Tanium CEO leads from the front as company plans 60% growth

Tanium CEO, Orion Hindawi, talks Brexit, Quantum computing fears, machine learning, and pressures to IPO.

"Grand but not great," reads an old Washington Post review of the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Washington DC's Penn Quarter. The same can not be said for Orion Hindawi, CEO of security software company Tanium. If anything, the opposite is true. Sat in the vacuous Cabinet dining room in the bowels of the Hyatt hotel, Hindawi is clearly not a show boater. He has a calm, workmanlike manner. He's not a salesman. He's an engineer first and comes across as one of those captains you often hear about in sport, the ones who roll up their sleeves and lead from the front, not necessarily by what they say, the posturing or the cheesy one-liners, but by what they do.

A year ago, that came to the fore when he had to write a blog rebuffing stories in the press, such as the one on Bloomberg that claimed employee unrest and an executive exodus. Hindawi says the employees "didn't recognize themselves in the articles," but what it did do was galvanize the firm into "putting in as many belts and suspenders to make sure that what was said was never actually going to be true about Tanium."

Perhaps as a result, Tanium made it onto the Fortune 100 Best Medium Places to Work list. Coming in 55th, Hindawi agrees that a period of introspectiveness and further investments in HR have probably helped but is adamant that the company should be further up the rankings next year. He talks a lot about employees, their families and responsibilities and seems to set a tone, that even feeds into the reasoning behind some of the recent investments that the business has been getting from private equity. The company raised a further $200m in October (it has raised $782.8m to date, according to CrunchBase).

"Tanium has been cash flow positive now for a long time, and the reason we take investment, primarily is to facilitate by-backs from existing employees, former employees or early investors, to allow people who have been with us for a while, to get some cash out of their Tanium stock."

There is, adds Hindawi "no pressure" to IPO at the moment. The company has changed its tune a little, pushing back against IPO rumblings that were certainly more prominent in 2017.

"We will go public when it's the right thing to do for Tanium, when the pros outweigh the cons, but until then it's not a responsible decision for me," says Hindawi. "I've got 1000 employees and close to 1000 customers who are dependent on us making good decisions for them. For a lot of companies, going public is not actually a great decision because their investors have essentially forced them to do it or they really need the money, and we're not in either one of those positions."

Hindawi admits an IPO "is the right decision for the company in the long term," and as the firm is currently one of the country's biggest unicorns, valued at around $6.5bn, that could make for a substantial pay day. As Hindawi suggests though, the conditions have to be right and given current domestic and international political and economic uncertainty, an IPO is probably an unnecessary risk.



He says that Brexit, in particular, is "a real concern" for the business. With its European HQ in Reading, England, Tanium has a stake in the on-going political debate.

"I could not have conceived that it would be such a poorly run process," says Hindawi, leaning back in his chair. "It's not just the UK. The EU too. This is a much more emotional process than you would normally see in such negotiations. Depending on how it shakes out, and whether mobility is easy for employees and what kind of ancillary damage is done politically, there may be a situation where Brexit drives us to think about where are European HQ is located or where we hire the next set of people. Honestly that's not a decision I would want to have to make because I think we've got a really great structure based in the UK, so unless it gets really onerous, we will avoid it."

Of similar ‘wait and see' concern is Quantum computing. Hindawi says "it's going to force a lot of shake-up," and that many of its customers, especially within Government, are worried about the impact Quantum will have on encryption.

"Quantum will be a huge problem and the Government people we work with are really concerned because basic encryption, the asymmetric encryption we've relied on for a long time is effectively breakable, at least theoretically. It's causing our customers to reconsider the length of encryption keys they are using and forcing them to consider whether an encrypted document that they think is encrypted correctly should be treated as safe, or whether they need more levels of security to keep files from being exposed."


Machine Learning

Of more immediate concern is machine learning, although Hindawi says that Tanium has yet to see any attacks in the wild that have been built using ML.

"We haven't seen ML in any publicly available toolkits," he says. "We do know governments are working really hard on this and it's hard to know whether an attack we're seeing that's succeeded had a root in a research algorithm that may have included AI as an exemplar or ML. To be honest, our customers are not seeing a ton of value in AI-enabled platforms. A lot of approaches have been a bit more ‘vapourwary' than our customers would like."

Automation though, he admits, is an attractive proposition, especially given the on-going cybersecurity skills shortages across industry, but it's far from fool proof.  

"We've got to that point where you can do basic pattern recognition but what we're still not able to do is the needle in the haystack," he says. "There are a couple of problems. One is the algorithms but also the data quality has to be so high for you to be able to trust outlier analysis and in many cases it's not good enough. Tanium prides itself on accurate end point data but even if we are bringing back 99.9 percent accurate data, I don't think even our data is at the standard where you can do this. Most of our customers are used to 80 percent accurate endpoint data and that's definitely not going to work."

Unsurprisingly then, ML is not shaping its current roadmap. Hindawi sees market consolidation as a more pressing concern.

"There are about 45 areas we've mapped out in endpoint that currently are point solution areas but we don't see any value in them staying point solutions," he says. "If you look at what ServiceNow did on workflow or Splunk did on data, they took a fragmented market and unified it. That's really our aim on endpoint, for the next five years."

Tanium also has a strategy around IoT, to get to thinner devices, to scale the management and ensure protection, something which Hindawi says many of its customers have struggled to do. He admits it's a big push and will help drive his plans to "grow another 60% this year." This growth push also includes entering new markets in Southern Europe, the Middle East and Latin America. 

It's a big ask but not insurmountable. The company has already shown how its platform-approach to security has been proven at winning friends and influencing people. It goes back to the early days of the company, doing the hard yards at the start, a time which Hindawi admits was his lowest point, developing the platform and constantly failing.

"For years we were tweaking it [the Tanium platform] and hoping it would perform the way we wanted it to but it was tough. We had hundreds of failed experiments. We had set out to develop a platform that was fundamentally different from the existing security products on the market. Those years in the wilderness, making sure we got to a place that was rock solid, that was really hard."

Harder than writing a blog post defending the reputation of your business and staff?

"Waking up day after day and wondering if that was the day the platform would work and it wasn't. Yes, much harder than writing a blog post."