Fleur van Veldhuizen, District Sales Manager Commercial Sales UK
Life is a journey with many twists and turns, and if you’d asked me 10 years ago what I’d be doing now – the idea of working as a leader in a world leading Cybersecurity company would not have been my answer – but here I am – and it’s great. Cybersecurity is crucial to the future of every organization as the world sprints through digital transformation, it brings stability of services, facilitates innovation and has impact right the way through to ensuring continuity in our daily lives.
We hear about cyber-attacks on organisations and individuals all the time and the consequences of a breach can be devastating for both. As a District Sales Manager, I lead a team that is helping (potential) customers assess how to best protect their environments, information, and products and therefore achieve their own true business goals. I have been working at Palo Alto Networks for 3 years now. I started in a position running inside sales and grew to running a customer and partner focussed team with the responsibility to contribute not just fiscally, but also in many other ways to the company’s success.
Transitioning into IT
I began my career in recruitment. If I had continued my career path in a traditional sense, I might still be in recruitment in the Dutch market – but here I am, leading a team of cybersecurity professionals in the UK. So how did I end up here?
On this journey, I reached out to people within my network and asked them what they did in their careers, what they loved about their industry, and what they didn’t. Ultimately, this search led me to IT and my place here at Palo Alto Networks.
Cybersecurity might surprise you
Given my background I’d never thought of leading a team in Cybersecurity. The industry is very technical and by joining Palo Alto Network you can certainly say that I stepped out of my comfort zone. It’s not easy and even though I experience growing pains from time to time, it is with great pleasure. No two days are the same; it’s extremely demanding but fun at the same time.
If anyone asks for my advice now I would recommend changing industries. It is a great experience, step into the deep, take the risk and go with the adventure. It will make you richer as a person.
Organisations such as ours are not only looking for people with a technical background. We believe diversity strengthens our ideas and our business. To provide our customers with the best products we need to strive for a workforce that reflects the diversity of our customers as well.
Cybersecurity has now become an industry that affects our daily lives. If you’re looking for a dynamic career, then cybersecurity is the place to be. Think of the devices you use, the transactions you initiate, the actions you take throughout your day. Cars, banking, mobile phones, online purchases – everything must be protected. Without security in these environments, our lives in the digital age would change drastically – with Palo Alto Networks, you get to be a part of that.
Working at Palo Alto Networks
Our industry is fast-paced and constantly evolving. Cybersecurity is an interesting industry and a hotbed of innovation, like every industry there are other companies building products and services and we must compete and differentiate effectively – and then there is an additional angle that most other industries don’t have – the adversary – the bad guys – the black hats – people trying to overcome our customers defences everyday – and they are innovative too. This creates a pace unlike anything I’ve experienced before – there are always new products being developed, and it’s a continuously accelerating environment – which means I’m continuingly learning – and that’s something I’m passionate about.
I’ve learned that working in a hypergrowth environment is challenging, you must get comfortable with regularly being taken out of your comfort zone, gain knowledge every day about the industry and deeply understand your client’s infrastructure, their pain points, challenges and business outcomes and enablers. It’s an endlessly rewarding journey.
As the industry constantly evolves, so do we. This means we have an opportunity to grow as professionals too, I have learned a lot about myself, the field I’m in and how to help build and lead an international team during a hyper growth phase.
Build your network
As I mentioned earlier, I found this career through networking and stepping out of my comfort zone. No matter what kind of role or industry you are interested in, connecting with other people, and widening your network will enable you to broaden your horizons and make new discoveries, and can really help you progress in your career.
When networking, keep in mind that it’s not all about you, but about the other, networking is connecting with people. Networking is not about collecting contacts, it’s about building relationships. Be genuinely interested in people and invest in the relationship. Apply good listening skills and help others. That’s what networking is. I never contact someone with a “how can I help myself?” approach. I ask questions, listen to what they say, encourage and help others by connecting people to accomplish their (career) goals.
Leading to success
As a leader it’s my responsibility to find and retain talent, help my team to succeed, to coach and push them constructively to be their best while supporting their career progress. I believe it’s important to create an inclusive culture of trust and empowerment. Ensuring my team feels that they can be open and honest with me, by creating an environment where we celebrate successes and failures, where taking risks is rewarded, where we learn from our mistakes and move forwards fast.
