Product Junkie

Neelima Rustagi, Senior Director of Product Management, Cortex XSOAR (formerly Demisto)

Neelima

I come from a fairly conservative region in India. Growing up, I was always interested in pushing boundaries and breaking stereotypes. I married outside my community. I learned to drive a Jeep when I was 16, even though I could not do an elegant stick shift change. I earned a postgraduate degree in computer science. These were all things that girls in my family just did not do 20 years ago. 

However, my father’s job as a government servant meant we had to move every two years or so. This helped me later in my career because it taught me to be adaptable and open to possibilities — to bloom where I’m planted. Because of this, I found myself in a career I love (but never planned for): leading a Product Management team for Palo Alto Networks.

My Career Journey

It was serendipitous that I ended up in cybersecurity. Unlike the college students I meet today, who are very clear about what they want, I didn’t know all the possibilities that existed in cybersecurity. I always knew I wanted to work with computers, and at that time, computer science education was just taking off, so I earned a degree in computer science, graduating in 2001. At the beginning of my career, in 2002, it was during the economic downturn, so I took the first interesting, available position I could find in my field, working as a Windows kernel developer for a technology startup. This was in a country where financial security is highly prized, and where women didn’t join risky startups. I had no experience in kernel development at the time, but I really loved technology, so this gave me an opportunity to get deep into solving problems with technology. Most of the time, I would be the only woman in late-night hacking sessions with my team. It required a lot of hard work, self-study, and running new pieces of code in windows kernel (mostly undocumented). I was so passionate about it that I was willing to do whatever I had to do and always saw the positive side — even when there was failure involved. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I eventually came to learn that if you want to make a difference in work, and in life, a growth mindset helps! 

When the startup grew, it was time for the company to have a customer success team. I was expecting my daughter at the time, and in India, it’s considered more proper for women who are in the family way to work in less-stressful roles, so I was asked to leave engineering, which was perceived as more stressful, and heads up this new department which is perceived as less stressful. Even though I sort of fell into this new assignment, I learned that customer success was something I really enjoyed. It gave me an opportunity to build a team from scratch, which was very exciting but also to fully understand how the products worked and how customers were using them — and what their needs were. This would become key to my work as a Product Manager, a career I had increasingly become drawn to while working in customer success because I was interested in the connection between customers’ needs and product development. 

In 2016, Rishi Bhargava, my former coworker from the startup where I’d begun my career, suggested that I come to work as a Product Manager for the company he had cofounded — Demisto, a pioneer in Security Orchestration, Automation, and Response (SOAR) products. Joining Demisto has been a pivotal point in my career. In this role, I worked on a very early product version with customers to discover how they used the product and what they needed from our product in the future. My team and I would bring our customers’ needs to our engineering team to translate that into our next generation of products. 

Demisto’s product is exceptional and serves a key need in the Security Operations domain, so it’s no surprise that we were acquired by Palo Alto Networks (and rebranded as Cortex XSOAR). 

So although I sort of happened into product management and my current role at Palo Alto Networks, I believe I’m exactly where I should be. There is no typical day. You have to be fluid, adaptable, and willing to deliver what your customers, the Sales department, your leadership and your team need from you. Fortunately, my upbringing and professional experience prepared me well for this!

Keys to Success 

Now that I’ve been a Product Manager for several years, I see that there are several qualities a person should have to be successful. First, you have to be a product junkie — and I definitely am! I explore several products a week, which I believe is critical to success in this role. Nothing compares to the hands-on learning experience of what makes or breaks a great product. Working in a product like Cortex XSOAR, which integrates with an ecosystem of 300+ security products, is a great environment for learning new category of products. 

I also think you must be passionate about customer success. I love working with customers, and I have developed a powerful empathy radar. I call it “customer sense” The most important things that customers have to tell you is what they’re not saying, so you have to sense these things. 

Career Growth

What’s so exciting about working for Palo Alto Networks is that we are moving at incredible speed, trying to do things no one else is doing. We’re not about the status quo. There is no better security company to work for. There’s so much product DNA here, so much cutting-edge technology that we work on. The leaders here are deeply involved and open to new ideas. The possibilities for product development and a person’s career growth are vibrant. There is a lot of support for leadership development with coaching and abundant training resources.

When I was growing up, I wasn’t shown many career options — women in technology simply didn’t have that many. That’s why I’m passionate about helping others, particularly women, understand the options that product management can offer when there is interest. I work hard to bring young women along with me as I progress in my career. I make it a point to spend time mentoring women interested in transitioning to a product management career in cybersecurity. I regularly volunteer with organizations such as Girls Who Code, to introduce girls, including my daughter, to the many possibilities in the technology field.

If you have questions about Product Management opportunities at Palo Alto Networks, or about how to break into this field, I’d be happy to speak with you! Feel free to contact me at nrustagi@paloaltonetworks.com