CTO Sessions: Will Keegan, Lynx Software Technologies

What makes an effective tech strategy?" Boldly press into technical novelty, assure tech solves a valuable problem and reduce risk with early customer validation."

Lynx Software Technologies

Name: Will Keegan

Company: Lynx Software Technologies

Job title: CTO

Date started current role: July 2011

Location: New Jersey, USA

In his role as chief technical officer, Will Keegan leads the technology direction across all the Lynx product lines. He has been instrumental in the development of key security technologies within Lynx to broaden the reach of the existing products, with a focus on cyber-security, cryptography and virtualisation. Keegan joined Lynx in 2011 as the director of security solutions, with responsibility for the LynxSecure product line. Prior to Lynx, he was a product developer at Objective Interface Systems, Inc., with responsibility for product engineering of real-time middleware and high assurance cryptographic network technologies.

What was your first job? My first job was as a showroom organiser and customer assistant at an antique consignment shop! The attention to detail required in my first job has carried over to the other careers I have had. Prior to my role at Lynx Software, I was a product engineer at Objective Interface Systems, Inc. for over four years, with responsibility for product engineering of real-time middleware and high assurance cryptographic network technologies.

Did you always want to work in IT? No, I wanted to be an architect. Observing the balance between form and function, and the cultural influence on load bearing structures appeals to my technical and artistic interests. As I reflect on this question and answer, I’m trying to explain our technology using 3D diagrams and the like - even discussing “rooms” and “passageways” in our current product - with my colleagues. I think that is the “frustrated architect” in me trying to come out!

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I earned my degree in computer science, with focus areas in computer architecture (chip design and compilers) at the University of Texas. Even though I work in a software company, I have always worked in areas where the products are inextricably linked to hardware. Indeed, my history around chip design was part of the inspiration of the MOSA.ic software framework announced in 2019, which uses configuration flows comparable to those used to program FPGAs

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. Throughout my career, I've had roles in IT network engineering, compiler development, platform software component development, cryptographic component development, cryptographic system development, product development, product management. I served as a system integration consultant, government technical regulations specialist and solicitation architect. There were also some personal milestones including a marriage, divorce, another marriage, and the birth of my baby. In summary, plenty of diversions! What has been consistent on the journey, though, has been the need for me to be inspired and challenged from a technology perspective and a focus on customer-orientation as opposed to pure tech for tech’s sake.

What type of CTO are you? There are types? I’ve been working for small companies for nearly my entire career. I’ve served many organisational roles relating to technical leadership. I predominantly spend more time with customers learning about problems and leading efforts in exploring best approaches to solve said problems. These efforts inform the product roadmap, and raise seed funding for R&D efforts. My background and career path have led me to be an unconventional CTO.

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? If I had to pick just one, I’d say artificial intelligence. AI generally demands improvements in parallel processing and low latency computational resolution against large datasets. We are seeing much more computation handled by hardware accelerators, GPUs, and FPGAs than CPU software libraries. The impact begs restructuring the software platforms to facilitate the control of large collections of heterogeneous hardware elements. Following Wirth’s law, which states that software is getting slower more rapidly than hardware is becoming faster, there is plenty of room to reduce software complexity as the trend of distributed mesh computing expands.  

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? I wish more “new” technologies would give credit to actual inventions. In the software world, I struggle to find novelty in work that postdates the 70s. There is plenty of tech that aims to generate hype over achieving breakthroughs, which tends to do more harm than good in progressing civilization. One example might be the internet of things. It really wasn’t that revolutionary, and frankly, just because something is connected, does not make it a good idea. Whether it is connected toilets or connected fish tanks, it comes down to using technology to deliver a meaningful business benefit. Thankfully, there has been a natural correction and companies are now creating and deploying connected platforms with the right levels of security that make systems faster, more productive and more cost effective.

What is one unique initiative that you’ve employed over the last 12 months that you’re really proud of? Unique is a strong word! Product cycles are also quite long in this industry so some items I recently kicked off as part of a collaborative project with a partner will not see its way into the public domain until well into 2021; so I cannot talk about that just yet! Despite COVID, 2020, particularly from June onwards, was the busiest I remember for creating customer proposals. And they are increasingly more customised. One of our customers last year, General Atomics, was a design that, frankly, Lynx came into late in the process. A prior design had used an alternative supplier. We really helped the customer rethink their approach and partition their platform in a way to save cost and time. And this was all about applying our technology in the best way to solve the end customer’s problem. It was very rewarding.

