Take Smart Risks” With Penny Bauder & Chris Brazdziunas

Take smart risks. Playing by the rules and playing it safe is important most of the time, but there are opportunities to push boundaries and to look outside of what is currently the established path. Be selective in identifying those situations where change is needed. And when you are in a change situation, recognize that […]

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Take smart risks. Playing by the rules and playing it safe is important most of the time, but there are opportunities to push boundaries and to look outside of what is currently the established path. Be selective in identifying those situations where change is needed. And when you are in a change situation, recognize that the hardest part of change is gaining team unity in that new direction. In my experience, gaining team unity takes the most time and is also the most important thing to get right.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Brazdziunas, Chief Product Officer at ThreatX. Chris has a proven track record of leading global product and R&D organizations to deliver large-scale enterprise software and security solutions. She has held multiple senior positions recently in cyber security including Chief Product Officer at ThreatX and as Vice President of Product at market leading SIEM provider LogRhythm.

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

AsI was growing up, I had a difficult time identifying what I wanted to do professionally. Being a child of two first-generation Americans who emigrated from Lithuania instilled a strong work ethic and career mindset. Yet as important as career was, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what I wanted to do professionally in my high school years. My data points were largely from my family. It wasn’t until college that I figured out my direction.

I started college thinking I wanted to be in electrical engineering. Why? First, I was good in math. Second, everyone I knew in that field had a job and predictable career. I tried several different college majors in my first two years including pre-med, chemical engineering, and finally computer science/engineering. My interest peaked in the latter because the courses made me see how much automation and problem solving could be done through a computing device. I could envision how computing could transform our own lives and day-to-day business. I felt a mission here and I wanted to be part of it!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

At an emerging startup there are many smart and experienced folks. I started at ThreatX and thought, “what will be the most important thing I do?” I thought it would be to learn the application security market, and to continue to identify and realize the solution roadmap. While those areas are important, what I found to be my most valuable contribution right away was to learn about the styles and skills of each of the team members.

Within weeks, I could see the team was incredibly talented. We have highly skilled folks in software, data science and machine learning, and cyber security. Sometimes the most valuable thing you can do as a leader is help the team understand each other’s skills, each other’s work styles, and embrace diversity in approach.

Working on these areas enables highly performant communications and teaming. There is often a misconception that if someone doesn’t work in a similar way, that they may not be as productive. This focus paid off bigtime. Within months, we had a stronger team both in productivity and in work morale. It’s nice to hear the positive feedback from them. It reaffirmed to me the power of leadership. I found this initial experience at ThreatX to be rewarding for me professionally.

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?

I started as a software engineer at a communications research company called Bellcore (now part of Ericsson). During that time, I had a perception that the most valued aspect of a professional was their technical skills. So, I focused almost exclusively on building software skills in distributed software design, programming skills (which at the time focused on object-oriented programming and C++), and in Unix knowledge (OS, shell-scripting). I recall seeing other folks far less focused on technical skills, spending time working with other people and getting to know other peers and management. I thought “well, that’s a waste of time!,” and at times even thought it was brown-nosing. And during that time, a few of those folks got promoted. I thought that promotion was a “game” and didn’t think I would ever become a leader, as I didn’t know how to play that game.”

I eventually figured out that being technically superior did not equate to leadership. I had to modify my professional course accordingly to prioritize relationships, communication skills, and learn leadership. It turns out, it isn’t all just a game!

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

What makes ThreatX stand out is a commitment to stand by and behind our solution by partnering with our customers to ensure their web applications and APIs are well protected from cyber-attacks. Many enterprises have limited application security expertise, as it is a very specific skill that is in limited supply.

Here’s a recent story that demonstrates this differentiator. We have a customer who has a global enterprise SaaS application. They were just starting out with ThreatX so they initially deployed us at a few dozen sites. Several months later, they were under a layer 7 denial of service attack that was rendering their solution unavailable in several geographies where ThreatX was not yet deployed.

