, the NSA would pay for two years of schooling to train you in cyber defense. At the time I was considering earning a master’s degree, and although for personal reasons I didn’t end up participating in that SFS program, I got excited about a career defending computer networks, so I eventually enrolled in a master’s degree program in security informatics at Johns Hopkins University.
When it was time for me to do my summer internship between the two years of the program, I was fortunate to find a great opportunity with a security intelligence company. I spent an entire summer learning malware analysis, which led me to my current career.
The Knowledge Leaders
Unit 42 was started in 2014 by Palo Alto Networks’ Chief Security Officer at the time, Rick Howard, and myself. Rick is one of the smartest people I know, but his greatest talent is his ability to boil complex ideas down into simple, understandable terms. The idea for Unit 42 was to take all of the data we were collecting from our platform, in particular the WildFire malware analysis system and use it to not just create new prevention controls for our customers, but to better understand how adversaries are targeting them. With a stronger understanding of the adversary, we can build better products but also expose threat actors in the public and educate the world about their tactics. Our team consists of malware and threat intelligence analysts who look at our collective data to understand how adversaries launch their attacks, what tools do they use and how do they change over time. Then we share this information through our blog, white papers and other channels. In some instances we can go from uncovering a threat to publishing information about it in less than 24 hours. We move as quickly as possible to capture the critical details of the threat and share them with those who can use it to defend themselves.
This runs counter to the way many companies do business, which is to hoard information so that competitors can’t get hold of it. For us, there’s obvious value in sharing this information because our primary goal is to make it harder for the bad guys to win. If a bad guy has been launching attacks for three years, he’s doing the same things repeatedly because it keeps working. But if we write a report about it and publish it for the entire world to see, it stops the cycle of the attack, making the world safer for all of us.
As part of our global efforts, we founded the Cyber Threat Alliance (CTA) several years ago. This consortium of 25 cybersecurity vendors operates under the idea that a rising tide floats all boats. We share important threat intelligence with each other explicitly so we can all translate it into protection controls in our various products. What I love most about my work is the astounding amount of cooperation that I get from other organizations. When we need help or we need to alert customers to a problem of some kind, everybody immediately jumps in because they want to go and help. We all realize that we’re on the same team, fighting the same fight.
But there’s additional value for Palo Alto Networks in publishing this information: It demonstrates to the world that we are knowledge leaders in cybersecurity, at the forefront of the industry. Unit 42 is one aspect of the careers available in our industry, and sharing information is a crucial part of our work. Although people may not immediately know our company name the way they do others in the technology space, we are the biggest enterprise security company in the world, with 60,000 customers globally. So I think it’s important to point out to anyone who is considering a career in technology that working for Palo Alto Networks really enables us to have an enormous impact on worldwide security, and that is incredibly rewarding.