Founders on Fire: Cody Cornell, Co-founder and CEO, Swimlane

Chief Trailblazer Rose Ross caught up with Cody Cornell, co-founder and CEO of Swimlane, fresh from his win of the Male CxO Trailblazers Award 2019.

Hear about how Swimlane was formed to avoid the ‘copy & paste’ culture that they faced when doing security work. He also talks about the emotional rollercoaster that working in a startup can take you on.

Listen to the full podcast here:

You can also listen to the podcast on Youtube and Anchor FM.

Interview transcript

RR: It’s Rose Ross from Tech Trailblazers, here with Cody Cornell the CEO and co-founder of Swimlane. Hi Cody.

CC: Thanks Rose for having me for our impromptu podcast here.

RR: Yes, well let’s hope we get the quality in the wonderful Marriott entrance.

CC: Yes, interestingly enough I went to a security founders event which they do at Viscount RSA every year, we were kind of talking through the places that everybody has meetings as a startup founder around RSA, because you don’t have any space, you can’t afford a meeting room. So, apparently it’s a rite of passage to know about all the secret spots to do meetings, as in the mezzanine level at the Marquee, or the back of the Starbucks, or… there’s these different places where everybody knows they can go when you don’t actually have a space. So, this feels good, this feels normal!

RR: I’m glad you feel at home, glad you feel at home here. Well, first of all congratulations on being named as our Male Trailblazer of the Year.

CC: Thank you.

RR: Obviously keen to find out a little bit more about you and Swimlane, and find out what you think got you the full-marks on this particular accolade. So, I’m going to ask you a few questions, I’ve had a little look at your background, and interestingly enough you started your career as an electrical technician for the US Coastguard. So, how did that come about?

CC: I grew up in rural Montana. When most people think about Montana they think of the beautiful Western part of the state with the mountains; I grew up in the part that’s just flat and full of cows, so I wanted to go someplace, right? For better or worse. And honestly probably wasn’t terribly prepared to go to college based on some of my ACT scores and things like that! So, I joined the service, I actually joined the year before I graduated High School, kind of a pre-commit and spent five years in the coastguard.

First duty station was actually on the Polar Star which is out of Seattle, which when I joined the Coastguard I wanted to see the world, instead of seeing it around the Equator I actually saw it the other way around. I went to Antarctica and the Arctic, did some interesting things, but my last duty station was in Baltimore and obviously in the federal space there’s lots of opportunities there. So, I got into federal contracting, I got into security, right there working in the DC Metro.

RR: Brilliant, yes I see there was also a stint with the Department of Home & Security, before you moved into the corporate world.

CC: Yeah, a lot of my career was either working in a SOC as a security analyst, or deploying the tools those security ops teams team would need, so if its SIM or endpoint, or vulnerability management, I spent a number of years deploying those enterprise tools for the DoD, for DHS, and several different commercial organisations as well. So yeah, we really started building Swimlane for ourselves, we were security analysts, we didn’t like copying and pasting, and doing a lot of this really rote work, it wasn’t exciting, it wasn’t why I got into security. But you also have to do it, from a compliance perspective, from a best practice perspective you have to do these things, but we felt that there was a better way to do it, and that’s really what inspired us to get started.

RR: And your first start-up per se was for professional services, in that particular space.

CC: Correct.

RR: And I’m assuming that Swimlane grew out of that experience for your customers as well.

CC: Yes, in many ways. So the first developers we hired to help us make other tools work, they started building that just for my platform, I can’t take credit for that, I’m not a software developer, they actually did that work. But it helps the funding, so one of the things I really think about is that domain experience that I got during the period of consulting with these organisations, or experiencing the pain point that Swimlane solves for; gave us some credibility and gave us some real insight, but also obviously give us the capital that we needed to start the business.

RR: That was the beginning of it, so this is the security orchestration automation response, you’re seen as the only US vendor of this, and clearly you’re doing well, you’ve had a number of accolades including the Black Unicorn which sounds very exciting. In the press release announcing your win, well actually it was on the LinkedIn post, it describes you as fearless, so I’m curious to see why your team have described you as fearless. So, coastguard – I’m trying to think, helicopters coming down…

CC: Oh no, no. When I was on the boat I worked in the machine room, I didn’t get outside much, so there wasn’t much perilous work that I did that as a coastguard, there are definitely people that do that work, that was not me. I don’t know, I think it was more of a cliché the fearless leader, I think is a common cliché, so I appreciate the characterisation, persistent maybe, slightly annoying at times, but fearless maybe not.

RR: Well we’ll see, well we’ll see.

CC: Taking risks is terrifying in all honesty, and thankfully we’ve persevered and continue to grow. But fearless isn’t a characterisation I would give myself!

RR: Well I think other people giving you that particular label is not necessarily a bad thing. So, they’re obviously seeing something in you that is there, and being an entrepreneur is quite scary sometimes, right?

CC: It is.

RR: It is putting yourself out there when you’ve come from a backdrop of public service, and big organisations like American Express, IBM, where you have safety nets, you don’t get those once you get into a starting environment.