This was a critical situation that received visibility from their CEO, because it risked their customer base who expected the solution to be highly available. They contacted us that morning to accelerate the ThreatX roll-out and in a matter of minutes we got moving on a plan. We guided them through a dev-ops rollout of ThreatX to several hundred of their sites and, together, monitored to ensure the attack was controlled. What started out as a difficult day for this customer, ended smoothly. The customer appreciated the fact we responded to their request within five minutes, jointly mobilized on a solution within tens of minutes that ultimately resulted in full resolution of the issue by afternoon.

We hear frequently from our customers that they appreciate the ultra-quick response and partnership they get from ThreatX. We believe our own success is tied to end-to-end execution — from taking that first call/email, to triage, event mitigation, and customer satisfaction validation.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Our focus is to continue to build and grow our team, customer base, and business. Protecting public facing web applications and APIs from cyberattack is an incredibly important mission, as our society largely relies on safe access to them. Unfortunately, the general public is largely blind to the privacy and data-theft threats it faces when websites are poorly protected. The easier we make it for enterprises to protect their public-facing applications, the safer the internet will be for society in general.

Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

Growing up we learn over many years how to “play school”; go to classes, learn, and take tests. But during those 13+ years, we get few opportunities to understand what the day-in-the-life of a professional actually looks like. What is it like to be a software programmer, a product manager, a technical marketer, a finance team member? As a result, as kids we have to imagine ourselves in those professions with few examples. The examples we have are what we see from our parents, extended family and friends, and the media. So, it’s tough for young women to choose a profession in which you have limited role models.

It’s important for those of us in STEM to give back and help future generations see and experience what professions in STEM look like. Spending time in grade school and high school classrooms could really help with this. Another idea is to bring kids into our professional meetups. I participate in a great Women in Security ISSA group in Denver. It could be valuable to host meetups periodically throughout the year that allow kids to participate, so that they can learn about the cybersecurity career path.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

I find in STEM leadership positions, and particularly in senior roles, there are very few women. As a result, it’s important for us to focus on fitting in with a team that largely consists of male counterparts. Oftentimes, that works out well when business issues are discussed. It tends to work less effectively outside of work and in teambuilding, when the activities are more aligned to majority interests, like attending a sporting event. I have found that simply offering alternative ideas for teambuilding works really well and that my peers are highly supportive. It just takes speaking up a little and offering alternative ideas.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?

One of the biggest myths of women in STEM is that you have to be great at math and science. Roles in STEM tend to be much broader in skill set, including communication and relational skills. Certainly, STEM requires good math or science skills, but not necessarily great ones. If I were to assign a grade to “good” it would be “B.” A key characteristic of STEM, particularly in cyber security and enterprise software, requires teaming. Teaming requires solid interpersonal skills — listening, empathy, flexibility, and communication. In my experience from an enterprise software perspective, great teams build the products and solutions that stand out above the rest in the marketplace.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

Over my career, I have learned many things. If I had to pick five, it would be the list below:

Take smart risks

Playing by the rules and playing it safe is important most of the time, but there are opportunities to push boundaries and to look outside of what is currently the established path. Be selective in identifying those situations where change is needed. And when you are in a change situation, recognize that the hardest part of change is gaining team unity in that new direction. In my experience, gaining team unity takes the most time and is also the most important thing to get right.

Be open to feedback

My best learnings have come from folks who work close with me and know me well. For this to work, you have to create “safe space” for potentially difficult conversations. It took quite a bit of time and mental re-wiring to create that “safe space” because I had to get it into my head that negative feedback does not necessarily translate to failure. I view feedback today as a way someone shows that they want me to succeed.

Give people room to change

I find it remarkable how long professionals hold onto perceptions, particularly those that define a limit to a person’s capabilities. Those perceptions and labels can last years. Yet, we all know that people can learn, evolve, and change! It is important to avoid labeling and to give your colleagues the benefit of the doubt. And if you hear labels, be courageous and ask the question as to whether the perception is historically based and/or still relevant? None of us was born perfect!

