In this episode of the Hacker Valley Studio podcast, Ron and Chris are joined by co-founders of Material Security, Ryan Noon and Abhishek Agrawal. They co-founded Material Security in 2017, today Ryan serves as the CEO, and Abhishek the CTO. Abishek has a background in engineering, infrastructure and analytics and his MBA from Harvard. Ryan’s background is in engineering and data analysis, and holds multiple computer science and security degrees from Stanford. Before they moved on to creating their own company, they worked together at DropBox.
While they both have a strong engineering background, they are developing a security product. Ryan explains that coding and engineering is why he’s able to work in cyber security, all his years of engineering helped him make a reliable and effective product. Abhishek agrees that both their different backgrounds have carried over into the security industry and says the lessons he learned in productivity and engineering have been incredibly useful. Despite these diverse backgrounds, Ryan says going into security was an easy decision. “Go to where the problems are,” he says. Around the time of the founding of Material Security, there were a lot of problems with email. Abhishek agrees, and says he’s always been interested in email and how it’s being destroyed by threats.
When hackers access your email, what are they looking for? Abhishek explains that they may be downloading all of its contents, or resetting passwords to services like Twitter or Instagram. Material Security works to ask those questions and stop the effectiveness of a breach in email security. This shifts the focus from all the ways someone may hack you, to the implications of that hack. Ryan likens it to a burglary, explaining that their security is less about all the doors and windows - ways to get into your home - but rather what someone may want once they’re inside.
There is a lot of hand wringing in startup land, Ryan says, but there is no one right way to do it. The startup can burn you out, and what made Material Security’s leadership work was the reliance on each other, both he and Abhishek and their third co-founder, Chris Park. For them, this was the magic answer, having a third person gives them a tie breaker and someone who could cut through the noise with clarity. Abhishek agrees, joking that they compliment each other by Ryan giving long detailed answers, and Abhishek can summarize his thoughts. In all seriousness, this balance of responsibility and strengths requires a level of trust and lack of ego but makes the team work smoothly. Having unique skill sets is important, but Abhishek explains overlap is important as well because you can speak the same language and push each other for the best solutions.
When you come from similar backgrounds, no one is the authority and ideas get pressure tested. One of the challenges is using this overlap of skills for good - not letting it paralyze you. Another challenge they faced is knowing where to question and press industry standards, versus where to accept and excel at current practices. When thinking over their challenges and journey they offer some advice to new founders. Ryan stresses, “stop trying to get into things.” People can fall into the trap of trying to get into college, programs, and industries, and end up giving up some of their productivity and creativity to others. He also encourages people to know their partners and communicate with them about everything. Abhishek says people should divorce the idea of leaving their job from starting a company. Instead you should decide if you’re ready to leave your current job and then if you want to go to a new company or start your own.
0:00 - Intro
1:40 - Listeners are introduced to co-founders of Material Security and the episode ahead.
3:05 - Ryan and Abhishek introduce themselves.
5:38 - How do engineering and cyber security intersect?
8:39 - Why did Ryan and Abhishek decide to go into security?
14:28 - Ryan and Abhishek explain what hackers do when they’ve gotten into email.
18:08 - How do Ryan and Abhishek navigate their relationship?
24:19 - Ron asks Ryan and Abhishek about the challenges of the founder’s journey.
26:45 - What piece of advice do they have for new founders?
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