Interview

A FORCE FOR CYBERSECURITY

Munish Bhasin, Director- Channels & Alliances, F5

F5 is horizontal across multiple clouds and on-premise environment, which is a key differentiator of F5 proposition.

With the onset of the pandemic, there had been a hike in demand for cybersecurity solutions like never before. As a frontline provider of cybersecurity solutions, how does F5 leverage this uptick in demand for cybersecurity substance?

As you rightly mentioned, it’s a very common question nowadays, right? In media, in publications, even in many of the talk shows, and I don’t want it to be a monotonous or repetitive answer. But let me relate it to, you know, two of my favorite authors and philosophers. One is Geoffrey Moore, and other is Malcolm Gladwell. Geoffrey Moore is more famous for perfect storm.

[quote font=”tahoma” font_size=”13″ font_style=”italic” color=”#262626″ bgcolor=”#f9f9f9″]

“Cybersecurity was always an afterthought, however, today it has become the boardroom talk.”

Munish Bhasin,
Director- Channels & Alliances,
F5

[/quote]

But start with Geoffrey Moore, right, who wrote Psalm 32 years back the perfect storm and crossing the chasm. And he’s somehow related to something which is right, that you make efforts. But then you have to cross that chasm, right, which is actually a crest in between, you know, when you are trying to graduate to something and I can relate it to the digital transformation journey. Three years back, we were struggling for customers, for partners and for the ecosystem to adopt cloud. And suddenly, you see, everyone was on Zoom. Right when the pandemic happened, similar as a case, right when Malcolm Gladwell wrote his book ‘Tipping Point’, that you try and try and try and certainly there is a tipping point, when the things just happen. And most of these time, the epidemics and pandemics make that happen. And Malcolm Gladwell also wrote this book some 20 years back, so think 20 years back, and 32 years back to philosophers, writing about ‘Perfect Storm’, ‘Crossing the Chasm’, ‘Tipping Point’, as suddenly you see, that practically happens in our IT world. And I think F5 was no different. It’s not that F5 was not getting absorbed by some of the finest in the industry. And when I say finest in the industry, they are the top 500 multinationals in the world. And in India, also the most critical applications are being run by the BFSI sector, the banking, and the financial institutions, and most of the banking and financial institutions, applications are protected by F5. And when the pandemic happened, I think people who were still thinking and evaluating that their applications are critical or not, they also became our customers. So, like with other OEMs we also ramped up our business, right?

We also grew inorganically as what’s supposed to take place 24 months later, 36 months later; they got implemented very fast because of this pandemic. People learned and graduated to understanding more about cybersecurity. Cybersecurity was always an afterthought, however, today it has become the boardroom talk.

As a channeled-centric organization, what would you like to rate as your greatest achievement when it comes to handling and boosting your channel network in 2022?

Yeah, absolutely. I think one thing is, it’s not only 2022, but also 2021. Also, most of the channel interactions are in person. You walk into the office, you set up meetings with channels, educate them, work with them, make joint calls with a customer, but that because of the pandemic, that all things changed when remote, but the good thing was that the issue was not only with us going remote, but the issue was also with the channel odds. So, the fire was on both the sides to communicate. And if the fire and the hunger is there, people will find their way to communicate in a new fashion, whether it’s zoom teams and all and you know, how the exploitation of a team zoom, and, you know, WebEx took place. And people had a hunger, our working overhead increased practically rather than decreasing. And, you know, channel also understood people dedicated a lot of times to understand more and more of it, customer also became flexible, of engaging with us through our channels, through remote. I think, channels also graduated very well, during this pandemic, I strongly believe that the things, the understanding, the go to markets, the new areas of engaging a customer with channels, which would have taken another 12 to 18 months, got paced up and happened in flat three to six months. So, I think that magic happened for all of us. Channels today are intelligent and wise even after pandemic. We have a variety of channels, you know, in our ecosystem. We have tier one, we have tier two, you know, finally, to classify, we have reseller pool, we have system integrators, we have consulting partners and we also have alliances, which are hyper scalars that we work very closely with, you know, and then there are born in the cloud partners. People who have not seen, you know, traditional markets or traditional ecosystem, they are just born in the cloud. They understand perpetual, they understand licensing, you know, or more of a software and less of a hardware Yeah, so we have, you know, a variety of our channels to work with. And I think F5 is enjoying this particular journey of tiers, we are writing the best way, what we can write.