I believe this is only possible if you have the courage to be vulnerable as a leader too. For example, when I don’t know the answer to something I’ll admit it, and if I’m nervous about giving a presentation, for instance, I’ll be honest about that, too. I notice that by sharing my experiences and insecurities, my team is comfortable too. There is absolutely nothing wrong with not knowing something or having difficulty with something; in fact, by talking about it and by putting the right people together, you increase your knowledge and find solutions.
Setting goals and direction is important, whether this is at the company, project level or for career progression. By engaging, this creates a team that wants to know what the priorities are, and what they are working towards and what they are striving for. I don’t want to tell them how to do things, I provide guidance. I welcome their way of doing things. It’s like runners in a marathon: each person has his or her own individual training plan. The same is true for the workplace. I lead from the front, but I also view from the sidelines to encourage, reflect and give feedback on their performance and I invest in their success so that they can successfully reach the finish line. Then we celebrate…. A very important part of sustaining success for everyone!
It’s always been in my nature to help the underdog. Whether it’s supporting others while growing up as a military brat, taking work on US government contracts where missions were time critical and affected many, or becoming a volunteer EMT to help save people in my community and overseas, I enjoy helping and connecting people. Coming to work for Palo Alto Networks has allowed me to extend that to a larger, global community.
I was a government contractor in the DC area for over twenty years before starting with Palo Alto Networks. With a background in software development, management, and technical training, I found my new home with Palo Alto Networks Unit 42. We’re the team that detects new threats, details them, identifies the risk, and shares that with the industry to better protect all digital environments.
When I came on board, the first task I was handed was our efforts around the Cyber Threat Alliance. The CTA was our answer to how to disseminate information throughout an industry trying to address new threats emerging every day. It is an organization with the perspective that unless we share our information, share the threats we are facing, we will fail. It’s this organization that enables us to work with other companies that are coming together for the common good. We are collaborating, and this gives us more access to data than we would ever be able to compile on our own. We are sharing our data, our perspectives to find better solutions together. It’s been amazing to get on phone calls with competitors and have intelligent, collaborative conversations because we know we are all in this fight together.
This isn’t just the CTA but the industry as a whole that expects this kind of behavior. I’ve learned so much from working with other companies and government agencies. They, in turn, learn from us. I’ve seen us move forward on solutions that protect our customers and our digital way of life. I’m proud to work for a company that centers its work on humility – the humility to ask for help, work together to identify solutions, and find them, together.
Staying Innovative in a Changing Industry
Part of the evolution of our industry is evolving not just the way we detect the threats but who is involved in detecting them. I’m excited and inspired by the programs I have been able to participate in while working here. I helped with the creation of the initial cybersecurity badges for the Girl Scouts. I presented to Black Girls CODE in California. I’ve attended and represented the company as a speaker at several conferences, most recently RSA. It’s no secret that there is a shortage of women in the industry, so it’s nice to have the opportunity and support from the company to be involved in programs and events that are driving a positive change.
The industry is constantly changing, and we have to improve, develop new products, and work with different organizations to avoid getting stuck in a rut as well as ensure we stay innovative. I’ve never seen a company grow and expand as successfully as we have before in my career. It’s challenging but I love to be challenged – I love how fast-paced my work can be, and I love that things are always shifting and changing. I’m never bored. Teaching young ladies in Girl Scouts how to stay safe in the digital age; helping my mom remotely when she has computer problems; and working on a team that discovers, analyzes, and reports on the latest threats are the reasons I get out of bed every day and proudly wear my Palo Alto Networks gear.
I started dabbling in the computer world because my father used to run a distribution one of the main mainframe companies at the time. When I was about 10 years old, he brought home a ZX81 Computer, which was one of the very first home computers, it had 1K of RAM. At the time, I wasn’t really into gaming, I was more interested to understand how those games functioned, as such it introduced me to coding, at that time in BASIC.
