CTO Sessions: Mira LaCous, BIO-key International, Inc.

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? “… The requirements on the CTO are continuing to expand, and increasingly they will need to leverage their peers as well as their team to gain the insights needed to make the right calls…”

BIO-key International

Name: Mira LaCous

Company: BIO-key International, Inc.

Job title: Chief Technology Officer

Date started current role: May 2000

Location: St. Paul, Minnesota, USA

BIO-key International’s Chief Technology Officer Mira LaCous has well over 30 years of solution development, project/product management and company leadership experience, including more than 21 years in her current role. LaCous has led and managed software development and product management teams during her career. She has successfully brought to market a number of innovative, emerging technologies including, automated voice response systems, building control systems, software piracy protection, intranet training materials and security testing, graphic page layout and design software, scanning software and systems, authentication security, biometric algorithms, scalable security solutions and more. LaCous is also the author of eight US patented technologies, with most having many international counterparts. She also has served as an officer or director of three companies: National Computer Systems (NCS), TEL-Line Systems and BIO-key International.

What was your first job? While in college, I started a consulting company doing various programming and IT tasks for local area businesses. This gave me great exposure to the needs that many businesses have, and led me to a start-up called TEL-line Systems, that was building automated voice response systems. While consulting for them on some application development, I suggested a new ‘architecture’ which allowed the calls to be scripted in a simple language. This greatly streamlined the development process for new apps and made the product far more adaptable to new requirements. The leadership team at TEL-line loved it, and I became the ‘Director of Programming’, managing the development team and the product offerings.  

Did you always want to work in IT? I knew I always wanted something technical. While growing up one of my dreams was to be an architect, and that is where I started my education. While it fascinating, it was not really what I envisioned, so I fell back to my other key passions - physics, math and computer science. The computer science portion has been my key career path, with lots of support from my other interests. And my physics, mainly astrophysics, has remained more of a hobby of late.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I received a bachelor’s degree in computer science from North Dakota State University (NDSU).  I then worked towards my master’s degree at NDSU, while serving as a teaching assistant, and leading labs for UNIX courses in the Continuing Education department. While working on my master’s, the opportunity at TEL-line came up, which side-tracked my education path. But ultimately the real-life education was incredible, and it advanced me quickly.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. My career path has included companies that are small to quite large, with a range of roles managing or leading the technology design, development, and deployment departments. There are times I wonder if a ‘detour’ would have been a nice change, but in technology you need to stay current and remain sharp on your skills, or you can get passed by. Overall, I have deeply enjoyed smaller companies more so than the rather large due to the major impact that can contributed by myself, and by my team to our company’s goals.  

What type of CTO are you? I’m a CTO that loves the technology, but really has my passions deep in the business and consumer challenges that our application of the technology can solve. I see the big picture relating to the requirements merging with the design and implementation, but also into the details of optimisation, security, usability, future growth and adaptability. I believe in my team, and their abilities to achieve amazing results. I love working closely with my technical team - but especially cross functionally - to achieve the strongest results for the business and our customers. 

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? I must say that various aspects of AI really excite me. The future of AI’s ability to solve challenging tasks is amazing. Our research in this area relating to recognition algorithms has shown some startling results. I am now eager to apply it to threat identification, as well as adaptive authentication solutions. The future around AI is amazing, but also a bit scary regarding where it can possibly lead. But like all great inventions, we need to keep our ambitions and our solutions to those ambitions in a little bit of check and balance. I do believe we can avoid building a SkyNet.

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? I believe that Blockchain is an amazing technology. Its use in Bitcoin and many other solutions is pure genius. However, Blockchain is not the answer to every technical problem out there. This is something I see far too often in companies attempts to sound ‘current’ or ‘topical’ in their approach. To me use of blockchain in anything beyond the publicly facing transaction register is a stretch.

What is one unique initiative that you’ve employed over the last 12 months that you’re really proud of? Our biometric solutions are an integration of hardware and software. The integration of the hardware supports hundreds of different imaging devices and their device drivers.  A continual challenge is getting the right devices drivers loaded and running at the time of install. We built a new web service for driver management and download to any system requiring the drivers. This is a key improvement for the product in that drivers are installed as they are needed, not just at some install time.  While the general concept of this is rather straight forward, the implementation had a few complexities that made the effort challenging. The result is a very rewarding set of features that improves the customers usability of the product, and reduces our support burden for driver updates.