Pay it forward

Being a mentor and/or coach to less experienced colleagues helps drive more women in the field, particularly in leadership roles. I take a few hours a month to coach and mentor other women in my field. It’s a way to help them accelerate growth. And it’s also a way for me to learn their perspective about our profession and understand the challenges they face.

Invest in your professional network

My professional network has helped me in two ways:

1) it has helped me grow in my professional skill set, and, 2) it has led to several important career moves for me. You have a big leg-up on career moves when there is an existing relationship with one or more folks inside a company. I have found it hard to make time for professional networking because there is too much to do in my day job. But I’ve come to recognize that as a professional, I have to prioritize my professional network because my career longevity depends on it.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

One of the things I look for in my teams is safe collaboration. Are ideas flowing freely amongst team-members? Is there healthy discussion and discourse?

Constructive conflict is an important characteristic of a high performing team, as that allows the best ideas to come out and also drives team buy-in. For diverse teams, this type of environment can be hard to establish because of communication and style differences. As women leaders, I believe we have higher awareness of these differences and thus we have the unique ability to better observe, and recognize, opportunities for improvement. My advice to women leaders is to look for the signs of healthy collaboration periodically — and make it a priority! And, when those signs are not there, work with the team to get there. Oftentimes, that involves helping people understand the diverse styles of their team members and giving room and support to those who may not feel as free to share their thoughts and opinions. I have found that keeping a measure on levels of constructive conflict is one way to quickly gauge team health which is fundamental toward achieving high and predictable performance long term.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

The advice I would give someone would be to have a communication plan. Key parts of the plan are the following:

  • types of communication,
  • frequency of communication (is delivering a message once sufficient or does it need to be multiple?)
  • timing (days of week/hours in the day),
  • members of organization who own that communication, and
  • communication method(s) (meeting, 1:1, word of mouth, chat, email).

In my experience, it is easy to communicate poorly and with insufficient frequency. When that occurs, then you introduce staff concerns, frustration, and rumors around the organization.

I find it very hard to over-communicate. Why? Because teams need way more than most leaders realize. It’s important to keep teams on the same page about many areas — such as vision, current business situation, current project priorities, new staff additions, successes, challenges, as well as sharing accolades.

One of the things I do to make sure there is sufficient communication in the organization is to get regular feedback through informal dialogue and also through anonymous surveys. I try to do that 2–3 times a year.

Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I’ve been fortunate to work with and for numerous wonderful and highly-skilled people, making it difficult to call out a single one. I’m very grateful to those who have:

  • given me the opportunity to take on a new role, and in some cases stretched me into roles I didn’t think I was quite ready for;
  • cared about me and have taken the time and had the courage to give me constructive feedback so that I could improve;
  • demonstrated great leadership and made me understand what it feels like to be a good and loyal follower;
  • given me the opportunity to work with amazing teams; and
  • given me the opportunity to coach and mentor them.

I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by special people that have made me a better professional and human.

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

One of the things I find most rewarding is to mentor and coach people — many women, and some men. I like to keep in regular touch with those I’ve worked with, helping them to focus on the right things (and weed out the noise), map out a career path, and encourage networking. It is perhaps one of the most rewarding parts of my career to see others grow and in a sense, it’s a way to give back.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

One of my favorite quotes is: “Do good things and good things will happen”.

This quote is one that I think about particularly often in tough times. The use of it may not be so obvious, so I’ll explain it here. If actions are made with good intent, something good will come of them — eventually. It’s important, though, to not try to connect the cause directly to a positive effect. Most of the time, life doesn’t work that way. That good thing may be something that comes to fruition many months to several years later. This belief has enabled me to simply focus on doing “good” for the business, for people, and for society. I don’t think or worry about whether I will get something out of it. It makes my own prioritization and decision making incredibly simple. And, I have found it to be a healthy and positive way to think!

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