“A leader has to be someone who is passionate about their work, and is able to motivate their teams to be equally passionate. Goals are much easier to meet when people within an organization are inspired. This is something that not only benefits the bottom line but also benefits each team member who took part in accomplishing the goal.”
I had the pleasure to interview Bill Conner, the CEO of SonicWall. Bill is among the most experienced security, data and infrastructure executives worldwide, with a career spanning over 30 years across numerous high-tech industries. A corporate turn-around expert, today he is the President and CEO of SonicWall, one of the world’s most trusted network security companies, acquired as a carve out from Dell by Francisco Partners and Elliott Management in November of 2016. SonicWall next-generation firewalls and network security solutions protect more than 1 million networks worldwide, for more than 500,000 organizations in more than 215 territories and countries. Conner has been the vanguard of four of the Digital Information Age’s most transformational technology shifts. From leading key divisions of AT&T, to taking Nortel into data with the $9 billion acquisition of Bay Networks, to his work securing digital identities with Entrust, to bringing secure communications and privacy from the consumer to the enterprise through mobile and cloud with Silent Circle.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
As a kid, I was always interested in science and technology. Because I was among the top two math and science students in the state of Arkansas, I was given the chance to participate in a national youth science camp. That instilled my passion, and introduced me to ideas and concepts I carry with me to this day. As a student, I thought about studying nuclear energy but decided that was not my cup of tea, so decided on mechanical and aerospace engineering.
Since then, I’ve worn a number of hats, and have been in the networking and cybersecurity industries for the past 30-plus years. Prior to SonicWall, I was president and CEO of Silent Circle, an encrypted communications service provider, and also president and CEO of Entrust for almost 13 years, an identity-based security solutions provider.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I wouldn’t say I have just one story, but rather a collection. As this industry has morphed, and continues to do so, it’s allotted me experiences that I dreamed of accomplishing as a student at Princeton University and Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Each day new experiences, challenges, successes and failures are thrown our way, making for a pretty interesting day-to-day life.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I was a teamster in Seattle putting myself through school working for Pepsi Cola, I was loading 18 wheeler trucks all night long dealing with overseas shipping containers. My first summer there I was having to back these 18 wheelers into the dock and you had to check the oil. Though I grew up in Arkansas and was around cars and garages, I wasn’t around 18 wheelers. You had to pop the hood to check, but one of the guys showed me a short cut to do that — there’s a compartment behind the drivers seat you could just pop open to see. The only problem with this short cut is that there were two dip sticks there, and I picked the wrong one. It had water in it, and I filled it up with oil. So, I sent the 18 wheeler to the garage and I had to own up to it because it could have been a disaster. One of the first things you learn is what you know and don’t know, and when you make a mistake you should own up to it.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
The first 18 months following SonicWall’s carveout from Dell, we worked tirelessly to expand our security portfolio and re-establish SonicWall as an independent entity to customers and partners. In the first 10 months, we released 24 new products which were crucial to repositioning SonicWall in the market. Our most recent portfolio enhancement in June introduced 12 new products and solution updates and, since Q3 2017, our engineers have written more than 160 million new lines of. Simultaneously, we were working to get our debt repaid and the company recapped, which we successfully achieved this spring in May. SonicWall also surpassed financial and operation objectives for the sixth straight quarter this year, adding $530 million in partner deal registration through the Sonicwall SecureFirst partner program. The program has seen a surge with 24,725 SecureFirst partner registrations and more than 77,616 hours of training logged via the SonicWall University, a program designed to educate partners and keep them at the forefront of an increasingly volatile threat landscape. We’re all very proud.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
SonicWall is always working on ways to innovate the cybersecurity space, defending businesses of all sizes from cyber criminals. In the coming months, we have several announcements planned, and while I can’t share more yet, be assured they are exciting for our business and crucial to those trying to stay ahead of today’s threats. Stay tuned!
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
A leader has to be someone who is passionate about their work, and is able to motivate their teams to be equally passionate. Goals are much easier to meet when people within an organization are inspired. This is something that not only benefits the bottom line but also benefits each team member who took part in accomplishing the goal.
How do you define “Leadership”?
Leadership means setting an example for everyone, regardless of title, by communicating a strong overall vision and strategy that in turn drives the same level of excellence and direction from top to bottom.
What advice would you give to other CEOs about the best way to manage a large team?
It’s imperative to have a clear vision and make sure that vision is shared and consistently communicated throughout all levels of an organization. Without a clear vision, there will be chaos in the workforce. Additionally, finding the appropriate message and best method for delivering that message is vital, as it differs from individual to individual, group to group and company to company.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Part of my experience of going to the national youth science camp when I was in high school involved meeting then West Virginia governor, Jay Rockefeller. Because of him, I became involved in government and became an important resource at the FCC. He has followed my journey and became a confidant and mentor, setting the foundation for who I am as a professional today.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Throughout the course of my professional history, especially at SonicWall, I have done my best to protect every business, regardless of size. I have always made sure I’m defending those who can’t defend themselves, especially when it comes to safeguarding sensitive information and arming folks in the constantly evolving cyber arms race. Delivering 100 percent peace of mind to our clients is why one of my favorite aspects of this job.
What are your “Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
I knew this job would take time and energy, but the commitment is really 24/7. The immediate response expectation is often an overlooked challenge when it comes to cybersecurity leaders. As cyber threats trickle in from around the world, you can never be sure of the attacker’s intentions or when the next attack is around the corner — the clock never stops. Every time there’s an attack, big or small, you’ve got to be there to rally your team and put in the long and hard hours. Because of this, I’ve focused on portioning the time commitment expected of my employees.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
From my perspective, some of the best technology finds its way and truly disrupts, innovates and solves business issues that were never thought possible. However, some of the best bleeding edge technology also runs the risk of being “the bleached bones of countless millions who, at the dawn of victory, sat down to wait, and waiting died.” (George W. Cecil)
How can our readers follow you on media?
Readers can follow me on Twitter @ConnerBill for updates on the business and what I’m reading. They can follow SonicWall on Twitter at @SonicWall. They can also find SonicWall on LinkedIn by searching SonicWall Inc. and Facebook by searching SonicWall.