Microsoft has positioned itself as one of the world's leading cybersecurity companies in recent years, to a large extent thanks to its development center in Israel. Its flagship security product, Azure Sentinel, was initiated in Israel, and it was largely developed in Microsoft's Israeli R&D center. Microsoft cloud and AI security division CTO Michal Braverman-Blumenstyk is responsible for both this project and the decision to locate Microsoft's cybersecurity center in Israel.
"When I left RSA six years ago, Microsoft invited me to Redmond for interviews. I met Microsoft executives, including Satya Nadella (just before he became the CEO), Bharat Shah and others. They suggested that I relocate to Redmond for the position, however, I told them that I had already spent 10 years in the United States and now the center of my life is in Israel," she recounts. Originally, Microsoft planned that the cyber center that Braverman-Blumenstyk was supposed to establish and manage would be located in the company headquarters in Redmond, Washington. But since she wanted to stay in Israel, Braverman-Blumenstyk was determined to convince Microsoft executives that Israel was the right place to establish the Cyber Center. "I described to them the unique cybersecurity ecosystem that exists in Israel and told them that it’s the best place to establish a cybersecurity initiative. What I said resonated with them. It happens that I started working in Microsoft around at the same time that Satya became the CEO, which I consider highly fortunate as Satya is an amazing leader that transformed Microsoft."
What convinced the Microsoft executives?
"I explained that in Israel we have a unique mix of cyber startups, together with mature companies and, most importantly, almost all the major international companies have opened cyber centers in Israel. Where else in the world, in an area which is less than 10 square kilometers, one can find such a vast number of cyber experts from the top Fortune 50, where everybody knows each other (it’s Israel…) and they constantly exchange thoughts and ideas about cybersecurity? One of the most important factors in high-tech’s innovation is ‘cross pollination’. You don't just sit alone in the lab and think about amazing ideas... Another advantage that Israel has is the elite cyber units in the army, which produce a constant supply of young people who are already cyber savvy and this constantly energizes the ecosystem."
Braverman-Blumenstyk joined Microsoft after having been general manager of RSA Israel. She previously served as COO in Naftali Bennett's Cyota, which was sold to RSA and became RSA's local development center. Bennett went into politics, while Braverman-Blumenstyk was appointed to head the center. In her job at Microsoft, she was also involved in the acquisition of Adallom, a startup, one of whose founders was Microsoft R&D general manager Assaf Rappaport, who recently announced he was leaving Microsoft after only two years in his position and four years after joining the company.
"Initially, there were groups in Microsoft who thought that they could do what Adallom does. After 18 months, however, it turned out that Adallom had made much more progress. I work directly with Redmond, but I'm located in Israel, and I of course work a lot with Assaf, both in his job as manager of the site and in his job in cybersecurity. The fact that Assaf became general manager of the center in Israel is amazing. He's a first rate team player, and did an excellent job."
Now that Rappaport has announced that he is leaving, are you looking internally for candidates for the job? Do you regard yourself as a candidate?
"I can't comment in the newspaper right now on internal processes. There are enough internal candidates for the job at Microsoft, and I'm sure that a suitable candidate will be hired."
What did you learn at Microsoft from the acquisition of Adallom?
"Microsoft learned to look at things in this field in a very business-like way, to look at opportunities, and to be open-minded. A company always learns from an acquisition; otherwise, the acquisition is a failure. My feeling is that Satya contributed a lot to the acquisition's success, and I also look at other companies bought before and after Satya. If you look at their success within Microsoft, statistically success now is greater. Statistics don't usually lie."
What other acquisitions are you looking for?
"We're constantly looking for acquisitions that we think will help us quickly close any existing gap. For example, we're looking at security for Internet of Things (IoT), mainly in industry. We're always looking at artificial intelligence and machine learning in particular, and looking to see if there are startups with disruptive solutions in these areas. Few years ago we made a strategic decision that startups are very important to Microsoft, and our approach to startups is much broader than just mergers and acquisitions."