We had a major hacking that happened into the AIIMS systems in Delhi. So, when the stakes are very high as a security player, how do you look at the kind of demand that has been getting created in the PSU space?

Absolutely, when you speak about PSU, then you also speak about central government and other agencies also, right, it’s more of a public sector for us, which has private sector, you know, the PSU as well as the central ministries and the state machinery into picture. Fortunately, for us managers, working with government or working with PSUs has never been a problem. We, get a good amount of our business from this particular sector, I think, all the matured government departments understand the sensitivity of adopting a cybersecurity as a big tool inside their system. So, if you talk about some of the critical applications, you know, I’ve got meant, we are present there, if you talk about GSTN, which is the GST, you know, filing, you know, site for us, if we talk about Aadhaar, which is  your UIDI, if you talk about CRIS, which is the railway, you know, reservation system for us, among the largest railways in the world. f5 is present everywhere, right. And if you talk about many of the particular PSUs, right, which is IOCL, ONGC and many, many others, we are already present there. So, I think the only thing is that, you know, within this pandemic, this is also based on, okay, it’s not that we were not present in the government, we have always been working with the government very closely, right, and F5 has always been there, right. Wherever the applications are treated as critical. It doesn’t matter to us, whether it’s government, or corporate or large enterprises, or, you know, whether it’s a public sector banks or a private sector bank F5 will be seen there.

Cybersecurity is probably one of the most tech-intensive sectors when it comes to offering or delivering a solution. What sort of channel upskilling programs has F5 undertaken to serve the market better?

In fact, I was in Jaipur last Friday. And I was conducting a panel with a couple of CSOs from Rajasthan. Some of the big companies that I was surprised that we just focus on Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai, Kolkata the metros, but even the tier-II two cities like Jaipur, Ahmedabad, etc., have such number of big companies that are providing a lot of services and products solutions to the world. I was having a CSOs team in the panel, which was serving the largest chunk of Smart Metering in UK then I had a CSO in the panel who was serving India underserved home loan market. So, variety of them, and one of the CSOs out of them told me that one, seminar, one interaction is not that the cyber community will want, it will be a continuous interaction, it will be the continuous skill set building that we need to do, both from channel front as well as from customer front. And I think that we have been doing right, and it’s not that, you know, because of pandemic that we have started. But it’s a very regular motion for us, we strongly believe that, you know, spreading knowledge and replicating our skill set within the channel will actually help us to scale, we do not want to keep our skill set with ourselves, it has to be imparted to channels, you know, on a on a very continuous basis. And there is a rhythm to the kinds of trainings what we do leave aside journal webinars, what we do for them. So, we can actually segregate into, you know, starting from a basic how to pitch our solutions, and products into the market, how to understand customer problems, then how to be hands on in demonstrating, you know, our solutions to our customers and prospects through channels, and also training our channels to provision those equipments right, within, and then lastly is how to provide L1 L2 support, you know, to our customers and prospects. Customer delight is one thing which we aspire, and without channel, it cannot happen because we are 100% Channel driven company. And we do a lot of lots of training. In fact, as I speak, two weeks back only, we did a big-time partner bootcamp where we invited our partners to Bengaluru (Bengaluru), you know, and this was FOC, free of cost, right? Some, you know, at least 25 partner resources were there. And we trained them for three days on our key technology hands on, okay. And then we did a distributor training for near about 15 distributor resources. With that, we call this train the trainer. So where whichever partner we feel, we cannot touch directly, can be left, or we can be a bit myopic, or oversighted that will be trained by our distributor. So, we had met trainers inside our distributor ecosystem also. Okay. And then we picked up our key products that we have delivered lately to the market. And to pace up, we did a one-day hands on training for a certain set of partners who have just deployed these critical equipment into that. So yeah, and we just keep on doing this week over week, month over month, quarter over quarter, because learning never stops.

What are your key focus areas in the Channel? Where exactly, you are trying to improve further? Is it pre-sales, Or post-sales? Which areas F5 has been doing well and where it needs to put more force in order to bring in desired results?