CC: I think on the flipside though, other people are thinking about starting their own business, the advantage we have as security folks is that there’s such a shortage of people. One of the very reasons why we built the product, and I guess it’s not a great reason, but one of the reasons that we did, there’s always a lot of job opportunity, and I think people that are on the fence right now are thinking, ‘Maybe I should start that thing that I’ve been thinking about’, the truth is you can try it, and if it doesn’t work you can get a job, there’s probably a job out there for you.

I know when we were recruiting early-on to bring in our first teams and individuals to help us grow the business, it was always hard for people starting a start-up. If you have four kids, or you’ve got a spouse, or a mortgage, those are real things that you have to think about, but most of these individuals could get a job at the drop of a hat. As an employer that’s terrifying, because then you have to keep people excited to stay with the organisation; but on the flip-side you can probably take that risk, because you do have a safety net. It might not be a Fortune 500 organisation, but there’s an organisation out there that wants you, and considering the staffing shortages we have, you’re probably okay, you can probably make that risk.

RR: Definitely a skills gap, definitely that a lot of people can fill. So, from your perspective, challenges that you’ve faced over the time that you’ve been running Swimlane, since 2014; you’ve gone through series B funding, congratulations on that.

CC: Thank you so much, appreciate that.

RR: It’s always good, people think, ‘Well, that’s an awful lot of money, Cody’s kicking back now in the Caribbean’, but obviously you’ve got a big team, you’ve got big plans.

CC: I think I will do almost 60 meetings this week, so the Caribbean sounds fantastic. But yes, definitely not the case. It’s a rollercoaster, I talk to the team a lot about my emotional rollercoaster that it is, you can have your highest high on the same day that you have your lowest low, and it is an emotional rollercoaster. There’s some amazing people on the team, my wife is terribly supportive, I couldn’t do these things if I didn’t have that infrastructure to make this reality. The only way you can come and spend weeks and weeks and weeks a year away from home, is if somebody is taking care of the rest of everything else in your life, and supporting you to do that, because we do have to travel at the drop of a hat. I couldn’t do that without that supportive infrastructure, both in the office and outside. That’s super-important, and I think sometimes under-appreciated, for better or worse, I get a little bit depressed from time to time, probably should be able to put a few other people in that, because they definitely make that a reality.

RR: Brilliant, sounds good. What do you say from challenges, there’s obviously juggling that, having the life outside of Swimlane and maintaining that. Any other challenges that you feel you’ve faced?

CC: The challenges have changed over the years. I remember trying to raise our first dollars into the business, and someone saying, ‘Ah, I don’t think that’s a thing’, like automation is not a thing, and there’s probably been a billion dollars in acquisitions to date, buying automation companies. So, I think we’ve verified it’s a thing, check. Now its different, its about scaling an organisation, it’s about building a culture that people are excited to be a part of, because finding the right people is so important. I use the air quotes that you can’t see in a podcast, of ‘culture’, it’s kind of a hard thing to find, building, finding, and having an organisation of people who really want to be a part of it, is a lot more difficult than I thought.

That used to be a capacity problem, it will always be a capacity problem, but it was about just having enough people, and now its different, it’s you’ve found all these amazing people that have done so much work throughout the years, and how do you keep them excited, how do you make sure that their work right now is reasonable. But also you’re accomplishing your goals that you’ve committed to your customers, and your team, and your investors and everything like that.

So, the challenge now is scale, and that scale for us is international; we have staff in Europe, Middle East, Australia, Singapore, we’re scaling the different functions, and those functions become more specific, more specialised. That’s the change, it used to be a utility place, they used to do everything and now it’s exciting. People have years of experience doing these very specific things, and it’s amazing to see what they’re capable of in those moments, and I couldn’t even imaging trying to accomplish what they do. So, like that, that’s super-exciting.

RR: And you’ve talked a little bit about challenges, what would you say you’re most proud of over the last five or so years since you set up the company?

CC: There’s two things that I get really, really excited about, one is I had this problem of just struggling to keep up with what I needed to do on a day-to-day basis, and to see somebody that I’ve never met before because one of our sales reps closed the deal, and the customer success team got the use cases, worked to get those use cases going. Experiencing the feeling that I wish I would have had, and seeing that happen, just seeing people use the product the way that I thought they would, and having the positive impact on their day-to-day life is super-amazing, that’s super-fulfilling.

The other is, I always wanted to own a business, I always thought it would be like a sandwich shop or something like that, not a tech company. So, at the stage that we’re at it’s truly a family, we have people in the office and they bring their kids in because their spouse is sick, or they had to go drop the car off, and you get to meet those kids. You realise it’s not just the business, it’s the families, and the individuals that are a part of that, and that’s super-satisfying, that’s awesome.

RR: Fantastic. So, just looking at a few other things. You talk about culture there and I noticed again a quote from the press release this time, talking about culture isn’t just free snacks and ping-pong. So, I’m assuming there might be free snacks, but obviously it goes well beyond that, and I put that not as a dig-at, but obviously the hipster world of consumer tech and startup stuff where its all really warm and fuzzy. But what you’re saying is, you’ve got to go a bit deeper than that.