"Security as a growth engine for the cloud"
Shortly after Braverman-Blumenstyk joined the company she initiated and managed Azure Security Center - the company's first security product focused on the cloud. "It was challenging because at first Microsoft did not want to get into security as a business by itself. So I focused on demonstrating that security could be the growth engine for the Microsoft cloud. Within two and a half years, the product was making big sales," she says.
A woman senior executive in a technological position is not something to be taken for granted, and even less so in cybersecurity.
"I was always a minority - in high school, in the army, and in my career - but I thought that talking about it would only perpetuate the problem. The change began when I was at RSA. They invited me to a women's leadership course. I didn't want to go at first; 'Why women's leadership?' I asked. 'Invite me to a general course on leadership. What difference does being a woman make?' In the end, I went. It was the first time I had been exposed to a gender analysis of women in technology, and I hadn't thought about it before. Today, I'm a mentor for young women, and also for Arab women. In addition, together with Rina Shainski, who was a senior partner in Carmel Ventures and who now works in a startup (Duality Technologies, Y.Y.), I founded the local branch of Upwards, which does networking for leading women executives all over the world."
Does it happen that a manager under you employs only men? As a woman manager, how do you deal with it?
"Yes, it happens. I'll try to understand why he hires only men, and they usually say that it happened by accident. I won't force him to hire ten women, because I don't believe in it, but I'll try to inspire awareness. I try not to talk about the subject of women; my angle is that diversity contributes to the organization's success."
As someone who was in both a startup and international companies, what do you think about the argument that Israel has too many international development centers competing for personnel?
"I think that it's a mistaken way of looking at things inspired by fear of competition. I believe very strongly that the international development centers are the oxygen of the Israel technology industry. We in Israel are distant, we're expensive, and we need recognition by international companies that there's talent here that can't be found anywhere else.
"When there are more multinational companies here, it creates more jobs and more startups by employees who leave. The financing for the cybersecurity industry also frequently comes from these companies, and the venture capital funds in Israel also have many overseas investors, so international recognition is terribly important. If multinational companies stay away, it may be easier for startups to find people in the short term, but the cybersecurity industry will be smaller in the long term."
Who are your main competitors for personnel? Startups or other multinationals?
"Both. Obviously, I'd have an easier time if we were the only company, but that's a very narrow point of view, because it might be easier to find people at first, but if you look ahead, competition is good. We do interesting things, and we care about our people, so competition doesn't scare me."
"If it's not an attack, it shouldn't bother you."
Since she worked with a small team on one product, Braverman-Blumenstyk's job has grown, and she now directly manages 150 employees, and also initiates development of other products, such as Sentinel, a large part of which was done in Israel under Rappaport's management. "Azure Sentinel was only the first stage. What really interested me was a product that provides protection for every place in an enterprise, that is present on all of the enterprise cloud applications, such as Salesforce," she says, and adds that this is how Sentinel was born.
"Our problem is that there's no magic solution for security. It's composed of a lot of data and different products, and someone has to connect them, like a chief of staff in a war, because cybersecurity is like a war. Sentinel leverages artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities in order to integrate all of these data. It can also understand from many isolated data that 'A war is happening now.' It's a security information and event management (SIEM) system that gives cyber fighters - the enterprise's cybersecurity personnel - the general picture, and also automates these processes," she adds. According to Braverman-Blumenstyk, since the beta version was launched six months ago, 12,000 customers have used the system, and several thousand are now active users. "Our business success is far beyond what we expected," she says.
"As CTO, the systems that I'm trying to develop are systems that I try to make imitate the body's immune system. What's nice is that this system constantly protects us without our being aware of it. In cybersecurity systems, there are two things that they have to do well, and don't always succeed at: detection of an attack, and avoiding false positives. If something looks like an attack, but isn't an attack, it shouldn't bother you."
Braverman-Blumenstyk holds an MS in computer science from Columbia University. She is married, lives in Hod Hasharon, and has two daughters. She regularly participates in triathlons and is keen on sports in general.
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on December 30, 2019
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