The recent MIT Enterprise Forum/Atlanta on Cybersecurity wasn’t just a chance to showcase the brainpower at some of Atlanta’s top IT security firms. For TechOperators general partner Glenn McGonnigle, it was an opportunity to commemorate an anniversary.
“In 2016, we’re celebrating Atlanta’s 30th year as a hub for cybersecurity innovation,” McGonnigle told the audience as he described the founding of SecureWare, a maker of security products for Unix workstations (remember those?).
The Metro Atlanta Chamber estimates there are now more than 115 security-related companies in the state, with most in the Atlanta region, and they bring in more than a quarter of all the money spent on business security needs around the world.
McGonnigle had a front row seat for all this as an ISS co-founder. The current venture capitalist spoke to Hypepotamus about the factors that created Atlanta’s cybersecurity hub, what to expect from these companies in 2016, and the need to attract more local security talent.
You mentioned that this year marks the 30th anniversary of the establishment of Atlanta’s cybersecurity cluster. How do you explain the factors that created this hub?
Like anything else, it takes a little while to get the momentum to move along, but nobody told us we couldn’t. In Silicon Valley, it’s expected that they do this kind of thing. A handful of brilliant people here early on had the vision, and they were fortunate enough to meet people that had sales and marketing skills, and then they put it all together and raised a little bit of money. With timing and a little bit of luck, all of a sudden you’ve had the snowball effect that has been going on literally for 30 years.
And, of course, all this predates the internet, but when the internet came along security became an exponential problem with the exponential growth of the internet. So now we have repeat entrepreneurs that have been part of SecureWare, SecureWorks, ISS, CipherTrust, and have gone back out and started another security company, because like they were saying today, this market is huge, it’s not going away, and many of us feel a real calling, a mission to defeating the bad guys, and it’s the new weapon du jour you’ve got to fight against.
Those missions have moved from the business section of websites to their front pages. This work is now truly vital that for all the things we want to do with mobility and the Internet of Things.
Everybody here has to get it right. Obviously, we have a global economy, which is increasingly becoming an online economy. This war is online. It’s where the bad guys are going, and they’re smart and they’re using the same tools the good guys are using, but to launch attacks. They’re just turning it around.
Honestly, I think one thing that’s starting to be front-of-mind is how we used to build defensive tools to repel the bows and arrows of hackers, but we never really knew who those guys were. All we knew is they would use certain techniques, and we needed firewalls and anti-virus software and intrusion detection to repel these anonymous attacks. Because the stakes are higher than they’ve ever been, organizations are turning to needing to know who is attacking them. Who is this person attacking me and my neighbors so I can learn from that and take action?
What do you expect from the cybersecurity companies in Atlanta in 2016? We know that Dell SecureWorks is going public. Anybody else? Any buyouts?
Some of these companies are small and early stage, and they’re still kind of getting their momentum going. Some of them are well on their way, like Ionic and Pindrop. They’re great examples of security companies that have a bunch of customers and they’re growing rapidly, and I think that’s going to continue. I’d like to see us build another billion-dollar security company in Atlanta. Why not? It’s been a while since we’ve done that, and all the companies that were here today all have the potential to be billion-dollar businesses. They may have to resist the temptation to be acquired along the way. As an investor, I’m building companies that have the potential to be billion-dollar companies. We may see that. I don’t know if we will in 2016, but maybe soon.
You heard some panelists talk about the need for more talent. There are some government initiatives and some private ones, but tell me how Atlanta gets people to fill these roles in cybersecurity.
I think historically these jobs and cybersecurity, as well, have been the purview of computer science majors and electrical engineers and people with advanced degrees, and I think we have to change that completely and have programming and some elements of cybersecurity, certainly cybersecurity operations, be viewed more as a vocational or technical college kind of education.
We hire kids without college degrees into the armed forces, and put them in front of computers and we teach them programming and we teach them cybersecurity. The government’s doing that already. Why can’t we have an industry that’s technical, college-based that is not for people with the highest SAT scores, but for people who are just motivated to get a job? The old vocations are shrinking, and now we have new vocations, and I personally think that is something we need to do.