10 questions for Layer 7 Technologies CTO Scott Morrison
- 16 August, 2012 16:36
Name: Scott Morrison
Time with company: 10 years; Morrison was the first employee hired
Education: Honors degree from Simon Fraser University in Computer Science, with a minor in English literature and a concentration in mathematics
Company headquarters: Washington, D.C.
Countries of operation: U.S., Canada, U.K., Australia
Number of employees total: About 165
Number of employees the CTO oversees: About 75
About the company: Layer 7 Technologies provides security and management products for API-driven integrations. Its products are aimed at management of open API (application programming interface) for developers, partner and cross-divisional integration using SOA (service-oriented architecture), cloud connectivity and enterprise mobile enablement for BYOD (bring-your-own-device) initiatives. Its customers include insurance, banking, telecom and government organizations.
1. Where did you start your career and what experiences led you to the job you have today?
I started in a pure research program, a medical research program out of the University of British Columbia, working with a technology called positron emission technology, or PET. We were applying that specifically to look at neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson's disease, Huntington's disease. I spent a number of years as a researcher there before deciding to make the move into the private sector.
I moved to IBM. Obviously, there were different focuses in terms of priorities, customers and technologies. I spent a number of years at IBM as senior architect traveling the world working with what at the time were some of the new cutting-edge technologies, applied to interesting problems.
I was working in a group specifically outside of the regular profit and loss centers that could be deployed in unusual projects that were either highly risky because of the nature of the domain or risky in the sense of technical risk or required application of the latest and greatest cutting-edge technologies.
The idea was that it could be very much contained in one group whose goal it was to see if it could come up with new assets that could be used by the regular consulting organization or spun off into permanent products.
From there, I went to a wireless company called Infowave Software. That was a startup founded during the tech boom that was basically about creating a secure but highly optimized channel between a wireless device. Back then, a wireless device was like a big Palm Pilot with a radio receiver strapped to the back of it. The idea was to secure email, calendar -- all the usual productivity information.
From there, I moved directly to my current role.
2. Who was an influential boss for you and what lessons did they teach you about management and leadership?
I had a few stints with IBM and the very first one was as an intern, actually a co-op student at a lab back in Toronto. I had one boss I'll always remember and the interesting lesson I learned from him. I didn't have a lot of experience. I ended up in a QA lab, which was one of those places that sort of trudged along. It was a place where they'd start people out. They weren't just testing technologies, they were testing employees.
They had one superstar, young, ambitious, constantly working and thinking of new approaches. The leaders one day announced that this particular employee was moving on and that this leader had secured him a new position in a different, ostensibly more prestigious, group in the lab. The leader seemed genuinely happy about that, so I asked him about it: You've just lost probably the most productive person in the group and that was going to have an adverse effect on the lab. He said his top priority was always looking after people and in the end that really helps everyone to achieve their goals. He gets what he needs, which is an engaged person, someone who feels their manager always has their back.
In the end, what was important as well was that he managed to keep this person within IBM. They didn't go off and get a consulting job with another company.
That always struck me, that he put the needs of his staff first knowing that in the end that was the best way to achieve what he needed in his own group.
3. What are the biggest challenges facing CTOs today?
I think understanding how the application of technology changes with different groups. What I mean by that is the technology part is easy for people like us. If you end up in this space, you're going to be passionate about the technology and understand the nuts and bolts of how it works, but understanding how people use technology, where their end [goal] may not be the technology, I think is the real profound challenge, and, in particular, understanding that the needs can shift dramatically and even overnight. It can ebb and flow and wane.
There can be different perspectives about technology among different groups, based on a whole bunch of different social factors and the needs of a time. Understanding that change and the different perspectives is a big challenge.
Steve Jobs really understood that. He could understand how people were going to -- and I say going to because he was looking forward -- use technology. He could steer toward the sweet spot and the intersection between people and technology. That's a tremendous challenge for anyone who is going to be a CTO.
We get the technology, we don't mind staying up late to figure out where it's going to go. Understanding when, where and why it resonates with different people, that's a different thing, and that's a tremendous challenge.
4. What is a good day at work like for you?
A good day is when I create something. That can be a lot of things. It might be that I write an article and I come away thinking that I really nailed it today, the article wrote itself and it flowed nicely and I'm happy with every part of that article, or I created a new presentation that I'm happy with. I give a lot of presentations at conferences and I don't use the same one.
The delivery of a presentation I think is also tremendously important. There's nothing like the moment you step off the stage at a conference and you know you've held the audience and you've connected with them in one way or another. Those are tremendous things and make for a good day.