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? Cloud solutions. The world has been shifting to a SaaS and Cloud deployment architecture, and BIO-key is no different. Fortunately, our architectural approaches have been web-based for more than twenty years, and with all the advancements and new features on the solutions, they are fitting nicely with the SaaS style offerings. Regardless of how prepared you think your solutions are, as you get deeper into large scale Cloud deployments there are certainly areas of optimisation for peak efficiency and performance. Cloud services lead towards great customer experiences, when deployed and auto-scaled correctly. Cloud subscription models can result in stable revenue growth. And, Cloud can provide smooth operational efficiency through modern tools and advancements of hosting solutions.

What is the biggest issue that you’re helping customers with at the moment? Effectively applying authentication security to their systems. Far too long has the authentication of users taken a backseat to many other organisational demands. As a result, hacking occurrences have been a significant issue to many companies, causing significant loss of data, loss of reputation, and ever-increasing costs to recover and stabilise following a breach. Assuring the users are strongly identified, with two factor authentication, including some significant security controls, like a strong biometric authentication makes it increasingly difficult for hackers to penetrate a system. This has been my ‘biggest’ issue that I helped customers with for two decades now. There are still a lot of customers to help.

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? My business is focused on supplying solutions to all types of customers, large and small, advanced and simple, and our technology needs to blend seamlessly into all of it. So often for me it is not just about what technology may be the best for our use, but instead what is the optimal fit across the many customer environments. Often, it is not the one technology we leverage, but the mix of technologies that can be utilised with our solutions. This makes us focus on more standard solutions, and flexible ones so that we can leverage: databases from different vendors, web services integrations to various hosting platforms and architectures, as well as multiple operating systems and more.  This trickles down to the methods of implementation so that we are portable, and compliant within differing environments. Yet, through all of this, focusing on how we yet apply security around the solutions to keep the authentication process secure and trusted.

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? I always ask myself if it would still be fun if there wasn’t a challenge in finding the right alignment of technology to the solution strategies, we set out to achieve. Ultimately, they key is to listen to all the possible propositions, and often think outside of the box to achieve the goals. Lately, that outside of the box thinking relates more and more to Cloud solutions, versus systems developed in-house… a true out of the box way of thinking. 

What makes an effective tech strategy? An effective strategy for technology can be many different things. In many cases the most effective is often the simplest, as it will be easy to support and to further expand as needs grow.  However, that can sometimes be limiting. Yet trying to get ‘too cutting edge’ in some technology use can also leave you with long learning curves for new team members, or needing to migrate when operational needs to shift from that one platform for any number of given reasons. Don’t get me wrong… it is important to be cutting edge where it matters for your business and your solution. But where you can, focus on what is ‘standard’ or ‘straightforward’ so that it can be implemented quickly and supported long term with minimal extra effort.

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? CTO’s in the future will really need to broaden their understandings of all the different interactions of technology and systems to meet the broader goals of User and Data Security, Cloud Architectures, Long Term Solutions support and Dynamic but Privileged Data Access. The requirements on the CTO are continuing to expand, and increasingly they will need to leverage their peers as well as their team to gain the insights needed to make the right calls, and to educate the organisation on why that direction is important to their future.

What has been your greatest career achievement? I am very proud of many of my achievements in my career, but most notably it has been in the design and implementation of a secure biometric authentication solution, that fits the needs of small to large scale customers’ needs from the single platform. The architecture has stood the test of time, and proven solid by customers around the world.  

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? There are days I dream of that time machine where I could go back and alter course. What might I have done?  Where could I have made a bigger impact? What would have made me happier? Ultimately I dream of some adventures where I working something much more exciting, such as SpaceX (okay the astrophysics nerd in me is getting exposed), but I also have loved what I have done and accomplished for user authentication security with BIO-key. With the broader hindsight, I would have likely taken a few more risks along the way. Every success needs some steps to get there, and those steps are not always forward. But without exploring those paths, you don’t know where they can lead. I have not always taken the safe approach, but also not taken that backward step as often I something think may have been needed to get to the successful point faster. It is something I always weigh within myself, or with my teams to assure we moving aggressively towards our goals.

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