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‘We have to worry about nation state actors:’ VMware COO on election cyber threats

Yahoo Finance’s Akiko Fujita and Sanjay Poonen, VMware’s Chief Operating Officer, discuss cybersecurity threats ahead of the 2020 election.

Video Transcript

AKIKO FUJITA: There are growing concerns that cyber-attacks could threaten the integrity of the outcome. Cities across the country, as well as contractors who run their voting systems, have all been exposed to ransomware attacks over the last several months. And to discuss the evolving threat, we're joined by Sanjay Poonen. He is the chief operating officer of VMware. And Sanjay, it's great to have you on today.

SANJAY POONEN: Thank you, Akiko. Pleasure to be with you today.

AKIKO FUJITA: You've got really good visibility in this particular issue. So let's get right to the questions around election security here. What is the biggest cyber threat as you see it as we countdown to November 3?

SANJAY POONEN: Yeah, Akiko. We are emerging, VMware, as one of the leaders now in cybersecurity as we're making massive investments in this area, several acquisitions. Obviously, we want to see a, you know, a fair election. And we've got to obviously worry about the nation-state actors that will try to disrupt one of the world's biggest democracies in action.

And that's always going to be something that the powers that be, whether it's in the federal government or the state, need to be very much aware of. And they come in through a variety of distinct ways they can hack. And people have to first off do sensible things with their email and stuff like that. Not send out username, passwords. Part of the reasons things-- people were able to hack into folks' email last time were things that are very repeatable by common citizens.

And in addition to that, all of these, you know, election equipment are endpoints that need to be secure, whether it's laptops, tablets, phones. A variety of different endpoints. And we play a lot in endpoint security. So we work with both commercial and the federal government in making sure that those systems are secure.

And then there's a lot of other things that today can flow into the cloud. Cloud security is another area where, when you put data in the cloud, you've got to protect yourself from the type of possible places where there can be breaches. So whether it's the network, whether it's endpoint in the cloud, these are all areas that, well, most of the time, I'm confident with the cybersecurity expertise that exists both in the industry and the government. We will protect, you know, these systems from the bad guys.

AKIKO FUJITA: You talk about state actors looking to disrupt the election. I mean, that's what we were talking about in 2016, particularly with the attacks out of Russia. How do you think the threat has evolved, though? What has changed over the last several years, as you see it, in terms of the sophistication of the attacks?

SANJAY POONEN: Yeah, I think-- Listen, the surface area has gotten bigger. I mean, in the past you were just worried about smaller networks, fewer endpoints. But now with mobile and cloud, the surface area has gotten bigger. And when you have the surface area bigger-- As much as there's investment in the security industry, the one thing that's growing as fast or even faster than investment in the security industry is the amount of investment the bad guys are doing in finding ways.

Phishing attacks are incredibly creative. I mean, people have been sending out, you know, phishing attacks promising a vaccine in an email. You click the email, and you are baited into something that you don't want to be doing. So there's always going to be those types of things. The folks are looking for newer and newer ways.

But if there's one thing that I feel confident about, it is the research in this area, the smart people that are working on this collectively. There is a commitment as a village in the security industry to band together, share best practices, you know? And even through this though time with the pandemic, I think that the technologies have gotten stronger.

It's one of these things like sicknesses, that you can't say that you'll never hit a breach again. You know, it's sort of saying like you'll never get sick again. But you're doing more and more, just like, you know, in the health care industry, to operate on data. The more that analytics is operating on the data-- Just as the way there could be a possible cure cancer or Alzheimer's disease is because you're reasoning over DNA sequencing and so on and so forth. A big part of our effort is behavioral analytics and large amount of data crunching to prevent a future security breach.

AKIKO FUJITA: And on that issue, Sanjay, you've been quite acquisitory. I think I counted three different acquisitions, particularly in the security space, most notably Carbon Black, as well as Lastline. What's the growth potential that you see there? I mean, certainly cybersecurity, a growing space, but also an increasingly competitive one.

SANJAY POONEN: Yeah, we-- There's 5,000 vendors in security space, and they're all, you know, I'm sure very good. But you can't go, Doctor, Doctor, and ask her, how do you stay healthy? And she says, you've got to have 5,000 tablets. It would take you weeks and months to be able, even if you were eating them every 30 seconds.

So we felt, as a large infrastructure security player-- the sixth largest software company, about $11 billion in revenue-- that we owed it to security industry to make security different, baked more into the diet or baked more into the infrastructure. We call that intrinsic security. The analysts call that zero trust.

And in doing so, there's three or four key pillars that we're focused on. Network security, endpoint and workload security, and cloud security. And then all of that data coming together in an analytics telemetry. So those are areas we've made acquisitions. Not just the last year. Seven, eight years ago, we got in the network security space with Nicira. We've added to that.

And we feel like right now, with what we've done with Carbon Black, Octarine, and Lastline-- they're the three most recent acquisitions we've done in the last 12 months-- we are going to be a player to stay. We have a billion-dollar security business. It's growing. 20,000 customers.

And we're seeing the landscape, you know, kind of consolidating. I think that some of the existing security players have hit a wall, even the big ones. And that creates an opportunity for creative new vendors at scale. We have tremendous amount of scale. Half a million customers, many of whom are asking us to do more on security. We think the, you know, the platform's ripe for this type of innovation. And the feedback I've been getting from CISOs is very positive on VMware strategy

AKIKO FUJITA: Sanjay, the last conversation we had, we were talking about just the digital acceleration, and how that has really changed the way in which all the companies work. But particularly with VMware, the transition that you have gone to-- gone through. There's been a lot of talk about tech companies who are transitioning from work from home, allowing employees to permanently work from home. But also, those who are moving out of state having to take a pay cut as a result of no longer having to pay the high rents that are in, for example, the Bay Area.

There's a report out from the Journal, I believe, that talks about potentially for employees of VMware, it would be an 18% cut moving from San Francisco to a place like Denver. How are you viewing the options in front of you on that issue? And are you really confident that those employees will in fact stick around even with the pay cut?

SANJAY POONEN: Yeah. VMware goal is to be the best company in tech in terms of how our employees think of us. We've been consistently rated one of the best companies to work for. Why? Because there's an incredible uniqueness to our culture. We're an innovator on one hand, and we're customer-obsessed. And our employees, I believe, are the best employees on the planet.

Now, as we do that, we don't think the only employees are going to be the ones in the Bay Area. Certainly, the roots of this company are Palo Alto. But I'll give you an example. I recently had the opportunity to promote a wonderfully talented lady inside our company to the head of global demand gen and marketing.

She was based in Australia. And she was thinking about the disruptive move to come to the Bay Area. And in the past, we may have had this role be a headquartered role in the Bay Area. I told her, once the pandemic happened, you can work from Sydney. And she's very effective at doing that job. And, you know, as the pandemic eases she may get to travel some. But she's very effective. We just hired another person out of AWS and out of Google.

We want this to be the best place for people to work at. And as we do that, they'll make their choices. Some of them will decide to move, potentially, to other areas for a variety of reasons. Some of it might be housing costs. We have an internal tool that will allow people to make those choices with a calculator that can decide, you know, what are the trade-offs. And we want to make this one that's fair and equitable.

And as they do that, I think we we're not seeing anything but positivity from our customer base. And in fact, we're finding employees from many of these other great companies want to joint VMware. So this is an opportunity for VMware to get stronger, to get creative in thinking about what the future of work looks like. And that's our intent over the long run.

AKIKO FUJITA: Sanjay Poonen, the chief operating officer at VMware. Good to talk to you.

SANJAY POONEN: Thank you very much, Akiko.