Similarly, I do a lot of work with the R&D teams at Layer 7, and a good day is when I feel like I've been able to give the right guidance to the staff and they're figuring it out on their own, I'm really there to be the facilitator. They're the experts with the low-level detail. I love jumping into those low-level details, but I also love using my perspective to help someone who is struggling with the realization of what a new technology is -- you can see that in their eyes, that mixture of knowing and relief so that they pull that idea out and they know where they're going and what they need to do.
These are big wins that make for a good day. Very often, it's just one or two of these little things that energize and charge the whole day.
5. How would you characterize your management style?
I'm very collaborative. I'm the antithesis of being a micro-manager or dictatorial. I'm good at pulling in the right people at the right time and helping to create that kind of mix between people so it turns out to be more than the sum of its parts, where people feed off of each other's energy. My management style is very much about making those sorts of things happen, putting the right team together getting the right people in the same place and creating that synergy and guiding them to it.
In the end, I don't mind drawing lines in the sand. There's a time and a place where that's needed, where people really need an authoritative answer, for someone to come in and say, "That's it, here's how we're doing this." But it's always fairly obvious when that needs to happen. I'm content to sit back and facilitate and let the team get there naturally and help to remove roadblocks.
6. What strengths and qualities do you look for in job candidates?
The things I always look for are the things that are interesting that you've done outside of your job. I don't necessarily mean hobbies and things like that. I mean things that are related to the job that aren't the things you had to do. Everyone has a resume full of skills and things they've achieved that are part of the job. I find that very run of the mill, it's formulaic.
I look for things you don't have to do that make you a little more interesting, that make you rise above the pack. Tell me about the patent you've worked on, the papers you've published, tell me about the open-source project you've worked on, tell me about how you've gone in and done some volunteer work that you're particularly proud of. I want to know about the things that you didn't have to do.
It's astonishing how you have to draw people out on what they haven't put in their resume, but with most people, it's there.
The thing I really look for is this the most influential thing this person is doing, is that fundamental passion there and can we harness that. Is that going to help me achieve my goals in a department. That's what I always look for, is that sort of passion that you can see in their eyes.
7. What are some of your favorite interview questions or techniques to elicit information to determine whether a candidate will be successful at your company? What sort of answers send up red flags for you and make you think a job candidate wouldn't be a good fit?
I always like to ask them to tell me about failure. Resumes and interviews are always about success, so I like to turn it upside down a bit and talk about areas where people have failed. That's hard for people, but at the same time it can tell me a tremendous amount about self-analysis and what they learned from failure.
There's nobody out there who hasn't had failure. In some cases you get people who haven't really thought it through -- there isn't the sort of detailed analysis about where it came from and how you can avoid that and what you learned. It's a very simple thing and you see it in interview books, but at the same time it takes people back. You can always get a good sense of the people who have a level of self-understanding and self-knowledge and, more important, self-reflection.
The red flag for me is the people who brush it off, who say, "I haven't really failed anywhere" or "I failed and it totally wasn't my fault." They haven't internalized it and the red flag in the end is a lack of self-awareness.
8. What is it about your current job, at this particular company, that sets it apart from other chief technology positions?
What is so interesting at Layer 7 is that, number one, it's an international company, we do a lot of work in North America, but also a tremendous amount in Europe and Australia as well. It's managed to culturally fit across a pretty diverse cultural group, which, of course, makes my job very interesting. I get to spend an awful lot of time with customers that I think have radically different, but at the same time radically similar, problems.
The customers make this job stand out for me. They tend to be a mixture of people who are really interested in security, but who want to use technology at the same time to achieve strategic goals. Those don't always go together. The security people tend to be the ones who are very much looking at solving problems. They have outside pressure, security networks, securing data -- it's always very much driven by compliance.
Layer 7 is interesting because it runs the gamut of that to people who are looking for strategic advantage that the technology can give them to compete in their space. That aspect doesn't usually show up in the security realm. It goes back to changing perspectives in technology, which I talked about earlier, with the challenges that CTOs face. How can existing products be moved out into the markets and be essential for very different audiences.
From the beginning of the company, the technology was always much more than it would appear to be on the surface. There were always novel applications and being able to convey that to people is one of the great challenges and also what makes it so exciting.
9. What do you do to unwind from a hectic day?
You know what, a nice glass of good red wine and a book -- there's nothing like that. I'm at a point where the book can either be paper or electronic, it doesn't matter as much. A nice glass of wine makes a huge difference.
10. If you weren't doing this job, what would you be doing?
If I wasn't doing this I would probably be an actor in that I think so much of what I do already is about presentation and narrative and character and engagement of audiences. I mentioned earlier that I do a lot of public speaking and that's probably one of the things I like best about what I do. So, if I wasn't doing this, I would probably be on the stage and especially on the stage with live audiences. I don't think I'd necessarily be good at it. I'd probably be starving.
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