For those that don't know me, I'm Corey Thomas, the CEO of Rapid7, which I consider to be a position of privilege given the extraordinary group of colleagues, customers, and partners I get to work with. I am very passionate about the security community and the role that you play in safeguarding technology for users around the world. Rapid7 strives to support this community in a number of ways – from research, to policy work, to offering open source tools, to driving constant innovation in our solutions to meet customers' needs. I've been thinking about what else I can personally do to support the community, and so I'm going to offer a series of posts in which I will share some of the learnings and experiences I have accrued in my journey. Perhaps it will help some of you as you travel through your own journey.
Last month I had the privilege of delivering the keynote address to Bentley University graduates at their 2016 Commencement Ceremony. Given the audience, I decided to share some of my own learnings about innovation, disruption, and collaboration – all of which seemed like timely topics for up-and-coming business leaders setting out on the next stage of their careers. I also see these themes as hugely relevant to IT and security pros – the reality is that we cannot be successful in reducing and managing risk unless we are able to build productive models for collaboration and trust.
I can't thank Bentley enough for the experience, as well as for my honorary doctor of commercial science degree. It truly was an honor!
The Class of 2016 will undoubtedly go on to great things. In the spirit of encouraging others to do the same, here are my opening remarks from the ceremony (you can also view the video here). As you read them, I hope they inspire you to challenge yourself, unite those around you, find joy in your work, and ultimately create a better world.
President Larson, Board of Trustees, and most importantly Graduates, thank you for allowing me the privilege of celebrating your achievements with you today.
One of the things I love about working in cybersecurity is the opportunity for disruption. This stems from a question I was asked when I was young, and that I ask of you today: “Who are your heroes, and why?”
We don't tend to talk and share much about our heroes today. But we all have them and our ideal of them – real or imagined – influences not just how we see the world but how we live in it.
My heroes were always the rebels, disrupters, the challengers. In the fictional world, I loved Han Solo, Shaft, and Dirty Harry. In the real world, they were 1980s version of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Michael Jordan. Not the polished philanthropic versions we've seen in the last 15 years, but the gritty, aggressive, no-holds-barred versions of the 1980s. They challenged the way the world worked, delivered amazing innovations, and brought existing powers to their knees. I wanted to be them. For me, technology was a way to escape my world and enter a new one.
I fell in love with innovation and technology at an early age. I remember vividly when my mother got one of her co-workers to teach me how to program. It opened up a whole new world for me. I saw it for what it was: beauty, power, and magic all in one. For those with imagination and determination it created a world without constraints. And that was a world that I desperately wanted and needed.
As my heroes before me, I set out to be both an innovator and disruptor. The world from my lens was one that needed disrupting and I was excited to be on this path. The learning curve on both has been more challenging and difficult than I expected. So I've come to you today to share what I have learned in my struggle to achieve these twin goals.
For a long time, I was a part of teams that made functional products but not great ones, and definitely not innovative ones. The same could be said about the business and the teams that I was a part of and led. We were aggressive, smart and understood “best practices” in depth, but the organizations themselves were not innovative. I always thought that innovation was about fighting entrenched competitors, or even pushing the boundaries of technology itself. However, what I discovered was that learning to innovate was really a struggle against myself.
My career started much slower than I expected; I finished school with good grades and was energized to take on the world. I poured my heart and soul into my work! But while the results met the goal, they left both me and my clients uninspired. To add insult to injury, I wasn't relating well to my team or my clients. I still remember the time that I was asked to “sit this one out” because the client “didn't like my style.” This to me was the horror of mediocrity! My heroes would not have been impressed, and I myself was not impressed either!
I craved the magic formula, the rules of the road that would make the path to success easier.
So I changed, I evolved. I learned the “best practices” on building business and designing products. I learned how best to communicate in various settings, how to present. I nearly memorized the Dale Carnegie book, How to Win Friends and Influence People. In short, I mastered the art of functional learning. And it worked, on paper at least, and my career started to accelerate….. But something about the way I was learning and growing nagged at me. Deep down, I know that I had just moved to a better car on the same mediocre, uninspired train. And while I had gained so much through academic and functional learning, I lost my sense of self... I had lost my joy. And when the joy was gone, I lost the magic, the wonder.
Recovering the joy required both a change in attitude and a change in approach. I had held the foolish notion that I was a finished product, so I was really just making changes to appease others, get a promotion, or fix a specific situation. And the joy remained elusive.
What I learned is that there will always be times when your best is not enough. In those situations, you'll have to decide whether you change and adapt, or whether you stagnate and accept the consequences. Evolution and development are good, but the attitude you have towards that evolution is what matters most. Our attitude is what sets us apart, and determines what we get out of the process. Will every dime we spend trying to fix ourselves put a corresponding dollar in our resentment account? None of us can maintain joy that way.
