In David Ulevitch, Cisco Has Found Its (Alternative) Rock Star Security Leader

E. Parizo

Summary Bullets:

• David Ulevitch, a seemingly unusual choice to lead Cisco’s security business, will foster ‘positive’ disruption.

• He’s the perfect choice to usher the business toward a cloud-centric future, in spite of looming challenges.

For many years, the top job in Cisco’s security business group has essentially been a revolving door. Leaders have come and gone quickly, generally in one to two year stints, with varying levels of success. It’s been a double-edged sword; ineffective leaders and misguided strategies haven’t lasted long (see: Jayshree Ullal and “Anti-X”), but innovative leaders and winning strategies often haven’t stuck (Chris Young, widely credited for the group’s turnaround, is now CEO of rival vendor McAfee).
When group general manager David Goeckeler was promoted late last year to lead Cisco’s networking group, the networking giant quietly made a somewhat surprising but fantastic choice to take Goeckeler’s place.

David Ulevitch, former OpenDNS founder and CEO, wasn’t the obvious choice to outsiders. The 35-year-old Ulevitch, one of Cisco’s youngest general managers, has been working with computers since junior high, but went on to earn a degree in anthropology. He uses Twitter almost religiously – his display name on Twitter is bookended by cute little clouds – and he isn’t afraid to share unfiltered viewpoints that wound competitors and conventional wisdom alike. An avid skateboarder since his youth, he’s a clear alternative to executives from the John Chambers/Chuck Robbins central-casting office; he reminds me of the guy who rented out that basement apartment to Harrison Ford in The Fugitive.

However, those within Cisco understand why Ulevitch has proven himself to be an able business leader and technology innovator. He used knowledge gained kicking digital miscreants off of EveryDNS, his free domain services startup, as the basis for OpenDNS. His blunt, no-holes-barred style is always on display; his 2017 RSA Conference keynote, in which he discussed how “screwed” security will be when 50 billion IoT devices go online, was the week’s best talk. Perhaps most importantly, he recognizes his mistakes and learns from them. After losing the CEO role at OpenDNS, he addressed his shortcomings and earned the job back the next year. He later sold the company to Cisco for more than $600 million.

Undoubtedly leading Cisco’s security unit – with dozens of products and thousands of employees – will be his biggest challenge yet. Ulevitch is an unyielding advocate for cloud-centric security – both to the cloud and from the cloud – a strategic priority for Cisco, but one that will prove increasingly disruptive to a hardware-centric business. Competitively, he must find ways to blunt the momentum of hard-charging rivals like Fortinet and Palo Alto Networks. Ulevitch must reconcile Cisco’s perceived identity in security with its true reality so it can compete on its true strengths, namely innovation, problem-solving and integration. And Cisco must improve its roll-outs of key new security products and features, avoiding the confusion that overshadowed recent launches of Encrypted Traffic Analytics, Clarity, and IoT Threat Defense.

Despite these challenges, make no mistake: Ulevitch’s appointment is a strong indication of the Cisco security business unit’s commitment to innovation, its desire to avoid business as usual, and ultimately its future success. On his personal website, Ulevitch says he likes everything about positively disruptive ideas. Ulevitch will “positively” disrupt Cisco’s security business in unexpected ways, but will ultimately improve Cisco’s position as a long-term competitive force in security.

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