I think rather than segregating it into pre sales, post sales, or sales, because we focus equally on three of them. Because if we just leave one thing uncovered, right, we do a good job on sales that do an average job on pre sales or post sales, that doesn’t solve the purpose. So, we have to actually, you know, iron out any defects any handicaps in all these three levers. But I think the most important part is the way the market is moving, you know, Manash and you have been seeing right across that hardware is getting lighter and software is getting heavier. In fact, as we closed our year, you know, in September, worldwide, near about half of our total revenues came from software. And also with this digital transformation happening, things are moving heavily into cloud. So, the engagement with the hyper scalars, okay, and also the partner who are traditional, as well as who are born in the cloud. They actually working with us hand on hand and understanding how this software motion happens together with our hyper scalars and how we help in securing multi cloud, hybrid cloud, applications and API’s which are most important, today, if some application goes down or if your business is down, right, you see that your app is down, right? If you’re not able to use LinkedIn, if you’re not able to order something on Zomato, you know, as a customer, you don’t care if there is a server at the, you know, the backend down, or if there’s a storage which is not working, I think your application is not working. So, application security is prime. I think our main challenge today is actually evangelizing this particular, you know, seriousness of security around multi cloud, hybrid cloud, you know, application security, API security within our channel ecosystem. And they are where our, you know, total focus is going on, we literally launched, you know, distributed cloud, as a Software as a Service. So, we are trying to make, you know, our provisioning of our services as easy to our customer as and to the channel as possible, as, you know, as easy as possible. So, that is our forte, and that’s where, because, you know, few of the few of the ecosystem are or are still, you know, having a traditional mindset of hardware heavy, okay, on premise, perpetual, but they naturally will come out of it. Okay. It’s always tough, right? To absorb new technologies. You’re so conditioned to the older world, that it takes time, it takes, you know, a learning it takes graduation, to come and cross that chasm, as Mr. Geoffrey booth said in his book, right, it takes time, but it happens. So, there are some people who have crossed the chasm, some people who are stepping into cross that chasm, and some people who have already graduated to it.

Next-gen technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning or big data analytics has been impacting almost all major tech verticals and cybersecurity is no exception. How the application and leveraging of these newest technologies had been making your solutions more ebullient. And how the partners are making the most of it in offering and convincing your clients better?

The ease of use of technology, the technology which can help you know, in analyzing rather than throwing data at you the technology that can give you a holistic observability is the technology that you will like to use and that what all our customers will want and this will all happen if you have you know, the technologies that you just told whether it’s artificial intelligence, machine learning, not only machine learning, but machine reasoning also or you know, deep tech, right, if these all technologies are inbuilt into your engineering, okay. Customer will find you know, that reflecting in the product and solutions, what you are actually offering them and the channels will also come into picture because they also need to learn about this, they might not be you know, we are not going to make them learn about artificial intelligence, because that will become core of our you know, the way we work, we will we are actually getting conditioned to this. So, most of the products whether you know, we are providing a web application firewall or a bot protection, these are self-learning technologies, right, they understand the human behavior, and they react accordingly. And human behavior cannot be, you know, understood if you are not having embedded AI, or embedded machine learning on machine reasoning within your systems. So that is today, I would say, a de facto part of our engineering. And that’s how we are developing our core products and solutions. We have already graduated to it. It is by default in our technologies now.

Recently, you had been updating your partner network, would you like to update us on some of the fresh push you have made into the partner network?

Our partner ecosystem was never lifeless. It has always been a highly vibrant partner ecosystem. And but you know, if I see that, you know, where we are focusing heavily is on the cloud. On the software, you know, on how to secure modern apps. And that is our key focus, we today are leading with, for example, our f5 distributed cloud, that is a SaaS based offering, right, that provides four of the key components of security into one, you know, one platform, which is like anti DDoS, web application firewall, API security and bot protection to our customers, right. In preparation of this, we had launched and trained over 200, plus smarter resources all over the country, not only in pitching this particular solution to our customers and prospects. But also, they can today demonstrate and provision the same by providing hands on training led by our trainers. So, we have done this particular thing. The other big thing that I will consider as a big milestone is that we have crossed the chasm of graduating most of our channels to align with our cloud strategy. Not only that, but we are also trying to bring our channels in a triangulated fashion with our hyper scalars. So not only we are graduating our traditional channels to work with our hyper scalars, but also working with hyper scalars. So that we can engage the bond in the cloud, or hyper scalar channels, and trying to work with them very closely in many of the private offers that we provide with AWS or AZURE or Google. And, you know, we have a great ecosystem that we have formed with them.

