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Tampa Bay Tech Leaders: Stu Sjouwerman, CEO at KnowBe4

Tampa Bay Tech Leaders, An Interview Series: Stu Sjouwerman, CEO at KnowBe4

Stu Sjouwerman is a serial entrepreneur with 33 years of experience in IT. He built Sunbelt Software, scaled up to hundreds of staff as co-founder, and got repeated Inc. 500 and 5000 listings. The company successfully sold in 2010 to GFI, a portfolio company of Insight Partners, a Boston-based Venture Fund.

He partnered with Kevin Mitnick and created what is now the world’s most popular Integrated Security Awareness Training and Simulated Phishing platform. This game-changing software platform instantly gives you awareness training combined with simulated phishing and vishing attacks to inoculate employees against social engineering.

Stu also writes the weekly CyberheistNews, for IT pros that need the latest facts, news and tools to protect their network against cybercrime. http://www.knowbe4.com/cyberheist-news/

KnowBe4 and cybersecurity

Roxanne Williams: You’ve had an impressive 21 consecutive record-setting quarters in a row. To what do you attribute that success?

Stu Sjouwerman: We attribute this success to the massive increase of cybercrime and targeting of humans as the weakest link in an organization’s security, with the resultant need for new-school security awareness training and simulated phishing to shore up those weak links.

Roxanne: It’s getting incredibly hard to find people who aren’t at least somewhat tech-savvy at this point. Do you foresee an eventual decrease in cybercrime?

Stu: An eventual decrease? Oh no, this is only the beginning. It’s going to get much, much worse before it gets better. This generation that is ‘more tech-savvy’ has grown up being conditioned to click on pretty much anything they can get their hands on, so the age group 15-25 is statistically a higher cyber risk than older tiers in the age demographic.

Tech in Tampa

Roxanne: Wow! That being said, what do you hope to see in the next few years in Tampa Bay when it comes to technology?

Stu: We’ve seen incredible growth of technology companies in the Tampa Bay area, and we expect this to grow exponentially. Tampa Bay is a good area for businesses and the climate and opportunities will only increase the draw for good talent. Who wouldn’t want to work overlooking the beach?!

Stu Sjouwerman - The view from KnowBe4's office

Talent in Tampa

Roxanne: Absolutely. I’ve seen the view from your offices! Speaking of your office, you guys seem very staff-centric. How important is culture in your hiring decisions?

Stu: Highly important! Above all, we hire happy people. We focus heavily on keeping in our corporate culture despite our growth, and we still operate as a small startup (all in the same room together).

Roxanne: How many staff members do you currently employ in your Tampa offices?

Stu: In Tampa, we’re sitting on about 540 – should be just under 700 by the end of the year.

Roxanne: Wow! And how many technology-specific employees do you currently have?

Stu: Roughly 145 here in the Tampa Bay area, with dozens more in our international offices. Regarding that growth, end-user new-school security awareness training is a whole category by itself. Anybody who has an email inbox in their business is a candidate for what we do.

Roxanne: Being that Tampa Bay is more and more recognized as a tech hub, have you noticed a shift in terms of qualified tech talent in the area?

Stu: Yes, our own company attracts talent from all over the country. Tampa Bay is an attractive place to live.

Matt Vaughn: Between a bunch of different talks, conversations, and speaker series I have read with other leaders in the area, obviously I don’t have to tell you there’s not a huge amount of talent specifically in cybersecurity here. So when you’re looking to ramp up on hiring another 100 to 200 people in an area where there’s not too much as far as growing our own talent, how do you do that?

Stu: Probably a third of the people we hire focus on tech. Therefore, when it comes to devs, sales engineers, etc – we find that there’s still enough talent in the local market to fulfill that. If it gets to very highly-qualified people – for instance, senior developers for Ruby on Rails who have done this for at least 5 years and know the ropes, we go nationwide.

Roxanne: So you provide relocation packages?

Stu: Indeed, we do!

Matt: How is ‘going nationwide’ accomplished? Sponsorship of different college programs? Targeting specific cities?

Stu: No, we’re not in college programs at all. We are not yet at a point where we are able to grow our own. At this time, we are hiring well-established senior devs who have done this for a while. Our dev team, relatively speaking, is not big. However, we currently have another 20 open positions. We accomplish filling those roles with an in-house recruiting team and our own recruiting office – an in-house recruiting agency, if you will.

Roxanne: One of the things we’ve noticed is college graduates that are unable to find a career in Tampa. With this in mind, for somebody getting out of college, for a talented IT young mind that wants to stay local, what’s the best advice you can give them?

Stu: Expand your skill set and look for companies you can grow with. Additionally, look at job ads and see what skills companies look for and see how you can develop those skills! Be willing to start lower and grow into a role. Finally, find a company where you can learn or be mentored.

