How To Maintain A Strong R&D Culture
As we see deals between companies like Symantec and Blue Coat, IBM and Resilient Systems, and Carbon Black and Confer, it’s clear that the security market is consolidating. As more security companies join forces across the market, among the numerous challenges that come with a business merger is merging company cultures. Individual company’s cultures face the often-difficult task of maintaining their vision while taking on new teams or joining larger ones.
However, I've seen that maintaining a fast and effective R&D culture can have a strong, positive impact on the success of technology firm, and even more so within the cybersecurity community. A number of key factors can determine the success of a security firm’s R&D culture and, by extension, its product and overall business success. To be clear, in my experience it doesn't matter whether a company has an R&D department, an engineering department, or a combination of the two; many of these general principles hold and can drive worthwhile results.
1. Ship Your Research
Too many companies invest in research only to keep projects on the shelf and use them solely for flashy marketing purposes. But researchers can get demoralized when their work doesn’t go anywhere; it makes them feel less valued within the organization. To avoid this pitfall, focus your research team on projects that can have an impact on your product offerings. Think critically about problems and/or opportunities for improvement in your product and direct your team toward them. It will send a message that everyone on the team is vital to the company’s success and will empower them.
As an example, at Endgame, members of our team started playing around with a chatbot intelligent assistant as a research project. However, it had direct applications for our platform, so it was eventually integrated into our product. There was a direct link between a fun research project and a finished idea, and our engineers took note.
2. Prioritize Fit
In your hiring, prioritize culture fit as highly as overall skill. Intelligence and technical prowess are important, but it’s a lot easier to teach a new hire something technical than it is to teach them to be a team player and fit in with your established culture.
It seems simple, but remember that there is no “I” in team. Building an R&D team is just like building any other team. Avoid ladder climbers and blamers, and instead find people who take pride and ownership in what they’re doing. Once blame comes in, people start playing political games to protect themselves instead of working toward a common goal of improving the product or the firm.
3. Earn Your Team’s Respect
A great R&D team trusts each other and trusts their leader, so earning and maintaining the respect of your coworkers is critical to a healthy culture. This is true both for leaders at the top and employees at all levels of team who want to make meaningful contributions to the organization and product development.
Alongside good general management abilities, a successful leader will contribute at a very technical level and go above and beyond in solving hard problems. As a leader, you need to get buy-in from your teams and coworkers on your technical abilities; they’ll respect you for it and gravitate toward you. R&D teams want to know that the people on top are knowledgeable and are willing to share their expertise.
4. Celebrate The Right Kind Of Wins
Researching attribution is fun, but at end of day it’s not really protecting customers (unless that customer is a state or federal entity). Your team should always be focused first and foremost on making the customer succeed and protecting what needs to be protected. At my previous firm, we used to say that you need to “respond to every breach that matters,” which means focusing on the right targets to get the right wins.
This might seem obvious, but it can be tricky when management is solely focused on the bottom line or in a publicly traded company that emphasizes stock performance and the money that comes out of deals. Driving market value is important, but focusing on material gain isn’t motivating to your R&D team. That’s just not how you create a good culture. Understand and prioritize which wins mean the most to your team.
5. Understand The Competition
A lot of security people (as well as R&D teams and engineers in general) are very heads-down, and don’t think about what other firms are doing. Focusing on your own work is critical, but take the time to be aware of your competition so you can understand what else is out there to ensure you’re moving fast in the right direction.
You need to be differentiated in the market, but if there’s existing competition, you’d be wise not to ignore them. Rather than chasing everyone else’s accomplishments, develop and cultivate a “meet and beat” attitude within your organization; see what your competition has out there, but also recognize real opportunity for improvements. In other words: see it, recreate it, and then advance the science of it faster than others.
6. Have Passion For The Work
This is true for almost any line of work, but it bears repeating here: A successful R&D culture will form when the team is passionate about their mission and their work. Nothing is more motivating for an R&D team than feeling supported in pursuing ideas that are exciting, innovative and just plain cool.
Engineers and researchers are in high-demand these days and can command high salaries, but maintaining a strong and successful culture will help your hold on to your best players. Build a team that people want to be a part of and gives people a drive they want to fulfill. Or, as Field of Dreams puts it, “If you build it, they will come.”
This piece originally appeared in Forbes.com