We ‘Go Phishing’ with Saeed Ahmad, Managing Director, Middle East and North Africa at Callsign, who tells us about life both in and outside the office.
What would you describe as your most memorable achievement in the cybersecurity industry?
I’ve had many memorable moments in my career, from detecting and debugging the latest viruses in 8086 Assembler to helping design and implement one of Europe’s largest, securest and safest Internet banks and many moments between. However, in terms of achievements, it’s what I’m doing today – setting up and expanding Callsign as the de facto Digital Identity provider in the MENA region. We are partnering with amazing investors and working with innovative customers who really understand the need for seamless and secure digital identification in today’s world. After many years in Digital Transformation, consulting, security and banking, bringing all those experiences together is only one milestone on a longer journey, but a memorable one, nonetheless.
What first made you think of a career in cybersecurity?
I started my career in cybersecurity in the UK as a consultant to large corporations and government. Security has always been a consistent part of everything I’ve done in my career at IBM, KPMG and Lloyds Banking Group. The opportunity around Identity has been staring me in the face for the past few years. While we will continue to defend against bad actors, we need to fix what is broken. Digital Identity – identifying individuals online is failing and with it, Digital Trust. If we fix Digital Identity, we lay the foundations for Digital Trust in our online world and we can enjoy online services without fear of fraud and scams. Callsign is the perfect place to start to build that vision and revolutionise the way we interact in our daily digital and physical lives.
What style of management philosophy do you employ with your current position?
My management style has adapted over the years and I’m still learning. I’ve learnt that no one style fits all and I’ve been fortunate to have been surrounded by many great leaders from whom to learn from. I think we adopt the most appropriate style depending on the outcome we want to achieve. Predominantly I’m in a transformative mode, given the nature of the role I perform and the outcomes we’re looking to drive. The focus is on supporting my colleagues to ever greater accomplishments through encouragement, coaching, collaboration and challenging them beyond their comfort zones. This can’t be maintained indefinitely and I try to remain sensitive to where individuals are in their own development.
What do you think is the current hot cybersecurity talking point?
Digital Identity. It’s here and now. I was watching my young daughter access my iPad the other day and my heart sank. She’s already conditioned to using a passcode to get access to her favourite websites and applications. We need to make these interactions more human and more intuitive and furthermore we need to make identity ubiquitous in our daily digital and physical interactions. We’re seeing significant investment in securely identifying people online using inherence factors, swipe or type together with location and device fingerprinting. This makes our interactions with technology more natural and less onerous, but equally more secure and provide the transparency and privacy people have every right to expect.
How do you deal with stress and unwind outside the office?
Having spent a lot of time travelling I value every moment with my family and friends. Whether it’s going on holidays together, movie nights or just the everydayness of family life. I recently re-discovered the gym and for an absolute break I like to ski and surf (with family!)
If you could go back and change one career decision what would it be?
I don’t think I would. I’ve had those moments where I may have reflected and thought ‘What if I moved after three years?’ Or ‘why did I stay so long…?’ I think about the possibilities, but the fact is I stayed because of the challenges and the opportunities to develop myself and primarily because of the people. Each one of those has been a learning experience whether I’ve recognised it in the moment or years later. It’s all part of the journey to get me where I am now and I’m grateful for it.
What do you currently identify as the major areas of investment in the cybersecurity industry?
Analysts are forecasting an increase in cybersecurity investment in 2021. There are many factors driving this. The range of threats is broadening, more vulnerabilities are being identified and exploited and the occurrence of attacks is ever increasing. Furthermore, COVID has forced more users online and into remote connectivity requiring access. I think investment is going to be across a broad range of technologies such as Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning to solve for vulnerabilities such as network and data security and analytics. In particular Digital Trust, i.e., being able carry out transactions safely, securely, ethically and reliably. This is the lifeblood of the digital economy and re-positions cybersecurity as a value lever. Identity is one of the foundations. Identity will play an increasingly important role as we go from point products to eco-system solutions requiring co-operation across multiple businesses and their supply chains, governmental and industry bodies. All the while delivering new customer value, reduced TCO, identifying new revenue opportunities and ensuring customers are safe and in control.
Are there any differences in the way cybersecurity challenges need to be tackled in the different regions?
Threats, vulnerabilities and bad actors don’t respect and are not constrained by legal/jurisdictional boundaries. Mounting any defence is compounded by the fact that there are significant differences by region and by country in the ability to defend against these threats. Be that infrastructure maturity, varying levels of commitment to investments required, policy and regulatory differences, availability of expertise and talent, etc. As such, for any corporation, platforms and capabilities can be global and holistic in principle but will always require adaptation to local nuances and needs.
What changes to your job role have you seen in the last year and how do you see these developing in the next 12 months?
For me it’s been quite significant. I’ve recently left Lloyds Banking Group in London where I ran a design team with over a £1bn+ portfolio advising the CFO, CRO, members of the board and executives, to relocating to Abu Dhabi and setting up and running Callsign for the MENA region. I’m really looking forward to getting back to meeting and supporting customers in this region, championing the cause of Digital Trust and Identity, building our engineering and operational base and ensuring we’re supporting Abu Dhabi in becoming a place that can attract the best talent world. Bring it on!
What advice would you offer somebody aspiring to obtain a C-level position in the security industry?
There’s not one well-trodden path, so the advice really needs to be geared around the individual’s context, background and aspirations. However, generally speaking there are a few attributes that stand out for me.
I think you’ve got to love this type of work. It takes a certain type of person to want to get into cybersecurity and excel at it. It’s hard work, the landscape is constantly changing with new threats and vulnerabilities being discovered almost daily. You need to be committed to learning almost every day, That’s just table stakes now. You also need to have built your relationships at C-level and be operating as a trusted advisor. You need to have a broad understanding of the cybersecurity disciplines which will make you well rounded and, a specialization in one or two areas provides you with the gravitas and insight of an expert. Finally surround yourself with like-minded people and people who can mentor and guide you. It’s a long journey and everyone needs help. Lastly, don’t give up!