Matt: To tie into this, what are some areas that are good for people in cybersecurity to expand their knowledge outside of school? Are there any online training courses or specific programs you think are better than the rest?

Stu: FSU has the center for cybersecurity. Essentially, these types of programs are a good start, but there are lots of certifications that people can go for. The Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) course is a good one, and there’s, of course, the king of the hill – the CISSP certification. If you pass that exam, we bump your pay up $10k.

Shoutout!

Roxanne: To shift gears a bit, who is a person or organization that you think is doing something right and innovative in the area, outside of KnowBe4?

Stu: DocuPhase. They have put together a very good architecture for how to automate workflows. In fact, we use them, and we’re very happy with what they have delivered.

On entrepreneurship, and getting your first job

Matt: What made you want to break off from Sunbelt / Vipre and found KnowBe4?

Stu: It wasn’t necessarily breaking off. At any rate, the time was right to sell that entity. I strategically got out of the antivirus business. The antivirus business is essentially now a commodity. I didn’t want to compete with 50 different competitors, with some of those offering a free product.

On emerging tech

Roxanne: Do you think KnowBe4 will find any uses for blockchain technology?

Stu: We’ve certainly looked into it and have several employees that are highly familiar with the technology, however, at this time we have not found an immediate use case. Blockchain, if you have to boil it down to something super simple, is just basically an open, accessible database where anyone can add a record and no one can change anything. It’s very handy in a series of different use cases, but for what we do, it doesn’t make much sense. We’re focusing on AI and Machine Learning at the moment.

Roxanne: I would love for you to expand on AI and ML!

Stu: AI and ML – gosh, we train people not to fall for hacker tricks, so with AI and ML, you can start automating extremely interesting parts of that training. You can also do some advanced risk calculations and reporting. So for us, AI and ML specifically are way higher priorities than anything else.

On Kevin Mitnick

Roxanne: You worked closely with Kevin Mitnick to develop the security awareness training class. Is Kevin still involved with KnowBe4 in any capacity?

Stu: Yes! Kevin is my business partner and KnowBe4’s Chief Hacking Officer. For example, we leverage Kevin’s experience and work in the field of penetration testing to ensure we’re constantly developing training content which trains on the latest hacking and social engineering threats.

Matt: I’ve followed Kevin’s story for a while now. How did you initially meet each other?

Stu: My wife Rebecka and I went for dinner with new friends we made in the neighborhood, literally two blocks away and we could walk over. You start with, “Hey, what do you do for a living?” and they respond, “I’m in contracting, what do you guys do?” and I respond “Well, I make sure the hackers don’t make it in your network” and she says “Gosh yes, my cousin Kevin went to jail for hacking.” “Not Kevin Mitnick…?” “Yeah, my cousin Kevin!” As a result, I sent him an email and said, “Hey, I want to partner up with you for this, but don’t take my word for it, check me out with your cousin Karen,” which he did, and the rest is history!

Roxanne: What basic things can people who aren’t super tech-savvy do to protect themselves online?

Stu: Here’s a PDF of the red flags to watch out for in emails: https://cdn2.hubspot.net/hubfs/241394/Knowbe4-May2015-PDF/SocialEngineeringRedFlags.pdf

Roxanne: I saw that you have multiple books under your belt – any plans to write further?

Stu: Not yet. I might get to writing again one of these years, but at the moment, we are in hyper growth. We’re growing at least 50% every year, so I have my hands full on keeping growth going and handling expansion in an orderly fashion.

Roxanne: I want to backtrack a bit on education, since we spoke about college earlier. Given that you did not graduate college but instead went into IT, do you typically hire self-taught people who can demonstrate these skills, as opposed to people with a degree but maybe less experience?

Stu: We hire the best. Attitude, experience, and the ability to get the job done are all very important. We look for happy people who love what they do and consequently are a great fit for KnowBe4.

Final thoughts

Matt: In conclusion, is there anything else you’d like to share with us?

Stu: We should hit our 20,000th customer soon! We feel that being in Tampa Bay is a strong competitive advantage compared to the Valley, DC, or New York, simply because of the lower cost of living, but much higher quality of living. Developers will move here with a good relocation package.

About KnowBe4:

KnowBe4 is the world’s largest security awareness training and simulated phishing platform that helps you manage the ongoing problem of social engineering.

KnowBe4 is your platform for new-school security awareness training. We help you keep your users on their toes with security top of mind. With this new-school integrated platform you can train and phish your users, see their Phish-prone percentage™ improve over time and get measurable results.

Roxanne Williams is the Marketing Director at Full Stack Talent, a technology staffing agency in Tampa, FL. Find her LinkedIn here.

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