Aaron Barr: “Don’t try and solve the world’s problems”

…In the startup world sometimes you succeed and sometimes you fail. I have been through both cycles. I was taught to be kind, be respectful, and be compassionate for others and it’s something I always carry with me, whether I am at the moment successful or struggling. Bringing goodness to the world from my perspective […]

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…In the startup world sometimes you succeed and sometimes you fail. I have been through both cycles. I was taught to be kind, be respectful, and be compassionate for others and it’s something I always carry with me, whether I am at the moment successful or struggling. Bringing goodness to the world from my perspective is more about whether or not you bring a positive, helpful, and charitable perspective to every relationship.

As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Aaron Barr.

Aaron currently serves as the Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer for PiiQ Media, an open source intelligence and risk analytics company.

He has served in many leadership and technical roles within and supporting U.S. intelligence and cybersecurity organizations for over 25 years. As the Lead Engineer for Northrop Grumman’s Cyber Integration Group in 2008 he spearheaded efforts to integrate the company’s vast cyber capabilities to better serve national security programs. As the Technical Director for Northrop’s Intelligence and Cyber Security Business Unit from 2007–2010 he managed roughly 20M dollars in R&D programs related to cybersecurity that provided cyber offense and defense capabilities to the U.S. major intelligence agencies. As a Program Manager, Aaron simultaneously managed three sensitive operational intelligence programs for three separate U.S. Intelligence Agencies. And Serving as a Naval Cryptologist from 1989–2001, deploying on multiple special intelligence missions, including tactical intelligence collection in support of Operation Allied Force in 1999.

Aaron is a recognized expert in information operations, exploitation, social engineering, open source intelligence, and digital covert operations. He has lectured frequently across both government and commercial security conferences.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I saw the potential disruptive role social media was likely to play back in 2008 when I was running a few programs for US Intelligence agencies. Even then it was a double edged sword both creating opportunities for gathered intelligence but also creating risks for people in the intelligence community that could divulge sensitive information unknowingly via exposed relationships, location check-ins, etc. It fascinated me.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?

My hard times story is a rather public one. In 2011 I was just starting out down this journey and decided I was going to do some research on the Anonymous group, which was then in the news a lot because of their denial of service attacks on prominent internet websites such as Paypal. I was just starting to exercise some of my ideas on what was possible to collect. I decided to talk to a journalist at the Financial Times, Joseph Menn, in order to generate some interest for a security conference talk I was going to do. The Anonymous group attacked my company, stole all our company emails and published them online, this included the projects we were working on. There is a Colbert Report episode somewhere in the archives that humorously, at the time painfully, summarized events. It’s not 100% accurate but it’s a good laugh and you get the gist in 90 seconds. In many ways it was a precursor to many things to come in the years ahead regarding corporate compromises, social media, and disinformation.

Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

I continued to be fascinated by the possibilities, working on something new and innovating has always been a key driver for me. As long as that element was there it kept me pushing forward. Doesn’t mean a few times I didn’t want to turn the other direction and go be a mushroom farmer, but overall I never really lost the drive to keep at it.

So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

I am happier than I have been in a long long time because I am surrounded by people I enjoy spending time with and working with, people that make me better every day, that teach me. And I have a degree of flexibility in my life that allows me to enjoy it and pursue the things I am passionate about.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Many mistakes to choose from, but one that comes to mind was when I was hiring for a developer position years back. I had a lot on my plate, so when this resume came to my inbox I scanned it quickly and replied very briefly, “NOT A GOOD FIT”. That was it. What I didn’t realize was that the person whose resume I just summarily dismissed was cc’d on the email and I hit reply to all. He sent me back a quick reply, “Why am I not a good fit? Is there something else I can provide”? I felt horrible so I back peddled and offered for him to come in for an interview. I ended up hiring him on the spot. He had a set of skills that weren’t on his resume that were perfect for the position. That experience taught me, no matter how busy you are, try not to rush through tasks. There may be a detail that makes all the difference.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Our technology. PiiQ Media has built a SaaS platform that provides a solution for a key gap in the market. A solution we are surprised no one has addressed until now. Social engineering employees to gain access to corporate information is now the biggest cyber threat companies face and yet no one has built a solution to address employee risk mitigation of personal information exposure — that is until PiiQ Media. The human layer to cyber security is the new battle space and until employees are trained and equipped properly the costs of breaches will continue to rise. As the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

But also our team. PiiQ Media is a young company. It is critical to find the right mix of talent to fill the critical skill roles. We have been either savvy enough or lucky enough to find some really amazing talent that excels at what they do. But it’s equally important those personalities gel. We all listen to each other and run with the best idea or approach. We don’t let ego or ownership get in the way of the right idea or approach. And we are all 100% committed to what we are doing. That passion is a requirement.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

As I mentioned, passion and a belief in what you are doing is critical. At least for us it’s more than just a paycheck or equity. Working this hard, this many hours a day requires an almost evangelist mindset. People need what we have built and that keeps the energy flowing. But also we all need to take a step back regularly and make sure we are enjoying our lives in whatever way best suits us. For me it’s being outdoors; on the water, camping, hiking. A few days in nature and I’m recharged.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

Ah there are many. I am thankful for my current partner at PiiQ Media. Together we built a company based on our mutual trust in each other’s ability to achieve what we say we are going to achieve and to support each other with our differing areas of expertise. But I would also like to take the opportunity to thank my long time mentor Tom Conroy and my previous partner and dear friend Ted Vera. Without either of them I wouldn’t be where I am today.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

In the startup world sometimes you succeed and sometimes you fail. I have been through both cycles. I was taught to be kind, be respectful, and be compassionate for others and it’s something I always carry with me, whether I am at the moment successful or struggling. Bringing goodness to the world from my perspective is more about whether or not you bring a positive, helpful, and charitable perspective to every relationship.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

Some of these items I had heard before but maybe I didn’t listen hard enough or they weren’t said by the right people for me to pay enough attention.

  1. Marketing and Sales at some point in your company are going to be more important than the technology.
  2. You have to make the sales process as quick and painless as possible. Hiccups in the sales process will kill deals.
  3. Focus. Don’t try and solve the world’s problems. Solve one thing and do it better than anyone else.
  4. If you can’t answer the “so what”, then your sales are going to suffer. In some product markets you are selling to the impulse buyer. The cyber security market doesn’t have many of those. CSO’s and security teams are inundated with product pitches and information overload. If your product doesn’t make their job easier with not much extra effort then your product adoption is going to be much slower.
  5. Did I mention how important putting emphasis on the marketing and sales efforts are to your success. 🙂 I am a technologist, so I didn’t fully appreciate the importance of this earlier on. It’s critical.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Ouch. Ok here goes. We are living in a very polarizing time. It’s difficult sometimes to appreciate the value of differing viewpoints and opinions, but they are all essential. None of us are right about everything for everyone. My life perspective is only right for me, and even then not always! If we can respect each other and the differing of perspectives and understand that in life it’s not about winning or being right. Debate and discussion are really important activities, but leave it there. I have many friends with very different views than I have, but those views don’t and shouldn’t shape how I see them as people. In relationships it’s about understanding and compromise. Maybe we would get along better if we were more understanding of others.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can find our corporate social media at

TW: @piiqmedia.com, LN: https://www.linkedin.com/company/piiq-media

Personal at: TW: @aaronbarr, and LI: https://www.linkedin.com/in/aaronbarr3/

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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