23 Sep Secureworks’ New CEO Charts A Course
Wendy Thomas is behind the wheel of a cybersecurity powerhouse
Melbourne, Australia – Sep. 23, 2021
Wendy Thomas recalls using her first computer in elementary school back in 1980, but despite thinking it was “the coolest thing ever” when featured in classic movies like Wargames, she looks back now and remembers having another thought — that there was no way someone could make a career out of technology.
Four decades later, Thomas — who was recently appointed president and CEO of fast-growing security-analytics firm Secureworks after 13 years in financial and other executive roles — looks back on those early perceptions with a hint of irony, and a renewed sense of purpose as a role model for the next generation of technology leaders.
“The fascination was there but I honestly didn’t connect that you could make a career out of that,” she told Cybercrime Magazine. “I didn’t have a personal connection or know what that looked like back then.”
“It wasn’t until much later in my career, with a graduate degree and a few jobs under my belt, that I realized working in the technology space would feed a lot of other things that were pretty important to me.”
The “constant innovation” of the tech space means that “you have to be learning all the time,” she explained, “and technology breaks borders — so I knew it would be a globally impacting type of career.”
Although she spent years on the margins of the tech world with companies like AT&T, Internap Network Services, First Data Corporation and Bridgevine, Thomas was focused more on the business side of the equation — with roles such as financial investigator / auditor, finance director and CFO betraying her roots in economics and finance, and her deep-rooted love of a good equation.
That love grew out of her time studying at the University of Virginia, where she recalls enjoying classes like physics and economics because “they shared the same fundamental element of expressing observable behavior in the form of mathematical equations, if you want to know what will happen to demand when tax rates drop by X percent, or how quickly a car can stop if brakes are applied at a certain pressure.”
“I just found that absolutely fascinating, and it opened up a whole other world I didn’t even realize was there. A career in finance had that same fundamental mathematical appeal; it was just a matter of understanding the career path that fit there.”
In exploring the possibilities of that “other world,” in 2008 Thomas found her way to a role as VP of finance with then-fledgling startup Secureworks, where she met the highly committed founders and recognized cybersecurity “as an industry where I could contribute to an honorable fight, and always learn, and always be challenged.”
“That hooked me from day one.”
Thomas spent three years in the fast-growing startup before departing when the company was acquired by Dell in 2011 — but returned in 2015, shortly after Secureworks went public, longing for cybersecurity’s unique combination of certainty and problem-solving.
As it turns out, Thomas shared, the practice of cybersecurity is built on some of the same fundamentals as finance.
“When you think about the combination of computer science, mathematics and data science,” she explained, “it’s just a complex problem to solve. And when you put that against the backdrop of human behavior, you’re trying to predict how and why they’re going to attack certain targets — and the stakes are just as high as in Wargames.”
Steering a cybersecurity ship
The Secureworks that Thomas is now helming is much larger, faster-growing and more clearly defined than the startup she first joined 13 years ago — but so are her worldview and industry experience.
Her 2015 return to Secureworks saw her jump ship from finance to strategy — a move that, she said, “handed me a different kind of responsibility.”
“It was clear that as we were doing the work that all the underlying technologies we were responsible for keeping secure, were evolving at an accelerated pace,” she recalled.
“Our historic approach to having great security experts working across all these changing technologies and products was not going to scale into a new future where we were going to have to — as one of our technology leaders liked to say at the time — data-science the heck out of security.”
Yet for a company that is committed to human-centric protection — Thomas cited key values including transparency and community building — it has also been important to ensure that the company doesn’t focus so much on analytics that it forgets the community in which it is playing.
This meant major changes in the company, which underwent a “pretty big shift from service-centric to technology and services combined — and we had to step back and talk to the organization about everything that had to come together.”
As she has learned many times in the past, Thomas said, “you cannot over-communicate on a journey like this — and I suspect that’s the lesson I’m going to keep improving on, particularly in the new role.”
Thomas is also committed to furthering the profile of women in cybersecurity — “one of the tougher nuts to crack,” she admitted, although the company has implemented a range of initiatives including monthly reporting on gender-equality metrics; intentional efforts to de-gender and diversify recruitment; and regular talks at schools to build interest in STEM and security in particular.
For someone who “didn’t have a personal connection” with the technology industry as a young girl due to lack of role models, Thomas now relishes the opportunity to build increased engagement into the culture of a cybersecurity industry leader.
“These are the things that help accelerate our mission,” she said, “and can help the community to win this very difficult security fight.”
– David Braue is an award-winning technology writer based in Melbourne, Australia.
Go here to read all of David’s Cybercrime Magazine articles.