For this month’s leadership spotlight, we spoke with Doug Howard, CEO at Pondurance. Doug’s impressive cybersecurity career started at the Pentagon where he learned the value of a higher-calling mission from the military, a broad experience base, and networking. He embraces these values today and constantly strives to learn and share what he knows with co-workers, clients, and the industry.
How did you get into cybersecurity?
I lived in a small town, grew up in a trailer park, and wanted to get out of the small town environment. One of the paths I’d seen some friends of mine take was the military, so I went into the military and selected the U.S. Air Force branch. When I went through the onboarding process, they gave an SAT type of test and, based on the scoring, I got to choose my first assignment, my job role, and my location. No depth perception, so never flying, so option 2 … I wanted to go into communications and tech at that time, and IT encryption type of tech was very interesting to me. I scored high, so I got Hawaii. Because I had a girlfriend in North Carolina at the time, I traded Hawaii for the Pentagon. The girlfriend didn’t last, but the career did!
I was assigned to the Pentagon at Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado and did a short stint in Israel as well. At Cheyenne Mountain, I worked on joint Chief of Staff initiatives to increase cyber detection capabilities and data encryption approaches within the Department of Defense interconnect to other government agencies and third parties.
These experiences set my foundation for a purpose-built higher calling of work in cybersecurity. I think we all have a role to play in the industry, we have a role to play for our clients, and we have a role to play in our national defense.
What is one of your greatest strengths?
Dealing with stress is probably one of my big strengths. I tend to digest and leverage stress as a strength. At the Pentagon, I remember I was sitting in front of a console that controlled a DoD satellite, and we lost the satellite. (This is a much longer story; it wasn’t my fault!) I had Colin Powell, who was a three-star general at the time, put his hand on my shoulder and say, “Son, there are people dying around the world right now because we can’t communicate with them [from the Pentagon].” I think that set the context for the rest of my life.
Whether you’re an individual contributor or you’re an executive, you have stress. Over your career, you learn to deal with that stress in different ways. Your stress high points are going to be the reference points that make everything below that high point easier to consume, and it gives you a relative comparison to what other people are going through. In other words, how I respond to and process stress is relative to “people might die”. That’s not to be confused with urgency, but it puts things in context and keeps you calm when you need to be.
What helped you grow into the cybersecurity leadership role you’re in today?
The more experience you have broadly across multiple different functions, the better you’re going to be able to lead teams, the better you’re going to be able to interact with clients, the better you’re going to be able to add value across that spectrum, and so building toward that momentum of having a cross-functional experience was part of the early career foundation that I built. I’ve done sales, I’ve done operations, I’ve done product management, and I’ve done marketing. That built a great foundation for me.
Early on, I also learned the strength of a network. I built a strong network by connecting on LinkedIn and by meeting people who really inspired me, staying in contact with them every six months, and getting their advice. Your aspiration in life should be to never have to interview for a job. You should have people calling you and saying you are a perfect fit for this particular role and pulling you into those roles rather than you going out and doing searches for jobs when it’s time to make a move. It’s always nice to be able to have a group of people calling you, asking you to come work with them. That’s especially important as you get to executive levels, having a strong network of executives who really want you to come and work alongside them or with them in a particular company.
Any advice for those starting their career?
The biggest thing when starting your career is networking with the people you’ve done internships with. If you haven’t done internships, do them. They’re a great way to get to know industry participants. They’re a great way to get experience. They’re a great way to test out a company to see if your culture really does fit.
If someone were to interview with you for an open role, what advice would you give?
I think the biggest role for anybody interviewing for a job is to be yourself. You don’t want to come and represent yourself as a particular type or culture fit or something just to fit within what you perceive we are. Rather, come in, talk about how you best work in an environment, what support system works best for you, what the right cultural fits are for you, and then, if those things line up, it’s a magical combination. We look for that in every employee.
What qualities are you looking for in a job applicant?
I think the key characteristic of any good employee is a genuine desire to know more. If you ask a question and somebody gives you an answer and you stop there, I believe that’s probably not a good stopping point. You should drill down into it to really understand the context, understand what they’re saying, and know how they came to that answer over time. That’s where the experience is, learning about how people came to a conclusion, how they researched a particular topic, and why they came to the conclusion they did. Just based on the facts, you may come to a different conclusion and be able to have a conversation and information exchange, right from the very beginning.
Ultimately, we look for somebody genuinely looking to learn. If you’re a relatively junior security operations center analyst, for example, we want to know if you’ve been building your own lab. Have you been able to do research of your own? Have you been able to download open source tools and play with those in a lab environment? Those types of characteristics in an entry level position are extremely important, as well as what you’ve done to develop your career over time, both within your job role and outside your existing employment.
What’s the mentorship program like at Pondurance?
Mentoring has a few aspects. One is formal where you mentor someone and are going to achieve something over a period of time, which you can only do with a certain number of people. Another is doing mentoring sessions where you can talk about your experiences with larger groups of people. I do that with the interns, for example, and the other management team members do that as well.
Then, there’s a kind of informal mentoring where someone is stuck and needs help. As a mentor, you need to be a sounding board and make sure people feel comfortable coming to you for one-on-one conversations, so they don’t feel uncomfortable telling you that they’re not able to solve something. You can help them through those situations rather than having them feel a sense of personal failure that they couldn’t get over that hump.
What is the main reason someone should choose a cybersecurity career at Pondurance?
Working at Pondurance is an exciting opportunity for both people coming into the industry and people with experience for a few reasons:
- We have a recognition of a higher-calling mission.
- We’re building a learning environment so that everybody has an opportunity to continually learn, and we expand that every year.
- We’re in a hyper growth industry and a hyper growth company that creates opportunities to move into new responsibilities, new roles, or management, if that’s your desire.
There’s a lot of expandability within the company. Also, we’re a tech-enabled company, so we don’t believe that human beings doing everything manually is the right approach, nor do we believe that you can solve all problems with technology. We believe that to empower an individual, it’s about using technology to do the simple things — the things that are repetitive, the things that nobody really wants to do manually — and bringing the intelligence aspect of the human being to that tech platform to become a tech-enabled differentiator in the marketplace. That will allow us to really change the industry from where it is today, which is too much manual work and too much reliance on technology only, and blend those things together as a differentiator for the employees, the industry, and the customers.
Interested in joining the Pondurance team? View our current openings!