And the problem wasn't just my attitude about myself; it was also my attitude and approach to learning. I had always enjoyed learning in the academic sense. I even enjoyed learning in the functional and work sense. But somehow, I missed that true learning is about more than facts and science, it's also about people: their motivations, their behaviors, their beliefs and biases. It's not a skill you can just read about; it's experienced through engagement of not just the mind, but also the senses. In short, it's expansionary.
Today, many of my colleagues and I think of ourselves as expansionary beings. We look for opportunities to grow and evolve and in the process we hope and expect that we'll be better people in the future than we are today. I don't know if we'll be successful, but I can tell you it makes the ups, downs, and the process of learning in this messy world a whole lot more fun!
And by the way, once I embraced myself as expansionary, the magic came back. Our teams began to innovate and create in truly inspiring ways.
I believe the best innovators are those who expand not just their knowledge, but also their perspectives, their senses, and their connections. They notice deeper truths about the world, imagine new ways of being, and then bring that vision to life. This is what I loved about the power and potential of innovation.
But I still yet had more to learn…... Bringing the vision to life is not a solitary journey. It's about the power and impact of teams, organizations, and society. Unfortunately, I had to learn this the hard way, and it changed the way I thought about my disruption, and the way I thought about my heroes in the world we face today. For me this was a struggle against an idea. And, truth be told, it's a struggle against an idea that I love. It's the idea of the disruptor, the rebel, the lone wolf as hero. The story of the solitary man or women facing down all odds has always been seductive.
But how could I reconcile this idea of a lone disruptor – a hero – against the reality I saw, where it takes teams and organizations to make any type of significant impact? For me, it clicked when my thinking evolved from the idea of a lone hero to seeing a team of heroes. So I set out to create just that: a team of amazing individuals with shared goals.
I believed I had the right formula but it was tested in the fall of 2013, and I had to innovate on the idea itself. It was one of those moments when everything seemed to go wrong at once. My wife and I struggled to support our son who was born prematurely with a birth injury, while at the same time taking care of our daughter and each other. My company was going through one of the toughest periods in its history. It was one of those moments when you need a great team. But instead, what we had – what I had built – was a group of amazing people. You may ask what the difference is.
The best of both have amazing people at the core.
But a great team has not only a shared purpose, but also shared commitment to one another.
Groups communicate, but great teams are deeply aware of each other. They notice the nuance and subtext in each other, and that noticing allows them to not only support each other, but build off the ideas and insights of others in the most powerful ways.
But most importantly, teams employ the most powerful weapon in the world. Strangely, it is a weapon that we've been taught today is the greatest sign of weakness. They negotiate. The most powerful innovations are brought to life through a collection of diverse individuals with diverse backgrounds working on behalf of highly diverse customers. The power is not in the diversity itself, the power comes from channeling these differences to create something greater. How often do you see something fragmented and inconsistent defeat something whole and purposeful?
Negotiation is not and should not be used to create watered down, uninspiring compromises. Negotiation and commonality are the tools that allow great teams to harmonize and channel their power for maximum impact.
In early 2014, I started employing these tools to create a truly innovative team. It was time-consuming and expensive. We honed our purpose by creating a clear mission. I went through the painful and incredibly messy process of getting people to truly listen and pay attention to one another. Instead of allowing people to make decisions in isolation, I forced them to make shared decisions. And I had to teach myself and the team how to negotiate with one another as partners. It was a painful process, but we came out of the other side not just stronger, but more resilient, more committed, and more effective.
Purpose, commitment, awareness, and negotiation. I see these as the building blocks of great teams and great organizations. But these are not the tools of disruption, these are the tools of builders. And so I decided to give up the mantra of disrupter, and instead pick up the one of builder.
I can tell you today without any doubt that building something up is 100 times harder than disrupting it. The experience that you gained at the McCallum School, with its focus on the intersection of business, technology, and ethics, prepares you well to be the builders that our society so desperately needs.
So finally, before you answer my opening question of "Who are your heroes?", here are a few other pieces of context to consider.
Increasingly, we've seen reports that:
- People don't trust their government, their employers, or their churches
- Governments don't trust employers and employers don't trust governments
- Church membership is on the decline (at least here)
- High-integrity journalism is dying
- We are becoming more divided all the time
These times demand a different type of hero. A hero who is able to build, bind, and bring together the best in people. Jobs and industries can be created, trust can be earned, and we can negotiate and engage one another to become stronger and more united.
So I ask you today to be the new expansionary heroes we need and invent a better world.