From Slopes to Circuits
Believe it or not, my career in cybersecurity started with skiing. By the time I was 13 I was skiing for the regional squad, and by the time I was about 17, I was skiing on the national team. Of course, skiing isn’t free, and during the summer months I worked to fund the winter ski racing season. I got work at one of the main anti-virus firms in Europe at that time. It was my first job at cybersecurity organization. During school you did a work placement, I did mine as a car mechanic, because as a boy, and still today, I love cars! However, I quickly realized working on cars was rubbish; It’s oily and not fun. My summer job helped me realize the potential of the technology world. My brain is logic bias, so I wanted to understand how computers functioned, how anti-virus software worked, and of course how cyberattacks worked. After a year out skiing and working, the company owners challenged me to pursue a degree in computer science, I challenged them to support me on the endeavor, and that’s how I ended up writing my own behavioral anti-virus tool, as my dissertation for my degree in computer science.
Working in Technology
What I love about my work in cybersecurity is that every day is a different day, and that’s still true every day I go in. It doesn’t matter what job you do in cybersecurity, research, support, consulting, or something else, you will find a large variety in your day-to-day tasks that is impossible to predict, and your job will never be boring and monotonous.
Take consulting or advisory work as an example which I have done as the Chief Technology and Chief Security Officer, you think you’re going to come in for the day and do a list of tasks, but all too often something occurs, a major threat outbreak, a large breach, new regulations come into effect. On those days, I would often get redirected to meet with government agencies, clients and then talk to the media about these events. For me, jobs in cybersecurity hit that key factor – variety. I’m not the type of person who can come into work and repeat the same tasks over and over. I need variety in my job; variety is the spice of life.
Why Palo Alto Networks?
I’ve been working in the cybersecurity industry for over twenty years, in a couple different companies with a variety of products. I’ve always known about Palo Alto Networks, I watched the start of the company from an outside perspective and I had friends who went to work there and had great careers. I was three weeks into working for a startup when I was approached by Palo Alto Networks about a job opening. The timing was wrong. I would have loved to go work there but it just wasn’t the right time. Fast-forward to after the company I was working for went public – the company started going in a different direction and I reached out to my original contact from Palo Alto Networks and told him now was the right time and I wanted to work for Palo Alto Networks. He said it was unusual to have someone cold call him back. I had to sell myself to him as a candidate and the rest is history. There are a lot of players in the technology and cybersecurity market, but I wanted an organization that truly has a world class vision and strategy, where I could be passionate in where they are going.
Companies change, and move, and that’s necessary. But I have left organizations when I didn’t agree with where they are going. I really hold on to that belief that I am going to make a difference in the world. One of the questions I always ask myself is when I retire from cybersecurity, what do I want to be remembered for? How have I changed the industry? It’s a Goliath kind of ask, especially in such a big industry. But I think it’s important for all of us to have the ability to shape our own little corner of this industry. That starts with working somewhere that has a desire to shape and change the world as a company.
Disrupting and Shaping an Industry
Working in cybersecurity, we have the opportunity and responsibility to make a real impact. I’ve always worked closely with law enforcement agencies and sat UK law enforcement and now today the Europol industry advisory board to help shape how our society and communities interact with and utilize cybersecurity measures. It started when I use to run cyber forensics training for law enforcement staff and evolved from there. But it’s more than focusing on the “today”. It’s always important to shape the industry by involving the next generation, too. I’m proud to work for a company that recognizes this and is involved with organizations like Girl Scouts and with academic programs. Cybersecurity is a skill, that in a very digital world, everyone should learn, starting at school. It’s probably not a surprise my own children do well in their school cybersecurity test. By my believe is every child and adult should be as well prepared.
Cybersecurity is global impact. It’s an evolving threat to our lives. With that responsibility comes innovative thinking – sharing information like few industries have before. It’s why the Cyber Threat Alliance was established: to shift an industry, that our organization co-founded. I’m always impressed by their ability to collaborate with other companies for all of our mutual advantage. It takes a savvy executive team to recognize that. We also helped instigate the cybersecurity moonshot program, which has the goal of working with the government make the internet safe in 10 years. Closer to all our homes we have the Cybersecurity Cannon, which is dedicated to recognizing written works that are critical to the cybersecurity world and its future be that for hobbyists or executives.
Advice for Hacking into the Industry
Finding your career path can be difficult, but the most important thing is to be passionate about whatever you do. When you find a passion in life, it drives you through the good and the bad aspects of your career and everything in between. If you are passionate about a topic, you will read forums, you’ll watch the news about it you’ll have a drive and hunger for it, and you’ll continuously work towards understanding how something works. My passion for cybersecurity has shaped my career, just as my career has shaped a small portion of the industry.