How do you look on 2023? And what is your outlook for the coming year in terms of growth and channel expansion?

I think, today, the market understands the sensitive nature of cybersecurity and adoption is, you know, very heavy. We want to outpace, and we want to beat the general market growth in this segment, especially in the area of cloud and application plus API security. I think we believe that we have a differentiated solution, you know, in this particular sector, whereas many of the competition are trying to graduate to cloud security, especially multi cloud and hybrid cloud security, as well as application API security. We are already there. We already have testimonials inside the country. I’m not dependent upon international references, right. The references are already present in the country. And yeah, I think there is definitely an inorganic growth lying ahead for us in 2023, by the way for 2023 has already started for us. We start already in October. So, we already finished to 2022 in September, so we already ending our first

Growth outlook is going to be inorganic growth for us. We will be, you know, outpacing, the average growth of this particular market, which is, cloud security app and APIs security market, right? We have done all the pre-work, we have very strong channels, who are trained, who are skilled. And we know that the market is right up for adopting the kind of solutions and proposition we have to offer them.

When it comes to the growth outlook, you mentioned that F5 opts for inorganic route to growth. So, what sort of inorganic growth are you planning?

People are actually, trying to, you know, digitally transform. And people have understood that absorption to the cloud going more, software heavy is the way to go for. Not only the ones born in the cloud companies, but also traditional companies are actually adopting those. And as we spoke earlier the security is a boardroom talk nowadays. So, with that, I think we will be definitely riding that wave and, F5 is known to protect mission critical applications.

And today, any business that feels that their application is mission critical, they would definitely like to evaluate F5. So, we are going to definitely address those requirements. We are definitely taking our solution through our channel, to the market. We have invested heavily in last, very many quarters and over a year in upskilling our channels to understand this particular market and how to address the business challenges that our customers and prospects are facing. So, I think, the time is apt and that will actually help us to go for inorganic growth.

When it comes to the year 2022, what sort of key challenges you have faced when it comes to, you know, strengthening and fast tracking your channel strategy?

I think, there was no such challenge. Means, you know, we were very well oiled among ourselves, F5 and their channels. There is a lot of bonhomie between the channel, despite of all the handicaps of not seeing each other, in the earlier part of 2022. In the earlier part of not doing, seeing each other, or meeting each other in person. I think the comraderie, the engagement, the collaboration, was superb, between the teams. So, we didn’t face much of a challenge out there. We didn’t see any slowness in our relationship or in our go-to-market strategy. Rather it all got paced up.

There was so much of work that if you are on a personal front, if you say that there might be a challenge in balancing between, you know, work life and your private life/ personal life. Yeah.

What have been the key drivers of growth for 2022 for F5?

The pandemic as a default was a growth driver, but I think more and more people absorbing cloud is the next one. People are not only taking one cloud but going into multi-cloud environments. People are also going for hybrid. There we F5 differentiates themselves. I think there are very few companies, on this planet which can serve and provide a uniform security policy across multi-cloud and hybrid cloud, and also can give observability to something which is serving security on-premise, then on one-cloud, then on a second cloud, and even on a third cloud, right? And then maybe, you know, for the SaaS applications for F5, it doesn’t matter. F5 is horizontal across multiple clouds and on-premise environment, which is a key differentiator of F5 proposition.

So, you will find a lot of security vendors that might provide an on-premise security or the hyper scalers that can provide security in a shared responsibility basis for their own cloud and the workloads that are loaded or, are working on their particular cloud, but they might not be able to serve another cloud. But today you will see majority of the customers are having multi-cloud environments or hybrid environments, so they definitely will like to see F5 in their own ecosystem, protecting their critical apps and providing security across multi-cloud and hybrid cloud environments.

Yeah, so that, that were the levers, uh, you know, growth levers that we saw and we have served a lot, many customers, right? Day in, day out, you know, F5 has provided their multi-cloud and hybrid environment security, making them more secure on their multi-cloud and hybrid cloud environments. Also making their applications and APIs agile with full security.

On your screen, I can see there is a punchline right on F5- a force for cybersecurity. So, if I’m not mistaken, the F stands for force. So, what exactly F5 stands for?

F5 is the highest level of tornado. That’s the nomenclature for that. We call it a force for cybersecurity. We also, I would like to call it a force for a safer digital world.

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