What does it take to be an infosec product strategist?
Choosing a security product that will best fit your organization’s needs is a challenge exacerbated by the “polluted, turbulent sea of ineffectual security products” that you’ll need to wade through in order to find the right and effective solution.
“I tend to maintain an overwhelming sense that the majority of security products exist ‘just because’ – ‘just because’ the underlying technology seemed cool to build, ‘just because’ it is what has always been used despite minimal results, ‘just because’ investors would throw money towards it,” says Kelly Shortridge, VP of Product Strategy at Capsule8, who sees herself as someone who works to create calmer waters for infosec practitioners.
What does a VP of Product Strategy do?
“VP of Product Strategy is an admittedly nebulous title, but at its essence means synthesizing all relevant data to make the product the best it can be for users,” Shortridge told Help Net Security.
The challenge therefore is in capturing the right perspectives, distilling the right takeaways to guide the product roadmap, and communicating the right things both internally and externally.
She chose the path of product strategy in information security because it scratches two of her intellectual itches: solving challenging problems and connecting disparate data points into a meaningful whole. In the product case, that meaningful whole is determining what kind of product innovation will help solve current and future problems for defenders.
“Infosec jobs are stressful enough – the last thing professionals need is a product that adds complexity and cognitive load,” she noted.
“There needs to be more examination of precisely which security elements add value to strip away the excess, and that is what we are attempting at Capsule8. In general, I never want us to create features just for the sake of having more features – it should always be anchored around a problem felt by customers that we can meaningfully solve from where we sit. Also, I am of the belief that a customer-first company does not stop with a great product – it also seeks to help its customer community understand the problem space better.”
What makes a good product strategist?
Shortridge believes that a good product strategist must be good at balancing “local” and “global” priorities – ensuring the near-term and specific fit in with the longer-term and visionary. He or she also must ensure that a product is strong from both a technical and usability perspective, and that it continues to stay strong as customer environments and use cases evolve.
“Nothing is worse for users than a product deeply integrated into their work processes that becomes stale and stops meeting their needs – after all, ripping out and replacing tools is rarely an easy, or inexpensive, exercise,” she pointed out.
Other critical prerequisites are intellectual curiosity, critical thinking and good communication skills. The latter is crucial when it comes to cultivating consensus on the strategic direction for the product and ensuring everyone – from engineers to the marketing and sales team – understands the journey ahead.
Product strategists must also be able to articulate what the product does to a broad audience and be able to speak and listen to this audience, to learn about the product in their context – what pain points it solves, how and where it fits into their workflows, and how it can support other business initiatives.
“If this sounds like a beast of work to wrangle – well, it is. As such, another skill critical for product strategists is understanding the ‘good enough’ inflection point,” she added.
“There is no such thing as perfect, and certainly no such thing as perfectly satisfied stakeholders. Recognizing when the marginal benefit of additional effort does not result in proportional results helps ensure you, as a product strategist, do not succumb to insanity, but more importantly that your product is continually improving and not blockaded by implacable perfectionism.”
Tips and warnings
For those entering a product strategy role, she advises being prepared for plenty of context-switching, not having a typical day-to-day pattern, and listening attentively to both their existing and potential user set.
“Do not just look at others’ market analysis or projections – seek to fully understand market problems and where future contexts (for instance, new technology) might multiply or alleviate those problems,” she counseled.
She also warned against a lack of empathy and failing to actively listening to input.
“You will not be successful long-term if you attempt to railroad people with your opinions or if you are overly dismissive of their opinions,” she opined. “Treat these opinions as hypotheses to be tested in the market. The bounty of perspectives you should collect will serve as supporting evidence that can help you tether your team to a reality-based strategy.”
Finally, she recommends engaging fearlessly in asking questions, admitting when they are wrong, always delving to the bottom of an issue (whether internal or external), and fostering a blameless culture.
“A fear of embarrassment over looking unintelligent will not only hold you back personally but hold the team back as well. Questions serve as a valuable tool to ameliorate groupthink and promote a sense of intellectual safety that pays dividends in other areas – such as willingness to highlight concerns that otherwise would snowball into a burdensome issue. Asking the right questions can drastically change outcomes – so do not stifle your questions prematurely by deeming them obvious or basic,” she concluded.
“Ensure that no human is blamed if something goes wrong, focusing instead on the elaborate mosaic of situational variables and how their interactions engendered a problem. You and your team will learn far more and be able to course-correct through this systemic understanding than by accepting a superficial explanation,” she noted.