Are you leading a digital transformation? If so, does it emphasise customer experience and revenue growth or operational efficiency? If both, how do you balance the two? My personal role does not cover our company’s digital transformational efforts so my purview is what I see in terms of our customers’ activities in this area. In our traditional marketplace of aerospace and military applications, this shift is slower than in certain other markets. And I am fine with that...we are seeing so many ramifications right now that rushed to connect up systems with an objective of cost saving or new revenue generation and ignored massive issues like security and full life cycle management. In this area, digital transformation can be attributed to a similar (very) high level theme - namely to make better business decisions.

Underneath that, however, the details are different from commercial areas. What I see is that it is all about protecting humans better than ever before, and in some cases, avoiding the need to deploy humans at all. Through this year, I expect quite a lot of work associated with digitising some elements of the supply chain in a similar way that the automotive industry has done to ensure authenticated components from authenticated suppliers are being used and that those shipments haven’t been tampered with during shipment.

What is the biggest issue that you’re helping customers with at the moment? Our customers are at the mercy of using commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components to build safe and secure systems. COTS processors and software platforms have been shaped by mass consumer markets that have reached inherent complexity levels that are creating untenable situations in the ability to validate the assurance of underlying architectural properties. We spend a massive amount of time reverse engineering COTS components and teaching customers about how things really work “under the hood” to inform design decisions for critical systems.

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? In short technology IS our business. It is the revenue generating asset of the company, as opposed to the use of technology to sell other services. From that point of view, we have to continually assess market and competitive changes and their impact on our value proposition. One example would be the rise of open source. We have competitors whose primary value proposition for all market segments is operating systems. That is particularly challenged given the rise of Linux everywhere and the availability of free (and increasingly rich) real-time operating systems being provided by cloud providers. Going up against those is a tough proposition….and not really due to the cost, but because of the breadth and vibrancy of the ecosystems. The first place where software that addresses the latest malware attack appears is in the Linux community. How does a proprietary OS rival that? In short, it doesn’t. What IS valuable is how those open source projects are integrated, deployed and managed on systems that have to work ALL THE TIME. And then prove that through the system certification process. That is our focus and what keeps me awake at night trying to ensure we keep our leadership in the market.

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? In a word, yes! In a small company, there is sometimes a need to pursue projects that are simply the right thing for the business at the time even if they do not directly align with the longer term technical strategy. It is (usually) a healthy tension and discussion! This can include work around hardware and/or technology that is viewed as a one off for a specific customer and might have the impact of delaying elements of the longer term technical direction. Sometimes this path can lead to unexpected results. Some work earlier in the year around the mapping of our technology to help a partner create secure laptops has now (due to the extended work from home situation created by COVID-19) become a more formalised product strategy for a wider set of use cases. It’s okay to be lucky sometimes (well, let say reacting effectively to market dynamics).

What makes an effective tech strategy? Boldly press into technical novelty, assure tech solves a valuable problem and reduce risk with early customer validation. There is also the frankly honest piece. For my own personal credibility and to be authentic to myself and be invited back year after year to customers, I explain where the warts are. It may sound a bit trite, but I genuinely want to be the person that a company calls first when they have a problem even if I cannot solve that problem. I write my own slides, I don’t use the ones that product management and marketing create. I think its straightforward but hard to be aware whether novelty exists and requires finesse to gain validation/sponsorship/early adoption.

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? My answer really depends somewhat on the size of the company and the intended outcome/timing desired for the company (exit, IPO etc). With my time in small companies, what I see is that the roles across the leadership teams are blurred. I do as much (maybe more) work helping the commercial organisation as I do working with our engineering team. I am writing blogs to support the marketing team. The days of CTOs spending a lot of time reading academic papers in an isolated (figurative) ivory tower are gone.

What has been your greatest career achievement? My greatest feeling of achievement comes from overcoming obstacles and odds with genuine team efforts. In the early days of my career I had experienced some wonderfully brutal moments of working in the trenches with peers building a bleeding edge security product for the government from scratch (programming with C, asm and VHDL), guided by first principles and whiteboard sessions. When that product was released, knowing that we’ve built something novel, without cheating, that I carried my weight as a junior team member (at times carrying the rest of the team) is something I will never forget, always appreciate, and never do again!

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? This is a tough one for me. If I had to pick just one thing, I’d probably approach my goal of shaping the future less critically and more positively.

What are you reading now? Chris Voss’ Never Split the Difference.

Most people don't know that I… Am a Lego addict.

In my spare time, I like to…Analyse the truth of what makes pizza dough, smoked brisket, and episodes of “The Office” so good.

Ask me to do anything but… Hurt innocent people.