CC: It is more than just the things they give away for free. People come to work because they like the people that they’re with, more than they like the free snacks and someday someone will come and ask me to put a ping-pong table in the office, though I haven’t done it yet, it hasn’t happened. But yes, you have to build an environment that people want to be a part of, part of that is, is the office nice? Do they have good equipment? Do they feel welcome? Do they have a place to go take a private phone call? There are some material things that you can provide that makes their day better, the fact that I’m not hungry all day, if I can’t make it up to lunch because today was busy, is a good thing. People want to do good work, they want to do it with great people, but you can’t smooth that over with free beer and foosball, it’s impossible to do, as much as you want to. I wish I could because that’s a hell of a lot easier to buy beer and put a ping-pong table in, than it is to actually be cognisant of how much we expect people to work, but also what that does to them on a day-to-day basis, and how that effects families and all that kind of stuff.

RR: Well, certainly a recurring theme is saying when you talk about the kind of people that you want to work with you, for you, is loving what they do and having the passion for what you’re trying to achieve, and the journey that you’re on. And it’s certainly a recurring theme having spoken to Manish, who heads up ShiftLeft. I also spoke to Evan Blair yesterday who is of ZeroFOX, programme ZeroFOX, everybody is saying very much the same thing. So it is definitely seen as being… the security scene is a very black and white environment. Stop Threat. Automation. It feels like your dehumanising it. In some ways could be taken like that, but what you’re doing is, you’re taking out the risk, and you’re taking out the human touch in areas you don’t need it, so you can keep the passion.

CC: Yeah, absolutely. People don’t get into security, and especially security ops, to do very mundane work. That’s not what they’re excited about, that’s not they’re passionate about, if you could take it off their plate you’re giving them a more fulfilling day, a more fulfilling life, a more fulfilling career. That’s what they want to do, it’s not fun to manage spreadsheets, to send emails, to create tickets, that’s not what you’re doing. You want to do investigations, you want to hunt into environments, you want to reverse engineer malware. Those are activities which require creativity and innovation, and things like that, as opposed to just, ‘Let’s take this box and fill it’, ‘let’s move this rock to here’, that’s not fulfilling work, and you have to do some of that to understand how everything works, but it quickly becomes not exciting.

RR: So, what’s exciting for you guys now?

CC: I think the market is still super new. I think there’s a lot of innovation that’ll still come in the weeks, months, years into the future. We have a lot of work that we want to do because we don’t feel like the problem has been solved. We still feel like organisations have too much security technologies for all that they’re struggling to manage, that there’s too many gaps from a staffing perspective they’re trying to keep up with, and we also think there’s definitely a watershed coming from a surface area perspective, be it 5G or be it IoT, there’s a lot of surface area that we’re going to have to manage, and really automation is one of the few meaningful ways that we’re going to make a dent on that.

RR: I know you also have a lot of partnerships, that seems to be part of the landscape now with security, that security is no man or woman on an island holding the threat at bay. You’ve got to look at the whole of the infrastructure and work with people who perhaps have an IoT solution, or perhaps are looking at the 5G space, and making that… so I’m imagining you will be seeing a few more of those coming through this year.

CC: Oh, absolutely, integration is core to what we do as an automation company, hundreds of integrations, thousands of actions, have been taken for third-party systems, we’re adding them, if not on a daily basis then a weekly basis, we’re adding new ones. That’s core to what we do, and it’s one of the value propositions that we provide our customers or partners, they’re able to take and integrate with other technologies that they themselves might not have the time or resources to actually integrate with. So, that’s something that we do, and it’s one of the values we provide, and we’re purpose built for it, so we can do it quickly, we can do it pretty crucial.

RR: Our criteria from the perspective is around agility, is around innovation, diversity, and leadership, and certainly you’ve spoken about those, and touched upon those. Is there anything else that you’d like to say with regards to what you feel makes what you’re doing special?

CC: I think the thing that’s pretty unique for automation is, it’s not just about security, its not about brand protection, but it’s also about quality of life, it’s a very people-centric problem. There’s not been a lot of innovation that’s happened specifically around the people components of security, so I think continuing to look through what we’re doing, look through that lens as we continue to work, build, and enhance what we’re doing is super-important. We’ll continue to do that, we don’t think there’s a humanless future for cybersecurity, because from an adversary perspective there’s always going to be innovation and change, it’s never going to be that once we’ve solved their problem it’s stagnant, it stays the same.

So there’s always going to be this changing environment that we’re going to have to adopt… adapt to is I suppose a better term. I think that’s super-important, that this isn’t a do it once and its done, this is something that’s going to go on for a long time. It’s going to be a really big thorn in a lot of people and organisations sides for the foreseeable future. So we’re excited to be one of the many ways that people are going to combat that.

RR: Thank you for your time, and congratulations again for being shouted out as Male Trailblazer of the Year!!

CC: Oh, thanks very much, really appreciate it, it’s an honour.